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The history of Princess Charlotte

Part of a portrait miniature of Princess Charlotte by Joseph Lee, showing her head with blonde ringlets topped with an emerald and pearl circlet.
Princess Charlotte Augusta: part of a portrait miniature by Joseph Lee | © National Trust / Sue James

Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales (1796-1817) was the original ‘people’s princess.’ As heir to the throne of George III, Charlotte was seen as the hope of the nation. Following her marriage in 1816 to Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, the couple settled into happy married life at Claremont. Her death at the early age of 21 caused an unprecedented outpouring of national grief, and forever altered the course of British history and culture.

Why was Princess Charlotte important?

For years, the Georgian royal dynasty had made careful preparations to secure their reign by producing large families. George II had nine children, while George III fathered 15 in total. However, only one legitimate child was produced from the fifth generation: Princess Charlotte.

This risk sent the British royal family into panic as their grip on the throne began to slip away. The Dukes of Clarence, Kent and Cambridge quickly abandoned their mistresses and remarried other European royals in an attempt to guarantee the future of the Georgian monarchy. This ‘royal marriage race’ led to the birth of Queen Victoria and a new period of history.

Charlotte’s early years

Princess Charlotte was the only daughter of the Prince Regent, George IV, and Caroline of Brunswick. Their marriage was an unhappy one and they separated shortly after Charlotte was born. The young princess grew up lonely and isolated in the care of governesses, with very little attention from her parents.

Charlotte developed a hot temper that remained untamed throughout her childhood. She lacked the grace expected of a princess and was often obstinate towards figures of authority.

She finally made a friend her own age in 1809 when she met Mercer Elphinstone, the daughter of the admiral Lord Keith. Desperate for companionship, Charlotte became close to Mercer very quickly. Mercer became an important confidant, offering friendship and advice to the young princess.

Charlotte's tumultuous teens

The headstrong Princess Charlotte was in many ways a typical teenager - indecorous, stubborn, and yearning to escape the control of her parents. She was forbidden from appearing at court, employing her own ladies in waiting and attending society parties.

Her continued isolation took a toll on her health, and she began to suffer from insomnia and anxiety. It became clear to her that the only way to escape her father’s control was to marry.

By the age of 18, gossip had already linked Charlotte to numerous suitors, including the dashing Lieutenant Charles Hesse, a charming illegitimate son of the Duke of York.

The Orange match

For many months, rumours circulated that Charlotte’s father, the Prince of Wales, intended his daughter to marry William of Orange, the future King of the Netherlands. This would have been a good match politically, as Britain and the Netherlands were then in alliance against Napoleonic France.

At first, Charlotte was welcoming of the idea, simply as a way to escape the control of her father. As a bonus, the Prince of Orange was reported to be ‘informed and pleasant’ and ‘the best waltzer that ever was.’

When the Prince and Princess finally met on 12 December 1813, they found they had a great deal in common. Charlotte signed a betrothal agreement on 10 June 1814 - but when she discovered that she would have to spend time out of her beloved country, Charlotte broke off the engagement and a long stand-off with her father began.

When Charlotte met Leopold

Soon afterwards, the young princess was introduced to the eligible and handsome Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg. Tall, slender and broad-shouldered with tousled hair and mutton-chop whiskers, Leopold had enjoyed military success in the Imperial Russian Army at a young age.

Charlotte and Leopold were formally engaged in March 1816, but their slow-burning romance began much earlier, in the summer of 1814 when they first met by chance at a London hotel when Charlotte was trying to avoid a meeting with the Prince of Orange.

‘I have resolved to go on to the end, and only leave when all my hopes have been destroyed.’

- Prince Leopold in a letter to the Duke of Saxe-Coburg after meeting Princess Charlotte

During his time in London, Leopold asked the Prince of Wales for Charlotte’s hand in marriage, but the offer was rejected due to his lack of political connections and his low income. Due to commitments in Europe, Leopold had to leave London and it would be 18 months before he would return.

After weighing up her remaining options for a husband, Charlotte fixed her sights on Leopold. She tasked her best friend Mercer to pass on hints that he would be welcome to return to England.

In February 1816, news reached Britain that William of Orange had married the Russian Grand Duchess Anne and with his primary rival now out of the picture, Leopold made his feelings clear to Mercer. Charlotte bravely admitted her preference for Leopold to her father, and Lord Castlereagh was dispatched to escort Charlotte’s suitor to England.

‘I find him quite charming, and I go to bed happier than I have ever done yet in my life.’

- Princess Charotte to her friend Mercer Elphinstone

Almost 18 months after they first met, Charlotte and Leopold were invited to dine with the Prince of Wales on 26 February 1816. The dinner was a great success and the young couple made plans for their future all evening. The Prince Regent was also impressed by Leopold's charm and grace.

Engraving print by Joseph Bell showing Princess Charlotte and Leopold returning from the altar following their wedding
Princess Charlotte and Leopold on their wedding day | © National Trust / Sue James

Princess Charlotte's wedding

After 21 years without a royal wedding, the British public were overjoyed to learn that Princess Charlotte had finally chosen her consort. The hope of a secure future for the monarchy appeared certain.

Their wedding ceremony took place at Carlton House in London at 9pm on 2 May 1816. Charlotte’s wedding dress consisted of a white and silver slip worn under a transparent dress covered with shells and bouquets, embroidered in silver lamé. She wore diamond jewellery including a necklace, bracelet, earrings and diamond rosebuds around her head.

A large crowd of distinguished guests attended the ceremony, including many of Charlotte’s uncles, aunts, great officers of state, ambassadors and members of her household. Her mother, Princess Caroline, did not return to England for the ceremony and her grandfather, King George III, was unable to attend due to a bout of madness.

Married life at Claremont

A London house and country residence suitable for the future monarchs of Britain had to be found. Claremont was purchased for the royal couple by the Commissioners of Woods and Forests for £69,000. After living in a gilded cage for most of her 20 years, at last Charlotte had a home of her own.

Claremont had been long neglected by its previous owner and there was much to be done to revive it. The mansion was shabby inside and the grounds and gardens were in a ruinous state.

Charlotte and Leopold spent the best times of their lives here in their Surrey home. The prince and princess led a quiet, happy and comfortable life, distancing themselves from the politics and strife of court.

‘We lead a very quiet and retired life here, but a very very happy one.’

- Princess Charlotte, 3 December 1816

Princess Charlotte loved the flowers that grew in profusion at Claremont and made excited plans for a tea-house in the garden.

Esher was delighted with its new, glamorous royal neighbours, who conferred a royal seal of approval on the village, brought added trade to its High Street and provided work to the unemployed.

Gracious employers and hosts

Aware of the growing post-war unemployment crisis, Charlotte and Leopold employed many locals to carry out improvements at Claremont. Less strenuous jobs went to the poor, elderly men of the village, who were recruited to pick stones from the walks, spread gravel on them and weed the grass plots.

Charlotte and Leopold are often portrayed as living a reclusive life at Claremont. Much as they may have wanted to, they couldn’t escape their royal responsibilities completely, and many important guests were hosted - including Charlotte's father, her grandmother Queen Charlotte, and Russia’s Grand Duke Nicholas.

Part of The Apotheosis of Princess Charlotte Augusta, Princess of Wales by Henry Howard. Princess Charlotte, holding her baby, is ascending into the sky.
Part of The Apotheosis of Princess Charlotte Augusta, Princess of Wales by Henry Howard, showing Charlotte and her baby ascending into heaven. | © National Trust Images/John Hammond

The death of Princess Charlotte

In November 1817, Britain waited with bated breath for news that Princess Charlotte had safely delivered her first child. The baby was to be third in line to the throne.

An impressive medical team headed by Sir Richard Croft, a fashionable London ‘accoucheur’, or male midwife, stood ready to assist her. Croft was concerned; Charlotte’s labour was slow to progress and he thought he might have to perform a forceps delivery, with all the risk that entailed for mother and child.

When things did speed up, he abandoned any thought of using forceps, and at 9pm on Wednesday 5 November after more than 40 hours of labour, the princess gave birth to a stillborn son. All attempts to revive the baby were sadly unsuccessful.

At 11.45pm that night, Charlotte began to feel sick, and complained of a ringing in her ears. Soon she became extremely restless, had great difficulty in breathing and complained of severe abdominal pain. She then turned stone cold. Nothing her doctors did made any improvements and at 2.30am on Thursday 6 November, Princess Charlotte died. She was 21 years old.

‘One met in the streets people of every class in tears, the churches full at all hours, the shops shut for a fortnight, and everyone, from the highest to the lowest, in a state of despair which it is impossible to describe.’

- Dorothea Lieven, wife of the Russian ambassador to London

Within 24 hours, two generations of the British monarchy had been wiped out, and the whole nation was consumed with grief. To this day the princess’s death remains a mystery. She may have been a victim of pulmonary embolism, postpartum haemorrhage, or a rare metabolic blood disorder known as porphyria.

Leopold after Charlotte’s death

Charlotte’s death devastated the lovestruck Leopold and although he never recovered from her tragic death, he went on to have many successes in his life.

In 1831, after declining the Greek throne the previous year, he became Belgium’s first king and ruled for 34 years. He was a respected diplomat, with links through marriage to the royal houses of Britain, Austria, Prussia, Russia, Portugal, Brazil and Mexico and the exiled French house of Orléans.

Leopold was also a matchmaker. In 1840 he arranged the marriage of his niece, Queen Victoria, to his nephew, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.

In 1832 he married Louise-Marie of Orléans, daughter of the French King Louis Philippe, but he never found marital bliss again. He wore a bleak, haunted look in his later years and at the age of 71 he declared that the tragic events at Claremont in 1817 had seen ‘the ruin [of his] happy home and the destruction at one blow of every hope and happiness.’ He died in 1865.

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