20 May 2020

A Parcel of Old Maids

Princesses Charlotte, Augusta and Elizabeth
By Thomas Gainsborough in the Royal Collection via Wikimedia Commons
There are two things that everyone "knows" about King George III: he lost the Colonies and he went mad. While neither of these are exactly true, there are other things about him that I find fascinating. (Learn more on the official British Monarchy site.) Chief of these is that, when he was lucid, he was absolutely mad about his wife, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. A byproduct of that devotion was a very large brood of children: 15 in total, with 13 surviving into adulthood during an age when even royal children had a high mortality rate. Six of those children were girls. George and Charlotte were extremely engaged parents, especially for royalty--playing with them in the floor, encouraging to farm little plots of land, taking them on family walks, etc. They adored their children, but the King was especially besotted by his little girls. Unlike nearly every other king you've ever heard of, he actually hoped that his wives' pregnancies would yield little girls. They were provided with a good education from a very young age and even encouraged to participate in athletic activities with their brothers, in addition to the usual ladylike pursuits of music, dancing, art and deportment. 

Wishing to form a more domestic image for the Royal Family over the scandalous and divisive nature of the generations preceding, George and Charlotte failed spectacularly. Their affection for their youngsters was a bit too smothering. They tried to manage every aspect of their offspring's lives. While the King and Queen were fabulously unsuccessful in keeping their rascally sons under control, they were able to exert much more authority over their daughters. So much so, that one of their nieces called them "a parcel of old maids." Forced to be companions to their mother and denied lives of their own, they even referred to themselves as a nunnery. Bored and lonely, the princesses longed for independence.

Despite the nearly confined nature of their lives, many of these princesses managed to find adventure and make some mischief of their own. Meet the daughters of King George III:

Charlotte Princess Royal
By William Beechey in the Royal Collection
via Wikimedia Commons
Charlotte, Princess Royal (1766-1828)

The fourth child and oldest daughter was named Charlotte after her mother. Known as Princess Royal from her infancy, she was not actually granted this traditional title of the firstborn daughter until she was in her early 20s. From the beginning, Charlotte was a favored child. Considered rather bright, she was given tutors when she was still a toddler. However, she was not a particularly pretty child and she struggled to overcome a stammer. She was, however, conscious of her position as Princess Royal, which made her a bit more pompous than the other girls. She was also the only daughter that King George III allowed to marry, but even this decision was quite delayed. In an era when princesses frequently married before they were 20, Charlotte married at age 30. Her husband, 12 years her senior, was the widowed Hereditary Prince Frederick of Wurttemberg. He succeeded his father as Duke a few months later and was raised to King of Wurttemberg by Napoleon in 1806 in recognition of the troops he had provided to Britain's most dangerous enemy. This made Charlotte the first Queen of the tiny kingdom, a monarchy that would be swept away just over a century later in the first World War. King Frederick eventually flipped sides in the Napoleonic wars and was supporting Britain when he passed away in 1816. Charlotte got pregnant quickly after her wedding but her infant was stillborn. This was her only child. However, she did serve as stepmother to Frederick's children by his first wife, who were aged 12 to 16 at the time of her wedding. Charlotte remained in Wurttemberg after Frederick's death, never returning to Britain until 1827, when her health caused her to seek treatment back home. She suffered greatly from dropsy, which today we would call edema. Not necessarily a disease itself, edema is fluid retention or swelling that can be caused by a number of illnesses of the heart, kidney or liver. (Some women will also develop edema temporarily during menstruation or pregnancy.) She returned to Wurttemberg after surgery, but died there a year later at the age of 62.

Princess Augusta
By Thomas Gainsborough in the Royal Collection
via Wikimedia Commons
Princess Augusta (1768-1840)
The sixth born child and second daughter, Princess Augusta was born just two years after her older sister. (Brother Edward, the future father of Queen Victoria, was between them.) Augusta was named after her father's mother, Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, who was better known as the Dowager Princess of Wales since her husband Frederick Prince of Wales died in 1751 before acceding the throne. Young Princess Augusta was thought prettier than her older sister, but she was shy and, like her older sister, stammered. She was well-educated along with her sisters, and was particularly devoted to her coin collection. Usually docile, she could also have a terrible temper. Potential royal marriages might have been possible. Her cousin, the future Danish King Frederick VI. would have married her, but George III was bitter over the way Frederick's mother, who was George's baby sister had been treated in that country.  (Read my post, A Scandalous Royal Marriage.) A Swedish prince was also declined, so Augusta made due with someone who was accessible: one of her father's equerries, Army officer Sir Brent Spencer. They kept their relationship secret, though Augusta did seek permission to marry him from her brother George once he had become the Regent for their ailing father. It is not known whether they officially married, but they remained a couple until his death in 1828. She survived another 12 years, passing away at 71.

Princess Elizabeth
By Thomas Gainsborough in the Royal Collection 
via Wikimedia Commons
Princess Elizabeth (1770-1840)
A year and a half younger than Augusta, Elizabeth rounded out the tightly knit trio of older sisters. She was named for her maternal grandmother Elizabeth of Saxe-Hildburghausen, who had passed away nine years earlier. Young Elizabeth was the most joyful and optimistic of the cloistered girls. She enjoyed the farm work imposed by their parents and was also a good artist, often creating works to benefit her charities. Endowed with a good sense of humor and down-to-earth attitude, she may have been their mother's favorite daughter. Elizabeth is thought to have had secret romantic relationships with men of the court, one of which may have resulted in the birth of a daughter. A royal marriage for her with the Duke of Orleans was declined, allegedly due to his Catholicism, but more likely just because her mother did not want to be parted from her. Nonetheless, once her brother George had taken control as Prince Regent, a suitable marriage was accepted over Queen Charlotte's objections. Shortly before her 47th birthday, Elizabeth married Prince Frederick of Hesse-Homburg, who was just a year older, and she went to live with him in Germany, where she greatly enjoyed the less formal atmosphere, especially after he succeeded as the Landgrave and she could control the court. In Germany, she devoted herself to a school she founded for the children of working mothers. Her husband died 11 years into their marriage and was succeeded by his brother. Elizabeth remained in Germany for the rest of her life, dying at age 69 just a few months before her older sister Augusta's death.

Princess Mary
By William Beechey in the Royal Collection
via Wikimedia Commons
Princess Mary (1776-1857)

Three boys were born between Princess Elizabeth and Princess Mary. With a gap of six years between them, Mary became the eldest of the younger trio of princesses. Mary may have been the prettiest of all the sisters. As a teenager, she fell in love with Prince Frederick of Orange, who was exiled in England. King George III used the fact that her three older sisters were still unmarried as an excuse to deny the match. When the prince died a few years later, however, Mary was permitted to officially mourn him. For decades, she and her sisters were stifled -- it was she who declared that they spent their time "vegetating." She finally got her bid for freedom after her father's illness led to a permanent regency. Her brother George the Prince Regent approved her marriage to their cousin, Prince William Duke of Gloucester. Bride and groom were both 40 years old and they produced no offspring. Nevertheless, Mary had achieved freedom from her mother's control and, unlike her married sisters, she was able to stay in Britain. The Duke of Gloucester died in 1834 and she lived on until 1857. A particular favorite of her niece Queen Victoria, Mary was photographed with Victoria and two of Victoria's teenage children. She has the distinction of being the only one of George III's children to be photographed. She also was the last surviving and longest lived of his children, dying at age 81.

Princess Sophia
By William Beechey in the Royal Collection
via Wikimedia Commons
Princess Sophia (1777-1848)
A year and a half younger than Mary, Sophia was their parents' twelfth child. Pretty and delightful though occasionally moody, Sophia found her life with her sisters "deadly dull", writing to their eldest brother, that their pleas for his help were so constant that she wondered why he did not "vote for putting us in a sack and drowning us in the Thames." Sophia has been more plagued by rumors than any of her sisters. One bit of unproven gossip alleges that she was raped by or had an incestuous affair with her extremely unpopular and scandalous brother Ernest Augustus, who later became King of Hanover. (He is the evil Uncle Cumberland in the Victoria television series.) A more likely fact-based rumor is attached to her romance (and perhaps secret marriage) to royal equerry and Army officer Thomas Garth, who was 33 years older than her. Their romance is said to have led to the birth of a son, also called Thomas Garth, who was raised by the Garth family. Historians are divided to this day whether Sophia ever had a child and, if so, whether the father was her brother or Garth. Sophia's child or not, the younger Thomas later attempted to blackmail the royal family over his origins, but failed. Never marrying, Sophia went to live at Kensington Palace after her mother's death. A year later, her niece Victoria was born and became her neighbor. This also placed Sophia in close proximity to Victoria's mother the Duchess of Kent. Like the Duchess, Sophia allowed Kent's comptroller to manager her financial affairs. Despite alleged misconduct with Sophia's money, Conroy may have been the one who thwarted young Thomas Garth's blackmail attempt. Like her father, Sophia grew blind and confused as she aged. Her sister Mary was with her when she died at age 71 at Kensington. Conroy's mismanagement -- or thievery -- had left her with no money in the end. 

Princess Amelia
From the Royal Collection via Wikimedia Commons
Princess Amelia (1783-1810)
Born three years after Queen Charlotte wrote "I would be happy if I knew this [pregnancy] would be the last time", Amelia was the fifteenth and final child born to King George III. Less than a year before Amelia arrived, their two youngest sons had died. Four-year-old Octavius and nearly two-year-old Alfred died after being inoculated against small pox; the older children survived their inoculations. With the early deaths of her nearest siblings, she was very much the baby of the family: six years younger than Princess Sophia and 21 years younger than their oldest brother George. In fact, three of her siblings were named her godparents. She was amiable but shared the tempestuous nature common in the family. Nicknamed Emily by her father, Amelia is widely believed to have been his favorite child. Amelia, however, had less opportunity to be attached to her father as she was only five years old when he first started having serious bouts of illness. Her own poor health also led to separation from the family as she was sent to the seaside for periods of recovery. During one of these convalescences, 18-year-old Amelia fell in love with a young equerry, Charles Fitzroy. Though she was not allowed to marry him, she said that she considered herself married to him. Several years later, she survived a bout of measles, but her health never really recovered and her sister Mary was assigned to nurse her. At age 27, she contracted a bacterial infection called St. Anthony's fire. In an age before antibiotics, this was a death sentence despite the numerous doctors her father sent to her. The family was devastated by her death, especially Princess Mary and the King himself, who fell into another bout of "madness" from which he never again returned to lucidity. In his delusions, George III would imagine that his Emily was healthy and living in Germany. In her will, Amelia left everything to Charles Fitzroy but the family prevented him from receiving any of it. 

Princess Mary, Princess Sophia
and Princess Amelia

By John Singleton Copley in the Royal Collection via Wikimedia Commons

For more about the Daughters of King George III:
"A parcel of old maids" on History of Royal Women
The Strangest Family on The Guardian

Books about the Daughters of King George III:

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