Charlotte was the only daughter of the Prince of Wales (later Prince Regent and King George VI) and his much hated (by him, anyway) wife, Caroline of Brunswick. It was an arranged marriage, they hated one other on first sight, and after Charlotte’s birth, they separated for good and their daughter saw little of her mother. To be honest, Charlotte didn’t see that much of her father either and was left in the care of palace staff.
Charlotte was born at the now demolished Carlton House in London, the then residence of the Prince of Wales, on 7th January 1796. Perhaps because so many members of the Royal Family were unpopular at that time, Charlotte was instantly loved by the public. She was a happy and healthy child, ‘reckless’ in nature and with a ‘warm heart’. George and Caroline, forever battling against each other, used Charlotte as a pawn in their game – to start with, Caroline was only allowed to see her daughter in the presence of the nurse and governess and was not allowed any say in the upbringing of her child. However, as time went on, mother and daughter did see more of each other.
At the age of 8, Charlotte was moved into her own establishment next to Carlton House. Her governesses were dismissed and new staff hired, who unfortunately were not inclined to discipline her and she grew into a headstrong tomboy. King George III hired tutors for his only legitimate grandchild, to ensure that she was well educated when she became Queen. Unfortunately, much as Queen Victoria did some years later, Charlotte decided to study only what she wished, although she did become an accomplished pianist.
As she entered her teenage years, members of the Royal Court expressed concern over Charlotte’s ‘undignified’ behaviour. When he became Regent in 1811, George placed ever stricter controls on Charlotte, not allowing her to have her own adult household or ladies in waiting, or to appear at court. Charlotte was furious to be still treated as a child, and after much complaining, one of her grandmother Queen Charlotte’s ladies in waiting was appointed as her companion.
Charlotte apparently closely resembled her father, with her strong Hanoverian features giving her a ‘striking’ rather than feminine appearance. It wouldn’t have mattered what she looked like – she was an important political asset to the British government. In 1813, George began to think seriously about her future marriage. An Anglo-Dutch alliance with Prince William of Orange was proposed and the young couple met and were not opposed to the match – as heiress presumptive to the throne, Charlotte was well aware that she would probably not love the man she would marry. They became engaged and Charlotte set about acquiring her trousseau. However, on 16th June 1814, she broke off their engagement. Her official reason was that she felt they both needed to stay in their respective countries (both being heirs to thrones) and she wished to remain near her mother. Her real reason was that she had met and fallen in love with Prince Frederick of Prussia a few days before. Her family were desperate to reinstate the engagement with William of Orange, and when George dismissed Charlotte’s entire household in a fit of anger, she fled to her mother’s house. When she was persuaded to return, George sent her to Windsor to live in seclusion with no visits from friends allowed. Her mail was also restricted. In April 1815, George calmed down and finally allowed Charlotte to return to London and its social life.
Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg was waiting for Charlotte. He had already proposed marriage immediately after Charlotte had broken her engagement with William of Orange the previous summer. His proposal had annoyed both George and Charlotte – he was still intent on the Anglo-Dutch alliance, she was in love with someone else. However, by November 1814, Charlotte was convinced that her marriage with Prince Frederick could not come to anything and she considered Leopold the next best thing. He was not an heir to a throne, but a younger son of the ruler of a small German principality. If she married him, she would not have to leave England. Leopold was extremely handsome and quite charming, and Charlotte considered him “a good tempered man with good sense, with whom I could have a reasonable hope of being less unhappy and comfortless than I have been in a single state”. The Prince Regent, however, still had to agree, and as he was still smarting from his daughter’s refusal to marry William of Orange, all she could do was be patient and wait. Her patience paid off – George finally gave permission for Charlotte’s marriage to Leopold in January 1816, and they became engaged in the February. Once again, Charlotte was kept busy arranging her trousseau and the couple finally married at Carlton House on 2nd May 1816. They spent the first part of their honeymoon at Oatlands, the Duke of York’s country house near Weybridge, Surrey, and then, after a most unwelcome visit from the Prince Regent a few days later, they moved back to London. Claremont House was to be their new country home and when it was ready, they spent most of their time there. Charlotte was finally free of her father’s control and thought that her life should from then on, be much happier with Leopold.
For the next 18 months, Charlotte was blissfully happy, especially so when she discovered she was pregnant. She expected her baby to be born in October, but she did not go into labour until 3rd November 1817. The labour lasted 48 hours. She gave birth to a stillborn boy at 9 o’clock on 5th November. Despite being very sad and utterly exhausted, Charlotte seemed to be in good health and her household retired to bed. Two hours later, she became unwell and died at 2.30am on 6th November. She was just 21. Her doctors had no idea why she had declined so suddenly and died, and a post-mortem was inconclusive. Her doctor, Sir Richard Croft, was unjustly blamed for her death, and he committed suicide some time later. It has since been suggested, that Charlotte inherited porphyria (the illness that her grandfather, George III suffered from, and why he was thought to have gone mad), as this illness is known to have caused sudden death after childbirth. The real reason, however, is still a mystery.
The country was stunned at Charlotte’s sudden death. Court mourning was set at 3 months and the general public wore black if they possibly could. Charlotte had been much loved, and in St George’s Chapel, Windsor, where she and her baby son were interred, a monument was erected to them both, paid for entirely by public subscription. Sculpted in white marble by Matthew Wyatt, it shows Charlotte’s and her son’s souls rising to heaven with the angels. Britain was not to see a similar outpouring of grief until the death of Diana, Princess of Wales 180 years later.
Charlotte’s death meant that there was no legitimate heir to the British throne and the Royal Family was thrown into panic. There followed a ‘race to the altar’ for several of her uncles, and in time, the birth of Princess Victoria of Kent, the little girl who would one day become Queen Victoria. It is unfortunate that Charlotte, such a well-loved and significant figure of her day, was forgotten about within a couple of generations. Especially so, when one considers the role her death played in the birth of one of our greatest monarchs.