The Tragic Life Story of Princess Charlotte

by James Peacock


Princess Charlotte of Wales
Princess Charlotte of Wales


Less than a week ago, on the Saturday the 2nd May, Britain celebrated the birth of the second child of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Her name, Princess Charlotte Elizabeth Diana of Cambridge, was confirmed two days later. We can certainly guess the inspiration behind the names Elizabeth and Diana. Charlotte, female version of the name ‘Charles’, was named for her grandfather. It is also the Duchess’ sister, Pippa Middleton’s, middle name. The name Charlotte has a strong royal connection, as well. Not only was it the name of King George III’s queen consort, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, but is also the name of their eldest son, King George IV’s, daughter. Imagine how different history would have been if Princess Charlotte had become Queen upon her father’s death in 1830; yet tragically, she was to die in childbirth at age 21. In this article, I discuss the brief, tragic, and turbulent life of Princess Charlotte of Wales.

Charlotte’s entry into the world was to be as turbulent as her life. Her parents, George, Prince of Wales (later George IV) and Caroline of Brunswick, had a disastrous marriage. On their first meeting, the Prince took one look at his bride before retreating to a distant part of the room, demanding his valet to bring him “a glass of brandy”, whilst Caroline declared, “I find him very fat, and nothing as handsome as his portrait”. Nevertheless, the marriage went ahead, with the Prince so drunk he had to be held up by his ducal groomsmen. Their wedding night was no better. The Prince spent the night passed out in the grate. George was later to declare that he only had sex with the Princess three times — luckily for them Caroline conceived.

On the 7th January 1796, at twenty minutes past nine in the morning, Caroline gave birth to a baby girl, Charlotte Augusta, at Carlton House in London. Writing to his mother Queen Charlotte, George told her,

“The Princess, after a terrible hard labour for above twelve hours, is this instant brought to bed of an immense girl, and I assure you notwithstanding we might have wish’d for a boy, I receive her with all the affection possible, and bow with due deference and resignation to the decrees of Providence.”

The Prince burst into tears when his daughter was born. The King, wrote Princess Mary, “is so delighted it is a daughter, as you know he loves little girls best”. The country rejoiced in the birth, the new Princess representing a new age. The Royal Family were not riding high in terms of popularity. Philandering and gambling princes, countless illegitimate children, and unmarried princesses made the people of Britain largely resentful- especially with the heir to the throne in vast amounts of debts, and an illegal marriage with the Catholic Maria Fitzherbet had not helped matters. The country itself was not in a great state, being deep in recession. War with France had strained the country’s finances, and the gentry lived in fear of an English mob setting of a revolution like what had taken place a few years earlier in France.

Princess Charlotte of Wales
Princess Charlotte of Wales

Charlotte’s early years were dominated by her warring parents. Despite Caroline’s demands for better treatment now that she had given birth to the second-in-line to the throne, George restricted her contact with the child, forbidding her to see their daughter except in the presence of a nurse and governess. Caroline was allowed the usual daily visit which upper class parents paid to their young offspring at this time, but she was not allowed any say in the decisions made about Charlotte’s care. Sympathetic household staff disobeyed the Prince and allowed Caroline to be alone with her daughter. George was unaware of this, having little contact with Charlotte himself. Caroline was even bold enough to ride through the streets of London in a carriage with her daughter to the applause of the crowds. At the age of eight, Charlotte was moved into Montague House, adjacent to Carlton House, after her father decided that he wanted Carlton House to himself. He also dismissed the sub-governess, Miss Hayman, for being too friendly with Caroline- although Caroline simply hired her instead.

Charlotte grew into an exuberant tomboy, often rebelling against the etiquette expected of a princess. On one occasion, according to the Honourable George Keppel, whose grandmother Lady Clifford was Charlotte’s governess, he remembered them once seeing a crowd gathered outside the Keppel house at Earl’s Court, who were hoping to see the young princess. The two children went outside and joined the crowd unrecognised. Charlotte also rebelled against her grandfather’s instructions for her education with the Bishop of Exeter to instruct her in the faith that King George believed one day Charlotte, as queen, would defend. The King hoped that these teachers would “render her an honour and comfort to her relations, and a blessing to the dominions over which she may hereafter preside”. Charlotte however, chose only what she wanted to learn – although she did become an accomplished pianist under the guidance of Jane Mary Guest.

Charlotte was not above scandal, however. Her unconventional behaviour led to accusations of sexual relations with other men. She was only eleven at the time. As Charlotte entered her teenage years, members of the court considered her behaviour undignified. Lady de Clifford complained about Charlotte allowing her ankle-length underdrawers to show. Lady Charlotte Bury, a lady-in-waiting to Caroline and a diarist whose writings survive, described the princess as a ‘fine piece of flesh and blood’ who had a candid manner and rarely chose to ‘put on dignity’. Charlotte’s father was proud of her horsemanship. Charlotte was also fond of Mozart and Haydn, and she identified with the character of Marianne in Sense and Sensibility. In 1808, Charlotte Jones was appointed as Charlotte’s own official miniature portrait painter.

In late 1810, King George III began his final descent into madness. Charlotte and the King were very fond of each other, and the young princess was greatly saddened by his illness. On 6 February 1811, Charlotte’s father was sworn in as Prince Regent before the Privy Council. Charlotte rode back and forth in the gardens outside Carlton House, trying to catch glimpses of the ceremony through the ground-floor windows. Charlotte was an enthusiastic Whig, as her father had been. However, now that he was exercising the powers of the monarchy, he did not recall the Whigs to office as many had expected him to do. Charlotte was outraged by what she saw as her father’s treason, and, at the opera, demonstrated her support by blowing kisses in the direction of the Whig leader, Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey.

With the Prince Regent busy with affairs of state, Charlotte was required to spend most of her time at Windsor with her maiden aunts. Bored, she soon became infatuated with her first cousin, George FitzClarence, illegitimate son of the Duke of Clarence. FitzClarence was shortly thereafter called to Brighton to join his regiment, and Charlotte’s gaze fell on Lieutenant Charles Hesse of the Light Dragoons, reputedly the illegitimate son of Charlotte’s uncle, Frederick, Duke of York. Hesse and Charlotte had a number of clandestine meetings. Lady de Clifford feared the Prince Regent’s rage should they be found out, but Princess Caroline was delighted by her daughter’s passion. She did everything that she could to encourage the relationship, even allowing them time alone in a room in her apartments. These meetings ended when Hesse left to join the British forces in Spain. Most of the Royal Family, except the Prince Regent, were aware of these meetings, but did nothing to interfere, disapproving of the way George was treating his daughter.

As Charlotte reached the age of seventeen, her father began to consider the subject of Charlotte’s marriage. The Prince Regent and his advisers settled on William, Hereditary Prince of Orange, son and heir-apparent of Prince William VI of Orange. Such a marriage would increase British influence in Northwest Europe. William made a poor impression on Charlotte when she first saw him at George’s birthday party on 12 August. There he became intoxicated, as did the Prince Regent himself and many of the guests. Although no one in authority had spoken to Charlotte about the proposed marriage, she was quite familiar with the plan through palace whispers. Charlotte was reluctant to the match, feeling that a future Queen of Britain should not marry a foreigner.

Believing that his daughter intended to marry William, Duke of Gloucester, the Prince Regent saw his daughter and verbally abused both her and Gloucester. According to Charlotte, “He spoke as if he had the most improper ideas of my inclinations. I see that he is compleatly  poisoned against me, and that he will never come round.” Soon the story leaked to the press, which wondered whether Charlotte would marry “the Orange or the Cheese'”(a reference to Gloucester cheese), “Slender Billy” (of Orange) or “Silly Billy”.  The Prince Regent now attempted a gentler approach, but failed to convince Charlotte, who wrote, “I could not quit this country, as Queen of England still less” and that if they wed, the Prince of Orange would have to “visit his frogs solo”. However, on 12 December, the Prince Regent arranged a meeting between Charlotte and the Prince of Orange at a dinner party and asked Charlotte for her decision. She stated that she liked what she had seen so far, which George took as an acceptance, and quickly called in the Prince of Orange to inform him.

Negotiations over the marriage contract took several months, with Charlotte insisting that she not be required to leave Britain. The diplomats had no desire to see the two thrones united, and so the agreement stated that Britain would go to the couple’s oldest son, while the second son would inherit the Netherlands. If there was only one son, the Netherlands would pass to the German branch of the House of Orange. On 10 June 1814, Charlotte signed the marriage contract.

At a party at the Pulteney Hotel in London, Charlotte met a Lieutenant-General in the Russian cavalry, Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld. The Princess invited Leopold to call on her, an invitation he took up, remaining for three quarters of an hour, and writing a letter to the Prince Regent apologising for any indiscretion. This letter impressed George very much, although he did not consider the impoverished Leopold as a possible suitor for his daughter’s hand.

The Princess of Wales opposed the match between her daughter and the Prince of Orange and had great public support. When Charlotte went out in public, crowds would urged her not to abandon her mother by marrying the Prince of Orange. Charlotte informed the Prince of Orange that if they wed, her mother would have to be welcome in their home —a condition sure to be unacceptable to the Prince Regent. When the Prince of Orange would not agree, Charlotte broke off the engagement. Her father’s response was to order that Charlotte remain at her residence at Warwick House (adjacent to Carlton House) until she could be conveyed to Cranbourne Lodge at Windsor, where she would be allowed to see no one except the Queen. When told of this, Charlotte raced out into the street. A man, seeing her distress from a window, helped the inexperienced princess find a hackney cab, in which she was conveyed to her mother’s house- undoubtedly one of the few times a member of the Royal Family has used public transport by choice. She soon returned to her father’s house.

By early 1815, Charlotte had decided upon Prince Leopold as her spouse. He had not been her first choice. That had been a Prussian Prince, which historians disagree on. The Prince Regent refused to accept this – still eager for Charlotte to marry the Prince of Orange. Charlotte refused, saying, “No arguments, no threats, shall ever bend me to marry this detested Dutchman.” Faced with opposition in the Royal Family, George finally gave up on the idea of the marriage with the Prince of Orange. Charlotte contacted Leopold through intermediaries and found him receptive, but with Napoleon renewing the conflict on the Continent, Leopold was with his regiment fighting. In July, shortly before returning to Weymouth, Charlotte formally requested her father’s permission to marry Leopold. The Prince Regent replied that with the unsettled political situation on the Continent, he could not consider such a request. To Charlotte’s frustration, Leopold did not come to Britain after the restoration of peace, even though he was stationed in Paris, which she deemed to be only a short journey from Weymouth or London. Eventually George summoned Leopold to Britain, who went to the Royal Pavillion at Brighton to be interviewed by the Prince Regent. Charlotte was invited, as well. After having dinner with both her father and Leopold she wrote,

“I find him charming, and go to bed happier than I have ever done yet in my life … I am certainly a very fortunate creature, & have to bless God. A Princess never, I believe, set out in life (or married) with such prospects of happiness, real domestic ones like other people.”

George was satisfied with Leopold, telling Charlotte Leopold “had every qualification to make a woman happy”.  On March 14th 1816, to great acclaim, an announcement was made in the House of Commons that Charlotte and Leopold were to be married. Parliament agreed to grant Leopold £50,000 per year and purchased Claremont House for the couple, even granting them a generous single payment to set up house.

Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg
Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg

On the 2nd May, huge crowds lined the streets of London. So large were the crowds that the participants of the wedding had great difficulty in travelling to get there. The couple were married at nine o’clock in the evening in the Crimson Drawing Room at Carlton House. The only mishap was during the ceremony, when Charlotte was heard to giggle when the impoverished Leopold promised to endow her with all his worldly goods. After honeymooning at Oatlands Palace in Surrey, the couple returned to London.

When the couple attended the theatre, they were invariably treated to wild applause from the audience. When Charlotte was taken ill at the Opera, there was great public concern about her condition. It was announced that she had suffered a miscarriage. On 24 August 1816, they took up residence for the first time at Claremont. Leopold’s physician-in-ordinary, Christian Stockmar (later, as Baron Stockmar, advisor to both Queen Victoria and Prince Albert) wrote that in the first six months of the marriage, he had never seen Charlotte wear anything that was not simple and in good taste. He also noted that she was much more calm and in control of herself than she used to be, and attributed this to Leopold’s influence. Leopold wrote later, “Except when I went out to shoot, we were together always, and we could be together, we did not tire.” When Charlotte became too excited, Leopold would say only, “Doucement, cherie” (Gently, my love). Charlotte both accepted the correction and began calling her husband “Doucement”.

The Coburgs, as they came to be called, spent the Christmas holidays at the Brighton Pavilion with various other royals. On 7 January, the Prince Regent gave a huge ball there to celebrate Charlotte’s 21st birthday, but the Coburgs did not attend, having returned to Claremont and preferring to remain there quietly. At the end of April 1817, Leopold informed the Prince Regent that Charlotte was again pregnant and that there was every prospect of the Princess carrying the baby to term. Charlotte’s pregnancy was the subject of the most intense public interest. Like today, betting shops quickly set up book on what sex the child would be. Economists calculated that the birth of a princess would raise the stock market by 2.5%; the birth of a prince would raise it 6%. Charlotte spent her time quietly, spending much time sitting for a portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence. She ate heavily and got little exercise. When her medical team began prenatal care in August 1817, they put her on a strict diet, hoping to reduce the size of the child at birth. The diet, and occasional bleeding, seemed to weaken Charlotte. Stockmar was amazed at a treatment he saw as outdated and declined to join the medical team, believing that, as a foreigner, he would be blamed if anything went wrong.

Much of Charlotte’s day to day care was undertaken by Sir Richard Croft. Croft was not a physician, but an accoucheur, or male midwife, much in fashion among the well-to-do. Charlotte was believed to be due to deliver on 19 October, but as October ended, she had shown no signs of giving birth. She drove out as usual with Leopold on Sunday 2 November. On the evening of 3 November, her contractions began. Sir Richard encouraged her to exercise, but would not let her eat. Late that evening, he sent for the officials who were to witness and attest to the royal birth. As the fourth of November became the fifth, it became clear that Charlotte might be unable to expel the child. Croft and Charlotte’s personal physician, Matthew Baillie, decided to send for obstetrician John Sims. However, Croft did not allow Sims to see the patient, and forceps were not used. At nine o’clock in the evening of 5 November, Charlotte finally gave birth to a large stillborn boy. Efforts to resuscitate him were in vain. The noble observers confirmed that it was a handsome boy, resembling the Royal Family.

All were assured that the mother was doing well and took their leave. An exhausted Charlotte heard the news calmly, stating it was the will of God. She took some nourishment after her lengthy fast and seemed to be recovering. Leopold, who had remained with his wife throughout, apparently took an opiate and collapsed into bed. Soon after midnight, Charlotte began vomiting violently and complaining of pains in her stomach. Sir Richard was called and was alarmed to find his patient cold to the touch, breathing with difficulty and bleeding. He placed hot compresses on her, the accepted treatment at the time for postpartum bleeding, but the blood did not stop. He called in Stockmar and urged him to bring Leopold. Stockmar found Leopold difficult to rouse, and went to see the Princess, who grabbed his hand and told him, “They have made me tipsy.” Stockmar left the room, planning to try again to rouse the Prince, but was called back by Charlotte’s voice, “Stocky! Stocky!” He entered the room to find her dead.

Britain was plunged into mourning for the Princess. Linen-draperies ran out of black cloth. Even the poor and homeless tied armbands of black to their clothes. The shops closed for two weeks, as did the Royal Exchange, the Law Courts, and the docks. Even gambling dens shut down on the day of her funeral as a mark of respect. Henry Brougham wrote; “It really was as though every household throughout Great Britain had lost a favourite child.” Mourning was so great that the makers of ribbons and other fancy goods (which could not be worn during the period of mourning) petitioned the government to shorten the period, fearing they would otherwise go bankrupt. The Prince Regent was prostrated with grief and was unable to attend his child’s funeral. Princess Caroline heard the news from a passing courier and fainted in shock. On recovering, she stated, “England, that great country, has lost everything in losing my ever beloved daughter.” Even the Prince of Orange burst into tears at hearing the news, and his wife ordered the ladies of her court into mourning. Leopold, stricken with grief, wrote to Sir Thomas Lawrence:

“Two generations gone. Gone in a moment! I have felt for myself, but I have also felt for the Prince Regent. My Charlotte is gone from the country—it has lost her. She was a good, she was an admirable woman. None could know my Charlotte as I did know her! It was my study, my duty, to know her character, but it was my delight!”

The Princess was buried, her son at her feet, in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, on 19 November 1817. A monument was erected by public subscription at her tomb.  It was not long before the public began to pin blame for the tragedy. The Queen and the Prince Regent were blamed for not being present at the birth, though Charlotte had specifically requested that they stay away. Although the postmortem was inconclusive, many blamed Croft for his care of the Princess. The Prince Regent refused to blame Croft. Nevertheless, three months after Charlotte’s death and while attending another young woman, Croft snatched up a gun and fatally shot himself. The “triple obstetric tragedy” — death of child, mother, and practitioner—led to significant changes in obstetric practice, with obstetricians who favoured intervention in protracted labour, including in particular more liberal use of forceps gaining ground over those who did not.

Monument Honouring Princess Charlotte of Wales
Monument Honouring Princess Charlotte of Wales

Whilst Charlotte’s death was a terrible tragedy, it was also represented a constitutional crisis. After her father and her bachelor uncles, there was no legitimate heir to the throne. Immediately the race was on to secure the succession. One of Charlotte’s uncles, Prince Edward Duke of Kent and Strathearn, upon receiving a newspaper article which urged the King’s unmarried sons to marry, promptly dismissed his mistress and proposed to Leopold’s sister, Victoria, Dowager Princess of Leiningen. Their only child, a girl, Princess Alexandrina Victoria of Kent, would eventually become Queen of the United Kingdom, and is, to this date, the longest reigning monarch. Leopold, by then King of the Belgians, served as long-distance adviser to his niece and was able to secure her marriage to his nephew, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.

Leopold married again in 1832 to Louise-Marie of Orleans, daughter of Louis Philippe I, King of the French. In 1831, he became King of the Belgians. He never forgot his first wife, nor did he ever really get over her death. With Louise he had four children. The youngest, a girl, was named Charlotte in honour of his first wife. It is said that his last words were ‘Charlotte Charlotte’. 

In many ways, Victoria and Albert fulfilled what Charlotte and Leopold had promised. They steered the monarchy forward, making it more accessible to the people.



Kate Williams, ‘Becoming Queen’

James Chambers, ‘Charlotte and Leopold’

John Van Der Kiste, ‘Georgian Princesses’

Arthur Aspinall, ‘Letters of the Princess Charlotte’

James Peacock

I run The Anne Boleyn Society, which I set up in 2014. Over the years the society has grown tremendously and there are accounts on Facebook, Instagram (@society_anne) and Twitter (@Society_Anne). With over 20,000 followers, the society aims to debate and discuss the life and times of Queen Anne Boleyn while taking into account the period in which she lived in.

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