Regency History

The Glory of Britain

During the Regency, the royal family enjoyed a love-hate relationship with their subjects. The British had (and still seem to have) an ingrained respect and devotion to their monarchs, but the madness of their king and the extravagance of the royal princes was too much even for their loyal subjects to stomach at times. The Prince Regent, who would later become King George IV, was gross and fat, had many lovers (and a mistress with whom he fathered eight children), and spent money like water on fantastic buildings to support his excessive lifestyle. He was often caricatured as a whale (a play on his being the Prince of Wales) in the company of buxom and half-dressed females, with Parliament running around him wagging fingers and crying over bills. Since his income came almost entirely from taxation, he was not a great favorite.

So it was not surprising that his heir, the Princess Charlotte, should be beloved by the people, because they saw her as the redemption of their beloved monarchy–the antithesis of her profligate father and the hope of a return to virtue. Females were regarded as the guardians of virtue during the Regency, and when Prince George and his estranged wife Caroline were unable to produce a male heir, it was seen as divine intervention.

Princess Charlotte of Wales c. 1817

Charlotte could very well have turned out to be a disappointment, because her childhood was one of upheaval and neglect by her parents. They gave her every advantage of a royal child, but not their individual attention or love. Any time she spent with either parent was more often used for fuel in their never-ending feud than as bonding time. Luckily, she had loving and indulgent governesses who treated her like their own child, and she grew to be a happy child with a sunny disposition–her only unconformity was a tendency toward tom-boyishness.

As she grew older, her demeanor shifted to a casualness that offended her high-minded relatives, including her father, who forgot his own rebellious teens (and twenties, and thirties, and…) and clamped down on her. His strictures included reduced pin money, early bedtimes, and eventual isolation at Windsor castle with only her maiden aunts for companionship. The princess, of course, rebelled at this, entering into secret trysts with practically any male she found interesting within her circle (mostly cousins). She formed a passion first for her illegitimate cousin George FitzClarence, then for another illegitimate cousin Charles Hesse, both of which relationships were encouraged by her mother, Princess Caroline, but which both ended at the young men being called away to fight on the Continent.

Hoping to curb her, Prince George (now Prince Regent) arranged a marriage for her with William, Prince of Orange, whom she did not like very much. After much manipulation, coercion, and outright begging, Charlotte at last agreed to sign the marriage agreement, but almost immediately became besotted with a Prussian prince (it is unknown which one), before falling in love with Leopold Saxe-Coburg, a dashing Belgian army lieutenant general. The youngest son of a Duke, Leopold had little to offer by way of wealth, but his distinguished military career and high birth helped at last to change the Prince Regent’s mind. In March 1816, their engagement was announced, and they were married May 2, to the exuberant joy of the British people. So many crowded the streets on the wedding day that the royal couple had difficulty travelling.

Charlotte and Leopold were very happy together, and her teenage wildness quickly disappeared. She described Leopold as the “perfection of a lover,” and he commented that, “we were together always, and we could be together, we did not tire.” The British subjects greeted the couple with wild applause whenever they were seen in public, and often sang “God Save the King” to them.

After suffering a miscarriage in early 1817, Charlotte became pregnant again, but instead of being attended by a physician, the modish Sir Richard Croft saw to her care, and put her on a strict diet accompanied by bleedings. She was weakened considerably by this treatment, and had a terribly rough delivery. A physician was called to use forceps, which may have saved both the child and the princess, but Croft would not let him see the princess. The baby was stillborn and Charlotte bled severely, dying hours later.

Her death sent the entire country into deep mourning for two weeks–the British people felt as though their future had been taken from them. Linen drapers ran out of black cloth, and even gambling dens shut down on the day of her funeral as a mark of respect. The Prince Regent was so grief-stricken he could not attend the funeral, and Leopold never quite recovered, as if he had lost his heart. He did not remarry until 1832, only when he was made King of the Belgians.