Back before our birthday celebrations we had left Princess Charlotte, only child of the Prince Regent and second in line to the British throne, living in her own household…no parents or other relatives, only servants and those appointed to live with her as companions or tutors. Not a very secure atmosphere for a child to grow up in…and matters were worsened by her father’s occasional capricious hirings and firings, not to mention the fact that some of the people he hired had drinking problems or loose morals.
Charlotte grew to be a self-described tomboy, temperamental and mischievous, swaggering and coltish, a mixture of naivete and self-awareness of her high position. She was often naughty, especially towards a few particular staff whom she disliked, but just as often was contrite and apologetic for misbehavior. Her favorite subject was mathematics, and her favorite pastime was riding; she was a fearless horsewoman. At fifteen she was described as being, “…tall and very graceful….” but also “forward, dogmatic on all subjects, buckish about horses, and full of exclamations very like swearing.” Charming and natural, perhaps, but not very princess-like.
Her father as a young man had been a supporter of the Whig party and announced that the princess would be educated according to liberal Whig principles. But once he was made Prince Regent by the Tory government to rule in his mad father’s place, his Whig days came to an abrupt end and he became a supporter of the Tories’ conservative outlook. The fact that his estranged wife Caroline of Brunswick, Charlotte’s mother, was supported by the Whigs only strengthened his new Toryism.
And so Charlotte unwittingly became a political football, kicked about by her parents and their supporters to suit their political purposes. Charlotte in time came to understand how she was being manipulated when private conversations she had with them at different times appeared in print in London newspapers. The Prince was doing his best to discredit her mother (she was indeed under parliamentary investigation for her reputed gross immorality) and Caroline returned the favor, trying to paint the Prince as an unnatural, unfeeling scoundrel who wanted to separate mother and daughter. But Caroline went one further, encouraging the impulsive, romantic Charlotte to flirt with an army officer (one of her illegitimate cousins, in fact!), going so far as to lock them in her room together—alone.
Is it any wonder that when a suitor appeared for her hand when she was seventeen, Charlotte sat up and took notice?
The suitor in question was William, Prince of Orange, a confirmed Anglophile but even more delighted by the idea of ruling both Holland AND Britain. His family was disliked by her mother, but Charlotte was willing to overlook that fact if she decided she liked him. Unfortunately, their first public meeting—at the Prince Regent’s birthday party—was a disaster: every single male member of the royal party apart from Charlotte’s favorite uncle got so drunk that all ended up, quite literally, under the table. Indeed, the last to fall, the Duke of York, pulled the tablecloth and everything with it down on top of him as he fell.
Hardly a prepossessing start to a courtship!
Next week: Princess Charlotte, Part III: Till Death Do Us Part