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The so-called Regency Romance is a popular genre of historical romantic fiction. Usually the story is set roughly in the first twenty years of 19th century Great Britain, when the Prince of Wales served as regent for his insane father, King George III. They are populated by dukes and earls going to ton
balls and Vauxhall Gardens. Occasionally, the Prince Regent, commonly called “Prinny,” makes a cameo appearance. Even his gang of drunken, dissolute brothers may show up.
One member of the royal family of whom I was completely unaware, however, was Prinny’s only child, Princess Charlotte of Wales. She was born in 1796 to Prinny and his wife, Princess Caroline of Brunswick. Although her parents adored her, they detested one another and used her as a weapon in their squabbles. She had a lonely childhood, surrounded by governesses and servants but few other children. She saw her parents rarely. Although it was apparent early on that she might become Queen of England, her education was desultory, and she was not a diligent student. She was vibrant and energetic, and remarkably sweet given how spoiled she was.
This was a politically perilous time in Great Britain and the large, profligate royal family was uniformly disdained. As Charlotte grew older, she became more popular with the masses while her spendthrift father became more hated. After he was named regent for his father, Prinny feared that upon George III’s death he might be skipped over in favor of his daughter. His solution was to virtually imprison her in a ramshackle mansion full of toadies and spies. Her mother is without power to help her and doesn’t seem very interested in doing so anyway. Occasionally, Charlotte was allowed to visit the sea at Weymouth, but other than that she never traveled outside of London and Windsor.
Charlotte, who was known to have Whiggish tendencies, became the hope of not just the masses but also those of the upper class who saw the desperate need for reform. She was only vaguely aware of her potential power, but when Prinny tried to marry her off to the unattractive Prince of Orange she finally rebelled. After a brief infatuation with a Prussian prince, known by all to be a worthless rake, she turned to Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, a strikingly handsome cavalry officer in the Russian army. He was no virgin hero, though, having once had a passionate affair with Napoleon’s stepdaugher, Hortense de Beauharnais. He was, however, strong, steady, disciplined and honorable – quite a contrast to Charlotte’s father and uncles.
Although she was stung by the Prussian prince’s rejection, she decided to marry Leopold, terming him as “the next best thing, which was a good tempered man with good sence, with whom I could have a reasonable hope of being less unhappy & comfortless than I have been in a single state.” (And ladies, take a look at this fellow and tell me if you wouldn't have settled for him too.)
Charlotte was desperate to escape from her father’s tyranny, and her father was eager to marry her off to a foreign prince and hopefully get her out of England for at least part of each year.
They were married on May 2, 1816, in a ceremony deliberately kept small by Prinny. Her dress, however, was said to have cost £10,000.
The newly wedded couple moved into their Surrey estate, Claremont House, and for the first time in her life Charlotte was independent and content. Just like in a romance novel, she and Leopold soon fell deeply in love, and before their first anniversary, they announced the expected birth of their first child.
Sadly, there was no HEA. On November 5, 1817, after nearly three days of labor, she gave birth to a stillborn boy. The next day, Charlotte herself succumbed. The medical care she received was atrocious by today’s standards but probably the best available at the time.
The public’s grief was overwhelming; everyone, even the poorest beggars, wore some form of mourning and shops closed for two weeks. “Her death is one of the most serious misfortunes the country has ever met with,” said the Duke of Wellington. After Prinny and his six brothers, there simply was no heir to the throne. Of George III’s estimated fifty-six grandchildren, not one was legitimate.
Charlotte’s death set off an unseemly rush to the altar by several of Prinny’s brothers, including the relatively respectable lifelong military man, the Duke of Kent. Not coincidentally, he set out to court Prince Leopold’s widowed sister, Victoire. They married in 1818, and barely nine months later, the duchess gave birth to a girl, whom Prinny decreed would be named Alexandrina Victoria. Sadly, the duke died before his daughter was even a year old.
The story of Queen Victoria’s upbringing and marriage comprises the second half of this book. Those events are well known, and I won’t summarize them here. Suffice it to say that her widowed uncle, Prince Leopold, who later became King of the Belgians, remained close to his sister and niece, and young Victoria looked upon him almost as a father. For that reason, as well as for his own ambition, he spent years grooming his young nephew, Price Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, for the role that Leopold himself had hoped to assume – Prince Consort to the Queen of England.
If you’re interested in learning more about the regency period, I recommend this book. The writing is lively and not pedantic, even though the author holds a D. Phil. from Oxford. Neither George III nor Prinny come off looking very good here; they both were just awful parents. Moreover, Prinny, later George IV, and his brother, later William IV, were drunken, selfish kings who cared only for their own comfort and privilege. As with Charlotte, the public pinned their hopes on young Victoria, and this time their hearts were not broken.