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Princess Charlotte: a historic royal wedding dress

In the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection at Kensington Palace is preserved one of the most important wedding dresses in British history. Worn by Princess Charlotte (1796-1817) for her wedding on 2 May 1816 in the magnificent Crimson Drawing Room at Carlton House to Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld. It was a wedding dress to celebrate not only the personal happiness of the popular Princess Charlotte but also the continuance of the Hanoverian dynasty, thereby preserving the direct line of George III through her father George, Prince of Wales, later, Prince Regent and King George IV from 1820.

Princess Charlotte was an only child of the disastrous marriage of her parents, George, Prince of Wales and his wife, Caroline of Brunswick. The wedding took place in front of a temporary altar, erected in the sumptuous Carlton House, the magnificent residence on the Mall which belonged to the Prince Regent, the rich taste of which perhaps today finds the best expression in the George IV rooms at Buckingham Palace. Prayer books, a plate, cushions and candles were brought in especially for the occasion from the Chapels Royal at St James’s Palace. Princess Charlotte’s hair was simply dressed, over which she wore a wreath of diamonds in the shape of rosebuds, held together with a diamond hairpin (Kay Staniland, op. cit; In Royal Fashion, Pg 58, 1997). Charlotte wore earrings, pearls and an armlet – possibly the diamond bracelet given to her as a wedding present by Prince Leopold and which she is depicted wearing prominently in the watercolour made of her shortly after her marriage, by the artist Richard Woodman.

The sudden and premature death of Princess Charlotte in 1817 resulted in an outpouring of national grief and quite extraordinary examples of mourning objects and cheap, commemorate souvenirs. One such memorial item is kept in the National Gallery in London. Known as ‘The Eye of Princess Charlotte of Wales’, it unusually depicts one eye of the Princess, painted in watercolour on ivory, placed on top of a curl of her hair, kept in a gold locket. A great marble memorial designed by Matthew Wyatt was erected in the western end of St George’s Chapel for Princess Charlotte. A small mausoleum was built at Claremont. Princess Charlotte’s clothes were preserved by her family and those of her inner circle, because they somehow were still full of her presence, even though she was no longer wearing them. This was something perpetuated by the attitude taken at Claremont by Prince Leopold – her clothes became literally, what was physically left of Charlotte, projection objects of both comfort and grief, locking in the spell of her last moments of life in a pseudo-erotic way. This is supported by the fact that the cloak and bonnet which she wore on her last walk with Leopold, were still hung up on a screen at Claremont, where she had last placed them before her labour pains began. Provenance is still confused about some of the items of clothing traditionally associated with Princess Charlotte until the year 1927; the London Museum acquired a considerable size of “dresses and accessories” of Charlotte in 1964. Some of the clothes were retained by Princess Charlotte’s dresser, Mrs Louisa Louis, who had stayed on at Claremont in the position of housekeeper and later died at Buckingham Palace.

The ‘wedding dress’ of Princess Charlotte (Public domain via www.gogmsite.net/_Media/1816-princess-charlottes-3.jpeg)

Charlotte’s wedding dress has survived, however, albeit in altered form. It was made by the London dressmaker Mrs Triaud and consisted of a petticoat of white and silver with a matching train, worn under a net dress, embroidered with silver lame. It may have cost above £10,000, although this sum should perhaps be indicative of the cost of Princess Charlotte’s entire ensemble. The dress itself had a border, festooned with flowers and was trimmed with fashionable Brussels lace at the neck and hem. The dress in its present form comprises a bodice, skirt, train and underskirt and is extremely fragile. An earlier description of the dress in La Belle Assemblee (1 June 1816) reveals that it was: “silver lama on net, over a silver tissue slip, embroidered at the bottom with silver lama in shells and flowers… the manteaux was of silver tissue lined with white satin, with a border of embroidery to answer that on the dress…” (Ibid, op. cit, Pg 57, 1997). The wedding dress was mentioned in the 1838 will of Princess Charlotte’s dresser, Mrs Louisa Louis, “a silver Tissue Dress covered with silver net worn by her late Royal Highness the Princess Charlotte on her marriage”, as the costume historian Kay Staniland has demonstrated (Ibid, Pg 58).

An engraving was made of Princess Charlotte’s wedding by the apparent eyewitness artist to whom it is attributed, Richard Westall. Due, however, to the leaning figure of the Prince Regent and the kneeling figure of Princess Charlotte before the makeshift altar, little detail can be seen of the dress, except for the fact that it shows clear evidence of being white, possibly satin – and of the undisputed Empire line of the time. The Museum of London now considers that the dress in its present form could potentially be the result of what is in fact, three separate costumes, due to textile inconsistencies in the borders, the cloth used in the underskirt and the atypical “apron front”. There is also a mystery concerning a long gap in the provenance of the “wedding dress” between 1838, when it was bequeathed by Mrs Louis and 1927, when it was lent to the London Museum by Queen Mary, together with other costumes that claimed a connection with the Princess (Ibid, Pg 21). Due to its extreme fragility, the ‘wedding dress’ is not on public display.

The result of this wedding, however, was – as a horrified history would discover – a stillborn baby, and Princess Charlotte dying in childbirth in one of the ground floor rooms at Claremont (the country residence of the couple and former home of Lord Clive of Plassey, near Esher) at half-past two on 6 November 1817, after a labour of forty-eight hours. She died two hours after giving birth to a “beautiful fine boy… very large”. Prince Leopold was distraught at the death of his young wife, kissing Charlotte’s hands for over an hour. The coffins of Princess Charlotte and her stillborn son were brought by moonlight from Claremont to Windsor and buried at St George’s Chapel on 19 November.

This unexpected death sparked a fresh succession crisis, which in turn, led the unmarried brothers of the Prince Regent – as George, Prince of Wales became in 1811 – to marry, to sire the next heir to the throne and ensure the continuance of the dynasty. George IV was followed in 1830 by his younger brother, the Duke of Clarence, later William IV, and subsequently by his niece, Princess Alexandrina Victoria, the only child of the Duke of Kent, who succeeded as Queen Victoria in 1837. Princess Charlotte’s wedding dress – in its present, assemblage form – therefore, represents, not only a spectacular survival of a historic royal wedding dress, but is in itself a symbol of British history as it never became – a brief marriage, itself delighted, but which ended in a way which forced the monarchy to move in a different direction, to find its new successor. This, it found in the birth in 1819 of Princess Charlotte’s cousin, Princess Victoria.

A touching link between Princess Charlotte and Queen Victoria is the residence of Claremont, of which Princess Victoria was extremely fond. As Queen, Victoria later used it as a country retreat, before acquiring the estate at Osborne on the Isle of Wight in 1845, after which she visited less frequently. Claremont was later purchased by Queen Victoria as a residence for her youngest son, Prince Leopold following his marriage to Princess Helen of Waldeck-Pyrmont in 1882. Queen Victoria’s Souvenir Album, fittingly contains two memorial views of Claremont and two views close to the estate. One of these watercolours, dated 1843, shows the Mausoleum of Princess Charlotte.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018

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