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Queen Charlotte: A British Queen, 1818-2018

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the death of the German-born British Queen Charlotte, consort of George III (1744-1818). Her life will be celebrated at Kew Palace, where she died on 18 November 1818, with a new exhibition that explores her marriage to the King, her intellectual and artistic achievements and her last months at Kew.

The Queen’s considerable botanic interests could not find a greater place of parallel than the great Royal Botanic Gardens of Kew. The rustic retreat known as ‘Queen Charlotte’s Cottage’ – where the Royal Family would rest for recreation in between walks – is still accessible to the public. It was opened to the nation by Queen Charlotte’s granddaughter, Queen Victoria in 1898, and whose upper floor is lavishly decorated with delightful floral garlands, painted most probably by the Queen’s daughter, Princess Elizabeth. But why did the Queen die at Kew?

Queen Charlotte’s health had worsened considerably in 1817, as the result of which a cure in Bath was recommended to her, but itself was interrupted by the unexpected death in childbirth of the Prince Regent’s only (legitimate) child, Princess Charlotte, her beloved granddaughter, and namesake.

Already in poor health, Queen Charlotte was returning in June 1818, from the Queen’s House – Buckingham House, the early incarnation of what became Buckingham Palace – to Windsor, but was forced to stop en route at Kew. Kew was a place – despite its rich botany and her beloved plants – heavy with ‘Georgian’ associations: the gardens had been developed by her mother-in-law, Princess Augusta, Dowager Princess of Wales and provided the setting for many domestic, family summers before the King became ill. The ‘Dutch House’, as Kew Palace was formerly known, was where her sons had been educated, but also where the sick George III had himself been confined in isolation, during his bout of illness in 1804.

She began to have breathing problems and the physician Sir Henry Halford, was summoned to Kew. Despite the fact that the King was ill at Windsor, Queen Charlotte did not like being away from him. Her own private retreat of Frogmore, in Windsor Great Park, was associated with the dark memories of the King’s illness, out of which she had forged her own life of ‘botanizing’ and pastimes of pleasure, a type of parallel world, an English ‘Trianon’. She continued to speak of going to Frogmore, even as her illness worsened, perhaps a tribute to the place’s personal meaning to her and its place in her affections.

Portrait of Queen Charlotte, as painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1789 (Thomas Lawrence [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

The Queen was confined to her Bedroom at Kew; a room which was accurately restored by the independent charity, Historic Royal Palaces in 2006, in a turquoise and flocked colour scheme.

Queen Charlotte – whose own life had been so marked by the King’s intermittent illness – was now dominated by her own health conditions, which included swollen legs and chest problems. She was unable to sleep in her bed, so the Queen instead sat up in a chair, propped up with pillows and a pillow in front of her, to support her head. Such were the Queen’s sufferings, that she constantly prayed, with her hands aloft – a sight which distressed her Assistant Dresser, Mary Rice. (Flora Fraser, Princesses, Pg 309, 2004). Her swollen legs point to dropsy, in addition to which, pneumonia set in.

Queen Charlotte attended the double (English) wedding service on 11 July 1818 of her sons, the Duke of Clarence and the Duke of Kent, with their German brides, Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen and Princess Victoire of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, Dowager Princess of Leiningen. The first pair became King William IV and Queen Adelaide, the latter, the parents of the future Queen Victoria.

The ceremony, according to English rite, took place in the Drawing Room at Kew Palace, after which the Queen retired to her Bedroom, and the wedding party moved on to the Dining Room for dinner and thence to Queen Charlotte’s Cottage, for a celebration picnic. The Queen approved her will on 11 November; yet, still, her thoughts were with her family and with her husband at Windsor: “tell them I love them… I wish I was near the dear King”. (Fraser, Pg 311).

Queen Charlotte died in her Bedroom at Kew Palace in the morning of 18 November 1818 aged 74 years old, surrounded by her daughters, Princess Augusta and Princess Mary and her sons, the Duke of York, and the Prince Regent, whose hand she held at the last.

Two finger rings which were owned by the Queen and given to Princess Mary, Duchess of Gloucester, may have been presented to her youngest daughter during her final illness at Kew. They were later bequeathed to Queen Victoria. Appropriately, both survive in the Royal Collection.

The Queen’s Bedroom was hung with black silk; six silver candlesticks were sent for the Queen’s laying in state in the Dining Room, from the Tower of London. The Queen’s body was moved to Windsor on 2 December 1818, a scene which was movingly recorded in the painting ‘The Funeral Procession of Queen Charlotte’ by Richard Barrett Davis, showing the cortege passing the Guildhall in Windsor; the procession took place by torchlight, something which was well captured by the artist. Fittingly, the painting now hangs in the Queen’s Bedroom at Kew. Queen Charlotte was interred in the Royal Vault at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle. The ill and blind George III – a King Lear of his own imagination – was unaware of the death of the wife who had borne him fifteen children; the courtyards of Windsor Castle were laid with straw so that the King didn’t hear the procession.

Queen Charlotte’s black, horsehair chair, is today displayed in the Queen’s Bedroom at Kew. After the Queen’s death, the housekeeper at Kew Palace attached a note to the chair with a ribbon: ‘Queen Charlotte died in this chair’. The Queen’s granddaughter, Queen Victoria, decreed that the room should be preserved as it was when her grandmother died, causing a plaque to be unveiled near the fireplace, in the room itself. Queen Victoria’s father, the Duke of Kent, had been Queen Charlotte’s fourth son.

The exhibition will feature some items never before seen by the public at Kew, among which will be the Queen’s will, her jewellery and one of the Queen’s dresses.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018.

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