History is fraught with intriguing Queens, and the Georgian Kings had their fair share of them. King George I hated his wife and imprisoned her in a tower for adultery, and King George II had a wife who greatly surpassed him in all aspects. Oddly enough, the most controversial Georgian King had the least contentious wife.
Queen Charlotte was the wife of King George III, and by virtue of her marriage, the longest reigning Queen Consort in English history. In her lifetime, she saw Britain lose the American colonies at the end of the 18th century, and the formation of the United Kingdom in 1801. Charlotte also witnessed her husband’s slow descent into madness, and when she died, he didn’t even notice. But she shared a close and affectionate bond with King George throughout her life – evidenced by the fact that they had 15 children together.
When Sophia Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz was born on 19th May 1744, she was the youngest daughter of Duke Charles of Mecklenburg-Strelitz and his wife Elizabeth. Her hometown was a small German duchy in the Holy Roman Empire. As a young woman, Charlotte received a very meager education, and what few opinions she had, she kept to herself. This quality of hers appealed to the young King George III, who desired a wife who had no experience of power politics and party intrigue. Charlotte fit the bill perfectly, and in July 1761, King George announced his intention to marry the young German Princess.
Without knowing any English, a language which she picked up only after her marriage, Charlotte arrived in London in September 1761, aged just 17. There she met her betrothed for the first time in St. James’ Palace. Barely six hours after their first meeting, the young couple were married at the Chapel Royal. Although, at first Charlotte felt alienated by her husband, she grew very fond of him over time. King George, too, began to care deeply for his wife. One historian notes: “They did not fall in love and marry; they married and fell in love.” Charlotte’s wedding ring bore a portrait of her husband, and she wore it until her death.
Less than a year later, Charlotte gave birth to her first child, a son called George Augustus. Young George would prove to be the first of 15 children that the King and Queen would go on to have together – 13 of whom would survive until adulthood. Around the same time, King George purchased Buckingham House – the future Buckingham Palace – for his wife. While St. James’ Palace remained the Monarch’s official residence, The Queen’s House, as Buckingham House came to be known, was used by Queen Charlotte as her private retreat. Its proximity to St. James’ Palace meant that the King and Queen could easily travel from one residence to another, and Charlotte grew so fond of Buckingham House that she chose to give birth to 14 of her children there.
Despite the fact that they had never met before a few hours prior to their wedding, George and Charlotte had a great number of things in common. Both enjoyed the country life, and would spend most of their time in towns such as Kew and Richmond-upon-Thames. The Queen herself had simple tastes, and she preferred an informal domestic setting to displays of wealth and grandeur. Both husband and wife were passionate about music, and due to their German background, bestowed honours and laurels upon German composers and musicians. Handel was a particular favourite among the Royal household, and it is believed that Queen Charlotte was the first to commission Mozart to play for her in 1764.
In addition to her admiration of music, Charlotte was an amateur botanist. She undertook many projects at Kew Gardens, which she constantly expanded and upgraded in order to accommodate new and foreign species of plants, which she would get from explorers, like Captain James Cook, when they returned from their voyages. Her keen interest in botany led to the flower Strelitzia reginae, commonly known as the Bird of Paradise, being named in her honour. In 1770, she made an addition to Kew – a menagerie of animals, including kangaroos from Botany Bay, which her guests could view from a specially constructed pavilion.
In 1788, King George’s insanity set in. The King, who was suffering from Porphyria, gradually started to lose his senses, and was placed under his wife’s care. Her husband’s illness greatly distressed Charlotte, and she grew depressed, bad tempered and started to gain weight. She gradually stopped making public appearances, and drifted away from both her husband and her children. In this trying time, she found solace in her work on the gardens at Frogmore House, her residence in Windsor. The Assistant Keeper of the Queen’s Wardrobe wrote that Charlotte was “much changed, her hair quite grey”.
Charlotte was further affected by the events of the French Revolution in 1793. Over the years, she had developed a close friendship with Queen Marie Antoinette. Despite the significant age gap between the two Queens, and the fact that they had never met, Charlotte had agreed to help the French royals, and she kept rooms ready in case they sought refuge in England. When Louis XI and Marie Antoinette were executed, Charlotte was shocked and devastated.
As King George’s illness progressed, he grew violent and his behaviour was unpredictable. Although she had been supportive of her husband in the early days of his madness, Charlotte stopped visiting him after 1812. However, she remained his legal guardian, while her eldest son, the Prince of Wales, acted as Prince Regent. In 1818, Charlotte contracted pneumonia, and passed away in Kew Palace, predeceasing her husband by a little over a year. In her final moments, the Queen was surrounded by four of her children. The King, now blind and demented, didn’t even know of her death.
Although in life Charlotte had been dubbed as “plain” and “ugly” by her contemporaries, she sat for over 80 portraits, leaving a lasting legacy. Today, the city of Charlotte in North Carolina bears her name, as do Queen Charlotte City and Charlottetown in Canada. The Queen was also a patron of the General Lying-in maternity hospital, which was renamed the Queen Charlotte’s and Chelsea Hospital in her honour.
Charlotte was a devoted wife till the end. True to her husband’s first instructions to her when she arrived in London, telling her “not to meddle”, she kept out of the way of political affairs, and instead devoted her time to her patronages and interests, which included botany and the arts. It is true that she may not have had the happy ending that she deserved – in their final moments together, her husband didn’t even recognise her – but her life was long and fulfilling.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about Caroline of Brunswick. To read about her, check out the next installment in this series, The Wives of Georgian Kings.