This year marks the two hundredth anniversary of British history’s double royal wedding at Kew Palace, between the Duke and Duchess of Kent and the Duke of Clarence with Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen. For the Duke and Duchess of Kent, this was their second English wedding ceremony, the first having been celebrated at Coburg, just less than two months earlier.
Historic Royal Palaces, the independent charity which maintains Kew Palace, is marking the historic event in this year of royal weddings, by a festival from 28-29 July, entitled ‘The Great Georgian Wedding Weekend’, with a lively programme of garden entertainment at Queen Charlotte’s Cottage, which was the site of a wedding picnic after the ceremony at Kew. 1818 was, however, also a sad year at Kew, which also commemorates Queen Charlotte this year, to mark the two hundredth anniversary of her death at the Palace.
The untimely death of Princess Charlotte, which provoked widespread national mourning, also occasioned a figurative and desperate return to the family drawing board. For with Charlotte’s tragic early death in childbirth in 1817, the direct Hanoverian line of descent from George III was eradicated. The Prince Regent appealed to his remaining bachelor brothers to put aside their mistresses and marry to secure the British succession, once again thrown into crisis by the premature death of his only legitimate heir. A collective race to the altar began among the royal dukes, who had by this point managed to father an impressive fifty-six children between them. Although, none of these children were legitimate under the terms of the 1772 Royal Marriages Act.
George III’s fourth son, the forty-nine-year-old Edward, Duke of Kent was persuaded to take up the conjugal baton in December 1817 and abandon his mistress in Brussels of nearly thirty years, Madame Julie de St. Laurent, who was later granted the courtesy title of Comtesse de Montgenet by Louis XVIII. The Duke of Kent looked eastwards to Germany for his bride, first inspecting possible candidates at Baden and in Darmstadt. Similarly, his elder brother, William, Duke of Clarence had himself decided to enter the marriage race. His mistress, the actress Dora Jordan, had given birth to ten children, known as the Fitzclarences before their relationship ended in 1811. Dora Jordon died at Saint-Cloud in 1816; a marble group statue of her in a classical dress by Sir Francis Chantrey is today to be seen in the Picture Gallery at Buckingham Palace. This, of course, is the place of William’s birth in 1765, when the Palace was known as Buckingham House. The Duke of Clarence also looked to Germany for his bride, whom he eventually found in the form of the twenty-six-year-old Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen. Both marriages desired heirs for the dynasty, and both would have very different outcomes in the attempt.
The Duke of Kent’s bride was the widowed Princess Victoire of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, who had previously been married to Prince Charles of Leiningen, by whom she had two children, Prince Karl and Princess Feodore – Queen Victoria’s beloved half-sister Feodore – born in 1804 and 1807 respectively. She was, in fact, a choice found through the recent branches of the British Royal Family tree; Princess Victoire’s brother was none other than Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, widower of the late Princess Charlotte. Prince Leopold encouraged his sister’s acceptance of the Duke of Kent’s proposal, which had been communicated by way of a letter. Despite some initial reluctance on the part of the Duchess, who was less than willing at the beginning to relinquish some of the personal independence which she now enjoyed as a widow – after having been married to Prince Charles of Leiningen at Coburg, at the age of only seventeen. She was, however, persuaded to accept the Duke’s hand. Their first wedding ceremony was performed in the evening at Coburg, as her first had been. Although this time, it took place at Schloss Ehrenburg in Coburg on 29 May 1818. The Duke of Kent wore his English Field Marshal’s uniform, and Princess Victoire wore an “expensive dress of French blonde lace decorated with orange blossoms and white roses” (Kay Staniland, In Royal Fashion, Pg 78, 1997).
Other accounts give that this first ceremony took place at Amorbach, the Duchess’s summer residence in accordance with the terms of her marriage settlement, which she also owned together with her winter residence at Miltenberg and an annual income of 20,000 guldens, but most concur with Coburg as being where this first ceremony took place. The choice of Coburg is significant. Coburg would, of course, be a place of immense personal significance for Queen Victoria – the only child of this Kent marriage – as the birthplace of Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, her husband, who was born at Schloss Rosenau in 1819, in the same year as her birth. Coburg, of course, became important in the history of Queen Victoria’s family, beyond the connection with Prince Albert – the Queen’s second son, Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, became Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha on the death of his uncle (Prince Albert’s brother, Duke Ernst II) in 1893.
The following year, his second daughter, Princess Victoria Melita of Edinburgh, married her cousin, the young Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig of Hesse at Coburg, which occasioned a massive gathering of European royalty, including the Tsarevich Nicholas of Russia. During the celebrations for this wedding, the engagement between the Tsarevich Nicholas and Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig’s younger sister, Princess Alix of Hesse, was announced. These Coburg roots in the lives of the Queen’s grandchildren can, therefore, be traced back to the first wedding ceremony of Queen Victoria’s parents and the birthplace of Prince Albert, in the paternal line. It was as if the earlier roots, had brought them all back to gather at the place where their family had originated.
There was, however, a second, sadder ceremony. This was conducted, according to the English Church rite, in the Drawing Room at Kew Palace on 11 July 1818, in the presence of the dying Queen Charlotte. In June 1818, Queen Charlotte had been returning to Windsor from the Queen’s House (Buckingham House) but been forced to stop at Kew. She had experienced deteriorating health throughout the previous year when she took a cure at Bath, a cure which was shattered by the shock death of her beloved granddaughter and namesake, Princess Charlotte. By the time that she resumed the cure in Bath, she was noticeably affected. Her by now blind and deaf husband, George III, was still at Windsor – a pathetic, Lear-like creation, mourning his own self – disturbed, ill and mentally dead, unaware of her illness. The double wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Kent and the Duke of Clarence and Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen (who may not have had a first, German wedding ceremony) took place in her presence in the Drawing Room at Kew Palace, where an altar had been set up. Both brides were “given away” by the Prince Regent himself.
After the ceremony, Queen Charlotte returned to her bedroom, whilst the rest of the royal party had a fine wedding dinner in the Dining Room. This was followed by a picnic tea at Queen Charlotte’s Cottage, the exquisite rustic retreat in Kew Gardens used by the Royal Family to rest and take tea in between walks and recreation. Queen Victoria – who perhaps was aware of the significance of the Cottage’s use after her parents’ second wedding ceremony – visited it only rarely. She did, however, employ a housekeeper to maintain it during her reign, giving it to the nation, together with its grounds, to mark the occasion of her Diamond Jubilee in 1898. Queen Charlotte died at Kew Palace on 17 November 1818.
We know of course that the only child of the Duke and Duchess of Kent was born at Kensington Palace, a girl, on 24 May 1819 – history’s Queen Victoria. The Duchess of Clarence, Britain’s later Queen Adelaide, experienced several pregnancies and gave birth to two daughters, both of whom died – the babies Princess Charlotte and Princess Elizabeth of Clarence. The Duchess, however, in acknowledging the failure of her maternal hopes, wrote with a genuine love of her niece, Princess Victoria, declaring roundly to the Duchess of Kent: “My children are dead, but yours lives and She is mine too”. The winner in the royal race initiated by the Prince Regent had clearly emerged as being Princess Victoria, verifying the Duke of Kent’s proud (but accurate) claim that “the crown will come to Me and my children”. The Dowager Duchess of Coburg had written to her daughter, the Duchess of Kent, on the birth of Princess Victoria: “The English like Queens” (Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria: A Personal History, Pg 12, 2000).
During Princess Victoria’s childhood, the Duchess of Kent appealed to the Prime Minister for the use of a country house. King William IV offered her the use of Kew Palace – where the double marriage ceremony had taken place – for the summer and then again as a more permanent residence, but the Duchess declined after revisiting Kew Palace again, on the grounds that it was “very inadequate in accommodation and almost destitute of furniture” (Hibbert, op. cit, Pg 38). The King replied with displeasure that it had been adequate enough for his parents, the King and Queen.
Today, the Drawing Room at Kew Palace has been restored as the result of extensive archival research to deduce its original appearance, including the study of Kew Palace’s inventories at the Public Record Office at Kew, and the discovery of a textile book of the period containing a sample of scarlet cloth, that enabled the hangings in the room today, to be recreated in the shade that Regency Britain understood for the colour.
A further proof that the wedding ceremony at Kew Palace would be significant in the continuation of the British monarchy may be seen in the fact that the 80th birthday of Her Majesty The Queen, was celebrated at the newly restored Kew Palace in 2006, with a family dinner and fireworks.