In our present series on Royal Central, we are looking back at the women who were granddaughters of Queen Victoria. In some ways, their diverse and often surprising lives are the legacies of the great queen. A queen whose reign as longest reigning monarch in British history is about to end as her record is broken by another of her female descendants, our own Queen. But Victoria had some very impressive female role models of her own in her grandmothers – here are the women to whom the great Queen-Empress was a granddaughter.
Victoria was born on May 24th 1819, just days before the 75th anniversary of the birth of her paternal grandmother. But Queen Charlotte wasn’t there to celebrate – she had died on 17 November 1818 after a turbulent few years which had seen her lose another granddaughter in childbirth. That death had left an air of mild panic hanging over the court – there was no other legitimate grandchild of Charlotte and George III to inherit the crown. This new little princess would change all that.
The fact that Charlotte died without the succession being secured into the second generation was a surprise given that she had been just about as successful as any queen before her in filling the royal nursery with babies. She had arrived in England in 1761 and married the new king, George III, just hours after meeting him. They went on to have fifteen children – nine sons and six daughters – but miserable marriages and many mistresses meant that her brood were pretty bad at providing legitimate offspring.
Her arranged marriage was, of course, typical of royal life at the time. Charlotte was just 17 when she wed her king having been born in the small duchy of Mecklenburg-Strelitz on 19 May 1744. She is said to have received a middling education and one of the reasons she was selected as a bride for George was her quietness. She was very far from a politician and, certainly in her early years, concentrated on her family rather than her opinions.
Charlotte was an ideal consort with a penchant for patronising the arts, especially music, and passion for new fashions whether they are clothes or trends such as botany that she embraced with enthusiasm. But in other ways, she was a very modern royal. There was no air of stuffiness about Charlotte who rejoiced in a happy family life and who was known for her warmth, her charm and her ability to reach out to others. She liked day trips and fresh air and her influence over how royalty should live can perhaps be seen in Victoria’s life with her husband and children where happy families were the name of the game.
Of course, her grandmother’s own life was very far from permanently happy as she suffered the pains of seeing her husband succumb to severe mental health problems. George III suffered serious bouts of illness from the 1780s onwards and the last decades for both of them were totally dominated by his slide into what was then termed ‘madness’. We know now he was suffering the effects of porphyria – all Charlotte knew was that her husband was unable to look after himself and his power was stripped away as her eldest son was made Prince Regent.
Her death was widely mourned but her name lived on – just like her famous granddaughter, many places around the UK and the world were named in her honour. And the early 21st century has brought them another link. Until 2009, Charlotte was the longest serving consort in British history. Her record fell to the Duke of Edinburgh whose wife will supplant her granddaughter, Victoria, in the history books in just a few weeks’ time.
Augusta of Ebersdorf, Duchess of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld
But had history turned out differently there is a chance that both Queen Charlotte and the woman who ended up as Victoria’s other grandmother would both still have been female ancestors of another royal line. Until 1817, the hopes of the British succession had rested with Princess Charlotte of Wales, the eldest granddaughter of the queen and named in her honour, and second in line to her country’s throne. In 1816, she had married a man called Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld but had died giving birth to their stillborn son the following year. The mother who comforted Leopold over his loss was by then a dowager duchess called Augusta. And just two years later she would become the grandmother to Victoria.
Augusta Caroline Sophie of Ebensdorf, born on 19 January 1757, was the daughter of Heinrich XXIV, Count Reuss of Ebersdorff, and his wife, Karoline Ernestine. Augusta was a rather pious woman and grew up surrounded by many of the new ideas on religion current in the region at the time. But she was also known for her beauty and her papa wasn’t going to let that go to waste. He took along a famous portrait of his rather a pretty daughter to a general assembly he attended to show potential suitors how lovely she was. It worked – Franz of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld fell in love with her. He had to wait to be widowed but in 1777 he married Augusta, who headed off to a new life.
And it was a rollercoaster of a life. The couple had ten children and their mother’s ambition rubbed off on them for several of them went on to hugely successful lives. But when her husband inherited his father’s duchy in 1800 he also inherited a lot of debts and the capable Augusta had to help him cope with the many worries they brought with them. He died just six years later and Augusta saw her 22 year old son, Ernest, succeed him. But there were bigger titles than that waiting for her children.
The death of Charlotte and her child, Augusta’s grandson, had left the British crown in peril and the late princess’ unmarried uncles set off to Europe to look for royal brides. One of them, Edward, was rather taken with one of Augusta’s daughters, Victoria, who was widowed with two small children. On May 29th 1818, just six months after her brother Leopold lost his wife and child, this Victoria married Edward, Duke of Kent. Within twelve months she had given birth to their only child who took her name. The rest is history.
And Augusta’s role in that history doesn’t end there. A few months after the birth of her granddaughter, she got new grandson when Ernest welcomed a little boy. This second son would probably never succeed as he had a healthy older brother ahead of him but Augusta had bigger plans for this baby they called Albert. When he and his cousin, Victoria, were still toddling she suggested they might be perfect marriage partners for one another. She died in 1831 long before they ever met. But this ambitious woman, who saw Leopold elected King of the Belgians just before her death, had already set in train a line of thought that would end with one of the most famous royal partnerships ever.
Charlotte and Augusta had much in common and their determination, ambition and foresight helped forge the family which produced a woman who changed the concept of modern monarchy. They were united by the little girl only one of them got to meet but who went on to be one of the most famous royals of all time – their granddaughter, Queen Victoria.
Picture credit: Francis Cotes [Public domain] and an image by an unknown artist and already in the public domain both via Wikimedia Commons