Queen Charlotte is set to feature in a new Netflix series this spring, and she is really having her time in the limelight – but what was Britain’s longest-serving Queen Consort really like?
Words: Felicity Day
Who was Queen Charlotte?
Late on the sultry evening of the 8 September 1761, a crowd of chattering courtiers squeezed into the Chapel Royal at St James’s Palace to witness a royal wedding. In the capital city of a country she had never set foot in before, a 17-year-old Princess (the futue Queen Charlotte), struggling with a gown too big and too heavily bejewelled for her slender frame, married a man she had only set eyes on for the first time six hours earlier, Britain’s new King, George III.
It was the beginning of one of royal history’s longest and most eventful unions. What happened to the bridegroom is, of course, a well-known story: countless plays, books and TV shows have chronicled George’s descent into the so-called ‘madness’ which eventually necessitated his retirement from public life. Yet the woman he married that evening in 1761 and her contribution to British history have been largely overlooked.
Netflix, soon to release their latest foray into the glittering world of Georgian high society, Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story, might, while celebrating her purported bi-racial heritage, label her one of Britain’s ‘most iconic, powerful, and unforgettable’ Queens, but in truth, Charlotte has enjoyed little of the limelight. Though numerous places around the world are named in her honour, few people know much about the nation’s longest-serving Queen Consort.
Born in 1744, Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz came from a tiny German principality. Though she spoke no English, her royal blood and strong Protestant faith, sound education and obliging nature had made her an ideal candidate for the serious young George, who had ascended to the throne at 22, determined to marry a suitable, like-minded bride, who would help to improve the moral reputation of the royals. The theories about her mixed racial heritage he never knew. Of recent origin, these centre on a Portuguese ancestor 500 years removed, who was, according to some, a woman of colour; there are also claims that Charlotte has an ‘African appearance’ in contemporary portraiture. They are disputed by many historians, however.
Queen Charlotte and King George III
What has never been in doubt is that Charlotte’s union with the King quickly blossomed from arranged marriage to love match. The couple discovered a shared passion for music and shared interests in everything from old masters to astronomy. They rejoiced in retreating together from the eyes of the world, mocked by some for their middle-class domesticity. Buckingham House, purchased by George for his new wife in 1762, became their favourite abode. Fourteen of their fifteen children were born there.
But what might seem like a blissful existence, combining love with every luxury, was not entirely so for Charlotte. An affectionate marriage meant she found herself pregnant more or less continuously for over two decades. No ‘prisoner could wish more ardently for his liberty,’ she once complained.
Similarly, her royal duties provided little scope for intellectual stimulation. The clever Charlotte – privately ‘of the opinion that if women had the same advantages as men in their education they might do as well’ – often reported boredom and frustration. Her status was also socially isolating. Involvement in politics was firmly discouraged by George, as was the forming of close friendships with aristocratic ladies, which might be construed as political bias.
King George III and his mental illness
Of course, the greatest trial of her life was the King’s mental illness, now thought by many scholars to be the result of bipolar disorder. His first serious episode in 1788 was shattering for Charlotte. She had to watch her sleepless, violent and incessantly chattering husband confined by doctors; her distress compounded by unexpected humiliation. During his derangement, the King was prone, in front of various courtiers, to make unmistakably amorous remarks about her lady-in-waiting, the Countess of Pembroke, whom he called his true wife. In lewd language he would accuse Charlotte of adultery. Often he treated her with intense hostility, once gloating that he loved their dogs more than her. It shocked observers who had been more used to witnessing the King’s spontaneous displays of affection towards his wife.
The experience changed Charlotte. Her hair turned white. She became reluctant to spend time alone with George, increasingly living a separate life – especially after his progressively more violent bouts of illness in 1801 and 1804 – and locking her door against him at night. She became depressed and bad-tempered, particularly towards her unmarried daughters, who themselves resented being kept closeted away from society, especially after George’s most serious relapse in 1810, after which he was largely a recluse.
Queen Charlotte’s legacy
But Queen Charlotte deserves to be remembered for far more than her misfortunes. Not only was she a champion for her husband – controlling the sensitive information released about his health, encouraging loyalty to the absent King and protecting his political interests – but in charitable terms, she was a champion of her female subjects. She was patron of both the first maternity hospital and the Magdalen, a refuge for ‘penitent’ prostitutes, with her approval helping to challenge public prejudice. She also supported schools for girls and almshouses for impoverished women.
Charlotte also promoted female artists. At Frogmore House near Windsor, which she purchased in 1792 as her own retreat from the court, she commissioned Mary Moser – whom she also employed as a drawing master for her daughters – to create a spectacular decorative scheme, in which the flower paintings for which she was famed seem to cascade from the walls. In fact, it’s probable that Moser and fellow artist Angelica Kauffman owed their positions as founder members of London’s Royal Academy of Arts – the only female academicians in the first 150 years of its history – to Charlotte’s influence.
Moser’s room at Frogmore was said to be her favourite, perhaps because of the sense of harmony with the gardens beyond, so loved by Charlotte, a keen botanist. At Kew, she became actively involved with the famous gardens founded by George’s grandmother, acquiring and attempting to grow exotic specimens. A keen collector in general, at Kew Palace she also assembled a menagerie which included some of Britain’s first kangaroos; while Frogmore held her vast library of 4,000 books, and the decorative snuff boxes that attest to her addiction to finely ground tobacco.
Private pursuits aside, Charlotte was a tireless figurehead for high society, even after 1811, when her son George reigned as Regent in his father’s place. Though in her late 60s and ailing by then, she continued to conduct royal engagements and preside over presentations at court, right up until a few months before her death at Kew in November 1818. She was ‘not gifted with any splendid or commanding endowments’, ran the obituary in The Times. But while she might not have been the most memorable or pioneering of the queens in our history, like so many of them, Charlotte had both a strong sense of duty and remarkable resilience.
This is an extract, read the full version in the March/April issue of BRITAIN, available to buy here from 10 February.