History is full of royal mistresses and marriages based on political alliances rather than love, but the union of King George III and Charlotte was a rare case of an arranged marriage that was both successful and happy. George met his bride for the first time on their wedding day but he never took a mistress and the couple had 15 children. With seven sons and six daughters surviving to adulthood the succession seemed ensured.
But at 32 their eldest son George, Prince of Wales, was still not suitably married and his extravagant lifestyle had put him deeply in debt. His father refused to lend him money but Parliament offered an increased salary as well as repayment of all his debts if would marry his cousin Caroline of Brunswick, so the Prince reluctantly agreed. The marriage was a disaster. It was consummated only once (with him drunk) and the couple formally separated after the birth of a baby girl, Charlotte.
With her parents constantly at war, it’s not surprising that Charlotte had an unhappy childhood. She had a strict upbringing and came to believe that the only solution to her problems was marriage. Charlotte wasn’t in love with Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, nor he with her, but he set out to win her love and Charlotte fell for the handsome Leopold. On May 2, 1816 Leopold married the heiress to the British throne. Later he would train his nephew Albert to win the heart of another English Princess… Victoria.
Charlotte had miscarried twice in the early months of their marriage before she became pregnant again. In November she delivered a stillborn son. At first Charlotte seemed to be recovering from the long labour but later she began to have difficulty breathing and passed away, likely of an internal hemorrhage. The devastated Leopold wrote ‘Two generations gone – gone in a moment!’
The double tragedy also left open the question of who would inherit the throne. George III had many surviving sons, all of whom were in their forties or fifties, but none had produced legitimate offspring under the Royal Marriages Act of 1772. The Act said that:
“no descendant of the body of his late majesty King George the Second, male or female, (other than the issue of princesses who have married, or may hereafter marry, into foreign families) shall be capable of contracting matrimony without the previous consent of his Majesty, his heirs, or successors, signified under the great seal, and declared in council… and that every marriage, or matrimonial contract, of any such descendant, without such consent first had and obtained, shall be null and void, to all intents and purposes whatsoever.”
It went on to add that if the descendant wished to marry someone the King disapproved of, they could apply to Parliament for permission and then wait twelve months before doing so. Despite the restrictions of the Royal Marriages Act, there was a large incentive to marry within its limits – married Princes would receive an extra income from Parliament!
When Charlotte died in 1818, George III’s insanity had taken hold and he was in seclusion at Windsor Castle while The Prince of Wales ruled as Prince Regent. After the 55 year-old Prince George the succession went as follows: Frederick (age 54), William (52), Edward (50), Ernest (46), Augustus (44) and Adolphus (43). All seven sons were supported by Parliament and had been called “the damnedest millstones around the necks of any government that can be imagined” by the Duke of Wellington. Of the seven, only George, Augustus, and Frederick were already married and none with legitimate offspring so the race to the altar began…
William already had 10 children with his mistress Dorothy Jordan but married the German Princess Adelaide. Their union was by all accounts a happy one, but it produced only one child who lived more than a few days.
Ernest married Frederica of Mecklenburg-Strelitz and, two weeks after Charlotte’s death, Adolphus married Augusta of Hesse-Kassel. Edward married a widower, the Princess of Leningen, who had originally refused him because she was happier as a widow and already had two children. After the double tragedy Edward proposed to her again, this time through her brother Leopold, and was accepted.
In March 1819 William and Adelaide bore a daughter who died within hours of her birth, but the seventh brother Adolphus produced a son named George.
In May, the fifth brother, Ernest, became a father. His son was also named George.
But on May 24th, Edward, Duke of Kent, and his wife delivered a daughter. As the child of the fourth brother, little Princess Victoria became the heir presumptive to the British throne.