Cover image from Princesses: The Six Daughters of George III
Everybody knows about the role of King George III in the Revolutionary War, and thanks to 1994 movie The Madness of King George, about the illness that made him seem crazy. But what we didn't know about was his domestic side, and the six daughters he doted on.
Fraser's book is an absorbing biography of how six very different young women — some of them quite accomplished — managed to have lives despite their father's suffocating possessiveness. He never wanted the girls very far from him, and he didn't want any of them to marry. An 18th-century soap opera and history, all in one fell swoop.
Chapter 1: Early Days
Towards the end of September 1766 the Prince of Wales, who was only four, told a lady at Court that “about next week” he reckoned they should have “a little princess.” George Augustus Frederick, the eldest son of King George III and Queen Charlotte, was known to be precocious. His mother’s Mistress of the Robes called him “the forwardest child in understanding” that she ever saw. And so, far from doubting the child’s prediction, his confidante, Lady Mary Coke, added in her journal, “I find the King and Queen are very desirous it should be one [a girl] and hope they shall have no more sons.”
The additional information probably issued from Lady Mary’s friend Lady Charlotte Finch, who had been appointed royal governess the day after the Prince of Wales’s birth on 12 August 1762. Lady Charlotte and her deputy, or sub-governess, Mrs. Cotesworth had since received into the nursery establishment two further princes, Frederick and William, in 1763 and 1765. To these ladies, who looked after their boisterous charges in the summer at Richmond and Kew, and in the winter at the Queen’s House in London, as much as to the royal parents, a baby girl represented a hope of dulcet peace and feminine charms.
In the event, George, Prince of Wales was confirmed as a prophet in the land when his mother Queen Charlotte, at the age of twenty-two, gave birth in London to a baby princess the following Monday—Michaelmas Day, 29 September. The celebrated anatomist and royal obstetrician Dr. William Hunter hovered with the King and the King’s mother, the Dowager Princess of Wales, in an adjoining room at the Queen’s House, the royal family’s private residence overlooking the Mall and St. James’s Park.* But nothing untoward took place in the crimson damask bedchamber next door to require their presence. Lady Charlotte Finch, who had moved up to nearby apartments at St. James’s Palace the evening before to oversee the practical arrangements for the new baby, wrote in her journal that night: “At a quarter past eight this morning the Queen was safely delivered of a Princess Royal. Passed all morning at the Queen’s House . . .” That date, 29 September—the quarter-day when, in the greater world, rents became due and, in the royal household, salaries were paid—was to be long dear to the Queen, who was not sentimental by nature, as the day she gave birth to her “Michaelmas goose.”
Names were awaiting the baby Princess: Charlotte, for her mother; Augusta, for her father’s mother; and Matilda, for the King’s sister Caroline Matilda, who, aged fifteen, was leaving England within a few days to marry the King of Denmark. (The English Houses of Parliament gave economical thanks on the same occasion for the birth of the Princess and the marriage of her aunt.) But, as her new governess’s journal entry indicates, by none of her Christian names was King George III and Queen Charlotte’s eldest daughter to be known. At birth, her proud father and sovereign of England had bestowed on her for life the style of Princess Royal, and this (shortened to Royal by her family) is how she was always known in England—although, curiously, the style was only officially granted her years later on 22 June 1789.
The Stuart King Charles I’s eldest daughter Mary had been, in 1642, the first English princess to have been styled Princess Royal. She was eleven and leaving England to be the bride of William of Orange, the future Stadholder in Holland. No other princess was so honoured until 1727, when the Hanoverian King George II of England styled his daughter Anne—who also became a princess of Orange and lived until 1759—Princess Royal, when she was nineteen years old. King George III’s decision in 1766 to make his daughter while still a baby a princess royal in part reflected England’s recent surge in prestige since his accession in 1760, notably with the successful outcome of the Seven Years War in 1763. But it also reflected the unreserved and almost awestruck delight that he exhibited as a young father—some felt, to the detriment of royal dignity—in his infant daughter.
The day after the Princess Royal’s birth, her three brothers, George, Prince of Wales, Prince Frederick and thirteen-month-old William, came up to London to inspect their new sister. Prince William, till now the baby of the family, was a general favourite at Richmond Lodge, the King’s house in woods adjacent to Kew Gardens, where the royal children generally lived during the summer months. As it was not a large house, the children’s attendants—their governess Lady Charlotte Finch among them—were mostly lodged in houses grouped around the King’s mother’s house, the White House in Kew Gardens, and the children spent much of their time there.
A few weeks before the Princess Royal was born in September 1766, Miss Henrietta Finch, one of Lady Charlotte’s daughters, wrote to an absent sister:
We saw the King and Queen last night, they was in Mama’s parlour. We stayed in the room the whole time, they was vastly good humoured and enquired vastly after you. Little Prince William was undressed quite naked and laid upon a cushion, the King made him stand up upon it. I thought I should have died with laughing at his little ridiculous white figure.
The King adored Prince William’s sturdy elder brother Prince Frederick, who was aged three when his sister was born. A year earlier Lady Charlotte Finch recorded the royal father’s close involvement in all his second son’s doings in the autumn of 1765:
Mr. Glenton the tailor is the happiest man in the kingdom. He has been sent for to make a coat for Prince Frederick, and when he came, was ordered to go and take measure of him in the room where the King was. At which he was so astonished and so terrified that his knees knocked together so, they could hardly persuade him to go in. And when he was there, he did not know what he did. And when he came upstairs, he begged he might stay till the prince came up, for he owned he did not know anything of his measures. However, he has made the clothes so excessively neat and fit, that when he brought them home, the King spoke to him himself and commended them. And he is now so happy you cannot conceive anything like his spirits. He is now making another suit for Prince Frederick. However, it is only by way of dressing him in them sometimes, as the King is fond of seeing him in breeches . . . The Queen likes to keep him a little longer in petticoats.
It was evident that the King did not dote on his heir, a less manly child than Frederick. In this sultry summer of 1766, Miss Henrietta Finch noted encouragingly, “I think the King grows very fond of the Prince of Wales, though he does certainly snap [at] him sometimes.” The King’s coolness towards his heir was not lamented as it might have been. It was understood by all that, in the Hanoverian succession, there was an unfortunate tendency for the monarch and his heir to have differences. And the Prince of Wales’s sophistication and insouciant charm continued to attract many admirers, not least his mother and governess. Queen Charlotte was always to love her firstborn best of all her children, and Lady Charlotte recounted her eldest royal charge’s bons mots with pride.
Asked earlier that year if he found tedious the hours spent in a darkened room that custom prescribed following inoculation against smallpox, the Prince replied, “Not at all, I lie awake and make reflections.” Lady Mary Coke, visiting Lady Charlotte Finch and her charges at Kew shortly before the Princess Royal’s birth, found the Prince, as she graciously put it, “comical.” When she left off playing with him, explaining that she was expected at his great-aunt Princess Amelia’s, the Prince looked her up and down before asking, “Pray, are you well enough dressed to visit her?”
The princes were among the few privileged visitors to view the Princess Royal at the Queen’s House at this point. From the fashionable sandy Mall, and indeed from Green Park and from St. James’s Park north and south of it, the courtyard and modest redbrick façade of this royal residence were open to view. But while all Society made formal enquiries after the health of mother and child, they made them at St. James’s Palace, that warren of great antiquity with suites of apartments for royal servants jostling state rooms and throne rooms which sprawled north of the Mall. At this palace, as well, officials of the Court of St. James’s received royal and imperial felicitations from other Courts of Europe on the Princess’s birth—and took in coachloads of mayoral addresses on the subject besides.
Here at St. James’s, in the dilapidated state apartments, the King held his levees and gave audience to ministers. Here ambassadors presented their credentials. Here the Queen received Society twice a week at formal drawing rooms. And here, on the King and Queen’s birthdays, Court balls followed the drawing rooms. Other high days and holidays of the reign—Accession Day, Coronation Day and the King and Queen’s wedding day—were all marked too. Here, in due course, the Princess Royal would make her debut, signalling that she was of an age to take a husband. But for the moment the only ceremony beckoning her there was her baptism, which would take place in October in the Chapel Royal, St. James’s.
At the Queen’s House—which the King had bought two years after he ascended the throne as a London home to which he and the Queen could retreat from the fatigue of public life at St. James’s Palace—mother and daughter recovered. The Queen rested in rooms decorated in a style reflecting her Continental upbringing and showing a great deal of taste, as a visitor to the Queen’s House recorded the following spring when the royal mistress was not in residence: “The Queen’s apartments are ornamented, as one expects a Queen’s should be, with curiosities from every nation that can deserve her notice. The most capital pictures, the finest Dresden and other china, cabinets of more minute curiosities . . . On her toilet, besides the gilt plate, innumerable knick-knacks . . . By the Queen’s bed . . . an elegant case with twenty-five watches, all highly adorned with jewels.”
Evidence of children on that occasion was lacking, and now too, in September 1766, the focus of celebration, the Princess Royal, was nowhere in sight downstairs at the Queen’s House. Queen Charlotte, observing the prevalent custom among Royalty and Society at this time, did not breastfeed her children. Shortly after birth the Princess Royal had been whisked upstairs to somewhat different surroundings—the attic storey, far from frescoed staircases and damask chambers—to forge an intimate relationship with a mother of two named Mrs. Muttlebury, who had been selected as her wet-nurse.
Mrs. Muttlebury had been carefully vetted as a milk-cow in August 1766—not only by Lady Charlotte Finch, a mother of four herself, but also by Dr. Hunter and even by Mr. Caesar Hawkins, the King’s Serjeant-Surgeon, and by his brother Mr. Pennell Hawkins, Surgeon to the Queen—in preparation for her important task. First she had had to bring for her critics’ inspection the child she was then suckling, then she was asked to show her elder child too, to see if it thrived. Only then, in return for a formidable salary of 200 pounds, and a hundred, after her employment ceased, for life—with the interest of the royal family permanently engaged for her own children—was Mrs. Muttlebury retained to devote herself for six months unconditionally to breastfeeding the royal baby. (A limner’s or painter’s wife was put on warning as a substitute wet-nurse should Mrs. Muttlebury’s milk fail before the royal infant appeared.)
But Mrs. Muttlebury remained somewhat bewildered by the honour done her. “She told Mama she had not the least notion of anything she was to do,” recorded Lady Charlotte’s daughter Sophia, “and begged her to tell her . . .” She was surprised to hear she must provide a maid—“I suppose from a notion of having people to do everything for her,” commented Miss Sophia. “Mama told her of several other expenses, viz providing her own washing, always wearing silk gowns morning and evening . . .” The royal baby should come into contact only with superior materials—tussore and brocade and Mechlin lace for ruffles, as supplied by Lady Charlotte.
It was a world unto itself, that of the Princess Royal and Mrs. Muttlebury. The wet-nurse was allowed no visitors, not even her own children, to divert her from her duty. Up on the attic floor of the Queen’s House, among plain mahogany furniture and striped ticking mattresses, and at Richmond Lodge, the country retreat which the King and Queen inhabited from May to November, the Princess Royal grew. Lady Charlotte Finch, the royal governess, supervised the arrangements for this new addition to the royal nursery. But, mostly, she was engaged with the three princes, who spent their days with her at her house in adjoining Kew Gardens.
The attention of the Princess Royal’s parents downstairs was meanwhile diverted elsewhere. Two days after her birth, as we have seen, on 1 October 1766, her aunt Princess Caroline Matilda married King Christian VII of Denmark by proxy in London in the Great Drawing Room at St. James’s. For want of a husband her brother Edward, Duke of York stood groom. And for want of a father—the fifteen-year-old Princess had been born posthumously, months after a cricket ball fatally injured her father, Frederick, Prince of Wales in 1751—her brother William Henry, Duke of Gloucester gave her away. “Before she set out in the procession,” a wedding guest noted, “she cried so much that she was near falling into fits. Her brother the Duke of Gloucester who led her was so shocked at seeing her in such a situation that he looked as pale as death and as if he was ready to faint away.”
When the Archbishop of Canterbury christened the Princess Royal on 27 October 1766, the new Queen of Denmark was among her godparents, but that in its turn was a proxy appearance. Caroline Matilda had embarked for Copenhagen and for a fateful dynastic marriage overseas that her brother, King George III, was bitterly to regret having arranged.
Another of the Princess Royal’s aunts, Princess Augusta, had not fared well in a foreign land either. Her sophisticated soldier husband, the Hereditary Prince of Brunswick, taunted her with a succession of mistresses, and she took disconsolately to religion, and to trumpeting the superiority of her native land. In England two years after her 1764 marriage, and with an infant son, Prince Charles of Brunswick, in tow, she told anyone who would listen that she hoped he would in due course marry his new cousin, the Princess Royal.
Excerpted from Princesses by Flora Fraser Copyright © 2005 by Flora Fraser. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.