Charlotte and Leopold
The folktales of charles perrault and the grimm brothers are surprisingly reliable about the lives of kings and queens in old Europe. Those tales are full of strange and dangerous royal courtships. Kings and queens are unable to conceive a normal child. Queens die in childbirth. Orphan princesses are sorely beset by uncaring fathers, wicked stepmothers, and villainous uncles, and only seven dwarfs or a magic donkey’s skin can save them.
The solutions are magical, but the problems were not fantasies. European kings and queens were in fact often neglected or abused in childhood. As adults they were plagued by the imperative to find a spouse and produce an heir. They then frequently repeated the cycle of neglect and abuse with their own children.
Before Princess Victoria of Kent was born, there lived a Princess Charlotte, her first cousin and very like her in character and ability. If Charlotte had lived and had children, a Saxe-Coburg dynasty would have taken hold in England in 1817, not 1840, and history books might well chronicle the joint reign of Charlotte and Leopold. But Charlotte was a princess that no fairy godmother came to save.
Charlotte’s parents, George, Prince of Wales (later prince regent, and then King George IV), and Princess Caroline of Brunswick, were first cousins. They had never seen one another before the eve of their wedding. George loathed Caroline on sight and consummated the marriage in a state of insulting inebriation. The two separated nine months before the birth of their only child and thereafter waged an increasingly ugly and public war on one another. He accused her, not unjustly, of being dirty, uncouth, and garrulous. She accused him, not unjustly, of promiscuity, malice, and neglect. Unloved and uncared for, Charlotte was a pawn in her parents’ acrimonious marital game.
Princess Charlotte emerged from this difficult childhood a woman of considerable abilities, if little education, and possessed of unusual courage and resolution. Wild, headstrong, opinionated, and self- absorbed, Charlotte yet longed for affection and intimacy. At eighteen she had few illusions and fewer friends, and longed to throw off the financial and social straitjacket of her life as an unmarried princess. She was anxious to avoid the fate of her royal aunts, the six talented and beautiful daughters of King George III who as young women were tethered to their dysfunctional parents and barred from marriage. Three in middle age finally escaped into the arms of grotesque bridegrooms, but frustration and boredom gnawed away at the lives of all these princesses.
Like the heroines of so many English novels of the period, Princess Charlotte saw marriage as the answer to her problems. She knew that, as second in line of succession to the English throne after her father, she was the most eligible partie in Europe. She also knew that her acceptable marital choices were limited to a handful of unknown foreigners. As two of her spinster aunts had discovered to their cost, tradition and the Royal Marriages Act of 1772 prevented the marriage of an English royal princess with any man, duke or drover, born in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. It was common practice for princesses to be married to men they had never met, so Charlotte would be lucky to get a glimpse of her suitors at a ball or state dinner.
Charlotte’s father the prince regent also saw marriage as the solution to the problems he had with his daughter. He doted on tiny, cute girls, but Charlotte resembled her large, loud, voluptuous mother, and he had never loved her. Worse, Charlotte was popular with the English people, while he was greeted by catcalls and averted faces when he made a rare public appearance. The regent planned to marry his daughter off to the Prince of Orange, a distant cousin and the heir to the throne of Holland, England’s most ancient ally. Orange was, admittedly, a drunken lout, but Charlotte’s aunts had been grateful to marry worse.
At first Charlotte agreed to the betrothal. Then, astonishingly, she broke off the engagement and tried to run away from home. Perhaps she had read some novels and believed that young women had a right to choose their husbands. More probably she had made a rational assessment of what a Dutch marriage would mean to her. As Princess of Orange, she would be obliged to spend at least half the year in Holland. While she was abroad, her father might finally obtain the divorce he wanted and then marry a young princess. If a healthy stepbrother were born, Charlotte would no longer be her father’s heir. Though she had little love and no respect for her mother, the princess considered it essential to remain in England to support her own and her mother’s interests.
Charlotte’s unexpected and stubborn refusal of the Dutch prince angered her father, and she found herself a virtual prisoner. Marriage became even more desirable. She was in a hurry to find an eligible European prince properly subservient to her needs and wishes and willing to live in England. Charlotte made a strong play for Prince Frederick of Prussia, whom she found attractive, but he proved unresponsive. Then, as if by magic, at a ball given by her aunt the Duchess of York, another foreign prince appeared before Charlotte. He was charming, and his bloodline was impeccable. He had served valiantly in the recent wars against Napoleon and looked magnificent in his Russian cavalry officer’s uniform. If she deigned to marry him, he would owe her everything. His name was Leopold of Saxe-Coburg- Saalfeld.
The seventh child and third son of a bankrupt German princeling, Leopold, ambitious, talented, and handsome, was a youngest son right out of a fairy tale. In 1815 he came to London in the tsar’s entourage. Officially he was celebrating the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo. Unofficially he was wooing the King of England’s only granddaughter. It was a bold move, supremely confident and coldly calculated by a man who had nothing to lose by aiming high. With the war over, Leopold was living from hand to mouth, since his private fortune amounted to some two hundred pounds a year. Sponsored by his imperial Russian friends, Leopold had uniforms made on credit, borrowed his brother-in-law Mensdorff’s dashing carriage, and set off for London. He was obliged to take rooms over a tradesman’s shop and still had trouble paying the rent. But he had an entrée to all the magnificent festivities organized by the prince regent and his brothers to celebrate the peace. Just as he had hoped, Princess Charlotte noticed him.
Now Leopold played a waiting game. He returned to the Continent and corresponded with Charlotte behind her father’s back. This correspondence was made possible through the good offices of Charlotte’s uncle the Duke of Kent, who was everlastingly at odds with his eldest brother, the regent. There followed a year of negotiations at a distance, during which Leopold aroused the princess’s passions by refusing to return to England. At last, wearied by his daughter’s intransigence, the prince regent agreed to accept Leopold as a son-in-law. Receiving this fabulous news from Lord Castlereagh, the English foreign secretary, Leopold wrapped himself in a long coat, a feather boa, and a fur muff, and posted full tilt across Europe. In the kind of proof of passion women find hard to resist, he arrived in London from Berlin, exhausted and ill, in the staggering time of three and a half weeks.
The wedding of Charlotte and Leopold was a fairy-tale affair for the whole nation, rather like the marriage of Charles, Prince of Wales, and Lady Diana Spencer in 1981, but with an interesting reversal of gender roles. Charlotte at nineteen, tall, gawky, and inclined to fat, played the part of Prince Charming, heir to the kingdom and untold wealth, while Leopold was a ravishing rags-to-riches Cinderella. The bride’s elaborate trousseau was the subject of long, reverent columns in the fashion press, and for her wedding she wore a gown of lace-trimmed silver lama and white satin designed by Mrs. Triaud of Bond Street. But at their wedding, the bride was eclipsed by the glory of the bridegroom. Leopold was reputed to be one of the handsomest men in Europe, and he now wore the scarlet wool uniform of a British general, decorated with his own orders and medals. His belt and sword blazed with diamonds, a gift from his bride’s grandmother and namesake, the Queen.
Reportedly the bride giggled when the bridegroom was asked to endow her with all his wordly goods. As everyone knew, Prince Leopold was heir to little and owned less. However, the members of parliament, in rapturous appreciation of their princess and salivating at the prospect of a new, shining line of kings, granted Leopold personally the magnificent annuity of fifty thousand pounds—about two million in today’s dollars.
Charlotte was not at all in love with Prince Leopold when she agreed to marry him. As she confided in a letter: “I have perfectly decided & made up my own mind to marry, & the person I have decidedly fixed on is Prince Leopold . . . I know that worse off, more unhappy and wretched I cannot be than I am now, & after all if I end by marrying Prince L.,. . . I marry the best of all those I have seen, & that is some satisfaction.” Leopold was not in love either. He was already a world-class Lothario and had enjoyed mistresses far more seductive than Charlotte. But if he did not love his bride for her looks and charm, he passionately adored her status as second in line of succession to the English throne. Hence, from the moment he arrived back in England, Leopold set out single-mindedly to win Charlotte’s love and become her indispensable counselor and helpmate. Twenty years later, he would train his handsome nephew Albert in the same strategies for the day when Albert would marry Victoria.
Leopold played the part of lover-husband to perfection. During the days of their brief engagement, to her surprise and delight, Charlotte found Leopold extremely beguiling, as indeed did London society. Within months of their marriage, she was ready to tell the world that he was the perfect husband and that she idolized him. Charlotte also quickly warmed to Leopold’s aide-de-camp and general factotum, the young German physician Christian Stockmar. The three were soon inseparable friends. Charlotte and Leopold settled down to married bliss at Claremont, a secluded house in magnificent grounds given to them by the nation at the time of their marriage. As its owners were well aware, Claremont, with its simple furnishings and healthy, happy, modest way of life, could not have posed a stronger contrast to the Royal Pavilion in the heart of the town of Brighton— the prince regent’s most expensive and unpopular architectural extravaganza to date.
When, after two miscarriages, Charlotte embarked upon what boded well to be a successful pregnancy, the Claremont idyll seemed complete. As he awaited the birth of his child, Leopold looked eagerly to the future. He was now rich, popular with the English nation, and adored at home, but all this was as nothing to the power, wealth, and status he foresaw for himself in the near future. Only the lives of mad old George III and the disease-raddled regent stood between Charlotte and the throne of England. And so passionately did Charlotte now adore him that she was ready to say: “I cannot reign over England except upon the condition that he [Leopold] shall reign over England and myself . . . Yes, he shall be King, or I will never be Queen.” Once a healthy child was born, Leopold saw his future assured, if not as King, then at least as prince consort and the sire of a new race of kings. Even were Charlotte to die young, as long as she left children, Leopold would be regent and rule in England.
As soon as the princess went into labor in the early evening of November 3, the Privy Councillors were summoned in haste from London to attend the birth, as protocol demanded. The regent and his mother, apprised of the situation at Claremont, went about their everyday lives quite unconcerned. The old queen, who in her time had given birth to fifteen babies with remarkable efficiency and speed, did not think it necessary to leave Bath, where she was taking a cure.
Prince Leopold sat by his wife’s side, holding her hand, murmuring love and encouragement, and Stockmar hovered anxiously in the background. From the beginning of the princess’s pregnancy, Stockmar had warned Prince Leopold that the approach taken by doctors attending his wife was ill advised. The English royal doctors subscribed to the doctrine that strong, choleric young women should follow a “lowering” regime when pregnant. Charlotte had been fed a liquid diet low in meat and vegetables, forbidden to exercise, and subjected to regular bloodlettings, which probably led to severe anemia. Stockmar recommended that Prince Leopold intervene in his wife’s care, but in the end both the prince and his adviser left Charlotte completely in the hands of English medical men.
The princess’s water broke over two weeks after her due date, so she went into labor tired and dispirited, fearing the worst. She continued in heavy labor through the night and the following day, and the baby did not come. Before her marriage, Charlotte had been a strong, athletic young woman, but the miscarriages and now the pregnancy had sapped her strength. Hence, though her cervix dilated, she did not have the strength to push the child out, and her doctors, though they had brought a set of the newly invented obstetrical forceps, did not dare to use them. At last, after some fifty hours of labor, a large and perfectly formed male child was born, dead and resisting all attempts at resuscitation.
The princess received the news of her child’s death with resignation. She had still to suffer the agony of having the doctor manually remove the placenta, which had failed to detach. Her abdomen was then wrapped tightly, and she took some light food. Leopold, sad and exhausted but assuming the worst was over, took an opiate and went to bed.
Suddenly the princess complained of terrible pain, went deathly cold, became confused, and had difficulty breathing. She was probably suffering a massive internal hemorrhage, caused by the tearing away of the placenta and concealed by the swaddling of her abdomen. Her doctors administered brandy and hot wine. Warm flannels and hot water bottles were pressed to her stomach. The patient became visibly worse. Horrified by the turn of events, the doctors finally invited Stockmar to examine the princess. He took Charlotte’s wrist to feel the pulse, and she murmured, “They have made me drunk, Stocky.” He said, quite correctly, that the heat being administered to the patient was counter-indicated. The doctors refused to take Stockmar’s advice, but in any case it came too late. Christian Stockmar was holding Charlotte’s hand when at two-thirty on the morning of November 6, she died in paroxysms.
From the Hardcover edition.