Today, I am celebrating the second anniversary of Cross of Laeken with a beautiful guest post by Cheryl Anderson Brown of The Princess Palace. Cheryl is an award-winning writer and editor who has been avidly studying royal history for nearly 30 years. She has a bachelor's degree in international relations and a master's in professional writing. Her master's thesis is a biography of Princess Charlotte of Wales, the beloved, spirited and tragically lost first wife of Leopold I, King of the Belgians. Cheryl has graciously agreed to share with us some of her thoughts on her heroine:-
King Leopold’s First Charlotte
Long before Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg was invited to be King of the Belgians, he envisioned a much different destiny for himself: guiding the British Empire through the nineteenth century. Although he influenced Britain from afar as advisor to his niece and nephew, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, it was Leopold who had been expected to serve as Prince Consort to a far different queen than Victoria: a vivacious young woman named Charlotte.
From the moment of her conception, the hopes of the Hanoverian dynasty and of England were pinned on Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales. With a vibrant hatred growing daily stronger between her parents, the future King George IV and Caroline of Brunswick, it was pretty clear that she would be the only offspring of the marriage. In fact, the couple separated very soon after Charlotte’s birth in 1796 and the Prince of Wales spent the next 20 years trying to divorce the loud and colorful Caroline. He didn’t even invite her to his coronation in 1820—when she showed up any way, he locked the doors against her!
George himself was no model of decorum, although he certainly felt otherwise. A gambler and ladies’ man who also indulged in extravagant spending, he was kept only moderately in check by Parliament’s and King George III’s willingness to pay his debts, which would always mushroom again. In fact, he had been practically bribed to marry Caroline in order to continue the royal line.
Most of George III’s 14 other children also led scandalous lives. As a result, Charlotte was the only legitimate grandchild and, therefore, the only heir to the throne. Today, a girl like her might be pampered and spoiled, but not Charlotte. Certainly, she had ponies and pets and received a far better education than most girls of the day, but Charlotte’s childhood was marred by emotional instability. Caught in the battle between her parents, her greatest champion—perhaps the person who loved her best—was her grandfather, but his recurrent illnesses and eventual seclusion deprived her of his loving kindness.
Charlotte was given her own homes and households, separate from either of her parents. Her father often banned her from seeing her mother, but he did not offer her much companionship either. She grew up mostly in the company of servants, occasionally visiting her grandmother Queen Charlotte and her spinster aunts.
Any news about young Charlotte excited the population. She was the royal superstar of the day. If she visited a shop or showed a little charity, the kingdom was abuzz with the news. As she grew to adolescence, this interest intensified. Who would she marry?
Like many young girls, Charlotte had a propensity for falling in love. Passionate like her father and excitable like her mother, she gave her heart willingly to an illegitimate first cousin, to a young army officer, to a mysterious Prince F. With her mother’s indulgence, a couple of these relationships came within a hair’s breadth of scandal, but Charlotte was always able to keep her reputation and her popularity in tact. These traits would serve her well, when her father began planning her marriage.
Charlotte was coming of age at a moment of true splendor for her nation. In addition to many dashing English noblemen, the victory over Napoleon brought all of Europe’s greatest royals and military leaders to London for peace talks and glorious celebrations. Charlotte met many eligible young men in the heady atmosphere. She enjoyed the round of entertainments, sometimes against her father’s wishes and sometimes keeping company with people who deemed questionable, like “The Bachelor Duke” of Devonshire and the Czar’s sister.
Prince George’s greatest concern, however, was the amount of attention and adoration Charlotte was receiving—she was clearly more popular than he was!
He devised a plan that would remove Charlotte from the limelight: he betrothed the 18-year-old princess to Prince William of Orange. Ever enthusiastic, Charlotte initially agreed, but William hardly compared to the numerous handsome young men she had met. When she discovered that she would be required to live in The Netherlands, Charlotte objected and she had the support of the Whigs. But, George refused to relent. On the eve of a critical election, Charlotte took drastic measures.
She ran away. To her mother. Fearful of public riots, royal dukes and bishops and even the Lord Chancellor begged her to return to her father. The Whigs also wanted to avoid potential violence in the streets. Charlotte caved in and her father punished her by sending her away from London. Within weeks, her mother abandoned her entirely, opting to take a prolonged tour of the newly peaceful Europe. Charlotte would never see her again.
During her exile, Charlotte determined to take control of her own future and selected for her mate, the most handsome and perhaps poorest of all the princes she had met in London. Prince Leopold was a rising young officer in the Czar’s service who had distinguished himself during the war. Charlotte, for once, kept her plan quiet and her father eventually allowed her to return to London the following year, still insisting on the Orange marriage. William of Orange, however, was tired of waiting for his unwilling bride. When he married another, George had little room to dodge the persuasive princess’s formal request to marry Leopold. George was inundated from all sides—members of the royal family and governor ministers counseled him to concede. Early the next year, 1816, he said yes.
The princess and the country were ecstatic. Leopold was dashing and valiant, a true war hero who was considered the handsomest prince in Europe. Charlotte fell deeply in love. Leopold seemed to admire the princess too and, unlike anyone else in her life, he seemed able to curb her more enthusiastic tendencies. He was wise for his years and Charlotte blossomed under his influence. After the wedding, the two lived quietly and contentedly in the countryside, occasionally appearing in London to huge acclaim.
But, the marriage was not without heartache. Charlotte suffered a miscarriage in the summer of 1816 and the nation mourned with them. A year later, the royal family announced that an addition to the royal nurseries was expected in October. The anticipated day came and went, while all of Britain awaited news. Finally, on Nov. 3, Charlotte’s labor started. Government ministers gathered in an adjoining room, while her beloved husband stayed loyal at her side. For days, Charlotte endured great agony, but the labor did not progress. The doctors debated how to proceed, but were anxious about using forceps to extract the infant. Only recently developed, the instrument had become ill-favored since as many babies died as survived. Fear of killing a royal heir likely influenced their decision not to intervene. By the third evening, it was clear that the unborn child had died any way. When he finally emerged hours later, the doctors tried in vain to revive him.
The exhausted princess was allowed to eat for the first time since labor started and an equally exhausted Prince Leopold retired to his own bed with help from a sleep remedy.
After midnight, Charlotte awakened, screaming in pain. By the time, Leopold reached her side, she was already dead, probably from internal bleeding. He fell to his knees and kissed her arms.
The nation also was distraught. An orgy of public grieving erupted that was not to be repeated until Princess Diana’s death 180 years later. As one observer wrote, “It really was as though every household throughout Great Britain had lost a favourite child.” Not only was Charlotte the beloved “Daughter of England,” she and her child had been the hope for the future. With her death, her profligate middle-aged uncles were forced to find suitable brides and propagate new heirs. Just 19 months after Charlotte’s death, a young princess named Victoria was born to take her place.
Leopold’s future was less certain. Six months after the tragedy, his father-in-law granted him the style of a British Royal Highness and he was guaranteed a royal income, but the ambitious young man had no purpose. Highly regarded throughout Europe, he seemed an excellent candidate for the newly created Belgian throne in 1831. He married again, fathering three princes and one little princess named Charlotte in remembrance of his first wife. But, his second Charlotte would face tragedies of her own as the ill-fated Empress of Mexico.