“Becoming Queen” by Kate Williams

  March 23, 2009 at 9:19 pm by

Picture this. The Prince and Princess of Wales are feuding, much to their families’ dismay. It is quite clear that the marriage has ended, although, thank goodness, the succession is secure. They have produced an heir. But then tragedy strikes in a “King Ralph” moment and the heir is dead. What’s a royal family to do?

"Becoming Queen" book jacket

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I’m not talking about the misadventures of Charles and Diana, but about the tragedy that befell the Hanoverians when Princess Charlotte died. Charlotte was the only child of the future George IV, who was Prince of Wales and Regent at the time of his daughter’s death in 1817 (poor George III was still haunting Windsor in the grips of porphyria-induced madness). For the nation, this was sheer tragedy. Charlotte was, according to Kate Williams, the author of Becoming Queen, as popular in her day as Princess Diana was in ours. In part her popularity was due to her youth and that she was the perfect counterweight to the excesses and unpopularity of her parents and the other Hanoverian princes.

The public had rejoiced at her royal wedding and at the news that she was to become a mother in the autumn of 1817. Her handsome groom was the Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, an impecunious German prince who would play a much more significant role in British, European and African history than would have been expected in 1817. Unfortunately, Charlotte’s pregnancy and delivery was hopelessly botched. After the stillborn death of her son, 22-year-old Charlotte gave up and died. And the House of Hanover was without an heir after the generation of George III’s sons.

There was a problem with George III’s sons. Few of them had married and none had produced legitimate children. The Prince of Wales was 54 at the time of his daughter’s death; aside from age, the fact that he and his wife hated each other was a clear impediment to the birth of another heir. The Frederick, the Duke of York, was almost the same age and was also estranged from his wife, an eccentric Prussian princess. William, the Duke of Clarence and St. Andrews, had lived with an actress, Mrs. Jordan, 20 years and produced ten illegitimate children. Their relationship had ended in 1811; afterwards, the impoverished Duke sought out heiresses but he was not viewed as an advantageous catch. Edward, the Duke of Kent, had a string of mistresses while he served the military in Canada and Gibraltar. Ernest Augustus, the disfigured Duke of Cumberland, had married his cousin, the twice-married Princess Frederica of Mecklenburg-Strelitz in 1815, scandalizing his mother who suspected her own niece of poisoning the second husband. No children had been born to them at the time of Charlotte’s death. Prince Augustus Frederick, the Duke of Sussex, had married an English noblewoman in violation of the Royal Marriages Act in 1793; the marriage was later annulled and his children were not regarded as legitimate. Prince Adolphus of Cambridge (later the grandfather of Princess May of Teck) was a middle-aged bachelor. Prince Octavius had died in 1783. It was unlikely that the royal princesses, their sisters, would marry and produce legitimate heirs.

The bachelor princes decided to step up to the plate for family, fortune and country. Most of the princes had spent their lives with short purse strings. Becoming the father of the next royal heir would bring increased prestige and allowances. In short order, the Duke of Clarence (later William IV) married Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen, a princess half his age; although their marriage was happy, they were unable to produce a surviving child. In 1818 the Duke of Kent married a widow, Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, sister of Charlotte’s Leopold. Victoria had already produced two children, and in 1819 Princess Alexandrina Victoria was born. Kent’s triumph was short-lived; he died less than a year later. The Duke of Cumberland and his Frederica produced one surviving son, born just 3 days after Alexandrina Victoria. The Cumberlands eventually become the rulers of Hanover under the Salic Law of succession, thus severing the flimsy ties between Hanover and Britain. In 1818 the Duke of Cambridge married Princess Augusta of Hesse-Cassel; rather unfairly, their son was born 2 months before Alexandrina Victoria.

The succession had been secured for the Hanover family, and the ranking heir in the next generation was Alexandrina Victoria, the fatherless Princess of Kent. Victoria never should have been heir; without the misfortune of her much older cousin, Victoria and the other cousins would never have been conceived.

But Victoria’s succession was still in question. Clarence and Adelaide might yet produce a surviving heir. Meanwhile, the princess lived a very sheltered life at Kensington, in the control of her mother, the ambitious Duchess of Kent and her favorite, John Conroy. As the years passed Victoria’s importance grew, and it was obvious that the person who controlled Victoria would control the country. The Duchess’s control over her daughter was so complete that the princess was not allowed to sleep alone until she became queen. She was allowed few companions except for her siblings and her governess, Baroness Lehzen, whom she adored. For the headstrong Victoria this was intolerable, and she railed against being controlled by others throughout her lifetime. The Duchess’s attitude ruined her relationship with her daughter. Even Prince Albert tried to control her, and this was intolerable to the queen.

The story of how Victoria came to be queen is “is an absorbingly dramatic tale of secrets, sexual repression and endless conflict.”

Filed under Historical Royals, The United Kingdom
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