‘Sensible, cheerful and remarkably genteel’
Queen Charlotte was wife to King George III. They shared a happy life together, producing 15 children until their lives were changed and saddened by the King’s devastating mental illness. Nonetheless Charlotte remained steadfast and loyal to her husband.
Princess Sophie Charlotte was born in 1744 in the Palace of Mirow in a little known principality of Mecklenberg-Strelitz, in what is now part of Germany. It was an idyllic location in which to grow up. The castle, on a lake and surrounded by woods, resembled something out of Beauty and the Beast.
She was ‘well enough’ educated and spoke French, and she excelled in music. Crucially for her marriage prospects, she was sweet and good-humoured, with a ‘lively but equable temper’.
Image: Queen Charlotte (1744-1818) with her two eldest sons c1765, Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017
In 1761, aged 17, Charlotte found herself chosen by George III as his bride. She had good royal and Protestant credentials. Most importantly for the King she was sweet natured and compliant.
Charlotte also had ‘a most agreeable countenance’ without being ravishingly beautiful. Lord Harcourt, sent by George III to collect her from her childhood home, describes her ‘very pretty eyes’ but comments she is no ‘regular beauty’. However, she had her charms, including ‘white and even teeth’.
Everyone in London was eager for a glimpse of the Princess when she met her husband-to-be. One onlooker said she was ‘tall, with a fine air and brown hair’.
When she arrived in England, Charlotte was so thin after a bout of sea sickness that her heavy, diamond encrusted wedding dress nearly fell off her.
The first 25 years of the King and Queen’s marriage were happy ones. They would attend plays and concerts together and duet on the harpsichord and flute. When not at court, their lives were rural and informal in their homes at Windsor and in Kew.
Together they had 15 children and the Queen was responsible for their early education, employing and supervising their governesses and tutors. In 1789, when the King became ill, his inappropriate, manic behaviours terrified and upset the Queen. Their relationship was never the same and they led increasingly separate lives.
Image: George III (1738-1820), Queen Charlotte (1744-1818) and their six eldest children, Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017
The King’s first bout of illness in 1788 began with physical symptoms, then he became increasingly mentally deranged.
It was decided to move him to Kew, so Charlotte and some of their daughters went on ahead to entice him. However, the King was kept isolated, seen only by his doctors, which both the King and Queen found hugely distressing.
Charlotte became very frustrated by the seemingly incompetent royal doctors. It’s likely that the King recovered in a few months despite, rather than because of his treatment (which included leeching and cold baths). However, his subsequent bouts in 1801 and 1804 made him violent, so Charlotte had to avoid him for her own safety.
By 1789, Charlotte’s hair had turned white under the stress of the King’s illness.
Charlotte was among the most scientifically-minded of British queens. She surrounded herself with serious thinkers such as the botanists Joseph Banks, Daniel Solander and John Lightfoot and the geologist, Jean Andre de Luc.
Her circle also included the novelist Fanny Burney, Elizabeth Harcourt and Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Portland, two women who were, like Charlotte, enthusiastic naturalists. They were part of a wide network of intellectually-minded women known as ‘Blue-stockings’.
The Queen’s own interests focused on botany, cataloguing and drawing the remarkable plants and flowers that were grown in the gardens at Kew.
Queen Charlotte and her family enjoyed many happy summers at Kew before the King became ill.
The palace had begun life as a private home and retained an intimate, domestic feel. Life there was relaxed, with the King and Queen walking in the gardens unescorted.
The novelist Fanny Burney who joined the royal household in 1786, described how Charlotte did not take a lady ‘to attend her when she goes on her airings’.
Image: Kew Palace, which re-opened to the public in 2006 after it was restored by Historic Royal Palaces
Queen Charlotte’s cottage is located a short walk from Kew Palace, nestling amidst the trees and flower of the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew.
It was built under Charlotte’s instructions as a ‘rustic retreat’ and reflects her personal tastes and interests. The Queen and the rest of the family could enjoy private picnics or take tea during long summer walks through the gardens.
The cottage overlooked a menagerie, which must have delighted the growing numbers of royal children. It was first home to pheasants and other exotic birds, but by 1792 also contained some of the first kangaroos to arrive in Britain.
By 1818, George III was so ill that he was shut away, blind and deranged in Windsor Palace. Charlotte’s own health had deteriorated so badly that she was confined to Kew Palace. She suffered from dropsy, which causes painful swelling and eventual organ failure. She required round-the clock attendance by her physician, but at other times she recovered for a short time.
Because she couldn’t travel, the imminent weddings of her sons William, Duke of Clarence and Edward, Duke of Kent had to take place at Kew in a double ceremony. An altar was set up in the Drawing Room of Kew Palace, and afterwards the Queen retired to her bedroom while the wedding party enjoyed a sumptuous meal in the dining room before travelling to Queen Charlotte’s cottage for tea.
Edward, Duke of Kent won the royal ‘baby race’ when the Duchess gave birth to Alexandrina Victoria in 1819, later Queen Victoria.
As the Queen’s condition worsened, she kept mostly to her bedroom. The end came in November, when Charlotte died in a black armchair, surrounded by her daughters Augusta and Mary, the Prince Regent and the Duke of York.
Charlotte’s state coffin lay in the dining room at Kew under a canopy, lit by six candles in large silver candlesticks, before being taken to Windsor Castle. Its cobbled courtyards were covered with straw to prevent the gravely ill King hearing the sound of his beloved wife’s funeral procession.
The black horsehair chair survives at Kew Palace today. After her death the housekeeper tied over a ribbon, to which was pinned a note reading: ‘Queen Charlotte died in this chair’.
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