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Monday 15 March 2004

The Royal Nunnery

It’s no secret that George III’s sons were notoriously naughty, with the Prince of Wales leading the pack. “Prinny,” as the future George IV was known, committed every transgression he possibly could and then some. No need to beat a dead horse there. The younger sons put every ounce of their energy into keeping up with big brother, and didn’t do a half bad job. With little real control over his sons, the king could only watch, grow frustrated, and occasionally make various weak threats.  

But his daughters were a different matter altogether. They could be controlled.  

Like the witch to Rapunzel, George III locked his daughters away from the world at large, hoping against hope to keep them pure and untouched. Far from carrying on the tradition of grooming royal princesses to live as foreign consorts and royal breeding machines, the six princesses – Charlotte, Augusta, Elizabeth, Mary, Sophia and Amelia – were trained to be lifelong spinsters and helpmeets to their parents.

Although the king was said to have been a doting and loving father, he was possessive and controlling with both his wife and his daughters, wishing them to be devoted to him alone and doing his best to eliminate outside influences and court intrigues from their lives. To this end, he demanded that the princesses be raised in a strict and isolated environment designed to allow them little contact with the outside world and, in particular, to keep them as far away from men as possible.  

George’s wife, Queen Charlotte, had come to her husband as a young and inexperienced German princess, and was almost immediately detached from normal court life under his controlling influences. Secluded and lonely, she subjugated herself to her husband in nearly everything and became, according to most reports, a bitter and defensive woman. Unfortunately for her daughters, Charlotte was largely responsible for their upbringing and, under the king’s direction, ensured that their lives were as lonely, suffocating and isolated as her own. 

Under the best of circumstances, the young princesses could read nothing that hadn’t been approved, were rarely without a chaperone, and had every hour of their day planned for them. Although not entirely unusual for young women of the upper classes, these traditions were taken to the extreme with the royal princesses. Even as adults, their parents outlined the princesses’ daily lives, allowing few opportunities for deviation.  

Among the most oppressive conditions, the princesses were forced to attend their mother by standing behind her chair for hours at a time, sometimes falling asleep on their feet. They were also required not to speak to the king unless spoken to and to stand when engaging in a conversation with him. Like the king’s courtiers, the princesses had to leave a room walking backward in the king’s presence. 

Despite the restrictions, they were exposed under controlled conditions to the arts and other acceptable pastimes and were considered accomplished young women. Under the tutelage of masters like Thomas Gainsborough, Charlotte and Elizabeth became talented amateur artists.  Augusta and Amelia were music lovers, and Sophia a skilled horsewoman. But while such skills and talents were generally nurtured in young women to attract good husbands, this was not the case for the princesses. Since the king didn’t want his daughters to marry, eligible men of the princesses’ age were not allowed into their circle and suitable matches with members of foreign royalty were rarely entertained. With access only to their father, brothers and, occasionally, household staff, the girls knew little of the opposite sex. 

The princesses referred to their cloistered existence as “the nunnery.”  

Under these circumstances, it would seem logical that the girls would have had little opportunity to stray from the path of chaste and obedient royal princesses. On the other hand, sheltered as they were from even the more virtuous pleasures of the Georgian age, it is perhaps more understandable that they took the opposite course by settling for existences considered either unpleasant or unsuitable even to their lower class contemporaries.  

In desperate attempts to escape the nunnery, three of the princesses took their chances at late marriages to men who were, on the whole, repellant. The first to embark on this path was Charlotte, the Princess Royal, who was widely considered to be the least attractive of all the daughters. In 1797, at the age of 30 she married the extremely fat King Frederick of Württemberg, whose first wife had died under mysterious circumstances while she was imprisoned under his orders. Nevertheless, Charlotte was considered lucky to escape the nunnery.

The next to marry was Mary who, at 40, wed her first cousin, the Duke of Gloucester, better known as “Silly Billy” and considered to be something of a tyrant. Third and last to marry was Elizabeth, who became the 48-year-old bride of Frederick VI of Hesse-Homburg, whose hygiene habits were reportedly appalling (it’s said that he almost never bathed).  Perhaps not surprisingly (age or revulsion, take your pick), the marriages produced no living children. Only Charlotte, who married the youngest, had a child – a stillborn daughter.  

It’s actually a wonder that these three managed to secure permission at all for their marriages, but it’s not unlikely that they took advantage of their father’s many bouts with illness. The remaining three princesses were not so “lucky.” They were doomed to fall for men who were entirely unsuitable as the husband of a princess and had no chance of gaining George III’s approval, no matter what his mental or physical state. With the limited number of men at the princesses’ disposal, it is no coincidence that each of them fell in love with their father’s equerries, perhaps the first and only outside men to come into their lives.  

Augusta, who had early on been considered as a potential bride for the Crown Prince of Denmark, fell in love with Sir Brent Spencer, one of her father’s equerries. She showed a great deal of spirit on behalf of her cause, going as far as pleading with her brother, who was then Prince Regent, to allow her to marry Spencer. Although there is some speculation that a private marriage may actually have taken place, it is historically unfounded and highly unlikely. Augusta died, unmarried, at the age of 72, early in Queen Victoria’s reign. 

The baby of the family, Amelia was even less lucky, certainly in love, but also in health. Around the age of 17, she fell in love with yet another of George III's equerries, Sir Charles FitzRoy, who was said to be a very dull young man. Because she was under 25, Amelia knew she could not marry FitzRoy without the king’s consent, which she would never receive. Instead, she held out hope that, after her 25th birthday, she could request permission from Parliament. Illness and other factors prevented this, but while she never actually married FitzRoy, she considered herself married to him and signed her correspondence with the initials “AFR”, for Amelia FitzRoy. She was not to enjoy her fantasy for long. Always a sickly child, she was chronically ill after 1795 and died of tuberculosis in 1810 at the age of 27. 

Of all the daughters, Sophia – considered the most clever and one of the most attractive – made the greatest, and perhaps most shocking, departure from her upbringing. Always unhealthy, Sophia is now considered to have shared a form of her father’s illness, porphyria (the disease that we now understand to have been the cause of his so-called “madness”). As a result of the family’s combined health problems, Sophia and her sisters made frequent visits to the southern coastal town of Weymouth for resting and cures.  

Another of George III’s equerries, General Thomas Garth, leased a house not far from Weymouth in order to be near the king during his visits. Sophia and her sisters would stop at this house on their journey to Weymouth, and it was here that Sophia was said to have an affair with General Garth. As unlikely a candidate as there ever was, Garth was 56-years-old, very short, and had a large, disfiguring purple birthmark covering his face.  

Nevertheless, in August 1800, at the age of 22, Sophia gave birth to a boy she named Thomas, undoubtedly after his father. Apparently, the entire family – save the king – knew of Sophia’s pregnancy and the subsequent birth of her son. To explain Sophia’s increasing size and necessary absence away from the family, the king was told that she was bloated due to dropsy and had to be sent away to recover. Upon her return to court, the king was informed she had been given a miraculous cure consisting of roast beef, which brought about an immediate recovery. The king was suspicious, but accepted the story.  

The newborn child was left at the Weymouth home of the king’s private secretary, Colonel Herbert Taylor, then later adopted by General Garth himself. While the palace never officially recognized the existence of Thomas, the unofficial stance was that General Garth was indeed the natural father and this was generally accepted at court. It didn’t stop a nasty rumor from circulating, however, claiming that Sophia’s brother Ernest, Duke of Cumberland, had incestuously raped her and was the “real” father of the child.  

In any case, General Garth retained his position at court and was even appointed to the household of the Prince of Wales’ daughter, Princess Charlotte. Sophia returned to her life as before and, after the death of her parents, lived a spinster in Kensington Palace until she died in 1848 at the age of 71. Her son, the younger Thomas Garth died sometime after 1839. 

Until next week,

- Tori Van Orden


More on Zara Phillips

After last week’s column on Zara Phillips – A Princess by Any Other Name – a reader wrote for clarification on Zara’s position in regard to the Athens' Olympics, which I will share with readers. 

It seems that while Zara’s skills as an equestrian, combined with the good fortune to have an excellent horse, last year earned her a coveted place on a list of 14 riders eligible to compete for the Athens Olympics, her hopes are now on the rocks.  

The injury of her best horse, Toytown, earlier this year has diminished Zara’s chances to be selected as one of the five riders to participate in Athens. While she has other horses, Toytown is the most experienced and would provide the best showing for Zara in the trials leading up to the final selection. 

But all hope is still not lost, and if Zara is selected, she will be following in the footsteps of both her parents. Her mother, Princess Anne, participated with the UK equestrian team at the Montreal Olympics in 1976, and Mark Phillips, her father, was part of the equestrian team that won a gold medal at the Munich Olympics in 1972 and a silver medal at the Seoul Olympics in 1988. 

For more information on Zara and her bid to participate in the Olympics, take a look at the following articles:


Previous Royal Scribe columns can be found in the archive

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This page and its contents are ©2006 Copyright by Geraldine Voost and may not be reproduced without the authors permission. The 'Royal Scribe' column is ©2005 Copyright by Tori Van Orden Martínez who has kindly given permission for it to be displayed on this website.
This page was last updated on: Wednesday, 13-Jul-2005 02:30:41 CEST