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Monday 10 May 2004

Princesses of Misfortune

Back in March, I wrote a column titled, “The Royal Nunnery,” which focused on the overzealous protectiveness of George III for his daughters. Although a doting and loving father, the king was also possessive and controlling, and ensured that the princesses were raised in a strict and isolated environment designed to limit their contact with the outside world and, in particular, with men. 

While it might be easy to pin George’s extreme behavior on his so-called “madness,” it’s quite possible that he was, in fact, reacting to the tragic lives of his sisters, for which he was partially responsible. Things might have turned out differently if George’s father, Frederick, Prince of Wales, hadn’t died prematurely in 1751. The 13-year-old George, his four brothers and four sisters, were left in the care of the Dowager Princess of Wales until 1760, when, at the age of 22, George succeeded his grandfather, King George II, and became head of the family.  

One sister, Elizabeth Caroline, had died the year before at the tender age of 18 of inflammation of the bowels. She and her younger sister Louisa Anne had both suffered from ill health virtually from birth. Elizabeth could not stand without assistance, and had been so unhealthy as a child that she hadn’t been taught to read. The two invalid sisters were close companions and, after Elizabeth’s death, Louisa’s health rapidly deteriorated. 

There is a touching portrait of Louisa, age six, by Jean-Étienne Liotard in the Royal Collection that beautifully exposes her youth and fragility. As was the custom at that time, she is pictured wearing the same type of formal gown worn by grown women, only in miniature. The cut of the gown exposes her chest, giving her the look of a little girl playing “dress-up.” Sadly, she was truly as fragile as her portrait suggested and she died of tuberculosis when she was 19.   

Ill health may have taken the lives of Elizabeth and Louisa before they were out of their teens, but it saved them from the disastrous marriages that made the lives of their healthier sisters miserable. In 1764, in a purely political move, George arranged the marriage of his elder sister Augusta to Charles II, Duke of Brunswick. The marriage was extremely unhappy, the Duke was said to be “coarse and brutal,” and Augusta hated Germany. The couple’s three sons were defective in health and intellect, while their daughter, Caroline of Brunswick, married George III’s own son, The Prince of Wales (the future George IV) – a notoriously bad match. 

With Augusta’s marriage and departure to her new home in Germany, only the ailing Louisa and the King’s youngest sister, Caroline Matilda, remained to be dealt with. In fact, Caroline’s fate had already been determined a year before Augusta’s marriage. King Frederick V of Denmark had come calling at George III’s court, seeking a wife for his eldest son Christian. Frederick’s first wife – and Christian’s mother – had been George III’s aunt, another Princess Louisa. Coincidentally, the sickly Louisa Anne was originally chosen as Christian’s future wife, but Frederick’s envoy decided that the healthier and attractive Caroline Matilda was a better candidate.  

Her health and good looks may have secured her marriage to the heir to the Danish throne, but they would not secure her happiness. Caroline Matilda’s tragic story cannot be done justice in such a short space, and is better left for a future column, but the abbreviated version goes something like this…  

The marriage was arranged in 1763, but since the princess was only 12, it was decided that the wedding would wait until she was at least 15, and the engagement was not announced until January 1765. Although King George had reservations about his sister marrying and being sent to a foreign country so young, he was under pressure to make what was viewed as a politically advantageous match, and he agreed that the marriage would take place within two years. Almost exactly one year after the announcement of the engagement, King Frederick V’s death further accelerated the wedding plans, and on October 1, 1766, 15-year-old Caroline Matilda was married by proxy to 18-year-old King Christian VII of Denmark. 

The following day, she left her family and home for Denmark. Prohibited from bringing her attendants from home, she was surrounded by unfamiliar people in a strange land, without even the benefit of speaking their language. To make matters worse, she quickly discovered that her new husband was not quite right. Deformed and schizophrenic, his behavior was erratic at best and outrageous at worst. Despite what was certainly an extremely unhappy existence, Caroline managed to bear Christian a son and heir in 1768, the future King Frederick VI.   

By 1769, she had become extremely ill and was eventually put under the care of the royal physician, Johann Friedrich Struensée. The two soon began having an affair, which Caroline did little to hide. As the love affair between the queen and the doctor grew, so Christian’s mental capacity deteriorated, and the pair was soon effectively running the government in the king’s place. When she gave birth to a daughter in 1771, Struensée was widely believed to be the father, and powers in the court began to conspire against the queen and her lover. 

In 1772, Christian’s stepmother forced him to sign a document ordering the arrest of Struensée and the 20-year-old queen. Both parties confessed to the affair and Struensée was tortured and executed, while Caroline – as the sister of George III – was spared. She was divorced from Christian, separated from her children, and sent to live in exile in Celle, Hanover. She died there, aged 23, in 1775. 

At the time of Caroline Matilda’s arrest in Denmark, George III’s eldest daughter, Princess Charlotte, was just 5 years old, and his need to control his family was ever increasing. Two of his brothers were actually the impetus for the introduction of the 1772 Royal Marriages Act, which prohibits any descendant of George II to marry under the age of 25 without the monarch's permission. Many of the relationship troubles of royalty over the last 230 years can be effectively blamed on George III’s scandal-prone brother Henry, Duke of Cumberland, who secretly married the commoner and widow, Anne Horton, in 1771. Almost immediately after the Act was passed, the king’s favorite brother, William, Duke of Gloucester, admitted that he, too, had secretly married a widowed commoner, Lady Waldegrave, in 1766.   

Shattered over the unfortunate and unhappy events of his sister’s lives and unable to control the behavior of his brothers and, later, his sons, perhaps the king was simply overcompensating where his daughters were concerned. As a loving but misguided father who already leaned toward over protectiveness and extreme behavior, it is not difficult to see how circumstances could have affected and enhanced his controlling behavior toward his daughters. Unfortunately, his was a self-fulfilling prophecy – instead of protecting his daughters, he led them into fates not far removed from those of his sisters.

Until next week,

- Tori Van Orden

Recommended Reading:

For more on this subject, a great book is “The Georgian Princesses” by John van der Kiste. There’s also an excellent historical fiction book about Caroline Matilda by Per Olov Enquist called “ The Royal Physician’s Visit.”


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: Sunday, 29-Aug-2004 20:52:05 CEST