Queen Charlotte, from a painting by Edridge. Frontispiece of vol. 2: Charlotte Papendiek, Court and Private Life in the Time of Queen Charlotte. London, 1887.
More than two hundred years ago a young princess named Sophie Charlotte, from the tiny German principality of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, played a prominent, though reticent, role on the stage of European world history. As Queen of Great Britain and consort of George III she became an eye witness of a turbulent age. During the reign of George III (1760-1820) Great Britain developed into a far-reaching empire by colonizing Australia, New Zealand, and India, and conquering Canada and the West Indies. However, this empire also suffered the loss of the American colonies (1776) and the tremors of the French Revolution (1789), and countered Napoleon's threatening advances with the victories at Trafalgar (1805) and Waterloo (1815).
How informative it would have been for future generations if Queen Charlotte had described the events of her time and her environment in the candid way of Liselotte von der Pfalz, or in the elegant style of Madame de Sévigné. The only private writings that have survived are Queen Charlotte's 444 letters to her closest confidant--her older brother, Charles II (1741-1816), Grand Duke of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. There are, though, interesting contemporary reports about life at the Court of St. James's from which can be gleaned a sympathetic personal portrait of the Queen from Mecklenburg-Strelitz.
Princess Sophie Charlotte was born on May 19, 1744--the eighth child of the Prince of Mirow, Charles Louis Frederick, and his wife, Elisabeth Albertina of Saxe-Hildburghausen. In 1752, when she was eight years old, Sophie Charlotte's father died. Adolf Frederick III, reigning duke of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, who had founded the city of Neustrelitz in 1733, died in the same year. His successor was Sophie Charlotte's brother, Adolf Frederick IV, who under the name of "Dörchläuchting" has become an immortal figure in Low German literature through the writings of Fritz Reuter. In August of 1761, he and Sophie Charlotte's dying mother signed the marriage contract with the British King George III of the House of Hanover. At the age of 22, the King had chosen the 17-year-old Strelitz princess as his bride.
This marriage contract, written in Latin, contained the following conditions: The young princess should leave for Great Britain immediately, join the Anglican church and be married according to Anglican rites, and never ever involve herself in politics. She fulfilled all three demands to the fullest satisfaction of her king and consort.
Sophie Charlotte left her Mecklenburg homeland eight days after her mother's death, never to return. She travelled for three days in a triumphal procession to Stade in the Hanoverian kingdom. On August 28, 1761, she boarded the splendidly appointed yacht "Royal Charlotte" at Cuxhaven at the North Sea. During the stormy ten-day voyage which rendered her five ladies-in-waiting unfit for service, the young royal bride comforted herself with singing and playing the harpsichord. She played the national anthem of Great Britain, "God save the King," and memorized a few English sentences--English had not been taught at the court of Neustrelitz.
Mademoiselle Seltzer and Madame de Grabow, a native of Güstrow who was also known as the "German Sappho," had instructed the princesses in the German, French, and Italian languages and literatures as well as in geography. Map making had been of special interest. The fine arts of dancing, drawing, singing, and the playing of musical instruments had not been neglected. Delicate embroidery was a daily and diligent pursuit. The Lutheran theologian Gentzmer taught the ducal children the basics in religion, natural philosophy, mineralogy, and botany. His pains were amply rewarded. His famous pupil later received the honorary title of "Queen of Botany" from the British people because of her great interest in the enlargement and support of the Royal botanical gardens at Kew. In 1773, Sir Joseph Banks, then director of Kew Gardens, named the exotic "Bird of Paradise" plant from the Cape of Good Hope Strelitzia Reginae in honor of his Queen.
When George III first received his young bride on September 9, 1761, at the garden gate of St James's Palace, he was supposedly taken aback by her lack of beauty. It became evident, though, that the pious and modest Strelitz princess soon conquered his heart and willingly submitted to his strong influence over her. Life at the British court was anything but easy for her with a domineering German mother-in-law, Princess Augusta of Wales, and her [Charlotte's] lady-in-waiting Juliane von Schwellenberg, who came with the princess from Mecklenburg-Strelitz and who wanted to protect her young charge at all costs. Nicknamed "Schwelly," von Schwellenberg soon became the laughing-stock of the British people.
In the first twenty-one years of her marriage Queen Charlotte gave birth to fifteen children - nine sons and six daughters. In contrast to most European Royal houses George III and Charlotte had a harmonious marriage. However, during their lifetimes the British court had the reputation of being the dullest in all of Europe because of their notoriously frugal, plain, and pious life-style. Their charities, however, were legend. Hospitals such as the famous Queen's Lying-in Hospital in London which was founded by Charlotte, orphanages, "decayed" musicians, and untold poor families could rely on their munificent patronage. Eight-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart happily fulfilled Queen Charlotte's request and dedicated his Opus 3 to her. When her court musician and music teacher Johann Christian Bach (also called the "London Bach") died of consumption, she paid for his funeral and established a pension for his widow.
In 1788, a shadow fell on the happiness of the Royal family. It became evident that George III had started his slow and violent descent into the madness which medical authorities believe to have been caused by the inherited malady porphyria. His suffering lasted for thirty years until his death in 1820. The Royal Marriage Act, pushed through Parliament by George III in 1772, placed another heavy burden on his family. It stipulated that none of his descendants could marry before the age of twenty-five without the King's consent, and even then they might only marry Protestant princes or princesses. The result of this rather strange law was that his children sought refuge in secret marriages and illicit love affairs or stayed unmarried. Queen Charlotte's court in later years was also called "The Nunnery."
In 1790, the queen bought her last residence--"Frogmore House"--a small country palace located one-half mile southwest of Windsor Castle. She called this beloved home of her old age her "little paradise" where she could study her favorite subject botany and find peace from the constant disturbance caused by her consort's illness. Her oldest son George, Prince of Wales, finally was named regent in 1812, at the age of fifty and, in 1820, upon the death of his father, ascended the throne as George IV, King of Great Britain and Ireland, and Hanover. The "regency of the person" of the ill king George III remained in the hands of his loyal Queen Charlotte until her death on November 17, 1818, at Kew Palace.
"Prudence imposes silence,
& that little dear word Silence
has so often been my friend in necessity,
that I make it my constant companion."
-- Queen Charlotte
Last Modified: Tuesday, May 07, 2019
© Jean L. Cooper and Angelika S. Powell