Authors: James Chambers
Before making any decision, however, he consulted the Privy
Council. The spring of 1806 stood at the centre of a great crisis in the history of Europe. Less than six months before the little will was written, Britain’s hero, Admiral Lord Nelson, had died saving his nation from invasion at the battle of Trafalgar. The French army that had been waiting to be carried across the Channel had turned east. Just over a month later the armies of Britain’s allies Austria and Russia had been shattered at Austerlitz. Napoleon was the master of most of Europe. At his instigation, King George’s Electorate of Hanover had been given to the Prussians. And on top of all that, Britain’s brilliant Prime Minister, William Pitt, had died heartbroken and exhausted. The coalition that replaced him, known optimistically as ‘the ministry of all the talents’, was negotiating for peace with Napoleon.
Yet at that most desperate moment, some of the men who had been entrusted with the safety of the nation were asked to devote time to discussing the implications of a will written on impulse by a lonely ten-year-old child.
To anyone who knew the truth, their judgement cannot have been encouraging. They agreed that Mrs Campbell was responsible.
Mrs Campbell was asked to resign, and Dr Nott, overwhelmed with remorse and frustration, took to his bed and stayed there for several weeks. Charlotte was told only that Mrs Campbell had resigned on grounds of ill health. She wrote in her misery to George’s mother, Lady Albemarle:
Poor dear Mrs. Campbell is going away, for her health is so bad. If you have any regard to me, you will write to her and try to console her. Do if you love me. I lose a great deal when she leaves me. Indeed she is a charming woman, that is far above Mrs. Udney, for the more I see of Mrs. Campbell, the more I love [her], but Mrs. Udney I still continue to dislike. When you come to town I wish to have a conversation with you about her… You have no idea how unhappy I am.
was not the only family business with which the Prince of Wales burdened his father's ministers in the spring of 1806.
Like everyone in London society, the Prince had heard scores of lurid stories about the life his wife was leading in Blackheath. It was said that her dinner parties often ended in unseemly games of blind man's buff, that she was in the habit of leaving the room with gentlemen guests and not returning for more than an hour, that she had given birth to a child and that she had had dozens of lovers, among them the treasurer of the navy, George Canning, two naval officers, the dashing Captain Sir Sidney Smith and Captain Thomas Manby, and the painter Sir Thomas Lawrence, who was known to have slept in her house while painting her portrait.
If the Prince could prove the worst of these stories, there was a chance that he might be allowed to bring an action for divorce against his wife; towards the end of 1805 he was approached by a Lieutenant-Colonel of marines, Sir John Douglas, with what looked like all the proof he needed.
For a few years Sir John and Lady Douglas had been the closest of friends with the Princess of Wales. But she had then rejected them so completely and cruelly that they were determined to have their revenge. They were now prepared to reveal everything they knew, or claimed to know, about her, and in the course of several long sessions with the Prince and his advisers, they told it all in great detail.
All the stories of lovers were true, they said. The Princess was insatiable. She had even embarrassed the beautiful but vulgar Lady Douglas by regularly making intimate advances to her. Worst of all, they claimed, they could confirm that she had indeed given birth to a child.
Among the seven or eight poor children whom the eccentric Princess had adopted informally and then farmed out to live with friends, there was one favourite, William Austin, whom she kept in her own household. According to the Douglases, the Princess had told them that the boy was her own son. Furthermore she had told both them and others that the father was none other than the Prince of Wales. The child had been conceived, she said, during an attempted reconciliation on her last visit to Carlton House.
If the last part of that story had been true, it would have had devastating implications. It would have meant that little âWillikin' and not Charlotte was second in line to the throne of England. But the Prince of Wales knew better than anyone that it was not true, although, to his delight, he could not be so sure about the rest of the story, or indeed about any of the others.
The Prince took the Douglases' âwritten declarations' to the Lord Chancellor, who felt that in the light of the last allegations there had to be some sort of enquiry. So the Lord Chancellor went to the Prime Minister, and then, to the further delight of the Prince, the Prime Minister went to the King.
At first King George was reluctant to do anything. He was fond of the Princess of Wales. Despite her estrangement from his son, he still visited her often at Blackheath. But eventually he was persuaded and gave orders for what became known as âThe Delicate Investigation'.
On 31 May, the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary, the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Chief Justice and the Solicitor General assembled at Number 10 Downing Street. In the course of that session and the many that followed, they examined the Douglases, several doctors, all the servants who now worked for the Princess and most of those who had ever worked for her.
Their evidence was not as helpful as the Prince had hoped, however. They could not corroborate the story that his wife was the mother of William Austin. Apart from anything else, there was a Mrs Austin who called herself his mother and came over regularly from Deptford to visit him. Indeed none of the servants could say for certain that the Princess had ever given birth to a child at Black-heath, and when asked if they thought she had ever looked pregnant, a few said yes, some said no and some said she was so fat that it was impossible to tell.
As for the men named in the rumours and the âwritten declarations', there was no hard evidence that any of them had actually committed treasonable adultery with the Princess. George Canning was just one of her many visitors. Although she had been seen kissing Captain Manby and sitting very close to Sir Sidney on a sofa, no one had caught her with either of them in any more compromising circumstances. Although Sir Thomas had twice stayed at the house, he had remained in his room all night.
Nevertheless, it seemed likely from all that was said that the Princess had had plenty of lovers. Several more names were suggested, and several were left un-named. As with the captains and the portrait painter, there was not enough evidence to prove beyond doubt that any of them was guilty, but that of course did not mean that any or all of them were innocent.
Although the servants could not confirm any specific allegation, they succeeded in convincing the committee that their mistress's life
was neither celibate nor seemly. The tone of their testimony was summed up simply in the words of the handsomest young footman, Samuel Roberts. âThe Princess', he said, âis very fond of fucking'.
The committee, which had not allowed the Princess of Wales or any of her alleged lovers to cross-examine the witnesses, submitted its report to the King on 14 July. It had concluded that there was âno foundation for believing' that the Princess of Wales had borne any child since moving to Blackheath, but it felt strongly that there were âother particulars respecting the conduct of her Royal Highness, such as must, especially considering her exalted rank and station, necessarily give occasion to very unfavourable interpretations'.
The Prince of Wales was bitterly disappointed. His father's ministers had let him down. Their disapproval was not enough. They had found him no grounds for divorce.
His wife, on the other hand, was self-righteously triumphant. During the âDelicate Investigation' the King had not visited her, and he had not invited her to visit him. But now that she had been acquitted by his arbitrary tribunal, she felt that it was his duty to acknowledge her innocence publicly by inviting her to court again. She wrote to the King asking him to receive her, but the King was not so sure that he should. There was much in the report that could not be condoned. So the Princess of Wales decided to write to him again. Since she had not been allowed to present her defence to the committee in Downing Street, she would present it to the King in Windsor instead.
With the best but biased legal advice from Spencer Perceval, who had recently resigned the office of Attorney General after the death of Pitt, she laid out her detailed rebuttal of every charge that the Douglases had brought against her. Her letter, dated 2 October, was so long that it became known sarcastically as âThe Book'.
Nine weeks later, when she had received no reply, not even an acknowledgement, the Princess wrote to the King again begging
him to receive her and restore her reputation. At the same time, however, in a barely veiled threat, she arranged to have copies of âThe Book' printed.
Nevertheless, it was another seven weeks before the Lord Chancellor's office informed the Princess that, despite his reservations, the King was now ready to receive her. But week after week went by without any invitation arriving. Eventually, on 5 March 1807, five months after her first letter, the Princess of Wales lifted the veil from her threat. If she did not receive an invitation within the next week, she would publish âThe Book'.
By then the gossips in London society had exhausted their imaginations speculating about what âThe Delicate Investigation' had discovered and about what might be in âThe Book'. To the press and the general public, who knew very little about the Princess of Wales and a great deal that they did not like about her husband, she was a wronged woman who deserved their support. The reputation of the royal family sank even further.
Spencer Perceval believed, and indeed hoped, that publication of âThe Book' would bring down the government that had treated the Princess so shoddily. But, as it turned out, there was never any need for publication. A few days later, the coalition government destroyed itself. The Cabinet resigned, bitterly divided over whether or not Roman Catholics should be allowed to sit in Parliament and hold commissions in the army.
The Tories were returned to office. George Canning became Foreign Secretary and Spencer Perceval became Chancellor of the Exchequer. The Princess of Wales had friends in high places.
While Perceval bought back the copies of âThe Book' that he knew had already been distributed, Canning persuaded the Prime Minister, the Duke of Portland, to speak to the King. On 18 May, almost
a year after the first session of âThe Delicate Investigation', the Princess of Wales was again received at court.
Throughout the investigation and the stand-off that followed, Charlotte continued to visit her mother, although Willikin was no longer allowed to be present and, as always, the Princess was accompanied, usually by Lady de Clifford. When the two went out to Blackheath on 14 July 1807, after her mother had been restored to royal favour, Charlotte was introduced to her maternal grandmother, the old Duchess of Brunswick. On land at least, Napoleon was still marching from success to success. In the previous year the King of Prussia had been persuaded to declare war on him again, and on 14 October the Prussian armies had been routed by the French at Jena and Auerstadt. The old Duke of Brunswick, again in command, had been mortally wounded in the eye. Since then Napoleon had overrun Brunswick and incorporated it into his Confederation of the Rhine. The Duchess was a widow and a stateless fugitive.
She was also a renowned gossip, but, as on previous visits, the presence of Lady de Clifford prevented anyone from mentioning the investigation or âThe Book' in front of Charlotte. As Lady de Clifford and Dr Nott knew well, the only real danger that someone might do that lay with the ingratiating Mrs Udney. Whether she did or not, however, Mrs Udney must have known that they thought she might, and it seems that she decided to divide her enemies and undermine the weakest of them.
In December 1807 someone gave the Prince of Wales a note which Dr Nott had written to Princess Charlotte rebuking her for not turning up for a lesson. There is no direct evidence that the culprit was Mrs Udney, but she was the only member of Charlotte's household who had the opportunity, a motive and access to the Prince. The Prince wrote to Dr Fisher. In his opinion âa remonstrance on the failure might have been made in terms of becoming deference'. But Mr Nott, as he called him, was overreaching his authority in presuming to criticise the Princess. âMr Nott is paid to wait for the
Princess, instead of being entitled to expect that she should wait for him.'
The Bishop defended Dr Nott valiantly, reminding the Prince that he was a man of many virtues and an example to his daughter, and for the time being the Prince was placated. Just over a year later, however, Mrs Udney discovered that Lady de Clifford and Dr Nott were about to have her disciplined. They had learned, perhaps from Charlotte, that she had shown the Princess an obscene cartoon of Nelson's mistress, Lady Hamilton, and had explained the meaning to her. They had already reported the matter to the Bishop, and the Bishop had consulted the Lord Chancellor.