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Authors: James Chambers

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Mrs Udney decided to strike first. She went to the Prince of Wales and complained about Dr Nott. He was always gossiping with Princess Charlotte in order to exercise undue influence and he encouraged her to be disrespectful about Lady de Clifford and even her father.

The Prince of Wales was already prejudiced against Dr Nott, partly because of the earlier impertinence and partly because he suspected that the sub-preceptor had prevented him from seeing some papers in which his daughter had been disparaging about her mother. He believed Mrs Udney's preposterous story.

This time the Bishop pleaded in vain. Dr Nott was suspended from office and never reinstated, and the Bishop and Lady de Clifford decided that this was not the moment to take the case against Mrs Udney any further.

Charlotte wrote to Dr Nott. ‘If we never meet again, keep for me your regard and affection. If I go into other people's hands, rely on me, I shall ever remember your kindness and your good advice.'

The year 1809 had deprived thirteen-year-old Charlotte of her second ‘adopted parent'. But it also brought her two new friends. The first was a real relation, her uncle William, the new Duke of Brunswick. The bluff but dignified and patient Duke was relieved to have reached London safely, and he never seemed to tire of listening to Charlotte's lisping chatter.

After the duchy had been overrun, he had assembled seven hundred exiled hussars and dressed them in black uniforms in permanent mourning for his father. With this resolute little corps, he had reconquered the duchy. But the French had returned in strength and driven him out again. Dodging the French whenever he could and fighting them when he had no choice, he had led his men westward to the coast, where a squadron of British warships was waiting to carry them to England. In the years to come the romantic Black Brunswickers were to be among Britain's most formidable allies in the war against Napoleon.

Like many military men in Europe, and like very few in clean-shaven England, the Duke had a huge moustache. Charlotte adored it. After their first meeting in Blackheath, according to George Keppel, she went back to Warwick House, painted a black moustache on her face and marched up and down in a military manner barking guttural expletives, which she hoped very much sounded like German swear words.

The other friend was introduced to Charlotte by Dr Nott's replacement, the Rev. Dr William Short. Dr Short was handsome and a bit more of a dandy than most clergymen. He was always light-hearted, even though he had recently been widowed and was still receiving consoling letters and visits from members of his wife's family.

One of these was his brother-in-law, a distinguished admiral, who had been raised to the peerage as Baron Keith of Stonehaven Marischal. Lord Keith's first wife, a Scots heiress, had died shortly after giving birth to their daughter, and that girl, now twenty-one years old, self-confident and strikingly beautiful, had inherited her mother's enormous fortune. She was the embodiment of Jane Austen's Emma – ‘handsome, clever and rich'. Charlotte worshipped her the moment she met her. Here at last was the companion, confidante and counsellor that the Princess had always needed. Her name was the Hon. Margaret Mercer Elphinstone.

frequently to her ‘dearest Miss Mercer’, and Mercer Elphinstone kept almost all the letters. In later life she resisted every demand to hand them over. The best that she was prepared to do was to destroy those that were ‘upon particular subjects’.

Whether she did or not can never be known. Before she died, however, she gave all the letters that were still in her possession to her daughter, who married the fourth Marquess of Lansdowne, and they remained in his family until sold in 1994. Due to Mercer’s defiance, they were never read by the contemporary royal family. But they have survived to be read by posterity, and they are a moving testament to the hopes and fears of the ill-fated Princess.

The earliest letters are little more than gushing expressions of affection and eagerness for news. On the whole, the most amusing passages are the regular disparaging references to Mrs Udney. Yet even in these letters there is a sense of threat and caution. The fifteen-year-old Princess had already endured enough to know that, if she was going to be frank, she would also have to be careful.

One of the first letters begins, ‘I must scrawl you a few lines tonight otherwise I have no chance of writing in the daytime without being looked over, &c.

‘We arrived at Windsor Castle just as 4 struck & was very graciously recvd. by the Queen & very kindly by the Princesses. Heavens how dul…’

When that letter was written, at the beginning of June 1811, the atmosphere in Windsor Castle was more likely to have been bitter than dull. The King’s latest bout of insanity had lasted so long that no one now expected him to recover. In January the government had brought in the Regency Bill. On 6 February, while Charlotte rode up and down in the garden, peering through the windows of Carlton House to see what was going on, the Prince of Wales had been formally sworn in as Prince Regent. Charlotte’s father was now nominal head of state, and her grandmother and most of her aunts and uncles were more inclined to feel gloomy than glad about it.

Typically, the Prince Regent decided to celebrate his appointment with an extravagant fête at Carlton House. His excuse was to entertain the exiled pretender to the throne of France, Louis-Philippe, who had actually been living in Twickenham for the last ten years. But the real reason was to mark the opening of what he hoped would be his own splendid reign.

When she heard about it, Charlotte felt sure that she would be invited, that her first ball would be this memorable event. But there was never any chance of that. As Lady Rose Weigall put it:

The Regent had reason to fear that her appearance in public would give a fresh stimulus to the widespread feeling in favour of herself and her mother and render him proportionately more unpopular. He was further bent upon avoiding everything which could look like a recognition of her as the heir presumptive to the Crown, probably hoping that by the death of his wife or by a divorce he might hereafter have a son through a second marriage and shut out the
daughter of his deserted consort from the throne… For these reasons the Princess Charlotte was regarded as a rival to be suppressed rather than as a future sovereign.

And that was why Charlotte was writing to Mercer from Windsor. Her father wanted her out of the way.

A few days earlier, when she still half-hoped for an invitation, Charlotte had written to one of her former sub-governesses, Miss Hayman, who was now on her mother’s staff in Blackheath, telling her about the great event and describing an evening with her mother, who was now spending more and more of her time in her apartments in Kensington Palace.

My Dear Hamy, But a few lines, as I will write you a longer one soon again, only to tell you that the Prince Regent gives a magnificent ball on the 5th of June. I have not been invited, nor do I know if I shall be or not. If I should not, it will make a great noise in the world, as the friends I have seen have repeated over and over again it is my duty to go there; it is proper that I should. Really I do think it will be very hard if I am not asked. The Duke of Gloucester dined on the 16th at Kensington Palace, and was as usual delightful; he was very kind to me and talked a great part of the evening to me on the sofa alone; his charming sister was also there, who was as kind to me as possible. In short, there is hardly a moment of my life that I passed so happily as I did the other night. The 17th the Princess was perfectly out of humour and quite snappish; what had happened God only knows.

At this stage in her life Charlotte was clearly much more aware of her political position as a Princess than she was of her feminine charm or even her eligibility. The reason why the Duke of Gloucester had been ‘delightful’ on so many occasions was quite simply because he was attracted to her.

Her father was already aware of it, and was not pleased. His cousin the Duke was entirely unsuitable for Charlotte. Apart from anything else he was more than twenty years older than she was, and had also been paying court for years to the Regent’s sister Princess Mary.

The charms that delighted the Duke of Gloucester did not, however, have much chance to delight any other gentleman during the early summer. The great fête came and went. For a few days afterwards Carlton House was opened to the public, so that everyone could see the magnificent decorations. But Princess Charlotte remained in Windsor at Lower Lodge, writing regularly in good humoured desperation to ask Mercer for ‘a little London news’.

Lady Albinia Campbell, who visited Windsor during June, wrote to her daughter describing the Princess:

She is grown and improved in looks, but I do not think her manner dignified, as a Princess’s ought to be, or, indeed, as I should wish a daughter of mine to behave. She hates her ‘Granny’, as she calls her – loves nobody except Princesses Mary and Sophia, goes swaggering about, and she twangs hands with all the men, is in awe of no one and glories in her independent way of thinking. Her passion is horses – that and mathematics are the only amusements she has. Her riding is beautiful – no fear of course – gallops and leaps over every ditch like a schoolboy – gave her groom a cut with her whip about the back to-day and told him he was always in the way. This was in good humour though, but it is not acting en Princesse.

In July, with relief, Charlotte returned to Warwick House and renewed her regular but now less frequent visits to her mother at Kensington Palace. Lady Glenbervie, who was present at one of these, seems to have shared the reservations of Lady Albinia. She admitted that Charlotte was ‘grown tall and very graceful’, but she added that she was ‘forward, dogmatic on all subjects, buckish about horses, and full of exclamations very like swearing.’

Like most young ladies in those days, Charlotte wore long drawers, and when she stretched out in a chair after dinner they showed beyond the hem of her dress.

Lady de Clifford suggested that she should adopt a more dignified position. ‘My dear Princess Charlotte’, she said, ‘You show your drawers.’

‘I never do but where I can put myself at my ease’, said Charlotte.

‘Yes, my dear’, said Lady de Clifford, presuming to contradict her, ‘When you get out of your carriage.’

‘I don’t care if I do’, said Charlotte.

Lady de Clifford pressed her point. ‘Your drawers are much too long’, she said.

‘I do not think so’, said the Princess. ‘The Duchess of Bedford’s are much longer, and they are bordered with Brussels lace.’

‘Oh’, said Lady de Clifford, giving in as always. ‘If she is to wear them she does well to make them handsome.’

That evening in Kensington Palace may have been the last outing of Princess Charlotte the total tomboy. A few days earlier, on 11 October, she had written to Mercer, ‘George FitzClarence is arrived from Portugal; I saw him the very day he arrived in town, much grown & looking very well. At present he is in town but joins the Prince’s regiment at Brighton soon. He told me the troops were in good spirits, but that the French were 20 thousand
than us.’

Tall, dark and handsome Captain George FitzClarence was Charlotte’s illegitimate cousin. His father was her uncle William, Duke of Clarence – the future King William IV. His mother was Mrs Jordan, the most popular and admired actress on the London stage. Two years older than Charlotte, he was an officer in her father’s regiment, the 10th, which was now designated hussars and dressed even more extravagantly than before.

But George’s commission was no sinecure. He had seen action and had already demonstrated the qualities that would one day earn him the earldom of Munster and the exalted rank of Major-General. At the age of only fifteen he had joined the little British army in Portugal. Since then, commanded by Arthur Wellesley, who had been rewarded for his success with the title of Viscount Wellington, that army had chased the French back into Spain and was now advancing after them; George had served with it all the way. Only five months before his regiment returned to England, he had been captured by the French while lying wounded on the battlefield of Fuentes de Onoro, and had escaped a few days later when his wounds were only half healed.

George was on leave, and he was so taken with his royal cousin that he went out as often as he could to ride beside her carriage when she took the air in the parks of London or Windsor.

In Windsor in particular, Lady de Clifford had always dreaded these daily excursions. The Princess often took the reins herself, and would frequently leave the track and drive hard at every bump in the ground, rejoicing in Lady de Clifford’s discomfort as she bounced around in terror. But now there was a different cause for dread, even though it made Charlotte’s conduct more sedate. In an age that judged so much by appearances, it was unseemly for a young lady to be seen chatting to the same officer beside her carriage day after day, just as it was unseemly for her to be seen sitting alone on a sofa with the same gentleman for any length of time.

Lady de Clifford felt that it was her duty to report the matter to the Prince Regent, although she assured him, justifiably, that the relationship was entirely innocent.

It should have been a relief to her therefore when, after only six weeks, George FitzClarence rejoined his regiment in Brighton. But by then she was obliged to report that there was another illegitimate cousin riding devotedly beside the carriage in his place.

This was Lieutenant Charles Hesse of the 18th King’s Irish
Hussars. His father was the Duke of York, and his mother, it was said, was an aristocratic German lady. He was not nearly as tall as George FitzClarence and, like many officers in Irish regiments in those days, he was a little bit of a rogue, but, like almost all of them, he was engagingly charming. And Charlotte adored him.

There is no record of how Charlotte met her ‘little lieutenant’. She may have been introduced to him by George FitzClarence, or she may have met him through her mother. Like all sensible suitors, Charles Hesse paid court to Charlotte’s mother, to such an extent that she later told Mercer she was not sure whether he was her lover or her mother’s. The Princess of Wales used Charles to carry letters to her daughter, which of course was a good excuse to ride up to her carriage, and Charlotte used her mother as one of the several couriers who carried her letters to Charles. For two or three months, between their meetings, she wrote to him recklessly and gave him presents, and she continued to write to him after he went down to Portsmouth to prepare for his regiment’s embarkation for Spain.

Lady de Clifford was well aware that Charlotte and Charles were too fond of each other. She tried to prevent their meetings in the park, but as always she lost the argument. As a woman of the world – as a woman who had lived at the French court – she must also have been made suspicious by Charlotte’s long absences during some of their visits to Kensington Palace. But she may not have known for certain, as others did, that the Princess of Wales had let Lieutenant Hesse into the palace through the garden door. During those absences, he and Princess Charlotte were locked up together in her mother’s bedchamber.

BOOK: Charlotte & Leopold
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