Read Charlotte & Leopold Online
Authors: James Chambers
After that dinner the Grand Duchess Catherine and Princess Charlotte visited each other often at the Pulteney Hotel and Warwick House – so often in fact that the Prince Regent sent Sir Henry Halford to Warwick House with an order for Miss Knight. She was to do all that she could to reduce the frequency of these meetings. It was an order that Miss Knight had neither the power nor the will to obey. She could cut down on Charlotte’s visits to the Pulteney Hotel, but she could do nothing to prevent the Grand Duchess from coming round to Warwick House – which was fortunate. Since the Regent was preventing his daughter from appearing anywhere in society other than at Carlton House, these visits were almost the only occasions on which the Princess and the Grand Duchess were able to meet.
One evening at a dinner party given by Lord and Lady Liverpool, the Prince Regent sat with the Grand Duchess Catherine on his right and the Princess Lieven, wife of the Russian Ambassador, on his left. In the course of dinner the Grand Duchess turned to him.
‘Why, your Royal Highness, do you keep your daughter under lock and key?’ she asked. ‘Why does she appear nowhere?’
‘My daughter is too young, Madame, to appear in society’, said the Prince.
‘She is not too young for you to have chosen her a husband.’
The Prince was clearly uncomfortable. ‘She will not be married for another two years’, he said.
‘When she is married’, said the Grand Duchess, ‘I hope she will know how to make up for her present imprisonment.’
The Prince snapped back at her. ‘When she is married, Madame, she will do her husband’s will, just as at present she is doing mine.’
The Grand Duchess smiled and spoke very sweetly. ‘Ah, yes. Your Royal Highness is right. Between husband and wife there can only be one will.’
So far the conversation had been conducted in French. But now the Prince turned to the Princess Lieven and spoke in English, in rage, and loudly enough for everyone at the table to hear him.
‘This is intolerable!’
The Grand Duchess and Charlotte continued to meet, and the Grand Duchess was always as blunt with Charlotte as she had been with her father. She told her that she thought the Prince Regent was ‘a voluptuary’. And as for the Duke of Clarence, he was positively ‘vulgar’. While they were in Holland he had actually been so presumptuous as to propose to her.
It was at one of these meetings, on 5 April, that Lord Bathurst called to inform Princess Charlotte that the allies had entered Paris. Four days later news came that Napoleon had abdicated.
VER THE NEXT
eight weeks the Prince Regent, his staff and his government were preoccupied with planning all the balls, banquets and ceremonies that would take place in June, when most of the sovereigns and statesmen of Europe were due to assemble in London as his guests. Other than taking part in the events themselves, there was nothing he enjoyed more than organising them, and his preoccupation added further delays to the written negotiations that were still passing backwards and forwards between the splendour of Carlton House and his daughter's dingy home next door.
The Prince Regent still stubbornly insisted that Charlotte must spend some time each year in Holland, and he used every argument and every messenger in his campaign to change her mind. He even sent the Duke of York to reason with her. But Charlotte, who had not said that she would never go to Holland, still insisted equally stubbornly that she must not be forced to go against her will.
Eventually, early in the morning of 30 April, a servant went to Miss Knight and told her that there was a young officer, Captain St George, at the door. Miss Knight went down to meet him and then
rushed upstairs to Charlotte, who was still in bed. The young officer was the Hereditary Prince of Orange, who had just arrived from The Hague, travelling incognito.
Someone had clearly sent for him in the hope that he at least might be able to influence Charlotte. But Prince William did not even try. He agreed with her. He hoped that she would come with him to Holland sometimes, but it would be quite unreasonable to make her come against her will.
The Prince Regent had lost. But he took his time to accept and admit it. It was not until 6 June that he went round to Warwick House, accompanied by âthe Great UP', and told Charlotte that her marriage contract would stipulate that she must not leave England against her will.
Next day Tsar Alexander of Russia and King Frederick of Prussia were welcomed into London by cheering crowds.
On his arrival at Dover, the Tsar had told the crowd on the dock, âGod be praised! I have set foot upon the land that has saved us all.' But it was only a courteous gesture. Just as the Prince Regent behaved as though he was personally responsible for every allied victory, the handsome and unusually liberal Tsar was rather more reasonably convinced that it was the Russians who had been the deciding force in the defeat of Napoleon.
The little British army had tied down enormous numbers of French soldiers in Spain. The Royal Navy had destroyed Napoleon's fleet. The British government had provided the subsidies that paid for Prussian and Austrian troops. But it was the Russians, their winter and the vastness of their country that had destroyed Napoleon's Grande ArmÃ©e.
Tsar Alexander was now wary of the British. He harboured suspicions regarding their ambitions in Europe, and he was alarmed at the prospect of an overwhelming combination of the Dutch fleet and the Royal Navy. Since 1812 the British had been at war with the United States, and blockading British warships were at that very
moment preventing Russian merchantmen from trading in New York harbour.
But the British government was also wary of the Tsar. He was not a reliable ally. After his initial defeats he had, like his father before him, changed sides, formed an alliance with Napoleon and declared war on Great Britain â two years later, when the Grand Duchess Catherine married Prince George of Oldenberg, some gossips said that she only did it to avoid being forced to marry Napoleon, who had just divorced Josephine.
In 1812, however, when Napoleon invaded Russia, suspecting correctly that the Tsar was thinking about changing sides again, the Russian ruler was left with no choice but to do what he was planning to do anyway.
Not for the last time, British and Russian allies were emerging from a terrible war in a mixed mood of gratitude and mistrust.
When the King of Prussia and the Tsar of Russia reached Carlton House, where they were due to stay, the King disliked the opulent furniture in his bedroom so much that he asked to be given a simple camp-bed, and the Tsar disliked the Prince Regent so much that he climbed into his Ambassador's coach and went round to the Pulteney Hotel to stay with his sister instead.
As he walked up the steps to the hotel door, the Tsar turned and raised his hat to acknowledge the cheers of the crowd. Londoners were to grow hoarse with cheering in the course of the next few weeks. Their capital contained all the great allied commanders, except Wellington, who was on duty in Paris, and they cheered every one of them wherever he went. Loudest of all, they cheered the 72-year-old Prussian Field Marshal BlÃ¼cher, who was given the freedom of the city for doing more than anyone in central Europe to defeat the French army in the field. They cheered all the emperors and the kings. In the absence of the Emperor of Austria, who had stayed at home, they cheered his chancellor, Prince Metternich. They cheered the dozens of minor princes, even though they seldom knew who
they were. They cheered Charlotte. They still cheered her mother. But they did not cheer the Prince Regent or the Queen. Indeed they sometimes spat at them. The people were still incensed at the ostracising of the Princess of Wales.
When all the sovereigns, princes, statesmen and commanders were received at court, the only members of the royal family who were â conspicuously â absent were the Princess of Wales and her daughter Princess Charlotte. Realising that this was a slight, the Tsar and his sister decided to go up to Connaught House and call on the Princess of Wales. But they were dissuaded by their Ambassador, who threatened to resign if they did â his wife was having an affair with Earl Grey at the time, and as a result he knew rather more than most people about the real nature of the Princess of Wales.
The Tsar and his sister did have a chance to see the Princess of Wales, however. It was on the evening when all the royal guests went to the opera. The Prince Regent sat in the royal box with the Tsar of Russia, the King of Prussia and the Grand Duchess Catherine, and the other princes sat in the boxes on their left. As they entered to the strains of the national anthem, they saw that the Princess of Wales was standing in the box opposite.
When the anthem was over, some of the young men in the stalls encouraged the audience to applaud the Princess of Wales. Her lady-in-waiting, Lady Charlotte Campbell, suggested that she should rise and acknowledge the applause with a curtsey.
âMy dear', said the Princess, âPunch's wife is nobody when Punch is present.'
She was sure that her husband would think that the applause was for him. And sure enough she was right. The Prince Regent stood up and bowed to the audience in acknowledgement.
At the end of the performance, the audience stood and applauded again as the Prince Regent and the other sovereigns left. But they were applauding his guests, not him. When they had all gone,
the audience turned and directed much warmer applause to the box where the Princess of Wales was still standing. This time she acknowledged it with three smiling curtsies.
A few days later, however, at a breakfast party near Woolwich, she was seen sitting under a tree in the garden with a pot of strong beer on her knee. By the end of the party she was in a mood to be merry. She ordered all the doors in the house to be opened, grabbed a partner and set off at a gallop, calling to the other guests to follow her in flat-out procession through every room.
It was not regarded as seemly conduct for a member of the royal family. Some of the gentlemen present had been among those who led the applause at the opera. After seeing their reaction to the latest spectacle, one of the ladies, the Hon. Amelia Murray, reported that, in her opinion, they would not be so anxious to clap the Princess again.
On 10 June, while her father and most of his guests were at Ascot at the races, Charlotte signed her marriage contract and sent it round to Carlton House. In the evening she learned that her âSlender Billy' had been made drunk at Ascot by Prince Paul of Wurtemberg and sent back to London like a day-tripper on top of a stagecoach. It was not the first time she had heard about her prince getting drunk â it was said that he got drunk on a visit back to Oxford â and it was not to be the last.
Two days later Charlotte attended the great banquet which her father gave for all his visitors at Carlton House. It was the only state occasion that she was allowed to attend. She had never seen anything like it. The house was full of young princes and officers. Next to most of these, her own Prince of Orange, who was a little bit drunk again, did not look like much of a catch.
By common consent, the handsomest of all was a tall, very dark young officer wearing the striking all-white uniform of the Russian heavy cavalry. When Charlotte noticed him he was at the other end of the crimson drawing room talking earnestly to a young lady.
According to one of the friends who were with her, Charlotte turned to them and âobserved how strange it was that the young lady did not seem more gratified by his attention'.
Charlotte did not get a chance to be introduced to this officer. But during the evening she was introduced to another, who was very charming, distinguished, almost as handsome and about ten years older than the hero in white. He was Prince Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich August von Preussen, a nephew of Frederick the Great. In the course of the next month, with the giddy assistance of Cornelia Knight, this Prince was to be calling recklessly often at Warwick House.
uncle the Duke of Kent, Prince Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich August was the only ‘black sheep’ in the Prussian royal family.
August, as he was known, was a good soldier. He fought with distinction at the battles of Auerstädt and Prenzlau, where he was wounded and captured. For a year after that he was a prisoner in France. But, like most high-ranking prisoners, he was given a certain amount of freedom in return for his promise not to attempt an escape. He was allowed to visit Madame de Staël, who was then holding court in the country at Coppet, and it was there that he met the famously beautiful Madame Récamier.
When she was only sixteen Juliette Récamier had been married to a banker who was forty-eight and probably impotent. For a dozen years her salon had been the most fashionable and cultured in Paris. But in 1806, when her husband lost all his money and could no longer afford to support her salon, she went to stay for a while with Madame de Staël.
In the following year Prince August came to call on her hostess. By
then he was twenty-nine and Juliette Récamier was thirty. Inevitably, like almost every man who met her, he fell in love with her; to the surprise of everyone at Coppet, the notoriously cold-blooded beauty also fell in love with him. He was, she admitted, the only one of her many lovers who ever made her heart beat. They met often. When Prince August went back to Prussia, they exchanged letters. When the Prince proposed, Madame Récamier accepted. She would marry him if her husband would give her a divorce.
Jacques-Rose Récamier loved his wife so much that he was willing to let her go if it would make her happy, and he told her so in a letter so eloquent that even she was moved by it. She could not bring herself to abandon him in adversity. So it was Prince August’s heart that was broken, not Monsieur Récamier’s.
After that Prince August ceased to care. He was impetuous in battle and charmingly intemperate everywhere else. He became the kind of officer that old Blücher loved, and he commanded a brigade for him at the three-day battle of Leipzig. He was the lover of many mistresses, sometimes simultaneously, and he was the acknowledged father of several bastards. When he came to London in 1814 he brought with him two hard-earned reputations as a hero and a libertine.
Charlotte’s head was turned by him, and so, unfortunately, was Cornelia Knight’s. He was worldly, entertaining and confident. Within days he and Charlotte were exchanging presents, including rings. They promised to write to each other after August returned to Prussia, and Miss Knight agreed to act as their secret messenger.
For once the lady companion’s common sense had deserted her. She may not have known much about Prince August’s private life, but she did know that he was almost twice Charlotte’s age, and that Charlotte was engaged to somebody else. And yet none of this seems to have mattered. To Miss Knight, this was much more the sort of prince who ought to be courting her beloved Princess.
Mercer, who must have known much more about the Prince, did
not agree with her. When she went round to Warwick House one day she was met in the hall by an excited ‘Chevalier’ and told that Charlotte was alone in her room with Prince August.
Mercer was horrified. She insisted that Miss Knight must go upstairs and sit with them or ask the Prince to leave. When she refused, Mercer went up and broke up the meeting herself.
Prince August had little to lose. He had a reputation for this sort of thing already. But Charlotte’s reputation was impeccable, and it would have to stay that way if she ever wanted to be married. Even if she had not been engaged, the rumour that she was having secret assignations with a man like Prince August would have done at least as much damage as the story of her ‘folly’ with the little hussar.
But, despite the freedom that it promised, Charlotte’s enthusiasm for her engagement was waning, and this was not just due to the attraction of Prince August, or the discovery that her betrothed was a callow, scruffy boy who could not even hold his liquor. Other forces were at work, trying to change her mind as well.
The more moderate Whigs, like Earl Grey and the Duke of Sussex, still had reservations about the cost of a close Dutch alliance, and they were still concerned that the Prince Regent had only been trying to get his daughter out of the country in order to induce his wife to leave as well. But the Radical Whigs, like Brougham and Whitbread, felt thwarted by the Regent’s capitulation. They were still passionately opposed to the marriage.
The restriction imposed on Charlotte’s visits to her mother and her mother’s continuing exclusion from court were political weapons that the Radicals were loath to lose. Making indignant criticisms of both or either was still their best way of embarrassing the Regent and his government. But if Charlotte got married, they would be bound to lose one. As mistress of her own household, she would be entitled to receive anyone she pleased, including her mother. And if her mother went abroad, either because Charlotte had gone or else because she disapproved of the marriage, they would lose both.
Brougham was blunt. At a secret meeting, he warned Charlotte of what he saw as the consequences of marriage. Her mother would no longer have a good reason for staying in England, and her father might even bribe her to go. Once her mother was out of the country, she would no longer be a focus for popular support. Her father would be able to divorce her quietly without too much public opposition. If that happened, he would probably get married again, and if that happened, he might well have a son. Once there was a male heir, Charlotte could no longer look forward to being Queen of England. For the time being, he said, it was Charlotte’s duty not to marry and stand by her mother.
So Charlotte had three reasons for avoiding marriage – the dismal prospect of Prince William himself; the hope that she might marry some other prince, preferably Prince August; and the duty to stand by her mother which, incidentally, would also protect her own position as heir presumptive.
Since Mercer was in London at the time, there is no written evidence of Charlotte’s real motive, but the reason that she chose as an excuse was her duty to stay loyal to her mother.
On 16 June Charlotte had a meeting with William at Warwick House and told him that she could only marry him if he would accept that her mother would always be welcome in their home. When he said that he would never be allowed to agree to that, she told him that she could not marry him. The Hereditary Prince could not believe it. He asked her to think again and then left, offended and crestfallen.
Charlotte thought again and wrote to him that evening, with words, grammar and spelling that sounded more like the voice of Brougham than her own.
After reconsidering according to your wishes the conversation that passed between us this morning, I am still of the opinion that the duties and affection that naturally bind us to our respective countries
render our marriage incompatible… From recent circumstances that have occurred I am fully convinced my interest is materially connected with that of my mother… After what has passed upon this subject this morning between us (which was much too conclusive to require further explanation) I must consider our engagement from this moment to be
totally and for ever at an end
. I leave the explanation of this affair to be made by you to the Prince…
She then ended with her sincere concern for causing him pain and asked him to accept her best wishes for his happiness.
Two days later she received a brief reply. ‘I found the night before last your letter, and have lost no time to acquaint my family with its contents, but cannot comply with your wish by doing the same with regard to the Regent… Hoping that you shall never feel any cause to repent of the step you have now taken, I remain… etc.’
‘Good English he writes’, said Charlotte sarcastically.
Since Charlotte was the one who had broken off the engagement, it was reasonable to say that she was the one who should tell her father, but Charlotte thought it was cowardly. When she wrote to her father herself that day, she made out that it was the Prince who had broken off the engagement. ‘He told me that our duties were divided, that our respective interests were in our different countries… Such an avowal was sufficient at once to prove to me Domestick happiness was out of the question.’
The Prince Regent received the news ‘with astonishment, grief and concern’. When it got out, as it was bound to do, the Radical Whigs and the Princess of Wales were jubilant. But the Regent and his advisers bided their time. His imperial and royal guests were about to leave. Since they were all sympathetic to Charlotte, it would be wiser to let them go before starting any family rows.
Charlotte and Cornelia Knight went round to the Pulteney Hotel to join the throng of others who had gone to say goodbye to the Tsar and his sister. When at last they reached the Grand Duchess Catherine’s apartment, she led Charlotte into an anteroom and came out leaving her alone with the Tsar. Miss Knight insisted that this was improper and that she must join them. When she entered, the Tsar was trying in vain to make Charlotte reconsider her marriage. The Hereditary Prince of Orange was in the building. She had only to find him and tell him that she had changed her mind. He went up to a newspaper lying on a table and pointed at a paragraph as he spoke. She was ‘giving up an excellent marriage, one essential to the interests of her country, and all to be praised by a Mr Whit-bread’.
The Tsar accepted defeat and took his leave. Charlotte came out of the anteroom agitated. If she left now she was bound to meet the Hereditary Prince in the waiting room or on the stairs or in the hall. The Grand Duchess led her to a small door, opened it and pointed to the back stairs. She kissed Princess Charlotte, and then, to the great delight of the lady companion, she kissed Cornelia Knight.
Charlotte and Miss Knight beat their undignified retreat down the back stairs, which led into a little hall beside the main hall. Several people had come into it to avoid the crush in the main hall, and one of them, at the foot of the stairs with his back to them, was a tall, dark, handsome officer wearing the all-white uniform of the Russian heavy cavalry.
The officer turned. He was not more than twenty-four years old, but his badges signified that he was already a Lieutenant-General. He asked if he could help the ladies. Miss Knight explained that this was the Princess Charlotte of Wales and that they would be grateful if he would see them to her carriage.
The officer escorted the ladies through the throng, found the carriage and handed them into it.
Charlotte thanked him and asked his name.
When she learned he was a prince, she scolded him for not having called on her like most of the other princes.
The Prince begged her forgiveness and asked to be allowed to make up for his omission.
The carriage drove away.
The Prince walked back up the steps to the hotel.
He was the General Officer Commanding the Heavy Cavalry of the Tsar, Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld.