8 May 2023

Who was the real Queen Charlotte?

Queen Charlotte, the wife of King George III, is the subject of a lavish Bridgerton prequel, which is launching on Netflix this month. She is also commemorated by the Queen Charlotte’s Ball, which was hosted by King George in 1780 in honour of the Queen’s birthday. The Queen funded a London women’s hospital, later named the Queen Charlotte and Chelsea Hospital, with funds raised by the ball. Famously, she stood next to a gigantic birthday cake as the debutantes of the day filed by, dropping a curtsy to the Queen, a tradition that has persisted.

The Queen Charlotte’s Ball became an annual event each May, the fulcrum of the social season, which was defined by the movements of the Royal Family, who were in residence in the capital from April to July and from October until Christmas. During these months, the aristocracy and members of the ruling classes made it their custom to reside in London. 

Well-bred girls, or ‘debutantes’, were launched into society at the age of 17 or 18 with a formal introduction to the monarch and a debut at the high-profile ball. The parties and special events of the ensuing months showcased the debutantes’ charms to potential suitors.

The day on which a young girl was formally presented to the Sovereign was considered one of the most important in her life. Debutantes received Summons from the Sovereign and these Royal commands had to be obeyed. On presentation, the debutante and her mother were ushered into the Royal presence and announced. The debutante stepped forward and made a low curtsy to both the King and Queen, who each bowed in acknowledgment. She was then expected to exit, walking backwards, from the Royal Presence.

In 1957, the late Queen Elizabeth II in 1957 terminated the archaic practice of Court presentations altogether. The formal framework of the Season gradually dissolved, leaving a series of high profile events, from balls and concerts to sporting events and horse-racing, that traditionally form the backbone of the English social scene in the spring and early summer.

Queen Charlotte of Mecklenberg-Strelitz (1744–1818)

It is a curious fact that Queen Charlotte has become associated with a glamorous society ball and an equally glittering Netflix drama because she is primarily famous for being ugly and rather dull. For the English who greeted her arrival in London in 1761 to marry George III she was a figure of ridicule, who had lived in penurious seclusion in a tiny German principality and knew nothing of high society. Her looks caused general dismay; in a period when voluptuous, buxom women were the ideal, Charlotte was small and thin with a sallow complexion, a plain face and terrible dress sense. But she had the strength of character to resist the sycophantic attentions of her ladies in waiting when she landed on the English coast, saying “Let the king dress himself, I shall dress as I please”.

On the day of her marriage and Coronation, she was swamped by her ermine-trimmed purple velvet mantle and weighted down by a set of enormous pearls. Undaunted, she is said to have entertained the crowd after the Coronation by singing and playing the harpsichord (she was very musical).

Music would form an important bond between Charlotte and George, and they settled down to a cosy domestic life together, enjoying playing music, hosting musical evenings and attending horse races. Charlotte proved extremely fertile and was almost continually pregnant; she had 15 children 13 of whom survived. The royal family upheld rather strait-laced and puritanical values and Charlotte enjoyed presiding over an austere and, according to many observers, dull household. For the first few years of her marriage, she lived a contented and domesticated life.

George, on the other hand, aspired to be a true ruler, despite the fact that he was extremely ill-educated and ignorant, and he soon found himself in perpetual conflict with his ministers. This led to his first breakdown, which unfortunately manifested in complete sexual disinhibition and a tendency to make passes at the ladies of the court. Charlotte was a compassionate and understanding nurse and within a couple of months he was beginning to recover, but this was only the beginning of his illness.

Under pressure because of the long-drawn-out agony of the war with the American colonies, and beset by extravagant sons, most notably the Prince of Wales, who were dissipated and undisciplined, George was forced to retreat to Windsor Castle, where his madness took hold. It has long been theorised that George was suffering from a genetic blood disorder called porphyria, though more recent research indicates that he might have been suffering from bipolar disorder. As the illness took hold, he entered violent phases, attacking his pages, assaulting and terrorising the ladies of the court, and threatening his wife. He was locked in combat with the Prince of Wales, who planned to use his father’s madness as a reason to become regent.

Alarmed, Charlotte chose to fight the calumnies that were being spread about the king by his sons, taking him out in public again with his daughters. Her loyalty effectively killed off the Regency Bill but Charlotte was forced to keep up a brave public front as the king see-sawed between madness and lucidity. When her husband eventually went blind in 1811, she had to accept her son’s regency. Probably relieved, she withdrew back into her domestic life with her husband, eventually dying in 1817 after she had presided over her youngest daughter’s wedding. Her husband survived her by two years.

Charlotte had endured contempt and disloyalty from her subjects and her family and had survived years of despair as she watched the mental decline of her husband. But she remained loyal and devoted, despite everything.


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