Exactly two hundred years and one day ago, Princess Charlotte saw Prince Leopold for the first time. They were not introduced, in fact they did not even speak to one another. Perhaps it was just as well. That evening, Charlotte was an engaged woman, having only the previous day signed the marriage contract which bound her to another man. In addition to which, she was currently infatuated with another young Prussian princeling. Nevertheless, within two years, the prince and the princess would be married to one another, and though only briefly, would enjoy their happily ever after.
The night the princess glimpsed her fairy tale prince …
Though Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales was second in line to the throne of England from the day she was born, her status did not make for an easy life. Within a year of her birth, her parents were not just estranged, they were mortal enemies and would remain so throughout her life. She was regularly used by each of them as a pawn in that ongoing battle. Despite all of that, she grew up to be a lovely, spontaneous and warm-hearted young woman. On 7 January 1814, the princess turned eighteen, at which time she believed she had attained her majority and not only would be allowed more freedom in her daily life, she expected she would enter into the social life of the Court. And so she should have. Had it not been for her selfish, debauched and cowardly father, the Prince Regent. Perhaps if Princess Charlotte had ignored her mother and ostentatiously fawned over her father, she might have been treated better by the Regent. But she did her best to try to maintain good relations with both parents. Prinny then assumed she was not totally "on his side" and therefore, did not fully trust her. As she grew into a young woman, and his own reputation became increasingly besmirched by his flagrantly immoral behavior, he became aware that the majority of the people in England were looking forward to the reign of his daughter, whom they considered decent, honest and pure of heart.
Princess Charlotte should have been presented at court soon after her eighteenth birthday, but the Regent contrived to prevent it. He also ensured that she was not only watched, but was kept even more closely by her governesses at Warwick House than ever before. Eventually, with the arrival of the Allied Sovereigns in London to celebrate the defeat of Napoleon, the Prince Regent could no longer ignore his daughter and heir. Her coming out was planned, and the Princess received an order to attend the Queen’s Drawing Room on Thursday, 2 June 1814, to make her debut into society. However, that summons was bittersweet since it arrived after Princess Charlotte learned that her mother, Princess Caroline, was to be excluded on direct orders from the Regent. Another Drawing Room was held on Wednesday, 8 June 1814, which Princess Charlotte attended, though again her mother was barred from the event. And her father, though present, made no effort to speak to her, in fact, he took no notice of her at all. The Regent, ever jealous of his daughter’s growing popularity, ensured she did not attend an important event he was hosting that Friday, 10 June 1814. On that day, the royal visitors, and a large party of courtiers, spent the day at the Ascot race course, following which, all returned to Windsor where they dined at Frogmore House. Princess Charlotte was not invited for the day’s racing, nor to the dinner that followed. Instead, she remained at Warwick House, with only her governesses as companions, dealing with an issue she found most distasteful. There were a few among the royal party who commented on the Regent’s neglect of his daughter, but he seems to have ignored those comments.
Nearly the instant she turned sixteen, the Prince Regent began planning his daughter’s marriage, with no regard for her wishes at all. These marriage arrangements were intended, in part, to strengthen Britain’s alliance with a continental power, but the Regent had an agenda of his own. He intended, by marrying his daughter to a foreign prince, to effectively remove her from his realm. By so doing, he hoped the British people would soon forget about her and would then stop comparing him so unfavorably with her. Spoiled and selfish to an astonishing degree, he could not bear to share the lime-light with anyone, even his own daughter and the future Queen of England. The husband the Regent chose for Princess Charlotte was Willem Frederik George Lodewijk van Oranje-Nassau, the hereditary Prince of Orange, though he did not inform his daughter of his plans, as he kept all such negotiations quite secret. Princess Charlotte first saw Prince William when she was seventeen, on 12 August 1813, at her father’s birthday party. She was not favorably impressed, as he proceeded to become heavily intoxicated. She soon realized Prince William was the husband her father intended for her, based on the whispering she had overheard at Carlton House and at Windsor. When she later received an invitation to dine at Lady Liverpool’s, she suspected the Prince of Orange would be one of the party and made her excuses due to illness. Her guess had been correct and her father was furious that she had dodged the meeting he had planned in an attempt to show Prince William in a better light. A few days later, Prinny sent his physician, Sir Henry Halford, to Charlotte, ostensibly to check on her health, but in reality the doctor had been ordered to gauge the princess’s receptivity to the match. She made it clear that she found the young man rather unprepossessing, and added that she had no interest in marriage to a foreigner. When this was conveyed to the Regent, he became enraged and assumed Charlotte, with the connivance of her mother, had fixed her attentions elsewhere.
After many arguments and scolds delivered by the Regent, and intense persuasion brought to bear on the young princess by several other members of her family, she eventually agreed to reconsider the matter. She was formally introduced to Prince William at a dinner party at Carlton House in December of 1813, and soon thereafter, agreed to consider the marriage. For a brief time, she did contemplate marriage to the thin, unattractive and rag-mannered young prince, only as a means of escaping her father’s increasingly overbearing control of her life. But the more time she spent with the Prince of Orange, the less she liked him or the idea of being bound to him for the rest of her life. She wrote to her mother, "I think him so ugly that I am almost obliged to turn my head away in disgust when he is speaking to me." A staunch Whig herself, Charlotte wrote to Earl Grey, the leader of the Whigs, for advice. He counseled her to play for time, and very soon, Prince William himself gave her an ideal reason to avoid signing her marriage contract. The Regent brought the Prince of Orange to Warwick House, on the grounds of Carlton House, where Charlotte was living, to give the couple time together. When the Regent turned away in a lull in the conversation, William, wishing to be completely honest with his bride-to-be, told Charlotte that she would be expected to reside in Holland with him for several months each year, and to follow him any time his army went on campaign. Certain that this was part of her father’s plot to banish her from the kingdom, and having no wish to live abroad, Charlotte began sobbing uncontrollably. Her father tried to make a joke of it and immediately hustled the prince out of the house. The Prince of Orange returned to Holland soon thereafter without seeing Princess Charlotte again. From that point on, Charlotte raised every possible objection to the marriage negotiations and steadfastly refused to sign the marriage contract.
In June of 1814, all of the sovereigns of the countries allied against Napoleon came to London to celebrate the tyrant’s defeat and exile. Prince William of Orange was among their number. Though William, who was remarkably promiscuous with partners of both genders, had no love for Charlotte, he was keen to ally his tiny kingdom of Holland with Great Britain. Eventually, he prevailed upon the Regent and Parliament to agree that once he was married to Princess Charlotte, she would not be compelled to leave England except by her own choice. Such a clause was inserted into the marriage contract, the revised version of which was sent to Princess Charlotte on 9 June 1814, the day after her second Queen’s Drawing Room. This news certainly took the wind out of her sails, since it removed her principal objection to the marriage. The development was even more painful to her since, during a dinner party at Carlton House a few weeks before, she had met Prince Frederick, the nineteen-year-old nephew of the King of Prussia. She immediately fell head over heels in love with the very handsome young man, despite the fact that he was significantly beneath her in rank and fortune. Though she fancied herself in love, Charlotte was well aware she had no further legitimate objections to marriage to Prince William of Orange. On 10 June 1814, when then Prince Regent and his party went off to Ascot for the races, Princess Charlotte, left out of the festivities, spent the day at her home, Warwick House, going over the new version of the marriage contract. Feeling she had no choice, she signed it later that day, binding herself to a man she did not love and could even bear to look at.
It was not until the next day, Saturday, 11 June, that Charlotte learned of the outrageously drunken escapades in which her betrothed had engaged at Ascot. But by then it seemed too late, she had trapped herself by setting her signature to the marriage contract. The next evening, Sunday, 12 June 1814, Princess Charlotte was a guest at one of the few State functions surrounding the victory celebrations which her father allowed her to attend, probably as a reward for at last signing the marriage contract. This event was a grand banquet given by the Regent at Carlton House for the Allied Sovereigns and the British nobility. That evening, as she wandered through the great Crimson Drawing Room where the State reception was held, Princess Charlotte caught sight of one of her acquaintances, engaged in conversation with a very tall and extraordinarily handsome young man in military uniform. The princess later told a friend that she was quite surprised by the fact that this young lady did not seem particularly gratified to be receiving the attention of such an elegant and remarkably good-looking gentleman. By the time the Charlotte reached her acquaintance, the handsome officer had moved away and she did not encounter him again that night. The handsome officer was, as she would later learn, Prince Leopold Georg Christian Friedrich of the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.
Prince Leopold was the youngest son of a minor German house who joined the Russian army at a very young age. He refused an appointment to Napoleon’s staff as an adjutant, and instead, took up a position in the Russian cavalry, where he distinguished himself on the battlefield. Prince Leopold was a great favorite of Tsar Alexander I and his sister, Catherine, Grand Duchess of Oldenburg. He came to London for the victory celebrations as part of the Grand Duchess’ entourage. Princess Charlotte had become acquainted with the Grand Duchess, a woman who heartily despised the Prince Regent. The Grand Duchess had no use for political marriages. To avoid being pressed into a marriage with Napoleon Bonaparte, Catherine had married her first cousin, George of Oldenburg. It was a very happy marriage and Catherine was deeply saddened by his death. So Princess Charlotte found a sympathetic friend in whom she could confide her fears and objections to the marriage her father had arranged with Prince William of Orange. The Grand Duchess was also fond of Prince Leopold and was certain that on a personal level, he was a much more suitable match for the young English princess than was the Prince of Orange. Nevertheless, a few years later, Catherine would support the marriage between her younger sister, Anna, and that same Prince of Orange.
A day or two after the great banquet at Carlton House, Princess Charlotte paid a visit to her friend, the Grand Duchess, who was staying at the Pultney Hotel. Fortuitously, when Charlotte arrived, there was a gentleman with the Grand Duchess. He immediately bowed and withdrew, but Charlotte recognized him as the handsome officer she had seen in the Crimson Drawing Room at Carlton House. When she asked the Grand Duchess who he was, Catherine replied, "Prince Leopold, of Saxe-Cobourg, one of the most amiable and accomplished Princes in Europe, and a Protestant beside; —that’s the man for you." Upon her departure, Charlotte discovered that Prince Leopold had waited at the door of the anti-chamber so that he might hand her to her carriage. Though she was betrothed to the Prince of Orange and believed herself in love with Prince Frederick of Prussia, Charlotte, ever frank and open-hearted, shook hands with this new prince and invited him to Warwick House. Though Leopold had come to London, in part, to catch the eye of the young princess, he was much too well-mannered and sophisticated to take advantage of her open invitation. He consulted the Grand Duchess, who advised him to ask the Duke of York. The Duke of York, already tired of the many machinations around the marriage negotiations for his niece, told Leopold he must seek permission directly from the Prince Regent, which he did. However, the Regent, with a signed marriage contract in hand and determined to marry his daughter to the Prince of Orange, as quickly as possible, wanted no further interference or delay. He brusquely told the prince that he would not countenance any meeting between Leopold and Princess Charlotte. Soon after that, Prince Leopold returned to the Continent, certain he had missed his chance with the young English princess.
However, Leopold had not taken into consideration the determination and strong will of the young Princess Charlotte. On Thursday morning, 16 June 1814, the Prince of Orange paid a call on his betrothed at her home, Warwick House. During that conversation, Charlotte informed William that she would not be able to travel with him to Holland immediately after their wedding, as had been planned. She was so disheartened by how her mother, Caroline, Princess of Wales, had been treated that she felt she must remain in England in support of her. Charlotte believed her mother would have no other protector if she were to leave the kingdom. Charlotte also made it clear that she would expect her mother to be welcome in their home after they were married. William refused to honor either of her requests. He also refused to go riding with his fiancee in the Riding House at Carlton House that afternoon, preferring to attend the programme of amusements prepared for the visiting dignitaries, which included a visit to the Mint. That evening, while Prince William dined at Lord Castlereagh’s home and then went on to dance at Lady Hertford’s ball, he made several jests about the "tantrums" he had had to endure from his future wife. Little did he know, that same evening that furious young lady was at her desk, writing the letter which terminated their engagement.
Within two years, Princess Charlotte recovered from her tendre for Prince Frederick, and turned her attentions to the handsome and elegant Prince Leopold. Though there were a number of vicissitudes along their way, on Thursday evening, 2 May 1816, Princess Charlotte and Prince Leopold were married in the Crimson Drawing Room at Carlton House. The very same room in which Charlotte had first set eyes on Leopold. And, for a short time, they did live happily ever after.