Regency Bicentennial: Princess Charlotte Bolts

The whole scandalous business began exactly two hundred years ago today, at about five o’clock in the afternoon. The Prince Regent had heard shocking rumors about his daughter, Princess Charlotte, and a certain rakish Prussian prince, which thoroughly infuriated him. He sent a note over to Warwick House, the home of Princess Charlotte, situated on the grounds of Carlton House, demanding that the Princess and her lady companion, Miss Cornelia Knight, attend him immediately. Princess Charlotte was suffering from a painfully sprained knee and could not walk any distance. She sent Miss Knight alone to wait upon the Regent.

In no little trepidation, Miss Knight set out to walk alone through the gardens of Carlton House …

Miss Knight was admitted into the Regent’s presence to find him " … very cold, very bitter and very silent." Despite Miss Knight’s sincere apology and explanation for the Princess’s absence, he was particularly angry that Charlotte had not come in response to his summons. He ordered Miss Knight to tell the Princess that if she did not present herself the next day, that Dr. Baillie, her physician, must come to the Regent himself with an explanation. Miss Knight hurried back through the gardens to Warwick House, where she related all to Princess Charlotte and Mercer Elphinstone, who had just arrived. That was Monday evening, 11 July 1814.

On the morning of the following day, Tuesday, 12 July 1814, Princess Charlotte, who had barely slept a wink fretting over what her mercurial father’s intentions might be, was feeling extremely ill. Though Dr. Baillie pronounced her knee fit to walk on, at least the distance to Carlton House, the Princess wrote a note, asking her father to come to her because she felt so unwell. The Regent took his time and did not arrive until about six o’clock in the evening, bringing with him "the Great Up." When the nine-year-old Princess Charlotte had been set up in her own establishment at Warwick House, Dr. John Fisher, Bishop of Exeter, was installed as her principal preceptor. He was a very pious man who had served as tutor to the Duke of Kent, but he was also dogmatic, pompous, officious and sadly lacking in humor. Whenever he referred to himself, he put a strong emphasis on the last syllable of his title, saying "Bish-UP." Little Princess Charlotte soon took to calling him "the Great Up." Rumors had reached the Princess that Bishop Fisher had spent several hours with her father the day before, just prior to the note which had summoned her to Carlton House. She had even heard that her father intended to remove all her ladies and servants and replace them with others who were loyal to him.

The Regent was already angry and frustrated with his daughter for steadfastly refusing to renew her broken engagement to the Prince of Orange. When he was told, falsely, that she was spending many hours alone at Warwick House in the company of the much older and worldly Prussian prince, he was furious, believing that was why she would not mend her quarrel with Prince William and agree to marry him. Though Miss Knight had tried to dispell the rumors about the Prussian prince in her meeting with the Regent the evening before, he had not believed her, thinking her too close to Charlotte and therefore unreliable. The Regent was also suffering from intense disappointment over the events of the summer. He had intended to be the great figurehead of the allied victory celebrations, but many of the allied sovereigns had been almost dismissive of him, certainly not treating him with the respect he believed he deserved. Several of them had had the temerity to criticize the fact that he had kept his daughter, and heir, from nearly all of the festivities though she was of age. He had been routinely hissed by the crowds, and his hated wife, Caroline, Princess of Wales, had recently made him look a fool at the theatre. Princess Charlotte was becoming more and more popular with the people, some of them actually expressing the hope he would die soon, they were so looking forward to having his daughter as their queen. Worst of all, his plan to banish her from his realm by marrying her to a European prince had been ruined by that young lady’s stubbornness and disobedience to him. He believed she had been aided and abetted in her stubborn disobedience by those ladies he had set in place to govern her. The Prince was in a mood to do something really disagreeable in order to mollify his own ill-temper.

The Regent demanded to see his daughter immediately upon his arrival. He was shown up to her room where he remained with her behind closed doors for about three-quarters of an hour. The Prince then called in Bishop Fisher and both were with the Princess for about another quarter of an hour. When they left, Charlotte emerged from the room in a most anguished state. She called Miss Knight into her dressing room, saying she had only the briefest moment to speak to her, since the Prince expected Miss Knight to come to him immediately. Charlotte, in great agitation, told Miss Knight that her father had brought with him a new set of ladies, and that all the servants had been dismissed. He demanded that she spend the night at Carlton House, where she was to stay for the next five days. After that, she would be sent to Cranbourne Lodge, which was located deep in the forest near Windsor Castle. She would not be permitted to send or receive any letters. In addition, she was to be allowed to see no one but the Queen, and the Queen would only visit her once a week. She was never to see Miss Knight or Mercer Elphinstone again. The Regent had threatened that if Charlotte did not leave immediately for Carlton House, he would stay at Warwick House with the new ladies until she did. Miss Knight tried to comfort her, but she recorded the Princess fell on her knees exclaiming "God Almighty grant me patience!" Moments later, the Princess urged Miss Knight to go down to her father, lest she rouse his wrath even more.

According to her autobiography, Miss Knight went directly to the Prince, who was with Bishop Fisher in the drawing room. He shut the door to the room, told her he had no wish to put a lady to inconvenience, but he wanted her to vacate the house immediately, since he wanted her room for the new ladies he was installing in the house. Miss Knight demanded to know what she had done to offend him and he said he had no complaint but that it was his right to make any changes he saw fit in the household of the Princess. He then said that if she had nowhere to go that night, he would make arrangements for her to stay a night or two at Carlton House. Miss Knight, who did not care much for the Prince, and who, fortunately, had several close friends in London whom she knew would take her in, informed the Regent that she would leave immediately and would not trouble him for a room at Carlton House. He ordered her to bring Charlotte to the drawing room so he could present her to her new ladies.

Upon leaving the Prince, Miss Knight was in for yet another shock. She could not find the Princess and then Mercer Elphinstone and Charlotte’s maid, Mrs. Louis, came up to her, asking if she knew where the Princess might be. Mercer had come to Warwick House that evening with her ladies’s maid, to dress there, in company with Princess Charlotte, which they often did when they were having dinner together. While Mercer was dressing, Charlotte had asked for her bonnet and shawl, which Mrs. Louis, knowing the Prince’s orders, gave her, assuming the Princess meant to walk over to Carlton House. Charlotte pulled on the tall straw bonnet with its upright feather, and drew the shawl around her shoulders, over the white dress she was wearing. Then, she murmured softly, "I have but a moment; I will go to my mother’s." She darted from the room, ran down the backstairs passed an amazed footman, slipped out the front door and across the courtyard. Still running, she went past the sentries, though the gate and into the lane which would take her to Charing Cross. Her flight was observed by a young architect, Mr. Collins, from the window of his uncle’s house a little after seven o’clock. He thought the unknown young lady looked so distressed that he hurried down to render assistance. She begged him to find her a hackney coach. He immediately hailed a passing hackney and handed her up into it. The young lady offered the driver a guinea if he would drive her as quickly as possible to Connaught Place. The coachman, assuming she was a young ladies’ maid out for a night of fun with friends in that area, was happy to comply for such a reward.

Of course, this conveyance was not at all what the Princess was used to, with its straw-covered floor, dingy interior and musty smell, as it lumbered its jolting way through the streets of London. But perhaps she did not pay much attention, so long as it was carrying her to her intended destination, the sanctuary of her mother’s house. As the coach was nearing Connaught Place, the coachman, Higgins, inquired of his passenger which house. She ordered him to keep driving, that he would know it. Moments later, Connaught House came into view and Higgins’ passenger ordered him to stop there. It was only when the young lady jumped down from the coach and asked the servant at the door, "Is my mother at home?" that Higgins realized the identity of his young passenger. She ordered the servant to pay the coachman three guineas for his trouble. But she was disappointed to learn that her mother had gone to her villa in Blackheath for the day and had not yet returned. Charlotte ordered a groom to take a message to her mother, asking her to return to Connaught House as quickly as possible. She penciled notes to both Henry Brougham and her uncle, the Duke of Sussex, ordering messengers to deliver her notes with all possible speed. She even dispatched a coach with the messenger to Brougham, in order that he not be delayed in coming to her. Feeling safe and free as she never had before, she then ordered that dinner be made ready for the expected arrival of those whom she assumed would protect her from her father.

Meanwhile, back at Warwick House, Miss Knight, having assured herself that Princess Charlotte had indeed flown, determined that she must take the news to the Regent. Mercer Elphinstone begged to accompany her, so as not to be thought involved in anything clandestine with regard to the escape of the Princess. Both ladies went in to the drawing room to face the Prince and inform him of where they believed his daughter had gone. Instead of becoming further enraged, the Prince seemed very pleased with the news, saying that finally the world would see what she was, that her flight would soon become known on the Continent and then no one would want to marry her. Mercer, in tears, said she hoped the Prince would not think her to blame, while Miss Knight became very indignant at the aspersions cast on her friend by her own father. Mercer and the Great Up both said they would go look for the Princess and invited Miss Knight to accompany them. But Miss Knight, who had no more liking for the Princess of Wales than she did for the Prince, refused, saying she had no wish to enter that house. She retired to her room while the Bishop and Mercer took a hackney coach to Connaught House. Clearly having no interest in the whereabouts or well-being of his daughter, the Regent went off to a card party at the home of his brother, the Duke of York.

The groom met the Princess of Wales on her way home from Blackheath. As soon as she learned what her daughter had done, she directed her coachman to Parliament House, in Westminster, where she sought the leading Whigs, Grey, Tierney and Whitbread. But she found none of them were attending that evening. Thus, she returned to Connaught House alone. Charlotte’s note had found Brougham at dinner after having spent nearly twenty-four hours working on a very difficult case. He assumed it was yet another unnecessary request from the Princess of Wales and told the messenger he was unable to go. The messenger immediately advised him this was in relation to a most pressing and delicate business and that a coach had been sent for him. Brougham got into the coach, but almost immediately fell asleep and did not wake until he was roused when the coach arrived at Connaught House. Charlotte’s note to the Duke of Sussex, which found him dining at the home of friends, was so illegible that he stuck it in his pocket and continued with his meal. Brougham was the first to arrive at Connaught House, and assessing the situation, sent a terse note to the Duke of Sussex demanding his immediate attendance there. Charlotte was delighted to see Brougham, a staunch Whig, who, like most Whigs, felt betrayed by the Prince of Wales, who, when he became Regent, did not turn the Tories out of office. Brougham had become an ally and advisor to both the Princess of Wales and her daughter, Princess Charlotte. Brougham privately referred to the family as "the Prinnies" — Old P., Mrs. P. and Little P. He thought Little P. the best of the bunch and had high hopes for her when she finally ascended the throne. He felt duty-bound to do what he could to help her out of this difficult situation, which he was very well aware had the potential to shake the foundations of both the monarchy and the government.

The Princess of Wales arrived at Connaught House with her lady-in-waiting, Lady Charlotte Lindsay, a little before nine o’clock, not long after Brougham had sent his message to the Duke of Sussex. She seemed less than pleased to find her daughter taking refuge in her home. Charlotte, assuming her mother was merely surprised, gaily ordered that dinner be served. When Brougham told her he had already dined, she invited him to carve, but he said he was too tired to carve anything but soup. Charlotte recounted to her mother and Brougham all that had transpired at Warwick House before her precipitous flight. Brougham was later to record that he had never seen her so happy and gay, "she was in high spirits, seeming to enjoy herself like a bird set loose from its cage." The diners had retired to the drawing room when Mercer and Bishop Fisher were announced. Mercer was immediately shown into the drawing room, but Charlotte refused to see the Great Up and ordered that the Bishop be shown into the dining room. Bishop Fisher was soon sent back to the Prince Regent with a note from Charlotte stating that she would consider returning to Warwick House, provided she was allowed to see Mercer as often as she wished and that Miss Knight and Mrs. Louis were both reinstated and allowed to remain as members of her household.

When Miss Knight learned that Bishop Fisher had returned to Carlton House alone, without Princess Charlotte, she became concerned for her charge and sent a note to her friend, Lady Salisbury, requesting the use of her carriage. Lady Salisbury had already departed for the opera, but the note followed her and she sent her coach to Warwick House as soon as she received it. Miss Knight went immediately to Connaught House, where she was met by Lady Charlotte Lindsay and invited into the drawing room where Charlotte, her mother, Mercer Elphinstone and Mr. Brougham were all together. Miss Knight requested a moment alone with Princess, but Mercer approached her and said she had promised the Regent that she would prevent anyone from speaking privately with his daughter. Princess Charlotte, appreciating Miss Knight’s dilemma, took her aside into an alcove of the drawing room separated by a set of columns from the main seating area. Miss Knight then gave the Princess her seals, to which was attached a key, and a letter which had arrived after her departure from Warwick House. The Princess assured Miss Knight that they would not be separated after all, telling her of the note she had written to her father which had been carried by Bishop Fisher. Miss Knight then waited in the drawing room for a time, but still the Bishop did not return. She then offered to go to Carlton House to see if she could gain more information, to which plan Princess Charlotte agreed.

The Prince Regent was not at Carlton House when Miss Knight arrived. She was informed that the Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, and the Chief Justice, Lord Ellenborough were both there. When asked if she would like to see them, she replied she would be happy to see either of them. She was ushered into a room where Lord Ellenborough and Chancellor Eldon were seated together at a long table. She asked if the Regent had yet responded to Charlotte’s note and was told by Lord Eldon that Bishop Fisher was on his way back to Connaught House with the message that the Princess was expected to submit unconditionally to the authority of her father. Miss Knight said then she would go to Warwick House to have Mrs. Louis pack Charlotte’s night things and take them to Connaught House. Lord Eldon advised her she would do better to remain at Warwick House as a comfort to the Princess upon her return. Miss Knight then informed Lord Eldon of her dismissal from the Princess’s service, which she noted surprised him greatly. She later learned that Lord Eldon was under the impression that the dismissal of Miss Knight was to be a punitive measure, only if the Princess did not submit to her father’s will. He had not been aware it was already a fait accompli. Miss Knight went directly to Warwick House, where she had Mrs. Louis pack Princess Charlotte’s night things, then the two of them went to Connaught House.

The Duke of Sussex arrived soon after the departure of Miss Knight and he was shown up to the drawing room. Not one to waste time with small talk, he got straight to the point. He asked Brougham if the Prince Regent were to send a force to recover his daughter, would resistance to it be lawful? Brougham answered that it would not, the Regent had the legal right to do as he pleased with any members of the royal family who were under age. And, though Charlotte was now eighteen, she would not be considered of legal age until she turned twenty-one. Both the Duke of Sussex and Brougham strongly advised her to return to her father as soon as possible. Brougham also advised her not to spend the night in Connaught House, which would only make matters worse, for both her and her mother. Charlotte broke into tears, believing Brougham was forsaking her. The Princess of Wales then also urged her daughter to return to her father, though her motives were largely selfish. Now that the war had ended, she wished to leave England and travel abroad. The plan had been proposed to her husband, who was so eager to get her out of the country that he had offered to increase her income to facilitate her departure. Princess Caroline was afraid that if Charlotte did not return to her father very soon, she would loose her chance to leave England with the promised increase in funds.

Over the course of the evening, a number of important personages sent by the Regent arrived at Connaught House, among them Chancellor Eldon, Lord Ellenborough, William Adam, Mercer’s uncle and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Cornwall and Mr. Leach, the Regent’s confidential advisor. The Princess Caroline and her daughter had great fun as each of these eminent personages were announced, refusing to see any of them and forbidding them entry into the house. They were all left to cool their heels in their carriages. The Duke of York, Charlotte’s favorite uncle, was shown into the dining room, and she went down to meet with him. She did not know he was carrying a warrant giving him the legal right to seize the Princess and carry her back to Carlton House by force. He did not mention it during the course of their conversation, but strongly urged her to return to her father. She left him in the dining room and returned to the drawing room. Bishop Fisher was also shown into the dining room when he returned shortly thereafter.

Princess Charlotte was even more determined not to return to her father when she heard the news brought by the Great Up, that her father would accept nothing but her unconditional surrender. His only concession was that she would be allowed to see Mercer occasionally. She begged Brougham to help her and as they talked, he realized she was in great fear that her father intended to imprison her at Cranbourne Lodge, surrounded by his spies, while they all tried to coerce her into accepting marriage to the Prince of Orange. Unbeknownst to Brougham, she was still thoroughly smitten by her Prussian prince, with whom she corresponded via letters carried by Miss Knight. Though Charlotte was very attached to Miss Knight, she was also dependent upon her for any communication with her dear prince. In fact, most historians believe that it was a letter from Prince Augustus which Miss Knight had brought to the Princess that evening, along with her seals and key. Brougham, hoping to reassure the Princess, told her that so long as she stood fast and refused to sign any marriage contracts, even the Regent could not compel her to marry anyone she did not like. But still, she adamantly refused to return to her father. She was convinced he meant to wear her down through imprisonment and ill-treatment until she agreed to do his bidding. Again, Brougham assured her she could not be forced into any marriage, unless her consent was freely given.

Finally, near dawn, Brougham drew Princess Charlotte to a window which looked out over Hyde Park. There, in the half-light, he pointed out to her the empty park and the streets, which would soon be clogged with tens of thousand of people, coming out for a by-election which would begin that day. Lord Cochrane, who had been expelled from Parliament only weeks before, was standing again for his seat, though confined in prison. Tensions were running high in Westminster, where Cochrane had wide support, despite his recent expulsion from Parliament. Brougham said to Charlotte, "I have only to show you to those crowds, tell them of your grievances, and they will rise up on your behalf.” She asked why they should not, knowing that she was more popular with them than her father. "The commotion will be excessive," he told her. "Carlton House will be attacked—perhaps pulled down; the soldiers will be ordered out; blood will be shed; and if your Royal Highness were to live a hundred years, it never would be forgotten that your running away from your father’s house was the cause of the mischief; and you may depend upon it, such is the English people’s horror of bloodshed, you would never get over it." Apprehending the truth of his words, Charlotte’s defenses crumbled and she finally gave in.

Princess Charlotte went downstairs to the Duke of York and told him she was willing to return with him to Carlton House. She made one stipulation, that she would only return in a royal carriage and requested that he make arrangements for one to be sent to Connaught House. She then returned to Brougham, whom she requested to write out a statement that she was determined never to marry the Prince of Orange, and "that if there should be an announcement of such a match, it must be understood to be without her consent and against her will." Six fair copies were made, she signed each of them and gave one copy to each person present in the room. Each agreed to make her statement public, if the Dutch marriage was ever again raised. Brougham was filled with admiration for the young princess, saying she showed much firmness, great sensibility and good feeling. He later wrote, "I had no idea of her having so much good in her."

Charlotte broke down in tears when she had to say good-bye to Mercer, each believing they were not likely to meet again. Miss Knight was so stricken at the thought that she would never see Charlotte again that she could not even face saying farewell, and remained upstairs where she finally broke under the strain of the day’s events, becoming hysterical. When the royal carriage arrived, the Duke of York handed his niece into it, but forbade Mrs. Louis, still carrying her mistress’s night things, to enter. With fierce determination, Princess Charlotte persuaded him that she could not travel without her maid, and finally, grudgingly, her uncle allowed Mrs. Louis to perch on the edge of the backward facing seat.

When the royal carriage arrived in the courtyard of Carlton House, early on the morning of Wednesday, 13 July 1814, Princess Charlotte was kept waiting for over a half hour before she was allowed to enter her father’s house. It seems the Prince and his advisors were all debating how she should be received. Cooler heads apparently prevailed, since when she finally was admitted, her father met her with great cordiality, almost certainly not sincere. But he had been made to see that further harsh treatment of his daughter might cause her to bolt again. More than likely, something along the lines of what Brougham had said to Princess Charlotte had been made clear to him. In a public conflict, the mob would side with her. He dare not take such chance. Nevertheless, within the week, Princess Charlotte was bundled off to Cranbourne Lodge, which she found more pleasant than the Lower Lodge in which she had previously resided at Windsor. However, she was now under the governance of the Dowager Countess of Ilchester, the Dowager Countess of Rosslyn, Mrs. Campbell and the two Misses Coates, both nieces of Lady Rosslyn. Charlotte eventually came to like Lady Ilchester and Mrs. Campbell, but of Lady Rosslyn she wrote, " The old one is as detestable an old lump of bones as ever was, never seems good-humoured or pleased & is always listening to what is going on …" Charlotte dubbed her "Old Famine" and her two dim-witted nieces "the Consequences."

Not only was Charlotte not allowed any letters or visitors except the Queen, she was never allowed to be alone, and she had to sleep with the door to her room open to another room where one of her wardresses slept each night. Her father also refused to allow her any pin money, so, in order to pay a few small bills and to continue to pay the pensions of a few people whom she supported, she was forced to clandestinely sell her diamonds. She was not only isolated from the world, she was also kept almost a pauper, despite her status as heir to the throne. In early August, a few weeks after her move to Cranbourne Lodge, her father arrived, accompanied by the Great Up, to inform her that her mother was soon to leave for an extended tour of the Continent. The Prince seemed inordinately pleased at the prospect, and magnanimously told Charlotte that she would be allowed to go up to London to say farewell to her mother. Though the Princess of Wales had never been particularly supportive of her, Charlotte did love her and had always supported her. Charlotte was disheartened to know her mother was leaving England for what would probably be a very long time, with no apparent concern for her daughter. Charlotte was even more hurt by her mother’s obvious indifference to her when she came to take her leave and her eagerness to be away. It was the last time Princess Charlotte ever saw her mother.

Princess Charlotte’s knee continued to bother her, and her physicians all advised a few weeks of healthful sea air as the best cure. But it was not until late in September that she was finally allowed to go. She had wanted to go to Brighton, but the Regent forbade her to come there, wanting Brighton to himself. Instead she was sent to Gloucester Lodge, which was owned by the King and Queen in less than fashionable Weymouth. She had hoped that Mercer might be allowed to accompany her, but the Regent claimed that Mercer’s father would not allow it, as he wanted his daughter to circulate in society, where she might find a suitable husband. So even at the seashore, Princess Charlotte was kept in isolation. But she remained firm in her refusal to marry the Prince of Orange. She believed her only hope was to bide her time until she reached her majority and would be able to get out of the clutches of her father and gain some control over her own life.

Princess Charlotte’s flight to her mother could not be kept quiet. There were articles published in several newspapers which told the tale and were very critical of the Regent’s treatment of his daughter. In addition, there were a host of caricatures published which viscously lampooned the Prince for his cruelty to the popular young princess. The Duke of Sussex made an appeal before the House of Lords, demanding that Princess Charlotte be treated as befit the heir to the throne. However, he was eventually silenced by the Whig leaders who believed his efforts would irreparably damage their relations with the Regent. The Prince of Wales never spoke to his brother again. The Regent ignored all that was said of him and kept Princess Charlotte in what amounted to house arrest for most of the next two years. She obtained her liberty only when she married Prince Leopold.

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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4 Responses to Regency Bicentennial: Princess Charlotte Bolts

  1. A very dramatic story. Poor Charlotte.
    I can’t help but wonder about the young architect, Mr. Collins. He must have learned that he helped the princess to run away, at least from the press. Do you happen to know more about him?

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      He was the nephew of a Mr. Solomon, who had an art gallery in Pall Mall. It was from the window of his uncle’s home that he saw the princess. According to the footnotes in one of the biographies I read, he was Jewish, but they did not say if he was married or single at the time, or how successful he was as an architect at that point. But he was obviously a very considerate young man if he took the trouble to go to the aid of an unknown young lady out on the street that he thought might be in distress.

      You are right, he did not realize the lady he had helped was Princess Charlotte until he saw the story in the newspapers. He told the tale to a friend, who recorded it in his diary. The part Mr. Collins played did not come to light until the early twentieth century, when a new biography of the princess was being written, and the current owner of the diary shared the information with the author of that biography. That seems to be why some of the older biographies of the princess say that she ran to a hackney coach stand in Charing Cross. Since, until the diary with Collins’ story came to light, no one really knew how she got the hackney coach that took her to her mother’s house. Considering how upset she was at the time, and with no experience getting about London on her own, it would be most unlikely she would have recognized a hackney coach stand, let alone have the presence of mind to go to one on her own.



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