This coming Monday marks the two-hundredth anniversary of the wedding of Princess Charlotte of Wales to Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg. Though there had been many obstacles in their path to wedded bliss, the young couple had persevered and finally made their way to the altar in the spring of 1816. The grand wedding of the royal couple was certainly the social event of the season. In fact, everyone in Britain was looking forward to the wedding of their beloved young princess, the woman they expected would be their future queen.
The nuptials of Charlotte and Leopold . . .
Princess Charlotte first set eyes on Prince Leopold on 12 June 1814, at a sumptuous state banquet given by her father, the Prince Regent, at Carlton House. This banquet was part of the peace celebrations which took place in England that summer, after the defeat and exile of Napoleon Bonaparte. It was one of the few of those events she was allowed to attend, despite requests from several visiting dignitaries that, as the heir to the throne, she be included in the festivities. In fact, she was only allowed to attend that banquet as a reward from her father, since two days before, she had finally signed the marriage contract he had negotiated which bound her to William, the Prince of Orange. Charlotte had done her best to resist her father’s coercion, but he was merciless, and often cruel, in his determination to force her to marry the man of his choosing.
Unfortunately for the Prince Regent, all of his well-laid plans to marry his daughter to a man who would take her away from Britain would go badly awry once Princess Charlotte set eyes on the tall and very handsome Prince Leopold. The impoverished Leopold had refused a lucrative position in Napoleon’s army and had joined the Russian cavalry. He was wearing his dress uniform that evening, when Princess Charlotte spied him across the crush in the Crimson Drawing Room at Carlton House. Though she was immediately taken with the handsome young officer, she had no chance to converse with him that evening and he disappeared into the crowd before she could make her way to him. Fortunately for Charlotte, Leopold had come to England in the entourage of the Russian Grand Duchess Catherine and he was with her when Princess Charlotte paid a call on the Grand Duchess a couple of days after the banquet at Carlton House.
Prince Leopold did ask for Charlotte’s hand in marriage while he was in Britain that summer. However, the Prince Regent was determined to marry Charlotte to William of Orange and refused even to consider Leopold’s request. But Charlotte had become increasingly disenchanted with the Prince of Orange and eventually terminated her engagement to him, over her father’s strong protests. She adamantly refused to reconsider her engagement to a man whose outrageous behavior she found abhorrent. What her father did not know was that even though Leopold had returned to the Continent after the peace celebrations of 1814, he and Charlotte were secretly corresponding. This correspondence was facilitated by the Duke of Kent, who seldom got along with his elder brother and did not approve of how Prinny was treating his daughter. In the face of his daughter’s dogged determination, the Regent was eventually forced to accept Prince Leopold’s betrothal to Princess Charlotte.
Leopold was in Berlin, about to return to Russia, when word reached him that the Prince Regent had accepted his suit. Despite the cold weather and difficult travelling conditions, he departed for Britain almost immediately, posting across the Continent and reaching Dover on 20 February 1816, in a record three and a half weeks. He arrived in London ill and barely able to stand, but his fearless trek across Europe to be with his beloved demonstrated the kind of passion which few women could resist. Princess Charlotte was certainly enchanted by Leopold’s break-neck dash to join her and was eager to wed her own personal hero.
The wedding date was set for the evening of Thursday, 2 May 1816. The Prince Regent was well aware that his daughter was much more popular than he had ever been with the people of Britain. Possibly because he wanted to keep his daughter and her dashing bridge-groom out of sight of the general public, he decreed that the wedding would take place in his London residence, Carlton House, rather than in a church. Thus it would be that Charlotte would take her marriage vows not only in the home where she had been born, but as fate would have it, in the same room in which she first set eyes on her hero Prince, the Crimson Drawing Room. The Regent ordered that a temporary altar be set up on the hearth, covered with a crimson velvet altar cloth in keeping with the room’s decor. Massive candlesticks and gold church plate were borrowed from the military chapel at Whitehall and the nearby Chapel Royal in St. James’s Palace, along with an assortment of crimson velvet cushions and a selection of richly bound prayer books.
In addition to setting the location for the wedding, the Regent also selected the distinguished guests who would attend the ceremony. These guests included the Queen, the royal princesses, the Duke and Duchess of York, as well as most of the royal family living in England. The members of the Regent’s cabinet, their wives, and several favored foreign ambassadors made up the remainder of the official guest list. Princess Charlotte was allowed to invite a few close friends, as was Prince Leopold. The Archbishop of Canterbury himself would officiate at the marriage ceremony of the young couple. Though this was intended to be a private ceremony, the streets around Carlton House began to fill with members of the public early in the morning, all hoping to catch a glimpse of the romantic young newlyweds.
A few weeks before the wedding was to take place, Prince Leopold had been naturalized as a citizen of Britain. He had also been made a general in the British army. He wore his new general’s uniform with its smart scarlet coat for the first time at his wedding. On his chest were all of the medals and orders he had earned over the course of his military career. The Prince Regent, not to be outdone, wore the ornate uniform of a field marshal. However, both the father of the bride and the groom were outshone by the bride herself. Princess Charlotte’s wedding gown was made by Mrs. Triaud of Bond Street, at a cost of over £10,000. It was considered perhaps the most fashionable and elegant dress in all of England at the time.
Princess Charlotte’s wedding gown was made in the current style, with a empire line waist and a hem that fell to ankle length. The puff-headed sleeves went to just above elbow length. This elegant garment was comprised of a silver tissue petticoat and a silver net over-dress with a deep flounce embroidered in a pattern of shells and flowers. The net was made of a fabric known as "lama" which was woven of silver threads. The bodice and the sleeves were trimmed with Brussels point lace, also worked in silver thread. The train was made of the same fabric as the petticoat, lined with white satin and embroidered around the edges in the same patterns of shells and flowers which appeared on the flounce of the gown, all worked in silver thread. This lovely gown must have sparkled like diamonds in the candlelight.
Diamonds comprised the bulk of the jewellery that Princess Charlotte wore that evening. She wore a wreath of rose-buds and leaves studded with diamonds on her head. Her earrings were large diamond drops, which matched a single strand of the finest brilliant diamonds around her neck. She also wore a single strand of lustrous pearls, a bracelet set with diamond clasps, and a diamond armlet, which had been a gift from Prince Leopold. In addition, her cestus, or girdle, was also set with a number of fine diamonds. Her bride-groom also wore a few diamonds, which were set in the sword he carried, a gift from Queen Charlotte.
The Prince Regent hosted a magnificent dinner for the majority of the wedding guests at Carlton House. Even then, it was traditional for the bride and groom not to see each other until the marriage ceremony began. Prince Leopold had several calls in London that day, then dined with the Duke of Clarence and a small group of friends at Clarence House. Princess Charlotte spent the afternoon with her grandmother and her unmarried aunts at Buckingham House, where they dined together. The party dressed and travelled in a caravan of carriages to Carlton House, entering through the garden gate at about eight o’clock that evening. Prince Leopold and his party arrived at about half past eight. The wedding ceremony was set for nine o’clock that evening.
Princess Charlotte and Prince Leopold waited in separate rooms until after the procession of the guests into the Crimson Drawing Room. Once all the guests were seated and the ceremony was about to begin, the Lord Chamberlain went to the room where Prince Leopold was waiting and escorted him to the altar. Then, the Lord Chamberlain, accompanied by the Duke of Clarence, escorted Princess Charlotte to the entrance of the drawing room. From there, the Duke of Clarence conducted his niece to the altar, where he handed her off to the Prince Regent. Charlotte then took her place next to Leopold, with the Regent standing behind them. The Archbishop of Canterbury was at the altar, flanked by the Archbishop of York and the Bishop of London.
The ceremony began just a few minutes after nine o’clock, with the Archbishop of Canterbury officiating, assisted by the Bishop of London. The Prince Regent gave Princess Charlotte away, then stepped back as the ceremony proceeded. It was reported that Princess Charlotte gave all her responses in a clear and happy tone. However, she was heard to giggle at the point in the ceremony when Prince Leopold promised to endow her with all his earthly goods, since she was well aware that his wealth was a direct result of his marriage to her. Prince Leopold spoke more softly as he responded to the Archbishop, some thought a bit diffidently. Once the ceremony was completed, the Archbishop, the bride and groom, along with their witnesses and the Regent, retired to a private room to sign all of the necessary documents. Soon thereafter, a powerful salute of guns was fired off at both the Tower of London and St. James Park, heralding the royal marriage.
At about eleven o’clock the newlyweds walked out of Carlton House and stepped into their new green carriage to depart on their honeymoon journey. The Queen, perhaps forgetting her grand-daughter was now a married woman, ordered Mrs. Campbell, Charlotte’s maid, to get into the carriage. For the first and only time in her life, Mrs. Campbell did not obey a royal command. Leopold took the reins and drove out of London, taking the road to Oatlands, the country home of the Duke and Duchess of York. It was there that they would spend their honeymoon.
The celebration of the royal marriage went on across the country for several days. The union of Princess Charlotte and Prince Leopold represented a bright future for the British people, who had grown weary of the degenerate and selfish Prince Regent. The young princess was very popular, as was the dashing prince she had just married. The people looked forward, not only to the day Charlotte would become queen, with Leopold as her consort, but also to the next heir they believed she would produce, securing the throne for the next generation, maintaining the peace which had been secured by the victory at Waterloo. The people of Britain were feeling very positive and happy in that first week of May in 1816.