The Secret Cave of the Sisterhood at Windsor Castle

Lest you think that what follows is a tale of a feminine version of the Hellfire Clubhouse, please disabuse yourself of that notion immediately. "The Sisterhood" to be discussed here was about as far distant from that lecherous league as it was possible to be. This was a very exclusive sisterhood in Regency England, the surviving unmarried daughters of King George III and Queen Charlotte. Unfortunately for these sisters, the very circumstances of their birth consigned them to loneliness and boredom for much of their lives. But from time to time, they did find ways to escape, if only briefly, from the onerous restrictions which were placed upon them by their mother. One of those escapes was their secret "cave" on the grounds of Windsor Castle.

The cave of the Sisterhood through the Regency . . .

King George III and his wife, Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, had fifteen children, six of whom were girls. Though it was necessary for the king to have a son and heir to succeed him on the throne, George III found he much preferred the company of his daughters. When they were very young, the girls were privately educated by governesses, primarily at Buckingham House and Windsor Castle. Once their education was considered complete, as they reached their teenage years, the princesses began to spend most of their time with their parents, who preferred their daughters live a very sheltered existence. Not only were the royal princesses forbidden the company of eligible young men, they were seldom allowed to develop any friendships beyond their circumscribed family circle. Though their father was a kind and devoted father, who often played informally with them, their mother was very strict. Queen Charlotte was determined that her daughters be brought up as very formal and proper young ladies.

Perhaps because he did love his daughters, King George was rather hesitant to allow them to marry. This seems to have been due in large part to the fact that some of his sisters had endured very unhappy marriages and he was not keen to see the same fate befall his beloved daughters. However, he had been urged to find them all suitable husbands once they came of age (twenty-five), which, to him, meant that they all would marry royal princes. In 1788, he intended to take them to Hanover, a place he had not yet visited, where he planned to find them suitable husbands. Unfortunately, that was the same year in which he suffered his first serious episode of madness and the trip was cancelled. Though he had had previous instances of apparent insanity, this was the most serious. The stress of the king’s mental illness so affected his wife, Queen Charlotte, that her hair turned completely white in just a few months. A few years later, the eldest daughter, Charlotte, the Princess Royal, was perhaps the most fortunate of the royal sisters, for she was eventually allowed to marry Prince Frederick of Württemberg, the widowed eldest son of Duke Frederick of Württemberg, in May of 1797. She soon thereafter moved to Europe with her husband. In the years that followed, King George began to suffer recurring bouts of madness, which significantly hindered his ability to contract suitable matches for his remaining daughters.

In November of 1810, Princess Amelia passed away, probably of consumption. She was the youngest of the king’s children, and had become his favorite in his later years. It is widely believed that it was the loss of Princess Amelia which precipitated his final descent into permanent madness. Sadly, the remaining royal sisters would suffer more from their father’s madness than just the loss of his kindly and loving presence in their lives. Queen Charlotte developed an ongoing depression due to her husband’s mental state. She came to loathe appearing in public, as well as becoming very overbearing and short-tempered, often flying into a rage at the slightest provocation. It was not long before her children, particularly her daughters, with whom she became increasingly strict, came to fear her. Clearly unaware of her daughters’ feelings, the queen developed an overwhelming desire to have them live with her as her companions. To ensure they remained at home with her, she went so far as to prevent any potential suitors from making offers of marriage to any of them. Their living circumstances became so cloistered that the four remaining sisters privately referred to the queen’s household as "The Nunnery." It was not long before their royal brothers, including the Prince Regent, began to use the same term, though not in their mother’s presence. It was at about this same time that the Regent began to refer to the princesses collectively as "The Sisterhood."

After 1810, the four unmarried royal princesses, Augusta, Elizabeth, Mary and Sophia, were seldom allowed to go out in public, even with a chaperone. Nor were they permitted to enjoy close relationships with anyone outside the royal household. Though their eldest brother sympathized with their situation, even after he became Regent for his ailing father, he did not have the authority to remove his sisters from his mother’s care. Therefore, they lived their lives much like paid ladies’ companions, except that they were not paid. The queen, always rather frugal, became even more so once the mad king was confined to Windsor Castle. She required that her daughters wear only very plain, simple dresses, which could be made cheaply in the country, from inexpensive materials. She also severely limited the funds available to them, to ensure they did not waste it on fashionable accessories or trinkets, which she considered frivolous and unnecessary.

King George III had purchased Buckingham House, then more commonly known as the Queen’s House, as a private London residence for Queen Charlotte. And despite the fact that she had come to fear her husband, and absolutely refused to be alone in his presence, she began spending less time in her London home, and more time at Windsor Castle, where he was confined. However, her apartments, and those of her daughters, were in a completely separate wing of the castle. In fact, the queen preferred to spend much of the time she was at Windsor at Frogmore House, which had also been purchased for her by the king. The house stood on a small estate within the grounds of the Windsor Home Park and the queen used it as a private country retreat where she could sequester herself and her unmarried daughters. Queen Charlotte had a keen interest in botany and she spent much time with the girls in the garden at her "little paradise," as she called Frogmore, usually "botanizing," that is, studying and often collecting the plants which grew there. The remainder of their time was spent in drawing and painting the plants they gathered, or reading about them in the queen’s collection of books on botany. They were also allowed to create needlework pieces from their drawings or water colors, or use those same drawings and paintings to "japan" various items. At that time, japanning was a craft similar to decoupage.

As one might imagine, this was not a particularly exhilarating life for the young members of the Sisterhood. Therefore, it can come as no surprise that they sought relief from the strict and stifling existence which their mother chose to impose upon them. It is unclear when, or how, the Sisterhood discovered their secret cave, but it remained their secret throughout the years of the Regency. This "cave" was actually a hexagonal room which had been constructed under the slopes of the North Terrace of Windsor Castle. This hidden space was ventilated by a chimney which opened unseen onto the turf which lay above it. At some point, the walls of the room had been covered with large sheets of mirrored glass, which reflected and re-reflected the light from their candles, flooding the space with light despite the fact it had no windows. Apparently, it was furnished with at least one sofa and probably a few chairs and tables. Whenever possible, one or more of the princesses found an excuse to stay behind at Windsor Castle, rather than joining their mother at Frogmore House. Once free of the queen’s domineering presence, the sisters could relax in their private cave, gossiping, browsing through the latest fashion magazines, or reading the most recent scandalous novel. They would have valued even a few hours respite from their mother’s demanding and querulous voice, directing them to properly re-arrange a plant they were drawing, or bidding them to more diligently apply themselves to their needlework. Even when they became angry or quarreled with their sisters, none of the royal princesses ever betrayed the existence of their secret cave to their mother.

There is no evidence which provides any details on the origins of this secret "cave" under the North Terrace at Windsor Castle. However, it is possible that it was originally constructed on the orders of Queen Elizabeth I. Though Windsor Castle was in a rather run-down state when she came to the throne, the young queen became quite fond of it. She quickly understood that of all her residences, it would be the most easy to defend, and would thus provide her a safe haven in the event of an insurrection or other act of political violence against her. She ordered a number of improvements to Windsor Castle and the surrounding grounds. It transpired that she spent more money refurbishing and repairing Windsor than she did at any of her other palaces. In particular, it is known that she had the level of the North Terrace substantially raised and significantly enlarged the western end to provide more privacy. The new terrace was paved with huge stones, and decorated with a number of statues. At one end, Elizabeth I had an elegant outdoor banqueting house constructed. This banqueting house was recorded as being octagonal in plan. Could it be that the Virgin Queen also had a secret, hexagonal room built under the North Terrace while the level was being raised? Perhaps as a private, personal retreat, or for use as a secure hideaway, should the castle ever come under attack?

Though this is pure speculation, perhaps the royal princesses learned of the hidden, hexagonal cave under the North Terrace from one or more of their loyal and sympathetic servants at Windsor Castle. Those same servants may have also surreptitiously decorated and maintained the space as a secret sanctuary in which the young women could find some respite from their domineering mother and the strict routine she imposed upon them. What is known is that as her depression deepened, Queen Charlotte treated most of her attendants and servants increasingly badly. Therefore, it would be no surprise if at least a few of those people may have wanted to do what they could to help the royal princesses escape the repressive and dictatorial queen, even if only for brief periods. Finally, in 1816, Princess Mary married her first cousin, Prince William Frederick, Duke of Gloucester and Edinburgh. Then, 1818, and much against her dying mother’s wishes, Princess Elizabeth married Prince Frederick of Hesse-Homburg and moved with him to Germany. When Queen Charlotte died in 1818, the two remaining sisters, Princesses Augusta and Sophia, were finally free of their mother’s domination and no longer had need of their secret cave under the North Terrace. It may then have been abandoned and left to fall to ruin. Regrettably, according to the historian, Christopher Hibbert, there is today no trace of the secret, hexagonal cave of the royal Sisterhood under the North Terrace of Windsor Castle.

Dear Regency Authors, might the secret cave of the royal Sisterhood find a place in an upcoming romance? Perhaps the heroine is the sister or daughter of one of the servants at Windsor Castle who has quietly befriended one or all of the royal princesses. Mayhap she smuggles novels and fashion magazines in to them, and may even spend some time with them in their secret cave. When one of the princesses is in danger, will the heroine feel she must reveal the location of the underground sanctuary to the hero, or will she keep the secret at all costs? It is generally accepted that some of the princesses had close friendships, and perhaps even affairs, with some of the military aides to the royal family. Might the hero be one of those military aides, who is taken to the secret cave in order to hide him from the vengeance of a powerful French spy? Are there other ways in which this secret cave at Windsor Castle can enhance the plot of a Regency romance?

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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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10 Responses to The Secret Cave of the Sisterhood at Windsor Castle

  1. Mals says:

    This is such an intriguing read! The idea of the cave can be applied to any similarly stifling situation, suffered by those cloistered within confines of home. I write Victorian era novels and I’ve just such a situation working it’s way to one of my female characters. Now I’ve been working through different solutions for her, but a secret hideaway sounds like a scandalous, wonderfully rebellious idea!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I am so glad to learn this article has provided you with inspiration for your story! I do hope you are able to find a way to give your female character a secret hideaway and some respite from a stifling situation.

      BTW – You are more than welcome to post a link to your story in a comment here, when it is published.

      Regards,

      Kat

  2. elfahearn says:

    What a lovely solution to the princesses’ plight, and I’m so glad they found a hideaway where they could find respite. Yikes, what a mom!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Queen Charlotte was certainly a stickler for propriety, but I think that was not all her fault. When she first came to Britain, she was kept isolated from most people, because George III did not want her interfering in politics. He, and a number of members of his court, gave her to understand that as a German princess, she was somewhat inferior to an English lady. I think that may have initially caused her to do her best to be sure her daughters did not have similar aspersions cast on them.

      Then, as her depression deepened along with her husband’s increasing mental instability, I think she felt the need of companionship. Since George III had done his best to keep her isolated and restricted to the confines of the family, I suspect it was only natural that she would come to depend upon her unmarried daughters. And, even if she was aware of how she was treating them, she may have felt that she had the right, as their mother, in addition to the fact that she had not been well treated as a young girl herself. It certainly makes one wonder if being a princess was worth it!

      Regards,

      Kat

      • elfahearn says:

        We love to romanticize membership in the aristocracy, but I think it often caused profound misery. My latest novel, A Duke in the Rough, which I’m pitching now, revolves around the heroine marrying a Duke who is cruel to her. (his rough and tumble brother is the hero.) To me, the reality of these situations is what’s interesting, but of course, with a generous helping of romance.

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          I agree with you, we do love to romanticize the life of an aristocrat, but like many things, the rarity is when it all goes well. Yet, when it does, it can be quite nice.

          Good luck with your new book. You are, of course, welcome to post a link to it in a comment here, if you like.

          Regards,

          Kat

  3. I love the article and the plot-bunnies. Thanks a lot for sharing!

  4. Tricia Lynne says:

    I love your blog. it’s so informative.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Why, thank you very much! I am always pleased to know that someone has found any of my articles helpful.

      Thank you for stopping by and taking the time to comment.

      Regards,

      Kat

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