Regency Bicentennial:   The Death of Queen Charlotte

Tomorrow marks the two-hundredth anniversary of the passing of Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III and mother of the Prince Regent. She had been ill for several months prior to her death and had hoped to retire to Windsor Castle to recover in her country retreat. Sadly, her next visit to Windsor Castle was not to come until she was laid to rest in the vault of the chapel there. Though the death of the Queen did not plunge the country into the deep mourning which had resulted after the death of her grand-daughter, it was still a significant event in Britain at that time. Regency authors may want to take note of the death of Queen Charlotte, should they set a story in mid-November of 1818.

The passing of Queen Charlotte . . .

Queen Charlotte had been born Princess Sophia Charlotte in the small German duchy of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, on 19 May 1744. At the age of seventeen, she left her homeland forever, just a week after the death of her mother. Princess Charlotte and her party traveled to England where she was to marry the young king, George III. In fact, the marriage took place on the evening of 8 September 1761, within hours of her arrival in London. The young princess met the groom for the first time that same day, just before the wedding ceremony took place. Their joint coronation was held two weeks later. The new queen spoke no English at that time, but she studied diligently and was able to learn the language fairly quickly, though she spoke with a heavy German accent all her life.

Queen Charlotte was rather timid as a young woman and she never contradicted her husband. In addition, he insisted that she take no part in politics, a command with which she generally complied throughout her life. Instead, she devoted herself to her husband and her family. Within a year of her marriage, she met her most important responsibility, giving birth to her first child, a baby boy christened George, in August of 1762. This first-born child became the Prince of Wales and heir to the throne. In total, the Queen gave birth to fifteen children, thirteen of whom survived to adulthood. For most of her early married life, Queen Charlotte dedicated herself to the care of her children. As her sons grew up, they were consigned to the care of tutors, and were no longer under their mother’s direct supervision. However, Queen Charlotte retained responsibility for the care of her unmarried daughters throughout her life.

By all reports, Queen Charlotte and King George had a very happy marriage and had come to love each other very deeply. The King’s early signs of mental instability, which occurred in 1765, were kept from the Queen. However, when he began to display more serious symptoms of mental illness, in 1788, she became very distressed by his irrational and sometimes violent behavior. After his recovery, the couple returned to their usual loving relationship. Sadly, following the early death of the young Princess Amelia, at the beginning of November of 1810, the King fell into a permanent state of madness. He became even more irrational and was prone to violent outbursts, which terrified his wife. She refused to be alone with him from that time.

By the beginning of 1811, it was clear that the King was not likely to recover from his illness, and Parliament had to take up the issue of a regency. This caused a great deal of friction between Queen Charlotte and her eldest son, the Prince of Wales. She believed that Prince George wished to usurp his father’s power and rule by proxy in the King’s stead. The Prince believed that his mother wanted to take power herself, and had every intention of becoming Regent for her husband. There was some basis for this conflict, because Parliament had drawn up plans for a regency in 1788. At that time, though Prince George was of age, there were many in Parliament who felt he was unfit to act as Regent. Those members considered Queen Charlotte to be a better choice. In the end, in 1811, the Prince of Wales was made Regent, initially with limited power, but Queen Charlotte was made the sole guardian of her husband, King George III. This situation occasionally caused friction between the Queen and her eldest son, who had hoped to gain control of his father’s income when he became Regent. Instead, his mother controlled those funds.

By early 1811, King George was already going blind and suffering pain from some severe physical ailments, beyond his mental illness. He was confined to a quiet and secluded wing of Windsor Castle. Initially, the Queen visited him there from time to time, in the company of one or more of his care-givers and/or her children. However, his increasingly deranged and bizarre behavior so frightened and depressed her that she refused to see him after the summer of 1812. Her mood also began to change in the wake of her husband’s descent into insanity. In addition to her growing depression, the Queen also experienced frequent and unpredictable changes of mood. These ongoing fluctuations in her personality resulted in a growing strain on her relationships with her children, courtiers and close friends. Gradually, Queen Charlotte began to withdraw from public life, spending more and more of her time at her country retreat, Frogmore House, on the grounds of Windsor Castle. In the later years of her life, she did make a significant effort to improve her relationships with her children, including the Prince of Wales.

Sadly, Queen Charlotte had never had a very good relationship with her grand-daughter, and namesake, Princess Charlotte of Wales. Princess Charlotte was very fond of her grandfather, King George, who had always been very kind to her. However, her grandmother, Queen Charlotte, had routinely been a cold, stern authoritarian figure, from the time she was a little girl, growing up with nearly indifferent parents. Despite the strain in their relationship, Queen Charlotte was very pleased when she learned that her grand-daughter, Princess Charlotte, was expecting a baby. The Queen knew that child would secure the throne for her husband’s family into the next generation. Therefore, the death of Princess Charlotte in childbirth, in November of 1817, was a great blow to the Queen. Her health began to deteriorate quite noticeably after the loss of her grand-daughter and great-grandson.

By the spring of 1818, Queen Charlotte was beginning to suffer from occasional seizures, for which her doctors could find no clear physical cause. She had turned seventy-four that May, so she was not a young woman, and she was eventually diagnosed with dropsy. Her strength had begun to fail and, by the summer, the Queen found it increasingly difficult to walk. Her joints were often very sore and her legs were swelling more and more frequently. In July of 1818, two of her younger sons, who had recently wed German princesses, had returned to Britain with their brides. There was to be a double English wedding ceremony for the two royal couples at Windsor Castle later that month. The Queen intended to travel down to Windsor from London, in order to attend the double wedding of her sons. She then planned to stay on at her country retreat, Frogmore House, with the hope of regaining her health. Unfortunately, she became too ill and weak on the journey to continue, and her party stopped at Dutch House, also known as Kew Palace, on the grounds of Kew Gardens, so the Queen could rest and recover her strength.

After several days, when it became clear that the frail Queen was not getting any stronger, it was decided to hold the weddings for the Duke of Clarence and the Duke of Kent in the drawing room of Dutch House, on Saturday, 11 July 1818. The Prince Regent, as well as several of his siblings, attended the wedding ceremony. The Queen was carried downstairs and placed in a chair from which she could see her sons and their brides take their vows in English. She was able to greet the members of the small wedding party, and spent a brief time with them after the ceremony. However, Queen Charlotte was too weak to attend the elegant al fresco wedding breakfast held on the grounds of Kew after the ceremony. As the wedding party began to move out into the gardens, the Queen was carried back upstairs to her bedchamber.

The Queen and her entourage remained at Kew Palace for the rest of the summer. The Prince Regent and most of her other children came to visit her over the course of the next few weeks. During the month of August, she was carried out to the gardens in her chaise for a brief airing on most days. Everyone was hoping she would soon become strong enough to continue on her journey to Windsor Castle, but she remained too weak and frail to be moved. Queen Charlotte was attended by Sir Francis Milman, and Sir Henry Halford, both of whom had been appointed physician in ordinary to the king. They periodically issued bulletins on the state of the Queen’s health during her stay at Kew Palace. Below is a typical example of the bulletins which were issued:

Kew Palace, Oct. 2.

The Queen has again had several hours of sleep, but it does not appear to have produced any visible effect on the state of her Majesty’s complaint.

F. Millman.
H. Halford.

During the remainder of the summer and into the early fall, the unmarried royal princesses and most of the royal princes all made multiple trips to Dutch House to visit with their mother, hoping to cheer her. It seems that over the course of those visits, the Queen was able to mend her relationships with her children. Even the Prince Regent made multiple trips to Kew during those weeks to spend time with his mother. There were several instances when the Queen appeared to rally and her family hoped that her health was slowly improving. But sadly, she developed a severe case of pneumonia, which in her weakened state, she did not have the strength to fight. On the morning of Tuesday, 17 November 1818, the Queen’s physicians, Milman and Halford, issued the following bulletin:

The Queen’s state last night was one of great and imminent danger. Her Majesty continues very ill this morning.

This same interpretation of the Queen’s health was communicated directly to the royal family, and those who could traveled to Kew Palace to pay what they anticipated would be their last visit to the family matriarch. When her family arrived, Queen Charlotte wanted to leave her bed, and her servants carried her to an armchair near the fire. Her two eldest sons, the Regent and the Duke of York, were both present in her bedchamber that afternoon, along with two of her daughters, Princess Augusta and Princess Mary. They all sat together, chatting quietly for a time. The Regent sat down next to his mother and took her hand. At about one o’clock in the afternoon, she let out a long breath and she was gone. The next day, the following statement was issued to the public:

Her Majesty expired about one o’clock on Tuesday, November 17, 1818, in the 75th year of her age. Her death was owing to a gradual accumulation of water in her limbs and on her chest, which no medicines could relieve, and which, after a long illness which she bore with great fortitude and resignation, closed her life.

At the time of her death, Queen Charlotte was the longest serving royal consort of Britain. She lost that title recently, when the present Duke of Edinburgh exceeded her term of service, making her the second longest serving royal consort. Though her husband of fifty-six years, King George III, was still alive at the time of her death, he was blind, nearly deaf, lame and suffering from dementia, in addition to his mental illness. It is not clear if he was told of her passing, and even if he had been, it is unlikely he would have be able to comprehend the news.

It took several days to plan the funeral. During that time, the Queen’s body was prepared for burial at Kew Palace, where her remains lay in State, privately, for about two days. Then, at about nine o’clock on the morning of Wednesday, 2 December 1818, the Queen’s coffin was covered by a black pall and placed in a hearse drawn by eight of the Queen’s own black Hanoverian horses, for the final journey to Windsor, via London. The procession included several carriages, drawn by black horses, in which the Prince Regent and his brothers would travel to the funeral service. The procession was accompanied by a honor guard of mounted Lancers, to Frogmore House, the late Queen’s country retreat. That evening, at about seven o’clock, when the procession reached Frogmore House, the Prince Regent, as Chief Mourner, took his place in the first carriage behind the hearse. His royal brothers then took their places in the other carriages. The chief servants of the King, the Queen, the Prince of Wales and the royal family, all dressed in deep mourning of full scarlet livery with black scarves and hatbands, joined the procession, each carrying a lighted flambeau. Behind them came forty Yeoman of the guard. Next were the trumpets and kettle drums of the Horse Guards, mounted, followed on foot by the Foot Guards, with their fifes and drums.

The funeral procession arrived at St. George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle, at about eight o’clock that evening. The procession actually arrived nearly an hour earlier than it was expected, which caused some consternation among those waiting at the chapel. That was quickly sorted out, after which the Queen’s coffin was carried into the chapel, followed by the mourners. The coffin was placed on a platform before the altar, the pall was removed and a cushion holding the Queen’s crown was placed on her coffin. The Prince Regent, as the chief mourner, was seated in a chair near the head of the coffin, flanked by his train-bearers. Then the funeral service began, accompanied by both the organ and the choir. Upon the completion of the funeral service that evening, the Queen was laid to rest in the royal vault beneath the chapel. Her royal sons were in attendance at the funeral service and accompanied her coffin to the vault for the final service. As was the custom of the time, her daughters and her female friends did not attend the funeral or the graveside service.

Since Queen Charlotte had drastically reduced her official appearances for most of the Regency, and because there had been such an outpouring of public grief upon the death of Princess Charlotte the previous year, her passing did not receive as much public lamentation as it might have under other circumstances. There were announcements of the Queen’s death in the newspapers, and the appropriate period of mourning was observed. However, she was an old woman by the standards of the day, not a young mother lost giving birth to a royal heir. Therefore, the public reaction to her death was much more subdued than had been the extreme torrent of grief which had been expressed by the public after the death of Princess Charlotte and her stillborn son.

There was something of a scramble among the royal siblings for Queen Charlotte’s possessions soon after her death. That story next week.

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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6 Responses to Regency Bicentennial:   The Death of Queen Charlotte

  1. I referenced the death of the Queen in the last story in ‘Jane and the Burning Question and other stories’ in which a would-be assassin who believed himself to be the Stuart heir managed to get an infernal device under the royal Christmas tree, which he was sure the sentimental family would have in commemoration of the queen’s introduction of the custom. The characters are in half-mourning in the following book, ‘Jane and the sins of society’, enabling discussion on the effects of the subdued colours upon complexion and so on.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Bombs and Christmas trees! Why am I not surpised? 😉

      Both stories sound quite interesting. You are welcome to post links to them here.



      • Many thanks! they are books 6 and 7 of Jane, Bow St Consultant series and can be found here and here both available as kindle and paperback. Sins of Society involves my intrepid Bow St Runner and his wife solving 3 mysteries simultaneously, which was challenging but fun to write. I wrote a spinoff with novellas detailing the three romances they helped promote as well because the stories demanded to be written away from the world of mystery and crime.

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