'She will he unhappy for all her life'
PRINCESS CAROLINE Amelia Elizabeth of Brunswick-Wolfenbittel was born on 17 May 1768 in the small duchy of Brunswick, a vassal state of Prussia in northern Germany. The birth of this little princess, granddaughter to the reigning Duke, was unimportant in itself. Her grandmother Duchess Charlotte had remarked after the birth of Caroline's elder sister Augusta in 1765, 'It's only a girl.... it was hardly worth waiting so long, as there are quite enough princesses in the world, and we are often most useless beings.'1 But then the Duchess was a sister to Frederick the Great of Prussia and had high standards. The birth of a Brunswicker prince, which happened to take place in England the following year, placated Charlotte, although on first seeing him she declared that he was quite a little English savage.
However, Princess Caroline's father, Charles William Ferdinand, was a man of consequence in European affairs. As Hereditary Prince--this was the German style for an heir apparent--he would inherit his father's duchy. A flurry of imposing addresses from emperors, kings and other sovereign princes of Europe duly greeted Princess Caroline's birth.2 But Charles was eminent for more than his ducal pedigree. Indeed, he came from a long line of warriors. 'Nature destined him for a hero,' wrote his maternal uncle, Frederick the Great.3 At Hastenbeck in 1757, during the Seven Years' War, Charles showed Brunswicker courage in recapturing, sword in hand, a central battery. In the course of this war, which devastated Europe from 1756 to 1763, the Hereditary Prince was attached to the staff of his paternal uncle, Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick-Oels, who was given the British command abroad. After the war's close in 1763 he rejoined the Prussian service and modelled himself on his distinguished uncle, like him clothing his slim and elegant figure on all possible occasions in the Prussian uniform and boots.
Duke Ferdinand was also something of a military hero, as the victor of Minden in 1759. William Pitt the Elder had Ferdinand in mind when he wrote in 1760 of 'the most sincere, but unimportant homage, which my heart pays to the virtues and genius of the Hereditary Prince. Admiration, and devoted attachment, to the two great Princes, uncle and nephew, are terms synonymous with zeal for the common cause of Europe, of which they are the glorious instrument.
Charles's mother, Duchess Charlotte, was a tiny woman whose ethereal looks belied a steely ambition on behalf of her children. She encouraged her eldest son in his reverence for her brother Frederick. Like him a dedicated child of the Enlightenment, she had arranged for Charles a prodigious course of instruction in the humanities under tutors who included the Abbe Jerusalem, before sending him on a Grand Tour of Europe with the archaeologist Winckelmann as bearleader. The Hereditary Prince more than met her expectations. He was equally happy at his uncle's palace at Potsdam, near Berlin, drilling with Frederick at the camp, listening to him play the flute or discourse on European literature. At home in Brunswick life was more fractious. His father the Duke had nearly bankrupted the country through incompetence and prodigality. In the year of Princess Caroline's birth, the Hereditary Prince was forced to negotiate on behalf of his unpopular father with the Provincial Diet, or parliament.
Caroline's mother Augusta, Hereditary Princess of Brunswick, was the elder sister of George III, King of England and Elector of Hanover. Despite being wholly German by blood, she was a foolish English patriot in her hostility to all things east of the Rhine. On her marriage in 1764 she wrote to her brother the King, giving her first impressions of Germany and recounting 'the odd figures and manners of these people, as for instance the brother in law of Barg [Berg?] holds his glass between his legs, and a lady today put her fan while she dines in the same place.'5 Time did not alter her opinions, and twenty-four years later the statesman Mirabeau described her as still 'wholly English, in her tastes, her principles and her manners, to the point that her almost cynical independence makes, with the etiquette of the German courts, the most singular contrast that I know'.6 Her more formal mother-in-law could at least reflect that the English Princess had brought a dot, or dowry, of £8o,ooo.
The Duke and Duchess, the Duke's brother Ferdinand, the Hereditary Prince and Princess and their different households all lodged at the Grauer Hof, a sprawling stone palace with wooden wings added piecemeal around a central courtyard. Tree-lined allees at the back led past pavilions and flower gardens down to the River Oker, which ringed the city of Brunswick. Across the Bohlweg, the main street at the front, lay the houses of the wool and silk merchants and the cathedral of St Blasius, which Caroline's Guelph ancestor, Henry the Lion, had founded to mark his 1172 pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Here also stood a military academy, the Collegium Carolinum, which attracted students from all parts of Germany, and from England too. The Hotel d'Angleterre hosted a weekly club where professors, nobility and burghers met under the presidency of Duke Ferdinand to discuss matters philosophical, literary, intellectual--and Masonic. Brunswick was the centre of German Freemasonry, and Ferdinand a grand master of the Order.
West and south of this prosperous quarter, confined within the loop of the river, lay a hinterland of medieval timbered houses and dark narrow streets, inhabited by more than 20,000 shopkeepers and others. The townspeople and Court mingled at the Fair, a traditionally merry event which twice a year drew merchants from all over northern Germany to buy and sell wares and where the Court stocked up on provisions, coffee and chocolate. 'The coffee is better here than with us,' the Hereditary Princess informed her brother, 'and the chocolate, but the tea is abominable so that I don't hurt my nerves with drinking it.'8 The Court also attended occasional performances at the opera house and a few prescribed public balls and masquerades. But the Court's straitened finances, as well as distinction of birth, prevented further intercourse with the general public.
At the Grauer Hof, the ducal households dined in each other's apartments by rote, with an array of foreign visitors, ladies and gentlemen and officials of the Court. In Duchess Charlotte's apartments the greatest state was kept, and the better food and wine. Formal conversation in a circle was the rule before and after dinner, which was held around four in the afternoon. At her own table, her daughter-in-law observed the German habit, ladies ranged on one side facing the gentlemen on the other. However, Augusta chose to ignore the finer points of etiquette and would advance patriotically on any English visitor, before he had finished his bow, with hands outstretched. After dinner, she sometimes gave what she dubbed a concert, at which music was performed while the company played cards for hours at a time, or a casino (an undress ball followed by a supper).
The Hereditary Princess was a true Hanoverian, with protuberant eyes, loose mouth and long face. In the early years of her marriage she considered herself blessed in her handsome husband. 'There is both confidence and amity between the Prince and me,' she wrote, shortly after her daughter Augusta's birth. 'No two people live better together than we do, and I would go through fire and water for him.'
She continued in this happy frame of mind, despite the Prince's public flirtation with her friends in London while she was pregnant with their son Charles. 'Even when he is grave, it's never with me, she wrote.10 She endured the winter months in the Grauer Hof with him at her side. The summer months, however, when the Prince went to camp, were dreary. Augusta was not entertained by the scholars and men of letters--Lessing, the German dramatist, among them--whom the Duchess attracted to Brunswick with positions at Court. The Prince, understanding his wife's reluctance to be left with the 'old people',11 built her a retreat from the rigours of Court life, a pavilion above the River Oker a mile from Brunswick, and named it Little Richmond, after the fashionable clutch of villas on the banks of the Thames. Princess Caroline, later in life, painted a watercolour of this haven, showing the pavilion and wooded hill, and a herdsman pasturing cows and sheep by the river beneath, with a windmill and the towers and spires of Brunswick in the background.
There was also Antoinettensruh, a pleasant country mansion ringed by beechwoods near Wolfenbuttel, the fine medieval city seven miles from Brunswick and anciently the capital of the Duchy. Here, in the summer after Princess Caroline's birth, the Hereditary Princess took the baby, an English wet-nurse, Mrs Ward, and the two elder children. Augusta amused herself by eating heavy luncheons and dinners, playing cards and gossiping in undress and slippers with her Brunswick ladies.
Three more children were born--George, Augustus and Frederick William (known as William) in 1769, 1770 and 1771. But the parttern of Augusta's days, her dissatisfaction with Court life and her satisfaction with her husband did not alter, nor did her husband's forbearance. The six children in their youth were a source more of anxiety than of pleasure to their parents. When Prince Charles (the eldest boy) was afflicted with cramps at the age of three, his mother wrote:
'It's really frightful to see what he endures.... I cannot stay in the room when he crimes [screams]....'
When Augusta was called to England in 1771, to the deathbed of her mother the Dowager Princess of Wales, the Hereditary Prince refused to allow the children, some of whom were still convalescing from smallpox, to follow. 'My second daughter [Caroline], who has only begun to emerge from a critical state, might suffer a relapse,' he wrote.14 When the Hereditary Princess returned the following year, she extended her period of mourning. 'I believe I have at least the satisfaction of enraging their Highnesses by the life I lead, which is veiy retired,' she informed her brother the King.15 A seventh child, Amelia, was born that year, but not even the ministrations of Mrs Ward could save her. Augusta continued to delight in entertaining English visitors. She wrote of Lord Beauchamp to her brother, 'my younger daughter [Caroline, then four years old] think it's you who's here and she always calls him the King of England'.
The Hereditary Princess had taken some pleasure in 1769 in the misdemeanours of her husband's sister, Elizabeth, Princess of Prussia, as confirming her poor opinion of the German royal houses. Frederick the Great had locked Elizabeth up after she refused to live with 'that stinking man', her husband.17 But Augusta's pride in her English heritage was dented when her own siblings proved a scandalous lot. her sister Queen Caroline Matilda of Denmark was sent into exile and her marriage dissolved in 1772. Caroline Matilda had conducted a flagrant affair with the revolutionary Count Johann Francis Struensee, a Minister at the Danish Court. In the same year, their brother William Henry, Duke of Gloucester, revealed that in 1766 he had secretly married Maria, Countess of Waldegrave, who was illegitimate.
This revelation followed the June 1772 Royal Marriages Act, an unpopular measure which the King pushed through Parliament after his youngest brother, the Duke of Cumberland, had married Mrs Anne Horton without notifying him in advance. The new Duchess's father was a well-known reprobate. Still more lamentable, her sister Miss Elizabeth Luttrell, who took up residence with the Cumberlands, was described somewhat unusually as a 'roue', who 'governed the family with a high hand, marshalled the gaming table, gathered round her the men, and led the way in ridiculing the King and Queen'. Worse, she cheated at cards, gave a hairdresser £50 to marry her and was convicted of pickpocketing in Augsburg, for which she was condemned to clean the streets chained to a wheelbarrow. Eventually she brought her strange life to an end by swallowing poison.
In an attempt to avoid further such connections, the Act provided that future marriages of descendants of King George II which had not received the sovereign's consent would be void. Although the Act expressly excluded the issue of princesses who married into foreign families, Augusta highly approved of it, going so far as to treat her children as subject to it. In addition she refused to stand godmother to the Gloucesters' child, Princess Sophia Matilda.
Augusta was more charitable to her sister Caroline Matilda, who was given sanctuary by their brother King George III first at Goerde, then at the moated castle of Celle in his Electorate of Hanover, close to Brunswick. He hoped that 'by mildness, she will be brought back to the amiable character she had before being perverted by a wicked and contemptible Court'.19 Against the wishes of her husband and his parents, the Hereditary Princess visited her sister at Celle for weeks at a time, leaving her children to her husband's care. The Prince bore his wife's allegiance to her disgraced sister with patience. But he was not so sanguine about her increasing disinclination, even when he was at Brunswick, to appear at Court. Had the Hereditary Princess been a less foolish wife, she might have envisaged the consequences when she turned to religion as a consolation for her lot and as an excuse to live a still more retired life. In a conversation with the writer Massenbach, the Hereditary Prince opined:
Only private persons can live happily married, because they can choose their mates. Royalty must make marriages of convenience, which seldom result in happiness. Love does not prompt these alliances, and these marriages not only embitter the lives of the parties to them, but all too frequently have a disastrous effect upon the children, who often are unhealthy in mind or body.
(It seems inconceivable that the Prince did not have in mind his own children. Three of his sons were to be found unfit for military service.)
While the Princess turned to religion, the Prince persuaded Mlle Luise von Hertefeld, beautiful and highly educated, to abandon the Berlin Court for Brunswick. The Prince dined with her on a given day in the week and found in her all the qualities the Princess lacked, including a readiness to appear at Court, where she soon occupied an honoured place. The Princess was incensed by what she termed the immoral example her husband was setting his children, though as the eldest of them, Princess Augusta, was only twelve the effect on the children was not as yet apparent. An acrimonious correspondence developed, nevertheless, between their parents in 1777 after the Princess announced her determination to appear no more at Court and to devote herself to God and to her children. 'I hope that by living more retired', she wrote,
I can attend to the duties which are dear to my heart. I cannot hide from myself that my children need great attention on my part, and that I am responsible for them to God. I know I make you angry by speaking, but in time you would be more angry if I had let weakness keep me silent, when it is a question of my children's well-being. In short, we could avoid a scandal if I lived less in public. The children will see nothing, and will not consort with people who could do them harm. Your sisters' example makes me tremble.
The Hereditary Prince's other sister, although she went under the title of Abbess of Gandersheim, was extremely 'coming'.
Copyright © 2009 by Flora Fraser. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.