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Discover London’s Royal History: The Monarchy in Crisis

Welcome back to our series of blog posts on London’s royal history! In our last post, we explored the life of Princess Charlotte and left off at a point where the country had no heir to the throne (1817). In this post, we’ll dive deeper into the causes of the crisis and how the country responded.


In 1761 a young King George III, who was less than a year on the throne following the death of his grandfather King George II, needed to choose a wife. He opted for a minor German royal, Charlotte of Mecklenburgh-Strelitz, because he believed she wouldn't have ideas above her station and wouldn't get involved in politics. He turned out to be right.


Coronation portrait of King George III and Queen Charlotte by Allan Ramsay
Coronation portrait of King George III and Queen Charlotte by Allan Ramsay

George and Charlotte were a happy couple and produced 15 children. The two were also quite successful as parents. At a time when child mortality rate was about 30% all but two of their 15 children survived to adulthood. However, George and Charlotte weren't great at emphasizing the importance of their children marrying and reproducing, which was the job of royals. Failure to provide an "heir and spare" had led to the downfall of many royal houses, not just in England, but across Europe.


George and Charlotte produced in rapid succession: George (1762), Frederick (1763), William (1765), Charlotte (1766), Edward (1767), Augusta (1768), Elizabeth (1770), Ernest (1771), Augustus (1773), Adolphus (1774), Mary (1776), Sophia (1777), Octavius (1779), Alfred (1780), and finally Amelia (1783). It was twenty-two years of marriage before Queen Charlotte gave birth to her last child.


Their first child, George, became Prince of Wales and heir presumptive within a few days of his birth (please read our previous post for more about George). Their second child, Frederick, became the Duke of York and Albany (if you go on our tour of Westminster you can hear all about Frederick who stands on top of a column just off the Mall). However, Frederick was married to his cousin Princess Frederica of Prussia, and the couple were very unhappy together. They separated and had no children.


William Duke of Clarence
William Duke of Clarence

The third child, William, became the Duke of Clarence. William had a career at sea and was not married. He fought for the Crown during the American War of Independence and was even the subject of a kidnap plot by George Washington. William did, however, have a long-term girlfriend, Dorothea Jordan, who was both Irish and an actress, certainly not a suitable person to join the royal family. Dorothea gave birth to ten children who were commonly known as the FitzClarences, all of whom were illegitimate.


Fast forward to 1817, and the country faced a crisis: George III was now old and blind, and all of his sons were either childless or had illegitimate children. There was no clear heir to the throne, and the country was in turmoil. What would happen later? Would the country be plunged into chaos?


George, Prince of Wales, was already the Prince Regent and ruling in place of our incapacitated king. The Act also stipulated that the Regent had to be in the country at the time of the king's death to assume the throne immediately.


Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen
Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen

Following the crisis in 1817, William was now second in line to the throne behind his eldest brother, the Prince Regent (who ruled from 1811 to his death in 1820). William decided to take a wife and he finally married at the age of 53 to Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen. The couple seemed happy together and had five children. All dead before the age of two.


William did, however, succeed his brother, King George IV, and in 1830 became King William IV. In England at this time, boys were given precedence over girls so it would only be after all the boys were passed over that we would finally get to our fourth child, Elizabeth and/or her heirs, to rise to the throne. True to the family tradition, Elizabeth was married but failed to produce any children.


Edward, the fifth child of George and Charlotte, was also quick to respond to the crisis. Edward, like his older brother William, decided that it was time to face his responsibilities. He stopped having affairs and children out of wedlock and decided to find a suitable legitimate wife. Remember that his brother is, in essence, king and, according to the Royal Marriages Act of 1772 would need to approve his choice of bride.


Edward Duke of Kent and Strathearn
Edward Duke of Kent and Strathearn

Edward, now Duke of Kent and Strathearn, settled on Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld. Victoria was previously married to Emich Karl, Prince of Leiningen, and mother to Carl, Prince of Leiningen. Victoria’s first husband died in 1814 and she was ruling Leiningen as regent for her young son. Victoria’s brother, Leopold, had been married to Princess Charlotte whose death sparked the race for an heir. Edward and the widowed Victoria married in 1818.


And finally, we have a winner! Edward and Victoria gave birth to Princess Victoria on 24 May 1819. The couple had been living in Germany due to lower living costs and her work but then rushed back to England for the birth. The couple settled in Kensington Palace and England, finally, could breathe a sigh of relief that another monarch would surely follow.


The Princess Victoria and her mother
The Princess Victoria and her mother

After the death of her uncle, King William IV, Princess Victoria became Queen Victoria in 1837 at age 18. She moved into the home her uncle, King George IV, had been refurbishing at the time of his death. That home is Buckingham Palace and you can learn more about it on our tour of Westminster.


So, that's the story of the monarchy in crisis. It's a reminder that even the most seemingly stable institutions can be vulnerable to unexpected events. Join us on our self-guided walking tours of London to learn more about the fascinating history of this city and its role in shaping the world we live in today (Tour about the City of London and Tour about Westminster Area).



End note


You must be wondering; what happened with the rest of the possible heirs in line?

I hate to leave you hanging about what happened to the other children so I’ll just briefly summarise.


Princess Augusta never married. Princess Elizabeth met the very handsome Frederick of Hesse-Homburg at a ball and married him four years later. Happy together but they had no children. Prince Ernest, Duke of Cumberland, married his first cousin, Frederica of Mecklenburgh-Strelitz, and had a son who later became King George of Hanover. Ernest is rumoured to have fathered a child with his youngest sister, Sophia.



In the pictures, from left to right: (1) Ernest Duke of Cumberland; (2) Princess Sophia; (3) Ernest Duke of Cumberland


Prince Augustus, Duke of Sussex, twice married and twice did not get approval from the king for his marriages. His children were thus deemed illegitimate. He was the favourite uncle of Queen Victoria and gave her away at her wedding to Prince Albert. He was a progressive thinker and an all-around good chap. The next child, Prince Adolphus, Duke of Cambridge, was probably the most successful as he married Augusta of Hesse and the couple had three legitimate children.


Mary of Gloucester
Mary of Gloucester

Princess Mary was often thought of as the most beautiful of the children and she married her first cousin Prince William Frederick, Duke of Gloucester and Edinburgh. They had no children. If Mary was beautiful then Sophia was scandalous. Sophia was the constant companion to her mother, Queen Charlotte of Meckelenburgh-Strelitz. The confinement almost certainly had a profound effect on her and she was accused of having an affair with her brother Ernest. She definitely did have an affair with her father’s equerry. There were rumours of a baby but no child was ever officially recognised and it is unclear who the father might have been, both men were rumoured to have gotten Princess Sophia pregnant.



Prince Octavius
Prince Octavius

Prince Octavius (the 8th boy) was just four years old when he was variolated to protect him against the smallpox virus. Variolation is giving someone a very small amount of the live smallpox virus in the hope that it would protect them from a later infection. We are about ten years before Jenner’s smallpox virus which was based on cowpox and much safer. After the variolation, Prince Octavius was struck down with a fever and died a few days later. Prince Alfred also died as a result of his variolation although it took him significantly longer to expire.





Princess Amelia
Princess Amelia

The final child was Princess Amelia who was the favourite child of King George III. She suffered from ill health all her life and at 15 was diagnosed with consumption (what today we call tuberculosis). She fell in love with an inappropriate man who she met at the seaside while trying to recover her health. They could not marry and at age 27 Amelia died having never married. This was the final blow to the mental health of King George who never recovered. The King’s eldest son, George, Prince of Wales, took over the throne and ran the country as Regent. This now brings us full circle.




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