A Royal Experiment: The Private Life of King George III

A Royal Experiment: The Private Life of King George III

by Janice Hadlow

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The Times Best Books of the Year • The Sunday Times Best Books of the Year
The New Statesman Book of the Year selection by Lucy Hughes-Hallett
BBC History Magazine Book of the Year selection by Helen Rappaport
"A masterpiece . . . . [T]his heartbreaking narrative of family dysfunction and royal sacrifice is an absolute page-turner." —Amanda Foreman, author of Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire

"[A] fascinating, story-filled account . . . . Each story is a revelation." —Jenny Uglow, The Guardian

The surprising, deliciously dramatic, and ultimately heartbreaking story of King George III's radical pursuit of happiness in his private life with Queen Charlotte and their 15 children

In the U.S., Britain's George III, the protagonist of A Royal Experiment, is known as the king from whom Americans won their independence and as "the mad king," but in Janice Hadlow's groundbreaking and entertaining new biography, he is another character altogether—compelling and relatable.

He was the first of Britain's three Hanoverian kings to be born in England, the first to identify as native of the nation he ruled. But this was far from the only difference between him and his predecessors. Neither of the previous Georges was faithful to his wife, nor to his mistresses. Both hated their own sons. And, overall, their children were angry, jealous, and disaffected schemers, whose palace shenanigans kick off Hadlow's juicy narrative and also made their lives unhappy ones.

Pained by his childhood amid this cruel and feuding family, George came to the throne aspiring to be a new kind of king—a force for moral good. And to be that new kind of king, he had to be a new kind of man. Against his irresistibly awful family background—of brutal royal intrigue, infidelity, and betrayal—George fervently pursued a radical domestic dream: he would have a faithful marriage and raise loving, educated, and resilient children.
The struggle of King George—along with his wife, Queen Charlotte, and their 15 children—to pursue a passion for family will surprise history buffs and delight a broad swath of biography readers and royal watchers.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780805096576
Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 11/18/2014
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 704
Sales rank: 148,232
File size: 6 MB

About the Author

Janice Hadlow has worked at the BBC for 28 years, including more than 10 years as a top executive. She was educated at comprehensive school in Swanley, in north Kent, and graduated with a BA in history from King's College London. She currently lives in Bath. A Royal Experiment is her first book.
Janice Hadlow worked at the BBC for more than two decades, and for ten of those years she ran BBC Two and BBC Four, two of the broadcaster’s major television channels. She was educated at Swanley School in Kent and graduated with a first class degree in history from King’s college, London. She is the author of A Royal Experiment, a biography of Great Britain's King George III. She currently lives in Edinburgh. The Other Bennet Sister is her first novel.

Read an Excerpt


The Strangest Family

GEORGE III’S FIRST SPEECH FROM the throne was a resounding declaration of his particular fitness to take up the task before him. ‘Born and educated in this country,’ he pronounced, ‘I glory in the name of Britain.’1 It was not a statement any of his immediate predecessors could have made, which was of course precisely why he said it. From the very earliest days of his reign, he sought to mark himself out from his Hanoverian forebears. Neither George I nor George II had been born in Britain, and neither ever thought of the country as home. Their true Heimat was Hanover, a princely state in northern Germany in whose flat farmlands the dynasty had its ancestral roots. They both thought of themselves first and foremost as electors of Hanover; their kingship of England, Scotland and Ireland came very much second in their hearts.

When George III became monarch, the family had been somewhat reluctantly seated on the throne for only forty-six years. The crown of Great Britain had not been a prize they had expected to inherit, but they had done so with the death of Queen Anne in 1714. Anne was the daughter of James II, the last Stuart king, who was forced off his throne in 1688 when his Catholicism became unacceptable to the Protestant English. In the Glorious Revolution that followed, the Dutch prince William of Orange, nephew and son-in-law of the deposed James, was invited to become king, with the stipulation that henceforth, only a Protestant could become sovereign, a qualification still in force today. Anne, who succeeded the childless William, was known with cruel irony as ‘the teeming Princess of Denmark’. Her pregnancies were many, but, despite an appalling catalogue of gynaecological endurance, she had no living children to show for it; she lost five babies in infancy and suffered thirteen miscarriages. When her only surviving child, the eleven-year-old Duke of Gloucester, died in 1700, it was clear that an heir must be looked for elsewhere.

The defenders of the Glorious Revolution did not find it easy to identify a suitably qualified candidate. Catholicism ruled out James II’s exiled son, who had otherwise by far the strongest claim, as well as fifty-six other religiously unacceptable potential heirs. Eventually, it was decided to offer the crown to Electress Sophia of Hanover. A daughter of Charles I’s sister Elizabeth, in purely dynastic terms her claim was weaker than those of many more directly related contenders, but her impeccable Protestant credentials won the day, and it was her name and that of her descendants which was enshrined in the Act of Settlement of 1701 as heirs to the crown if Queen Anne should die without a child. When Anne’s health, exhausted by a lifetime of fruitless childbearing, fatally gave out in 1714, the electress was already dead, so the succession passed to her eldest son, George Louis. He was crowned in London later that year as George I.

It was not an entirely popular choice. The Jacobites – supporters of the old Stuart monarchy – rioted in at least twenty English towns. It was worse in Scotland, still smarting with outraged national grievance at the Act of Union, which linked the nations together in 1707, and whose simmering discontents erupted into the uprisings of 1715 and 1745. Although on those occasions it looked as if Hanoverians might be forced back to the electorate that was always their first love, they hung on, somewhat despite themselves, and it was their dynasty that ruled Britain until the death of George III’s son, William IV, in 1837.

As a child, the diarist Horace Walpole, who wrote so voluminously about George I’s successors, had a brief encounter with the first of the Hanoverians. His father, Sir Robert Walpole, was George’s first minister, and as such was able to gratify for his son ‘the first vehement inclination that I ever expressed … to see the king’. He was taken in the evening to St James’s Palace and, after supper, informally introduced to the monarch. The ten-year-old Horace ‘knelt down and kissed his hand, he said a few words to me, and my conductress led me back to my mother’. Writing nearly seventy years later, Walpole recalled that ‘the person of the king is as perfect in my memory, as if I saw him but yesterday. It was that of an elderly man, rather pale and exactly like his pictures and coins; tall; of an aspect rather good than august; and with a dark tie wig, a plain coat, waistcoat and breeches of a snuff-coloured cloth, with stockings of the same colour, and a blue riband all over.’ He had, he thought in retrospect, been remarkably indulged, for the king ‘took me up in his arms, kissed me and chatted some time’.2

Walpole, who in later life liked to think of himself as almost a republican, and who observed that he had ‘never since felt any enthusiasm for royal persons’, was clearly captivated. But there was another side to the king who seemed so kind and genial to the starstruck small boy. For it was George I who must bear much of the responsibility for nurturing the tradition of Hanoverian family hatred that was to bequeath such a miserable inheritance to future generations.

*   *   *

George I’s own experience of family life was hardly a happy one. His father, Ernst August, was a man of calculating ambition, dominated by the all-pervasive desire to see his dukedom of Hanover elevated to the far greater status of an electorate. His many children were raised in an atmosphere of military discipline, expected to display absolute obedience to his will and utter devotion to the grand project of dynastic consolidation. He seldom saw any of them alone or in informal circumstances; unsurprisingly, they were said to be ‘solemn and restrained’ in his presence.3 Ernst’s wife Sophia, whose antecedents were ultimately to bring the crown of Great Britain into the family’s possession, was a far more relaxed and sympathetic character than her unbending husband – Walpole described her as ‘a woman of parts and great vivacity’ – but she too submitted without question to her husband’s severe dictatorship.4 Any resistance on her part had been undone by love. She had expected very little from her arranged marriage, and when, against all her expectations, Ernst proved a passionate and enthusiastic lover, Sophia could not believe her luck. From her wedding night onwards, for the rest of her life, she was completely in thrall to her husband’s judgement, never venturing to set her own considerable intellect against any of his schemes. Ernst’s numerous affairs with other women caused her much pain – in middle age, she wrote sadly that she could not believe she had ever been so foolish as to imagine he would remain faithful to her for ever – yet she fought hard to preserve her primacy in his eyes. She was much tried by his long relationship with the malicious Countess von Platen, who subjected her over many years to a litany of carefully calculated public insults; but Sophia’s commitment to the errant Ernst August never wavered. She once declared that she would ‘gladly have followed him to the Antipodes’.5

Sophia’s dogged devotion won her no part at all in her husband’s political strategising. He acknowledged the sharpness of her mind but denied her any active role in his schemes. She was ‘without influence’ in family affairs and allowed no say in the making of even the most significant decisions. When Ernst decided to disinherit his many younger sons in order to consolidate all the family possessions in the hands of George, the eldest, Sophia could do nothing to protect their interests. Angry and betrayed, three of the brothers left Ernst’s court and signed on as soldiers in the Imperial service. Within a few years, all had died in battle, to the despairing grief of their mother. She was equally powerless when Ernst began to make marriage plans for the favoured George. Ernst had long before decided that his eldest son would marry his cousin, Sophia Dorothea of Celle, thus uniting two branches of the family dukedoms into a single greater state.

For all its desirability as a political alliance, it was obvious to anyone who knew them that George and Sophia Dorothea were hardly well matched. Sophia Dorothea, who was only eleven when the marriage was first proposed, had been brought up from her earliest days in a relaxed atmosphere of indulgence and luxury. Her father, a very different man from his single-minded brother Ernst, had married for love a woman considered beneath him in the complicated gradations of princely hierarchy, and had sacrificed the opportunity for further aggrandisement as a result. Sophia Dorothea, the only child of this love match, grew up into a beautiful woman – sophisticated, conscious of her attractiveness, and considered very French in her tastes. She loved to be amused and entertained, and was said to be obsessed by fashion. Lively and good-looking, she had no shortage of suitors. Her prospective mother-in-law regarded her balefully; she was sure she would not find a soulmate in her reserved and cautious eldest son.

Sophia, who described herself as ‘a nearly stupidly fond mother’, was devoted to the silent and watchful George.6 She admired her son’s deep sense of responsibility and his formidable devotion to duty. Others found him harder to appreciate. His cousin, the Duchess of Orléans, thought him ‘ordinarily neither cheerful nor friendly, dry and crabbed’. She complained that ‘his words have to be squeezed out of him’, that he was suspicious, proud, parsimonious and had ‘no natural good-heartedness’.7 Sophia maintained that those who thought her son sullen simply did not understand him; they did not see that, beneath his undemonstrative surface, he took things much to heart, and was far more sensitive than he was prepared to show. But she knew him well enough to suspect that he was not the best partner for the outgoing Sophia Dorothea, who loved playful conversation, sought out cheerful company and had a taste for extravagant entertainments. The prospective bride’s mother had similar misgivings; but neither could persuade their respective husbands to take their concerns seriously.

George himself had little to say on the subject. It was widely supposed that he would have been happy to be left alone with his mistress, a sister of the Countess von Platen, who had – as it were – continued the family business, becoming the son’s lover, as her sister was the father’s. However, obedience, not self-fulfilment, came first in the young George’s mind. He had seen Sophia Dorothea, and had apparently been impressed by her good looks; but there is little doubt that he would have taken her anyway, regardless of any personal qualities, once his father had wished it. His mother once remarked that ‘George would marry a cripple if he could serve the House of Brunswick’.8 In 1682, the ill-matched couple did the bidding of their fathers, and were married. Sophia Dorothea was sixteen, her groom five years older.

At first they seem to have made the best of things, and in 1683 Sophia Dorothea gave birth to a son, George August. Such speedy provision of a healthy male heir raised her immeasurably in Ernst’s eyes, and for a few years Sophia Dorothea’s life was probably not unpleasant. Under the eye of her satisfied father-in-law, she enjoyed court life at the elaborate palace of Herrenhausen, relishing the parties, masques and concerts Ernst August laid on there to magnify his grandeur. She saw very little of her husband. George’s great passion was the army, which took him away on active service for long periods. When Ernst August took his entire court to Italy for a year, Sophia Dorothea went on the extended holiday without her husband. Reunited with George on her return, she conceived a daughter who was named after her. But thrown back into each other’s company, the strategy of polite coexistence the couple had maintained with some success began to fall apart. Bored and frustrated, Sophia Dorothea began to behave badly; she picked quarrels, caused scenes and was outspokenly impatient of the etiquette that ruled court life, apparently driven both to dominate and to despise the circumstances in which she lived. One observer called her ‘une beauté tyrannique’.9

Her unhappiness was given an edge of anger when she discovered that her taciturn husband had taken another mistress, and one whom he seemed genuinely to love. Melusine von Schulenberg had none of Sophia Dorothea’s physical attractions – she was tall and thin, nicknamed ‘the scarecrow’ by George’s mother – but she was calm, malleable and good-natured, in contrast to Sophia Dorothea’s more febrile character. She sought to manage George’s moods, and make his life easier, whilst his wife seemed only to cause him difficulties. Sophia Dorothea was bitterly humiliated by her husband’s public preference for a woman far less beautiful and of lower social status than herself, and she refused to adopt the wronged wife’s traditional stance of dignified resignation. She scolded her resentful husband, made scenes at court, and complained to her father-in-law. In doing so, not only did she earn the lasting resentment of George’s mother (who could not see why she should not submit quietly to marital infidelity, as she had done), but also made enemies of the powerful Platen women, who disliked Sophia Dorothea’s wilder accusations against mistresses and their wiles. Unhappy, rejected and isolated amongst people who were embarrassed and annoyed by her indiscreet outbursts, Sophia Dorothea was in a very vulnerable state. It is perhaps not surprising that she was so quickly persuaded to do the very worst and dangerous thing she could have done in such circumstances: fall in love with another man.

It was at this inauspicious moment that ‘the famous and beautiful’ Count Philip von Königsmark arrived at the Hanoverian court. He was a Swedish aristocrat, rich, handsome, clever, witty and assured, an archetypal sophisticated bad boy who had gambled, fought and drunk his way across Europe before enlisting as an officer in the Hanoverian service. He was everything Sophia Dorothea’s dour husband was not, and was obviously attracted to her. They enjoyed each other’s company, and when he left to join the army, he began to write to her. Soon the letters they exchanged were those of lovers. At first, they were careful – ‘If I were not writing to a person for whom my respect is as great as my love,’ wrote Königsmark, ‘I should find better terms to express my passion’ – but as their relationship grew more intense, they became less discreet.10

When Königsmark returned, they snatched meetings in corridors, and exchanged glances in ballrooms. People noticed. They became the object of gossip, spread avidly by the Platens. Eventually, even Sophia Dorothea’s mother heard the talk, and begged her daughter to break off the affair. She refused, and for over two years sustained her love for the count through occasional meetings and lengthy correspondence, in which she did not hesitate to declare the strength of her feelings, even confessing she would like to abandon her empty, unsatisfactory life. ‘I thought a thousand times of following you,’ she wrote, ‘what would I not give to be able to do it, and always be with you. But I should be too happy and there is no such bliss in this world.’11

Yet for all her declaration of its impossibility, the idea of starting a new life with Königsmark became an obsession for her. By 1694, both her parents were aware that she wanted to end her twelve-year marriage. Rumours of an impending elopement transfixed the court. Königsmark’s recent appointment as commander of a Saxon regiment seemed to offer the couple both the resources and the opportunity to run away together.

Then in July events came to a sudden and horrible conclusion. Whilst drunk, Königsmark was heard publicly discussing the affair; as a result, he was ordered, allegedly by Ernst August himself, to leave Hanover that very night. He was then seen entering the palace, apparently to say goodbye to his lover. Horace Walpole later heard that with the assistance of Sophia Dorothea’s ladies, ‘he was suffered to kiss her hand before his abrupt departure, and was actually introduced by them into her bedchamber the next morning before she rose’.12 Others maintained he never reached his rendezvous. What is certain is that after his late-night arrival at the Leine palace, Königsmark was never seen again.

Exactly what happened to him remains a mystery. It was widely suspected he had been murdered; his remains were supposed to have been thrown into a river in a sack weighted with stones.13 Nothing was ever definitively proved, and rumours concerning Königsmark’s fate circulated around the princely courts of Europe for years. Walpole, however, believed he knew the truth. A generation later, when Sophia Dorothea’s son George II ordered alterations to be made to his mother’s old apartments at Leine, Walpole was told that the builders made a gruesome discovery: ‘The body of Königsmark was discovered under the floor of the Electoral Princess’s dressing room, the count probably having been strangled the instant he left her, and his body secreted there.’14 This discreditable story was, asserted Walpole, ‘hushed up’, but he claimed that his father, Sir Robert, had heard it directly from George II’s wife, Queen Caroline.

Whatever Königsmark’s fate, it is hard to believe that Ernst August played no part in it. The payment of large sums of money by Ernst to a small group of loyal courtiers shortly after the event seems more than coincidental. Ernst certainly had sufficient motive at least to connive at the killing. After a lifetime of planning and scheming, he had finally achieved the coveted status of elector only two years before, in 1692. The humiliation of his son at the hands of an adulterous wife did not form part of his plan for the continued upward rise of his family’s power and influence. It is unlikely, however, that his role in the affair will ever finally be established. The role played by Sophia Dorothea’s husband in her lover’s disappearance is even harder to assess. Perhaps intentionally, George was away from court at the time of Königsmark’s disappearance. But if he was ignorant of any plans to dispose of the count, he was fully complicit in what now happened to his wife.

Sophia Dorothea was hustled away to a remote castle at Ahlden, Lower Saxony, where she was kept isolated in the strictest confinement. Letters from her were found at Königsmark’s house, and shown to her father who, as a result of what they disclosed, effectively abandoned her. Her mother was refused access to her. Immured alone at Ahlden, she was questioned over and over again about the precise nature of her relationship with Königsmark. She always denied that she had committed what she called ‘le crime’, but the couple’s correspondence contradicted her assertions. In them, Königsmark made it clear how much he hated the thought of Sophia Dorothea having sex – or, as he put it, ‘monter à cheval’ – with her husband. In her replies, Sophia Dorothea reassured him that George was a very poor lover in comparison with himself, and added vehemently that she longed for George to die in battle. It is probable that George was shown these letters, which may explain some of the harshness with which Sophia Dorothea was treated in the months that followed.15

At first, it was hard to know what to do with George’s errant wife. In the end, she was persuaded to become the unwitting author of her own misery. She was encouraged to ask for a separation from her husband, which she did almost willingly, on the grounds that ‘she despaired of ever overcoming the aversion the prince has for several years evinced towards her’.16 It is unlikely she knew at this stage that Königsmark was dead; naively, she may still have hoped to be reunited with him after a separation had taken place. Armed with his wife’s declaration, in December 1694, George was quickly able to obtain a divorce. Sophia Dorothea hoped that afterwards she would be allowed quietly ‘to retire from the world’, expecting to live with her mother at Celle; instead she was returned to Ahlden, where she was locked up and, in all but name, imprisoned.

Any reminders of Sophia Dorothea’s presence were ruthlessly and systematically erased from the Hanoverian court. Her name was struck out of prayers, and all portraits of her taken down. She had become a non-person, and disappeared into a confinement from which she would never emerge. She had not been allowed to say goodbye to her children – twelve-year-old George and seven-year-old Sophia Dorothea – before she was taken away. She would not see them again. Her name was never mentioned to them, and they were forbidden to speak of her. She was permitted to take portraits of them with her, which she regarded as her most precious possessions. When Ernst August died, and her ex-husband inherited his title, she wrote to him, begging to be allowed to see her children. He did not reply. ‘He is so cold, he turns everything to ice,’ commented the Duchess of Orléans sadly.

For the first two years, Sophia Dorothea was held entirely inside the Ahlden castle. Later, she was able to walk outside for half an hour a day. George did not deprive her of money and she lived in some luxury, dressed in the fashionable clothes she had always loved. There were few people to admire them, however. No visitors were permitted. Sophia’s only contact with her family was through the eighty-one pictures of her relations that she had hung on her walls, including one of her ex-husband. She did not read a letter that had not been scrutinised by her gaoler first. Surrounded by a small entourage of elderly ladies, Sophia went nowhere unattended. The boredom of her life seems to have overwhelmed her, and she sought sensation wherever she could find it. On rare outings in her state carriage, she always asked to have the horses driven at the highest possible speed. Her mother, who had been tireless in her appeals to see her daughter, was eventually allowed to visit her; but after her death, Sophia Dorothea saw no one. In 1714, when George crossed the North Sea to take up his new responsibilities in Britain, it was suggested to him that he might now relax the conditions under which his ex-wife dragged out her existence; but he was implacable. Sophia Dorothea endured this shadow of a life for thirty-one years. In 1726, she became seriously ill. Her attendants tried to raise her spirits by showing her the portraits of her children, but when this much relied-upon source of comfort failed, they realised she was dying. A few days later, she was dead.

If George was troubled by guilt at any point throughout her long exile, he gave no sign of it. He never commented on his ill-starred marriage, nor its tragic end. He did not marry again, but lived in apparently placid contentment with Melusine von Schulenberg, whom he later ennobled as the Duchess of Kendal.

Yet there remained in George’s carefully preserved, quiet life an unignorable reminder of a partnership he had never wanted, and which had caused him such public humiliation. The two children he had fathered with Sophia Dorothea could not be expunged or denied. His daughter he seems to have regarded benignly, although she played almost no part in his daily life; but his relationship with his son could not be similarly consigned to the margins of his public world. As his heir, the young Prince George represented a dynastic and political fact which George was compelled to acknowledge. But he could not – and would not – be brought to love the boy.

Copyright © 2014 by Janice Hadlow

Table of Contents

Author's Note xi
Family Tree xviii
Prologue 1
1. The Strangest Family 17
2. A Passionate Partnership 44
3. Son and Heir 79
4. The Right Wife 127
5. A Modern Marriage 154
6. Fruitful 182
7. Private Lives 208
8. A Sentimental Education 226
9. Numberless Trials 274
10. Great Expectations 309
11. An Intellectual Malady 352
12. Three Weddings 417
13. The Wrong Lovers 473
14. Established 535
Notes 619
Bibliography 650
Acknowledgements 655
Illustration Credits 659
Index 661

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