A Royal Affair: George III and His Scandalous Siblings

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9781400063710: A Royal Affair: George III and His Scandalous Siblings

The acclaimed author of Aristocrats returns with a major new book that reveals the story of a regal family plagued by scandal and notoriety and trapped by duty, desire, and the protocols of royalty.
History remembers King George III of England as the mad monarch who lost America. But as a young man, this poignant figure set aside his own passions in favor of a temperate life as guardian to both his siblings and his country. He would soon learn that his prudently cultivated harmony would be challenged by the impetuous natures of his sisters and brothers, and by a changing world in which the very instituation of monarchy was under fire.

At the heart of Stella Tillyard’s intimate and vivid account is King George’s sister Caroline Mathilde. Married against her will at fifteen to the ailing king of Denmark, she broke all the rules by embarking on an affair with a radical young court doctor. Their rash experiment in free living ended in imprisonment, death, and exile and almost led their two countries to war. Around this tragedy are woven the stories of King George’s scandalous brothers, who squandered their time and titles partying and indulging in disastrous relationships that the gossip-hungry press was all too delighted to report.

Historians have always been puzzled by George’s refusal to give up on America, which forced his government to drag out the Revolutionary War long after it was effectively lost. Tillyard suggests that the king, seeing the colonists as part of his family, sought to control them in the same way he had attempted to rule his younger siblings.

In this brilliantly interpretive biography, Stella Tillyard conjures up a Georgian world of dynastic marriages, headstrong royals, and radical new ideas. A compelling story of private passions and public disgrace, rebellion and exile, A Royal Affair brings to life the dramatic events that served as a curtain-raiser to the revolutions that convulsed two continents.

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About the Author:

Stella Tillyard is the award-winning author of Aristocrats: Caroline, Emily, Louisa, and Sarah Lennox, 1740—1832, and Citizen Lord: The Life of Edward Fitzgerald, Irish Revolutionary. She graduated from Oxford and has taught at UCLA and Harvard, where she was Knox Fellow. She reviews for the Sunday Times (London) and is a frequent contributor to Radio 4. She is married to the historian John Brewer and lives in Oxford, England.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

chapter one

“Fritz Ist Dode”

eath came suddenly for Prince Frederick, ambushing him as he recovered from a temporary sickness, grabbing him by the throat, squeezing his life away. “Je sens la mort,” he cried out in his third language and with accurate finality. Convulsed with spasms, the Prince of Wales wrestled with the specter, wordlessly and in vain, watched by his helpless wife and doctors. In minutes he was gone, a man who a little while before had been sitting up in bed listening to his dancing master Dunoyer play tunes on the fiddle, cheerfully demanding to see his friends. With him went the future and the hopes of his wife, Augusta; the safety and bustle of a happy family home; and the childhood of his eldest son and heir. It was March 21, 1751, a little after nine o’clock on a black, sharp evening in London, silent round the bed.

Eventually, someone whispered that the king must be told. Lord North, a courtier who had been idling away the evening in another part of the house, was summoned by the Princess of Wales and dispatched to St. James’s. Walking as fast as his dignity and near fifty-year-old legs would allow him, North crossed the courtyard of Leicester House into the open space of the square in front, where the new, brightly gilded equestrian statue of Frederick’s grandfather George I winked in the smoky darkness. Along the royal mews at the bottom of Haymarket, acid fumes from scores of horses floated on the air. Lord North wove his way through servants out for the evening and chairmen carrying the rich home above the litter and dirt of the street. At the palace, he found George II downstairs in the rooms of his mistress Lady Yarmouth, playing cards after supper, as he liked to do every day.

Accounts had it that when Lord North delivered his message, the king showed no trace of emotion or shock. “Why, they told me he was better,” he said and put down his cards. Walking across to Lady Yarmouth, he leaned over her chair and whispered loudly, “Fritz ist dode,” before leaving the room and breaking up the company. A few months later he declared without remorse or shame, “This has been a fatal year in my family. I lost my eldest son, but was glad of it.” Thereafter he seldom mentioned Frederick’s name.

At Leicester House, in the morning, surgeons began cutting up the prince’s body, looking into his organs for a way of explaining their failure to predict his death. The prince’s friend and creditor George Bubb Dodington, upset at the cavalier way the doctors were flinging royal body parts about, ordered that the prince’s discarded bowels “be put in a box covered with red velvet and carried in one of his coaches, by such attendants as his Groom of the Stole should appoint, and buried in Henry VII’s chapel in Westminster Abbey.” Soon afterward, the rest of Frederick’s corpse, emptied out, embalmed, and re-dressed, was taken to a black-draped room in the House of Lords. His friends and relatives filed past in the muffled half darkness, and later the prince’s servants kept a vigil, standing by the waxy gray face from which all life had gone. On the morning of April 13, the coffin was closed for its journey to Westminster Abbey. Four peers held a black pall taut over the top of the coffin, and Frederick’s servants walked behind it, called and following according to their rank, the most important at the front.

It was a muted procession and a short way to go. With the deep tenor of the abbey bell sounding its mournful toll over the bustle of the river and the streets, the coffin bearers left the House of Lords, crossed Palace Yard, and filed between lines of stiff and silent soldiers to the gray, sheer bulk of the abbey. Instead of using the main west door and processing down the long, monument-cluttered nave, they went discreetly through the abbey’s side entrance into the southeast transept. Passing the tightly crowded area where the nation commemorated its writers and musicians, the party “turned short into Henry VII’s chapel,” as Dodington put it. The funeral service was perfunctory and bald, “performed without either anthem or organ,” he wrote, and added in dejection, “so ended the sad day.”

Frederick’s coffin was added to the rest of his remains in the vault under the veiny white-and-black-marble checkered floor, in cold proximity to his mother, Queen Caroline, who had been there nearly fourteen years. In decades to come the melancholy catalog would lengthen and a warring family would be brought together again. Silent and unable to quarrel, they would crumble to dust while the busy air worked holes in their coffins. King George II and Queen Caroline; Frederick and his wife, Augusta; his brother, William, and sisters Amelia and Caroline, his daughters Elizabeth and Louisa, and his sons Edward and Frederick: they lie forgotten, their lives squeezed into inscriptions on the slabs above them, walked over by backpacked wanderers unaware of the hatreds and the loves boxed up beneath.

When Prince Frederick’s eldest son, Prince George, was told that his father had died, he said nothing, though an observer noticed that he swayed and “nearly fainted.” Then, with the odd, dislocated emotion he would always show in public until he went mad thirty-eight years later, he put his hand on his heart and said, “I feel here as I did when I saw the workman fall from the scaffold at Kew.” Shock rather than sadness was what the new heir to the throne expressed. He did his best to hide his feelings, though in the months to come he was lethargic, as if grief was working its way through him slowly, tiring him out.

Until that March morning in 1751, Frederick’s children had had happy lives, brought up in the country at Kew and in London at Leicester House, well away from the suffocating gloom of St. James’s and undisturbed by the quarrels which blighted both generations of Hanoverians that had come before them. Prince George and his seven siblings were British, nourished on Anglicanism and the sweet, new mythology of Britannia. But their father and mother were German, and all their four grandparents were German, too. English may have been spoken at Leicester House, but George II preferred his native tongue, and his grandchildren were all good German speakers whose roots, snaking beneath British topsoil, were sunk deep into the bedrock that ran right under the North Sea to their ancestral land of Hanover. British-born, German-bred, Frederick’s children never lost a sense of their connectedness to northern Europe and its constellation of Protestant rulers. Joined by geography, custom, religion, and the history of their own family to the Continent, their own lives were shaped by it invisibly, irrevocably, and in ways that Britons sometimes did not see and often preferred to forget.

Prince Frederick, just to begin with, was not Frederick until he was twenty-one. Until then he was Friedrich Louis, born in Hanover in 1707, grandson of its elector, Kurfürst Georg Ludwig, son of the elector’s heir, Prince Georg, and his wife, Wilhelmine Caroline. Friedrich’s contented nursery happiness with his sisters at the Leineschloss in Hanover and especially at Herrenhausen, outside the town, was shattered when, in 1714, the Elector Georg became George I of Great Britain. First the elector grumpily left for his new country. Then, in October, the new Prince and Princess of Wales followed, carting their possessions across the North Sea in a flotilla of twenty-two warships, four frigates, six transports for personnel, and the royal yacht Peregrine, where the Princesses Anne and Amelia played as the autumn wind sped them across the channel.

Friedrich was left alone in Hanover, pale and small, his family’s representative in a court that the elector decreed must lose none of its order and magnificence. Much of the time he was allowed to be a little boy, with dogs, pages, and even a surrogate princess, Magot Veltsen, to play with. But he had adult duties, too. The court was open every day, and each Sunday, and on other occasions when foreign diplomats or aristocrats passed through, a levee was held. Then, Elector Georg Ludwig, in his long, white wig with its rows of curls like waves on the sea, was propped up, in portrait form, on a ceremonial chair, while little Friedrich, beside him on another, received his guests. Visitors bowed first to the elector’s image and then to the prince, and spoke throughout in the hushed tones habitually used when Georg Ludwig was actually present. Meals and chapel services on these days were similarly conducted. The preacher addressed the elector’s empty pew, and the guests praised his table and his hospitality.

Friedrich, who would be elector one day, was more than happy to act his part, even though he was small for his age and his own straight, pale hair was no match for Georg Ludwig’s billowing wig. As time went on, study supplemented play. By the age of fourteen, Friedrich had two tutors, von Neubauer and Meinhardt Kunel, as well as an English teacher, Jean Hanet. Two army lieutenants taught him mathematics, “artillerie,” and fortification. He learned the histories and memorized the genealogies of the princely houses of Braunschweig- Lüneburg, Bavaria, the Palatinate, Brandenburg, and, of course, Hanover. He was now reading Latin prose, “almost entirely on his own,” studying philosophy in French and theology in German. Never a particularly scholarly or attentive pupil, he did learn to glance through a text, gut its contents, and pass muster as a reasonably cultivated young man.

Hanet, Friedrich’s English teacher, both taught him the language and gave him a picture of his future kingdom by taking him through Addison’s Spectator, which had first appeared in 1711. The prince was captivated by the vision of life Joseph Addison offered him and began to mod...

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