Queen Charlotte (1744-1818) was born into a family of German royalty as Princess Sophia Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. At seventeen, she was chosen from a list of appropriate potential wives by the about-to-be-crowned king George III of England and his advisors. They had never met before, and Charlotte, who was living in a convent at the time, had never been to England and spoke no English. She travelled to England and the royal couple were married the day she arrived. Their joint coronation followed a fortnight later.
Charlotte quickly settled down to family life at her private residence, Buckingham House (not yet a palace). Her daily life and social circle was closely controlled by her royal status and by the king's strict ideas about respectable conduct. Her domestic life was lived in public, and she could be criticised in the press for anything *ndash; for accepting gifts of jewels, for the way she brought up her children, for spending too much money, or (more often) for not spending enough to appear as magnificent or glamorous as commentators thought she should. Others didn't think she was pretty enough to be queen. James Gillray, especially, depicted her unsympathetically as a skinny, grasping old housewife. In caricatures like 'Frying Sprats' and 'Temperance enjoying a frugal meal' he mocked her and the king for saving money by living a modest middle-class lifestyle instead of doing things in proper aristocratic style.
Despite all this, Charlotte was highly successful at probably the most important duties of being a queen – she had an impeccable reputation for propriety and gave birth to fifteen healthy children, thirteen of whom lived to adulthood. This meant that she spent most of her time pregnant and overseeing the education of her children. She also collected books, was a patron of writers, musicians, and artists, and supported suitable charities for widows and children. Though faced with the rebellious behaviour of some of her offspring, especially her eldest son, the Prince of Wales, and his brothers Frederick and William, Charlotte managed to create an image of the British monarchy as an 'ordinary' though ideal family with whom, for the first time, their ordinary subjects could relate emotionally as if they were their own friends or relatives. This affectionate view of monarchy can beseen today in the media attention given to royal private life and events, and the celebrity status of figures like the Duchess of Cambridge.
The queen became more controversial after her husband began suffering from symptoms of insanity in 1788, which made it impossible for him to rule. During this crisis, she had to get more involved with politics, allying herself with William Pitt to try to preserve the king's power, in opposition to the Prince of Wales and his supporter Charles James Fox. Although he recovered temporarily, by 1811 he was permanently confined with severe dementia, and while Charlotte officially looked after him, Prince George took over as Regent.
Worst of all, despite her fifteen children, Charlotte only had one legitimate grandchild, Princess Charlotte Augusta, whose early death in 1817 – a year before her grandmother's – threw the future of the monarchy into doubt.
Find out more:
Queen Charlotte's coronation portrait, by Allan Ramsay.
Ruth Scobie (University of Oxford)
Images © British Museum
Gillray , Frying Sprats, 1791