Frederica of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Tischbein, c1797. Photo: National Museums, Berlin.
Long time, no see, my history loving amigos. I’ve been busy researching my novel about Sophie Scholl, enjoying the sunshine and sorting out some pretty exciting stuff that I’ll be sharing with you over the next few months – including press trips, camera in hand to the Victoria and Albert Museum, Kensington Palace, Hampton Court Palace and the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace to take a look at their new major exhibitions.
To make up for my laxity, here’s a post about one of my favourite historical ladies – the extremely beauteous and rather controversial Frederica of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, who was born in the Old Palace, Hanover on the 3rd of March 1778 and sported the rather splendid full name of Frederica Louise Caroline Sophie Charlotte Alexandrine.
Frederica was the seventh child of Charles, Grand Duke of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (brother of Queen Charlotte of England) and his first wife Princess Frederica of Hesse-Darmstadt, who would die at the age of thirty, two days after giving birth to her tenth baby (who survived for just one day), after which her grieving widower married her sister, Princess Charlotte two years later in September 1784. Princess Charlotte would herself die at the age of thirty in childbirth just over a year after her marriage, after which the Grand Duke understandably retired from the marital field – probably feeling that he had done his bit with six surviving children to look after.
Frederica of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Photo: Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014.
Pretty, lively Frederica was sent from Herrenhausen with her elder sisters, Charlotte, Therese and Louisa to the Darmstadt court of their maternal grandmother, the Dowager Princess of Hesse-Darmstadt to be raised in a manner suitable for an eligible blue blooded young lady of the time, their widowed father having decided that he was in no way equipped to deal with such matters by himself. That the four motherless Mecklenburg-Strelitz girls (who were each Duchesses in their own right) were considered to be amongst the four greatest beauties of their era was probably a source of mingled pride and concern to their family as they no doubt expected to be besieged by suitors at some point in the near future, as indeed proved to be the case, with the Duchess Charlotte (who was madly adored by their cousin, Prince William, Duke of Clarence and future William IV) being the first to go when at the age of sixteen she married the Duke of Saxe-Hildburghausen in September 1785.
The second sister, Duchess Therese made an even better match four years later in May 1789 when at the age of sixteen she married the Prince of Thurn and Taxis in a match that had been primarily arranged by her aunt, Queen Charlotte (who had taken a great interest in the education of her nieces – probably because she saw them as prospective brides for her own sons) and her husband George III.
Louise and Frederica of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Photo: Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014.
This left the two youngest girls: Louise, born on the 10th of March 1776 and Frederica, who were exceptionally close to each other and so lovely that they turned heads wherever they went. They were carefully raised by their grandmother, who ensured that they were cultivated, well educated but also fully aware of their duties towards the less fortunate. In a move that Rousseau would have approved of, the young Duchesses were encouraged to make their own clothes, cook and also personally minister to the needy and sick amongst other acts of charity, with Louise in particular developing a marked tendency towards philanthropy.
In March 1793, their grandmother took the two girls with her on a visit to Frankfurt, where in a probably pre-arranged accidentally on purpose meeting at the theatre they were introduced to King Frederick William I of Prussia and then his two sons, Crown Prince Frederick and Prince Louis-Charles, both of whom, of course, were immediately struck by the graceful, light hearted beauty of their Mecklenburg-Strelitz cousins. A double betrothal just a month later was swiftly arranged for them, with Louise being engaged to the shy, rather diffident but kind and honest elder brother, who stood to inherit the throne of Prussia and her younger sister, fifteen year old Frederica being promised to the better looking but much less nice twenty year old Prince Louis-Charles.
Louise’s wedding to the Crown Prince of Prussia, a glittering triumph of a match by any standards (and one that caused some chagrin in England where Queen Charlotte had rather hoped he would marry one of her daughters as his sister, Princess Frederica had recently married one of her sons, the Duke of York), took place later that same year on Christmas Eve, while Frederica’s wedding was a Boxing Day affair. Both matches were widely touted as that most unlikely of all scenarios – royal love matches and it caused an immense sensation with both girls being mobbed by crowds wherever they went, while people avidly bought prints of their portraits. In the case of good natured, kind hearted Louise, her marriage WAS something of a romance as she had the good fortune to be allied with a man of a similar temperament to her own who genuinely cared about her and with whom she in turn could find happiness. Frederica, however, was rather less fortunate with her young husband, who although he initially fell for her good looks, found a naive and carefully raised adolescent Duchess much less appealing than his more obviously glamorous and experienced mistresses.
Prince Louis-Charles of Prussia, Cunningham, c1786.
Frederica wasn’t entirely unhappy in her new life in Berlin though, especially as she had Louise living nearby. She wasn’t entirely neglected by her husband either as they had three children over the next three years: Prince Frederick in October 1794 (conceived shortly after their marriage then); Prince Charles in September 1795 and then finally Princess Frederica in September 1796. There’s rumours that Prince Louis-Charles’ less than attentive behaviour towards his wife led her to have an affair with his uncle, the rather hot looking Prince Louis-Frederick of Prussia, who was just six years older than herself, but seeing as she seems to have spent the bulk of her married life pregnant or nursing (they were married for a total of thirty six months and assuming the three pregnancies lasted around forty weeks each then that leaves roughly six months spread across three years that poor Frederica wasn’t pregnant) it doesn’t seem likely that anything more than a flirtation, if that, occurred between them.
Sadly, Prince Louis-Charles was to die of diptheria on the 28th of December 1796, at the age of just twenty three and just a couple of days after his third wedding anniversary, leaving Frederica an eighteen year old widow with three children. She moved her young family to the charming palace of Schönhausen on the outskirts of Berlin and here enjoyed a quiet life of playing with her children, spending time with her sister and remodelling the gardens while she considered what to do next – or rather who to take as her second husband. For a while she was engaged to her cousin, Adolphus, Duke of Cambridge who came to pay his respects while in Germany and who, as so many others did, fell head over heels for her lovely face and promptly offered the delightful young widow his hand in marriage. However, it all went miserably and quickly awry when the prospective groom’s father, George III, in a move that seems straight out of Austen, made the prospective bridegroom a Colonel and bought the couple a house but refused to finance the young couple’s establishment until his son had completed his military duties and Parliament was more amenable to increasing his income to one that could support a wife and promising family of squalling round faced Hanoverian babies, shortly after which the fed up, disillusioned and no doubt bored Frederica embarked on a clandestine affair with a handsome but not particularly distinguished nobleman, Prince Frederick William of Solms-Braunfels.
Frederica of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Photo: Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014.
When Frederica discovered that she was pregnant, the once clandestine affair could no longer be kept quiet and so Prince Frederick found himself forced to do the honourable thing and offer her his hand in marriage. The match was something of a major step down for a girl who was universally feted for her beauty and sister of the Queen of Prussia (Louise’s husband had inherited the throne a year earlier in November 1797 and was now King Frederick William III) but what could she do but jilt poor Adolphus (and thus incur the undying enmity of his mama, Queen Charlotte) and accept with good grace?
The couple were married in Berlin on the 10th of December 1798 then immediately went into exile in Ansbach, leaving Frederica’s three children by Prince Louis-Charles behind in Berlin to be raised alongside their cousins, the children of her sister Louise. Their scandalous wedding took place just in the nick of time as their daughter, Princess Caroline was born just two months later. The still infatuated Prince Adolphus, who had been busily furnishing what was to be their marital home in Hanover, was the last to know – although Frederica’s unusual epistolary silence for the past few months may have given him some sort of clue that things between them weren’t perhaps as rosy as he would have liked. Even so, he was quite naturally devastated by Frederica’s betrayal.
Sadly the baby princess who had unwittingly caused all this furore and drama died at the age of eight months so it was all for nothing and more to the point, Frederica was soon to realise that her new husband, who was no doubt all charm and smiles when he was her lover, was actually a mean and embittered drunk who would eventually have to quit the army and thus lose the bulk of his income as a result of his alcoholism a few years later in 1805.
Frederica was to have seven children by her second husband, with four surviving infancy: Prince Frederick, born in December 1801; Princess Augusta, born in July 1804; Prince Alexander, born in March 1807 and another Prince Frederick (known as Carl), born in July 1812. It wasn’t an easy marriage by any means – the couple weren’t terribly well suited after all and things went rapidly from bad to worse when his drinking increased and their finances began to diminish – first when he lost his army income and then when her brother in law put an end to her pension. They scraped by though but things were certainly not as they ought to have been and no one could have blamed Frederica for coming to deeply resent both her husband and the mistakes that had planted him so securely in her life.
Louise and Frederica of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, after Tischbein. Photo: Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014.
All was not lost though as divorce wasn’t an altogether unheard of thing in Prussian royal circles and Frederica’s family and even her in laws encouraged her to get one in order to free herself of Prince Frederick’s pernicious presence. However, for whatever reason, she was unwilling to go ahead, either because of some last lingering affection, the fear that her children with Prince Frederick would be lost to her (which would have been considered a matter of course during this period, when women usually lost custody of their children upon the end of a marriage) or perhaps because she felt wearily inclined to stick with the devil she knew rather than, as a veteran of two unsatisfying marriages, strike out on a third matrimonial adventure that might very well be as bad as its predecessors. Financially too she must have had concerns – war was raging through Europe at this point with kingdoms and duchies falling everywhere to the French armies so who knew what the future would bring and as a still young mother of seven young children she no doubt felt disinclined to make any drastic changes to her already precarious living situation no matter how much her family urged her to.
Everything changed though in May 1813 when another English cousin, Prince Ernest, Duke of Cumberland arrived in Germany to visit his relatives and promptly fell madly in love, just as his younger brother Adolphus had done, with his still gorgeous and vivacious cousin Frederica, who by this time was thirty five years old and probably thought the unfortunate peccadillos of youth were well behind her. However, although Prince Ernest was hardly love’s young dream with a bracing and rather terrifying manner, those unfortunate Hanoverian features and, to cap it all off, a disfiguring scar to the side of his face thanks to an old war wound, Frederica fell head over heels for him too. Again her family urged her to get a divorce and start a new life for herself but again Frederica hesitated until finally in the final months of 1813 she capitulated and asked her brother in law, the King of Prussia for his permission to end her failed marriage and tacitly accepted Ernest’s proposal, optimistically writing to a female confidant that ‘I hope to be happy in the autumn of my days as I have been unhappy in the spring and summer.’
However, just before the divorce could be granted, Frederica’s husband, Prince Frederick, who had been fine with the end of his marriage, suddenly died of a probable stroke, leaving her widow and free to marry once again. Although the unfortunate prince had been in full agreement with the divorce going ahead, this didn’t stop the usual rumours starting up that it seemed extremely convenient that the unwanted cast off husband should die at such an opportune moment and that OBVIOUSLY Frederica or perhaps her betrothed, Prince Ernest, who had just a few years previously been scandalously implicated in the probable suicide of his valet, must have had a hand in his demise. It doesn’t seem at all likely that either one of them should have been responsible seeing as Prince Frederick was happy to agree to a divorce and there wasn’t quite the same stigma attached to such an undertaking in their circles as there might have been elsewhere. The rumours lingered on though and were fanned to some extent by Queen Charlotte’s dismay about her son’s engagement to a woman that the scandalously scurrilous elements of the British press were keen to depict as some sort of titled adventuress, scheming and murdering her way to the top of the princely pile with one marriage after another.
Prince Ernest, Duke of Cumberland, after Beechey, c1795. Photo: Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014.
This then is the reputation that will always follow Frederica around, despite any lack of evidence that she was in any way the hard faced seductress that I first encountered three decades ago in a novel by Jean Plaidy, where she is depicted as a rapacious, immoral sensualist who is well matched with her scandal ridden, explosive tempered, debauched Hanoverian cousin. That isn’t the impression that I have of her now though – although glimpses of Frederica are fleeting at best and generally appear in the background of the far closer attention on her more celebrated and rather better behaved (or perhaps just luckier?) sister, Louise.
Ernest and Frederica were married on the 29th of May 1815 in a discreet and quiet ceremony in Neustrelitz, the capital of her family’s duchy. Shortly after this the couple travelled to England with Frederica’s brother, Prince George and reaffirmed their vows for a second time in another ceremony at the Prince of Wales’ London residence, Carlton House on the 29th of August. Rather predictably perhaps, Ernest’s florid eldest brother, George, was utterly charmed by his new sister-in-law but some of her other new in-laws were rather harder to please – most particularly her new mother-in-law and aunt, Queen Charlotte, who had never quite forgiven her for publicly jilting her engagement to Prince Adolphus back in 1797 and on such crassly scandalous grounds and who had been listening to the ill natured tattle of her daughters Princess Charlotte and Princess Mary, who spread nasty gossip about Frederica and convinced their mother, who was admittedly rather willing to believe the worst about a woman who had jilted her son in such a humiliatingly public manner, that allowing Ernest’s wife free rein at court would almost certainly lower the tone there and, worse still, result in the reappearance of that other highly unsatisfactory Hanoverian daughter-in-law, Caroline of Brunswick, who at this point was having a wonderful time gallivanting about Europe.
Matters were allegedly further complicated by Princess Charlotte, the sole legitimate daughter and heir of Ernest’s elder brother, the Prince Regent becoming utterly infatuated with Frederica’s handsome and rather dashing eldest son, the then twenty year old Prince Prince Frederick of Prussia, who at first seemed to return her liking but then went off and married someone else in 1817.
The famous statue of Louise and Frederica of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Schadow. Photo: Staatliche Museum, Berlin/Till Neirmann.
The damage was done. Queen Charlotte refused to attend the wedding at Carlton House (with her daughters pointedly following suit) or receive Frederica at court and then quarrelled with her nephew Prince George, which resulted in a permanent estrangement that would cause a rift between Charlotte and her brother, whom she absolutely adored, the Duke of Mecklenburg-Strelitz and also the avowed disapproval of Frederica’s brother-in-law, the King of Prussia, who ordered his London ambassador not to attend any royal functions in retaliation for what he perceived to be a gross insult to a close family member. The domestic and diplomatic repercussions of Charlotte’s rift with her son and his wife looked set to be huge but there was no reasoning with her and so the situation looked set to continue, with the cowardly and self centred Prince Regent, now that he’d woken up to the implications for himself with regard to his own estranged wife and the possibility that she might be encouraged to return to England if she heard that Frederica, despite the scandal attached to her name, was tolerated there, rather half heartedly beginning to take his mother’s side.
Ernest fumed but what could he do other than support his wife against his family and hope that in time his mother would come to her senses and do the proper thing. Eventually, the Prince Regent, finding the whole awkward situation difficult to deal with and so, as was his wont, determined to throw some money at it in the hopes that it would just go away, offered Ernest a substantial sum of money as well as the Governorship of Hanover if he would take Frederica away and bring the family impasse to an end. Ernest, enraged, refused and stated his intention of standing his ground. Frederica may well have been a persona non grata in his mother’s circle but he was determined that they should live as befitted their station and so they divided their time between their property at Kew and apartments in St James’ palace.
Frederica of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Schadow, c1795. Photo: Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin.
The untenable situation came to an end in 1818 when Prince Ernest decided that enough was enough and carried his wife and family off to the Continent, a move provoked as much by his parlous financial situation as annoyance with his mother’s continued vendetta against his wife. Queen Charlotte was to die shortly after their move in November 1818, unreconciled with them to the very end and no doubt heartily unmourned by her daughter-in-law, who had taken up residence in Berlin and was expecting another baby, her last two pregnancies with Prince Ernest having resulted in stillborn daughters in 1817 and the spring of 1818.
Frederica of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Queen of Hanover. Photo: Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014.
Frederica and Ernest’s sole surviving child, Prince George, was born on the 27th of May 1819 in a hotel in Berlin, at the very height of the rather undignified Royal Baby Race that had followed on the heels of Princess Charlotte’s untimely death in November 1817. In fact, his cousin, Victoria, who would ultimately win the race was born just a few days earlier than him on the 24th. Poor Prince George would be baptised shortly after his birth by Jane Austen’s brother, Reverend Henry Austen and was given a huge bevy of royal godparents to no doubt underline his position as alpha male heir to the British throne, albeit behind the infant Princess Victoria who also had the benefit of having actually been born on British soil unlike him.
As we all know, Prince George was never destined to take the British throne despite his father’s ambition that he should do so either in his own right or by a marriage with his cousin, Victoria. She would have made mincemeat of him though – he was by all accounts a sweet natured, sensitive, intelligent boy who was blinded in one eye at the age of nine by an unfortunate incident involving the brass weight at the end of a curtain cord then lost the sight in the other eye a few years later, and certainly no match, despite his pedigree for Victoria’s rages and caprices. He did, however, succeed to the throne of Hanover, which had become his father’s in June 1837 after the death of his uncle William IV. Hanover was subject to the whole pesky Salic Law thing which meant that Victoria as a woman couldn’t inherit it so it had to go to the next male in line, which in this case was Ernest, with Frederica at his side.
Sadly, Frederica was not to enjoy her position as Queen of Hanover for long as she died in June 1841 and was interred in a mausoleum at the Hanoverian family seat of Herrenhausen – a fact that would surely have given her some satisfaction considering her troubled relationship with her in-laws.
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