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Charlotte’s First Ball

Despite the policy of ‘protracted childhood’, however, there was one sign that the Prince Regent might be relenting a little. Two days after the exchange in the Duke of York’s apartments, on 5 February, Charlotte was allowed to attend her first ball at Carlton House. The Duchess [of Leeds] and Miss Knight went with her. In accordance with fashion, they were ‘all in white’. The Duchess and Miss Knight wore white trimmed with gold. Charlotte wore white trimmed with silver, and for the first time, again in the height of fashion, she wore ostrich feathers in her hair.

For Charlotte, the ball was a bit of disappointment. She had been led to believe that it was being given for her, but when the time came it was Princess Mary and not Charlotte who was asked to lead off the dancing. She had hoped that she would be able to dance with the young Duke of Devonshire, but soon after she arrived she was told that he was indisposed.

The son of famously beautiful Duchess, Georgiana, the 23-year-old Duke of Devonshire was very deaf and consequently shy and silent. Charlotte had ‘liked him very much’ when she first met him. She was proud that she had put him at his ease and induced him to ‘talk a great deal’. But she was not attracted to him. As she told Mercer, ‘he is certainly very plain’.

Nevertheless, as with the Duke of Gloucester, Charlotte’s father was worried by his apparent interest in her, and particularly so in this case because the Duke of Devonshire was a leading Whig. ‘Really the Prince Regent is so excessively tiresome & absurd about everything of that sort’, she wrote to Mercer, ‘…& he is so suspicious always about my politics’. It may be therefore that the Duke was not present because the Prince had told him to stay away.

Without the young Duke, Charlotte could only dance with her uncles and other, much older, partners. As one of the other guests, Miss Mary Berry, put it, ‘all very magnificent, but such a lack of dancing young men and, indeed, women, I quite pitied the Princess Charlotte from the bottom of my heart for the dulness of the ball’.

But this, at least, was not due to any exaggerated caution on the part of the Prince Regent. There was a dearth of good dancing partners in London in 1813. Like George FitzClarence and Charles Hesse, most of the young men worth dancing with were serving with Wellington in Spain.

Cornelia Knight enjoyed the ball even less than the Princess. In the course of the evening the Prince Regent took her aside and subjected her to a long, detailed and embarrassing diatribe against his wife. At the end of it he ‘even accused her of threatening to declare that Princess Charlotte was not his daughter’.

Miss Knight was ‘horrified’. ‘I really knew not what to answer.’

[an extract from ‘Charlotte&Leopold’ by James Chambers]

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Picture: Princess Charlotte of Wales (1796-1817), Princess of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld by Alfred Edward Chalon, c.1817-19, Royal Collection Trust

https://www.royalcollection.org.uk/collection/405449/princess-charlotte-of-wales-1796-1817-princess-of-saxe-coburg-saalfeld

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Mother Uses Charlotte As Her Pawn

As for her [Charlotte’s] mother, the association with the Whigs was no more than expediency. When the Tories were in opposition. the Tories had been her advisers. Now that the Whigs were in opposition, her advisers were the Whigs.

The two closest of these were the brilliant but unscrupulous Scottish lawyer Henry Brougham and a rich, vulgar brewer’s son, Samuel Whitbread. Like the Tories they leaked little stories to the press, representing the Princess of Wales in the best light they could, and her husband, which was easier, in the worst; and they waited patiently for the opportunity to manipulate the relationship to their best possible advantage. It was not a long wait.

Early in October Charlotte went up from Windsor for one of her now rare visits to her mother in Kensington Palace. Since Lady de Clifford was suffering from any eye infection, she was escorted by one of the Queen’s lady companions.

Before they left the Queen gave her companion, Miss Cornelia Knight, strict instructions. ‘Do not let Princess Charlotte go out of your sight for one moment.’

She was equally firm with her granddaughter, telling her ‘not to retire at all’, to which Charlotte answered understandably that she would have to retire for dinner and that there was nothing she had to say to her mother that she was not prepared to say in front of anybody else.

But by then the Queen’s caution was no longer necessary. A few weeks earlier Lieutenant Hesse had sailed with his regiment for Spain.

In the following week the Princess of Wales wrote to the Queen demanding that her daughter should be allowed to visit her more often and threatening to come down to Windsor unannounced if she was not. On the advise of Brougham and Whitbread, who probably wrote the letter for her, she sent a copy to Charlotte.

Innocently, Charlotte told her grandmother. The Queen, who had decided to ignore the letter, was concerned to learn that there was a copy of it. She sent for the Prince Regent. The Prince Regent sent for the Prime Minister. When Charlotte was summoned she told them that she had burned the letter. Somehow, the Prime Minister managed to persuade the Prince and his mother that they were worrying about nothing, and that there was nothing they could do about it anyway.

A week later, however, when Charlotte went on her scheduled fortnightly visit to Kensington Palace, her mother persuaded her to tell her everything that had been said at the meeting. When Charlotte seemed apprehensive, her mother reassured her. ‘She did nothing without good advice.’ And then, after another week, to Charlotte’s bitter amazement, her ‘accurate’ account of the family row appeared in several newspapers.

Using Charlotte and her mother, the Whigs had succeeded in reducing the Regent still further in the eyes of the people. They had forgotten the earlier rumours about the Princess of Wales. To them she was now a thwarted mother as well as an abandoned wife, and the Prince Regent was more than ever a decadent bully.

After that, when Charlotte drove out in her carriage, she was greed with shouts of ‘Don’t desert your mother, dear!’

charlotte-and-caroline

[an extract from ‘Charlotte&Leopold’ by James Chambers]

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A Day At The Opera

As the day for the visit to the opera approached, Charlotte also agreed to dine with her father on that evening. There was no conflict in this. It was customary in these days to dine before going to the opera or the theatre; the Prince Regent, like most people, dined in the late afternoon.

There were sixteen at the dinner, among them the Duke of York, but not the Duchess, and politicians from both parties, including Sheridan and Adam. As it was bound to do, the conversation turned to politics. When too much wine had been consumed, the Prince launched into a vehement attack on the Whigs. He censured the leader of the Whig opposition, Earl Grey, for not having joined a coalition in the previous year when he was offered the opportunity, and he censured the Duke of York for corresponding with him about a possible future government.

Until he was sworn in as Regent, the Prince had been an ostentatious Whig himself. At one of his daughter’s birthday parties he has told the guests proudly that he was having her educated to espouse the ideals of Charles James Fox. Once he became Regent, therefore, the Whigs fully expected that, after a year, when he would have the power to do so, he would dismiss the government and call a general election.

By now, however, it was clear to everyone that he was never going to do any such thing. After all, it was the Tory government, now led by Spencer Perceval, that had made him Regent, and it was the Tory government that was winning the war in Spain. It was neither in his interest nor the nation’s to risk a general election at such moment.

To Charlotte her father’s conduct was nothing short of a betrayal. She was the Whig he once wanted her to be, despite the influence of Tory tutors. She could never be as fickle as he was. As a Whig she was sincere, committed and above all radical. Her letters to Mercer are full of recommendations of Whig pamphlets and journals. Shortly before the dinner she had written to her about what her father and his government were doing to suppress the Roman Catholic majority in Ireland. In a letter so passionate that her respect for grammar and syntax was even less evident than usual, she wrote:

I do indeed feel very very unhappy & uneasy about this business in Ireland; it but too too clearly shows the side he has taken. Good God, what will become of us! Of Ireland! We shall without doubt lose that, & as English people all faith & confidence in their Prince. Don’t call me a croker after all this, nor a republican for saying that the Irish will be justified in anything they do, if their long promised freedom is not granted.

As the conversation at the dinner table became more and more heated, Charlotte became more and more agitated. The Duke of York defended himself. Lord Lauderdale defended Lord Grey, who was no longer welcome at Carlton House. Eventually Charlotte burst into tears, stood up and turned to leave. Sheridan, not yet too drunk not to be chivalrous, left his seat and escorted her to the door.

Back at Warwick House Charlotte composed herself enough to make the short journey to Covent Garden. As she and the Duchess of York entered their box at the opera house, she waved over-excitedly to everyone she knew in the stalls. A few judged her behaviour a little undignified, but to most people it was charming. Then she noticed that the box opposite was occupied by Earl Grey. Here was a chance to tell the world where her political loyalties lay. Having already attracted his attention, she leaned out and, for all to see, blew kisses at the leader of the opposition.

A few days later, after the Whig gossips had spread the story of the dinner party throughout London, ‘dear Lord Byron’, whom Charlotte had been ‘seeing a great deal lately’, wrote a short poem in praise of the Princess who did not yet know how popular she was. It was entitled ‘To a Lady Weeping’.

Weep, daughter of a noble line,
A sire’s disgrace, a realm’s decay –
Ah! happy if each tear of thine
Could wash a father’s fault away!

Weep, for thy tears are virtue’s tears,
Auspicious to these suffering isles –
And be each drop, in future years,
Repaid thee of thy people’s smiles.

[an extract from ‘Charlotte&Leopold’ by James Chambers]

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Portrait of Charles Grey 2nd Earl Grey,  Sir Thomas Lawrence, circa 1828, National Portrait Gallery

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A Visit In Oatlands

Like the rest of the royal family, Charles’s father, the Duke of York, was at least aware of the inappropriate meetings in the park. But he did not feel inclined to reproach anyone. He was one of the many who disapproved of the way in which the Prince Regent prevented his daughter from appearing in public or even in society. If the Princess was lonely, she could hardly be criticised for taking pleasure in such company as she could find. His Duchess agreed with him. So they decided that, if the Regent was not prepared to bring his daughter out, they would do it for him. They would invite Princess Charlotte to stay at Oatlands, their country house in Surrey, and while she was there they would give a ball.

The childless Duchess of York, whose uncle was Frederick the Great, respected her husband as a soldier, but in most other ways she preferred the company of her menagerie to his. Nevertheless she knew her duty. She tolerated his infidelities with dignity. She turned his country house into a comfortable home. When he went there with his many crude companions, she had a warm welcome for all of them. She was a generous hostess. She served dinner much later than anyone else in England, and like her husband she was happy to sit up all nights afterwards playing cards. She hated ceremony. At Oatlands there was none of the stiff formality that pervaded the households of the other royal dukes. In atmosphere it was more like a little German palace or the home of an English country gentleman. Everyone who went there spoke well of it. The only drawbacks, they said, were the smell and the insanitary condition of the carpets – very few of the Duchess’s forty dogs were house-trained.

Charlotte went to Oatlands in November. The Duchess had laid on everything possible to make the stay enjoyable. Among the guests in the houseparty there were several of Charlotte’s age, including Anne and Georgiana Fitzroy, the nieces of Lord Wellington. Expeditions were arranged almost every day. On one day they went to Hampton Court Palace, which Charlotte described to Mercer as having ‘an air of gloom & coldness about it which is frightful’. On another they went to ‘the famous house’ at Paines Hill. And then they visited a house called Claremont.

The drove over to Claremont twice. On the first day they were shown round the elegant Palladian mansion, which Clive of India had begun to build over forty years earlier. On the second they inspected the splendid park, which had been designed by ‘Capability’ Brown. Clive had committed suicide before he could enjoy it, and since then there had been so many owners that no family had lived there long enough to make it a home.

Charlotte did not share her first impression of Claremont with Mercer. But another visitor, a few months later, gave hers. ‘It is’, wrote Jane Austen sadly and prophetically, ‘a house that seems never to have prospered’.

The climax of the visit was not one ball but two. The first, according to Charlotte’s letters, did not end until after 2 am, and on the on the following night the walzing went on until after four. Charlotte ‘enjoyed it of all things’, despite the conduct of her father, who had grudgingly agreed to be among the many guests. On the first evening he hurt her, and shocked everyone else, by ignoring her. On the second, while the Scottish Member of Parliament William Adam was attempting to teach her the ‘Highland Flurry’, he insisted on joining in the demonstration.

For a moment or two the Regent and Mr Adam, who was Mercer’s uncle, reeled round the room together. Then the Prince struck his shoe against the leg of a sofa, fell over and tore a tendon in his foot. Being the man he was, he made a fuss, retired to bed and remained at Oatlands for over a fortnight.

Inevitably, when the story got out, the Prince’s many enemies said that he had obviously been drunk. But, if he had been, Charlotte would have admitted it to Mercer. According to her letters the only guest who got ‘beastly drunk’ was Richard Brinsley Sheridan, remembered now as a playwright but equally well known then as a leading member of the Whig opposition.

Having introduced the Princess to the waltz, clearly the Duchess of York’s next duty was to take her to the opera. The visit was arranged to take place on 22 February the following year, when Charlotte would have passed sixteenth birthday. Meanwhile the Duke attempted to improved her mind, and perhaps her English, by lending her an anonymous novel, which both he and she believed had been written by Lady Anne Paget.

Charlotte loved it and wrote to Mercer. “Sense and Sensibility” I have just finished reading; it certainly is interesting, & you feel quite one of the company. I think Maryanne & me are very like in disposition, that certainly I am not so good, the same imprudence, &c, however remain very like.’

[an extract from ‘Charlotte&Leopold’ by James Chambers]

the duke and duchess of york

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Charlotte Spends Time With Charles Hesse

But at Windsor, possibly through George FitzClarence, she made the acquaintance of another young officer. Lieutenant Charles Hesse of the 18th Light Dragoons was good-looking if a little short of statue, but he looked well on a horse, and had a confident air which she found attractive. He was rumoured to be the Duke of York’s son by a German lady of rank, which doubtless added a certain piquancy to his charms, and Charlotte, driving in an open carriage with Hesse on horseback at her side, fell imperceptibly and delightfully in love. For six weeks, Lady de Clifford, sitting beside her royal charge, turned a blind eye on the proceedings; but suddenly and at last she found her position untenable. This sort of things could not be allowed: what on Earth would the Regent say? At all costs the affair must be stopped. Unfortunately by this time Lady de Clifford had ceased to have any influence whatsoever on the young princess, who did precisely what she chose. There was a genuine affection between them, and Charlotte, headstrong and impulsive, tried not to upset the old Dowager. But this time passion prevailed: Charlotte refused point blank to stop seeing Hesse, and when Lady de Clifford insisted upon the rides being given up, there was a violent quarrel.

By this time, the Princess of Wales knew of the affair, and in her mischievious, irresponsible way, hurled herself into the battle. It was time, she decided, for Charlotte to have a romance, and without considering the consequences of such a situation to the Heiress Presumptive, set herself to encourage the lovers. Hesse had already been given little notes to pass from mother to daughter, and when, after the scene with Lady de Clifford, Charlotte arrived at Kensington in floods of tears, Caroline took charge of the situation. ‘This will play the Devil at Windsor, but I will make amends for it,’ she declared. She would receive their correspondence and pass it on; and the pair were to meet at Kensington Palace: she arranged to let Hesse into her own room by a door opening into the gardens. In her folly and half-crazy recklessness she flung open her bedroom, where she left her daughter and the young man together, and turned the key. What took place in this bizarre bower, scene of the Princess of Wales’s illicit pleasures, will never be known; but from Charlotte’s relation of the story to her father some two years later, it seems certain that love-making, if it took place at all, was of the most decorous nature. Hesse must have realized that his position was a tricky one.

[an extract from ‘Prinny’s Daughter: A Biography of Princess Charlotte of Wales’ by Thea Home]

This was Lieutenant Charles Hesse of the 18th King’s Irish Hussars. His father was the Duke of York, and his mother, it was said, was an aristocratic German lady. He was not nearly as tall as George FitzClarence and, like many officers in Irish regiments in those days, he was a little bit of a rogue, but, like almost all of them, he was engagingly charming. And Charlotte adored him.

There is no record of how Charlotte met her ‘little lieutenant’. She may have been introduced to him by George FitzClarence, or she may have met him through her mother. Like all sensible suitors, Charles Hesse paid court to Charlotte’s mother, to such an extent that she later told Mercer she was not sure whether he was her lover or her mother’s. The Princes of Wales used Charles to carry letters to her daughter, which of course was a good excuse to ride up to her carriage, and Charlotte used her mother as one of several couriers who carried her letters to Charles. For two or three months, between their meetings, she wrote to him recklessly and gave him presents, and she continued to write to him after he went down to Portsmouth to prepare for his regiment’s embarkation for Spain.

Lady de Clifford was well aware that Charlotte and Charles were too fond of each other. She tried to prevent their meetings in the park, but as always she lost the argument. As a woman of the world – as a woman who had lived in the French court – she must also have been made suspicious by Charlotte’s long absences during some of their visits to Kensington Palace. But she may not have known for certain, as others did, that the Princess of Wales had let Lieutenant Hesse into the palace through the garden door. During those absences, he and Princess Charlotte were locked up together in her mother’s bedroom.

Like the rest of the royal family, Charles’s father, the Duke of York, was at least aware of the inappropriate meetings in the park. But he did not feel inclined to reproach anyone. He was one of the many who disapproved of the way in which the Prince Regent prevented his daughter from appearing in public or even in society. If the Princess was lonely, she could hardly be criticised for taking pleasure in such company as she could find.

[an extract from ‘Charlotte&Leopold’ by James Chambers]

Extract from Wikipedia:

Hesse was good-looking, attractive and a good horseman, and was soon received in society. However, his good fortune led to rumours about his parentage which Hesse did nothing to dispel. Lady Blessington says Hesse was presumed to be a son of the Margrave and Margravine of Ansbach from before their marriage,[2] while Captain Gronow says that Hesse was generally believed to have been fathered by the Duke of York.[3] Either way, Lady Blessington comments that “the calibre of his mind could not be better proved, than by his preferring to have it believed that he was the illegitimate child of persons of high rank, rather than the legitimate son of a respectable banker at Berlin”.[2] When Hesse was posted with his regiment to Bognor, in his vanity he sought to attract the attention of Princess Charlotte of Wales, only daughter of the Prince Regent, who was staying there. Several letters were exchanged between the couple through Margaret Mercer Elphinstone (later Countess de Flahaut), though General Garth also delivered some letters under the impression they were from Charlotte’s mother the Princess of Wales, who was estranged from the Regent. When the romance was discovered Hesse was sent out to Spain with his regiment.[2]

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Picture: A Private of the 18th Light Dragoons (Hussars), 1812 from http://www.memoryprints.com/image/378993/j-c-stadler-charles-hamilton-smith-a-private-of-the-18th-light-dragoons-hussars-1812

Charlotte Races With George FitzClarence

At Windsor, and also in London, the Barracks provided, if only at a distance, far more attractive society. And in October 1811, Captain George FitzClarence, the eldest son of the Duke of Clarence by the actress Mrs. Jordan, arrived in London from Portugal, as dashing a young officer as a girl could wish to see. Unfortunately, he was about to join the Prince’s Regiment at Brighton, and after some rides together at Windsor, which scandalized her aunts, Charlotte was obliged to say goodbye to her handsome cousin.

[an extract from ‘Prinny’s Daughter: A Biography of Princess Charlotte of Wales’ by Thea Home]

A few days earlier, on 11 October, she had written to Mercer, ‘George FitzClarence is arrived from Portugal; I saw him the very day he arrived in town, much grown & looking very well. At present he is in town but joins the Prince’s regiment at Brighton soon. He told me the troops were in good spirits, but that the French were 20 thousand stronger than us.’

Tall, dark and handsome Captain George FitzClarence was Charlotte’s illegitimate cousin. His father was her uncle William, Duke of Clarence – the future King William IV. His mother was Mrs Jordan, the most popular and admired actress on the London stage. Two years older than Charlotte, he was an officer in her father’s regiment, the 10th, which was now designated hussars and dressed even more extravagantly than before.

But George’s commission was no sinecure. He had seen action and had already demonstrated the qualities that would one day earn him the earldom of Munster and the exalted rank of Major-General. At the age of only fifteen he had joined the little British army in Portugal. Since then, commanded by Arthur Wellesley, who had been rewarded for his success with the title of Viscount Wellington, that army had chased the French back into Spain and was now advancing after them; George had served with it all the way. Only five months before his regiment returned to England, he had been captured by the French while lying wounded on the battlefield of Fuentes de Onoro, and had escaped a few days later when his wounds were only half healed.

George was on leave, and he was so taken with his royal cousin that he went out as often as he could to ride beside her carriage when she took the air in the parks of London or Windsor.

In Windsor in particular, Lady de Clifford had always dreaded these daily excursions. The Princess often took the reins herself, and would frequently leave the track and drive hard at every bump in the ground, rejoicing in Lady de Clifford’s discomfort as she bounced around in terror. But now there was a different cause to dread, even though it made Charlotte’s conduct more sedate. In an age that judged so much by appearances, it was unseemly for a young lady to be chatting to the same officer beside her carriage day after day, just as it was unseemly for her to be seen sitting alone on a sofa with the same gentleman for any length of time.

Lady de Clifford felt that it was her duty to report the matter to the Prince Regent, although she assured him, justifiably, that the relationship was entirely innocent.

It should have been a relief to her therefore when, after only six weeks, George FitzClarence rejoined his regiment in Brighton. But by then she was obliged to report that there was another illegitimate cousin riding devotedly beside the carriage in his place.

[an extract from ‘Charlotte&Leopold’ by James Chambers]

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Picture: George FitzClarence, 1st Earl of Munster (1794-1842) engraved by Richard Austin Artlett after the painting of Thomas Phillips, 1839, National Portrait Gallery

Miss Cornelia Knight Becomes Charlotte’s Lady Companion

Soon afterwards Lady de Clifford resigned as governess. The continuing eye infection was a good excuse, but she must have known that her lack of vigilance had lost her the confidence of her employer, and that it was probably better to jump before she was pushed (…)

In January 1813, just after she had celebrated her seventeenth birthday, Charlotte was told that new governess was to be the Duchess of Leeds and that, since Mrs Udney had also decided to retire, her new sub-governess was to be Miss Cornelia Knight.

Charlotte was furious. No girl of seventeen had a governess. And anyway she was a princess. She ought to have her own establishment by now. She ought to have ladies-in-waiting. And one of them ought to be Mercer Elphinstone.

But this was never an argument that was going to have any effect on her father. In the last of several heated meetings, in the presence of the Queen and the Lord Chancellor, who had been brought along to add legal weight to the Prince’s prejudices, he informed his daughter that the best he was prepared to do would be to describe Miss Knight as a ‘lady companion’ and not a ‘sub-governess’.

‘Besides’, he said, with all the self-deluding confidence of someone who barely knows the half of it, ‘I know all that passed in Windsor Park; and if it were not for my clemency, I would shut you up for life. Depend upon it, as long as I live you shall never have an establishment, unless you marry.’

The Prince Regent was still determined to treat his daughter as a child. But there was not another man in the kingdom who felt inclined to do the same.

[an extract from ‘Charlotte&Leopold’ by James Chambers]

At this point, Lady de Clifford retired to London suffering from inflamed eyes, and Charlotte’s visits to her mother were again cancelled. The Princess wrote to the Queen, ‘to beg some person be appointed’ to accompany Charlotte to Kensington. Miss Cornelia Knight, at that time Lady Companion to the Queen, was sent with strict orders not to let Princess Charlotte out of her sight for one moment. The Queen also sent for Princess Charlotte, and told her that she was not to retire at all; to which the young princess retorted that after such a long journey she would have to retire, but she assured her grandmother that she need have no fear: ‘what she had to say to her mother she could say before  anybody.'(…)

Fortunately, early in 1813, the unlamented Mrs. Udney retired from the scene, and a new lady was appointed to succeed her, of whom Charlotte wrote, ‘An excellent valuable person is come, which is Miss Knight.’

Miss Cornelia Knight was no stranger: she had been the Queen’s lady for seven years. Charlotte thought her ‘clear-sighted & firm, accomplished & talented’. But what most pleased the Princess was that a concession had been made to her demand for an Establishment: Miss Knight was to be her Lady Companion, not her sub-governess. She was herself as precise on this point as Charlotte could wish, and went so far as to contradict the announcement from Windsor of her appointment as sub-governess by inserting a paragraph in the Morning Chronicle, February 4, 1813: ‘Miss Knight is one of the ladies companions to her Royal Highness and is the daughter of the late Sir Joseph Knight.’

There is something quaint and prim about this announcement with its toss of the head at the end; but it shows that the lady was used to standing up for her rights. In time she would have to stand up for Charlotte’s.

Ellis Cornelia Knight was fifty-six, an Admiral’s daughter, and after his death in 1775 she and her mother had lived abroad, chiefly in Italy, for economy. They were both accomplished and intellectual, a little eccentric in their dress and given to draperies, but as Lady Knight wrote, We have always lived in the best company and not inelegantly … by my daughter’s being the milliner and I the mantua-maker, stay-maker and workwoman.’ ‘Moreover,’ she added, ‘Cornelia is universally esteemed.’ Cornelia was undoubtedly talented: she wrote verses and several learned books, including a sequel to Dr. Johnson’s Rasselas and a novel called Marcus Flaminius, on which Horace Walpole commented, ‘I do protest, I think it a wonderful performance. There is so much learning and good sense well digested, such exact knowledge of Roman characters and manners … that it is impossible not to admire the judgement and excellent understanding of the authoress.’ But he was obliged to admit that ‘as a novel … it is not very amusing’.

Miss Knight could no more have written an amusing novel than her contemporary, Miss Austen, could have produced that History of the House of Coburg requested of her by the Regent’s librarian.

After Lady Knight’s death at Palermo, Cornelia was rescued from lonely poverty by Sir William and Lady Hamilton, under whose protection she remained for several years. She was prickly in defence of her hostess’s morals. ‘I must say,’ she wrote, ‘that there was certainly at that time no impropriety in living under Lady Hamilton’s roof. Her house was the resort of the best company of all nations, and the attentions paid to Lord Nelson appeared perfectly natural.’ Innocent, earnest Miss Knight saw ‘no impropriety’ in the relationship of this classic pair.

After Nelson’s death the Hamiltons returned to England, and Cornelia decided to look for a job. She was recommended by Fanny Burney to the Queen, who was partial to literary ladies, and invited Miss Knight to become a member of her household. In December 1805, at the age of forty-nine, Cornelia became a resident at Windsor, living in Park Street in a house which belonged to the Queen, who allowed her one maid to do the housework. She was paid three hundred pounds a year. Her work at this time was not arduous: most mornings were spent at Frogmore, listening to the Queen reading aloud in French and English, and doing needlework, and she was given generous leave ‘to visit her friends’. Nevertheless, during the course of the next seven years, the strain of living in that unhappy court became more and more unbearable.

But the daughter of an Admiral who had served his country for fifty-two years was not one to desert her post, and her tall, angular figure was still to be seen among the Queen’s ladies in 1812 when Lady de Clifford resigned. After the appointment of the Duchess of Leeds and subsequent rows, a little council composed of Princess Mary, the Regent and Sir Henry Halford, the royal doctor and go-between, decided that Miss Knight was just the person to be ‘about Charlotte’.

The only problem was how to detach her from the Queen without causing trouble, and this proved to be impossible. ‘The Queen is generally very cross,’ wrote Charlotte at this time. At the very idea of Miss Knight’s leaving her the Queen shook with rage: Miss Knight, torn by her divided loyalties, lapsed into hysterics, and everybody tried to pour oil on waters which became more and more troubled. ‘Of course,’ wrote Princess Mary to the Prince, ‘we must not tell the Queen Miss Knight would like a situation about Charlotte in preference to REMAINING about the Queen, that would never do.’ But that was what the Queen chose to believe, and Miss Knight felt obliged to refuse the tempting invitation out of loyalty to her Majesty. But now the Queen decided that she did not want Miss Knight, and treated her to a very cold shoulder indeed. ‘Miss Knight is a as much her own mistress as you are your own master,’ she wrote to the Prince Regent. ‘Dismissed my service since yesterday, I do certainly not mean to offer her to come back again to me.’

Miss Knight, ill with worry, now wrote to Lord Moira giving up both situations, but Moira urged her to take courage. Two days later he brought Cornelia ‘a positive command’ from the Queen to accept the place offered her. And so, after this stormy beginning, Miss Knight went to Warwick House on January 23, 1813, to begin her life with Princess Charlotte.

[an extract from ‘Prinny’s Daughter: A Biography of Princess Charlotte of Wales’ by Thea Home]

Ellis Cornelia Knight by Angelika Kauffmann in 1793

Portrait of Ellis Cornelia Knight by Angelica Kauffmann, 1793, Manchester Art Gallery