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Leopold Causes a Split Between Charlotte and Mercer

There was no question of the young couple getting to know each other better before their marriage: they were firmly kept apart. They wrote to each other, he at Brighton, she at Cranbourne Lodge. The Regent was determined that there should be no repetition of the Orange fiasco, and accordingly, while Charlotte was at Brighton for a few days, in March, he arranged that they should never meet, except at dinner, and were never to be left alone together. When they met, the Queen or the Regent was always in the room; but their conversations, said Charlotte, was not restricted. As they murmured together in low voices, no doubt taking care not to be overheard, Charlotte managed, with an effort, to introduce the thorny subject of Hesse, on which the Regent had insisted that she should unburden herself. She did so, ‘after much difficulty’, and was profoundly relieved by Leopold’s acceptance of her story. ‘He took it uncommonly well,’ she told Mercer, ‘and was v. kind as he saw me so distressed.’ But he could not hide his horrified dismay at the part played in the affair by the Princess of Wales. ‘We did not say much about my mother,’ said Charlotte, but the Prince indicated delicately that he was well aware of her vagaries, and pitied Charlotte’s situation, torn as she was between loyalty to her mother and duty to her father. No wonder that she was emotional and excitable: but he would do all in his power, he promised, to soothe and calm her. She was profoundly grateful to Leopold. ‘Take him altogether he is a very dear creature.’

(…)

There was the question of money to be settled in Parliament: the Heiress Presumptive and her husband were treated with generosity by Lords Castlereagh and Liverpool, who proposed an income of of £ 50,000, with an extra £ 10,000 to be assigned to Princess Charlotte ‘for her separate and personal expences’. They were also to receive the capital sum of £ 10,000 for jewels, £ 10,000 for personal equipment and £ 40,000 for furniture, plate, &c.

It seemed that they would be comfortably off. But Charlotte considered that their Establishment, which was being arranged by the Regent on the lines of his own, was far too large and expensive. ‘I fear the P.R. … does not consider how far £ 50,000 will go, as they talk of tacking us on a quantity of people wh. will be too much, and must be reduced afterwards.’ And she added proudly that Coburg had a horror of ‘getting into debt & so on’. ‘I have insisted vehemently,’ she announced, ‘upon no extravagance, waste, or debts.’ Eight footmen, she thought, was too many: six would be quite enough, if they were going to afford ‘town & country carriages, riding coachmen &c.’ She was going to give up riding herself, she said. She had not ridden for some time, ‘and don’t much care about it’. But clearly the real reason was that ‘he does not very much like a ladies riding; he thinks it too violent an exercise’.

The younger Charlotte, whose chief pleasure had been to gallop through Windsor Park at top speed, would not have submitted so meekly to this curb: already Leopold’s influence was apparent. It was felt, too, in a slight coolness between Charlotte and Mercer. It was inevitable that the coming of Coburg should alter their relationship, that Charlotte’s devotion to her ‘beloved Marguerite’ should suffer a shock, and the first tremor was felt immediately. At the end of Charlotte’s letter describing ecstatically her first meeting with the prince, she wrote:

‘I must not forget to tell you that I am desired by him to scold you for your intimacy with Flahaud. He knows him personally, & disapproves highly of him, & thinks his acquaintance is likely to do you no good …’

This warning was not well received. The Comte de Flahault had been Napoleon’s aide-de-camp, and later became French Ambassador in London: he was ostracized by Lady Hertford and her set, but admired by Mercer, who eventually, to her father’s great grief, married him. Leopold’s warning may have been well-intentioned and timely, but it angered Miss Elphinstone. Charlotte made repeated efforts to appease her. ‘You know I must love you always just as much & just the same … For God sake do not fancy I ever was or am in the least angry with your intimacy with Flahaud … You know how much I love you, & that I can ill bear anything like an interruption to an intimacy that has constituted so many years of my happiness.’

In her anxiety to repair the broken friendship, Charlotte went too far. She even sent Mercer copies of Leopold’s letters. ‘I have had another very wise letter from him wh. I will send, but for God in Heaven’s sake never let it be known or suspected I ever showed you any of his or else I know he would not like it & would be angry probably.’

But in spite of all Charlotte’s efforts to revive it, the long intimacy would never be quite the same: there was a subtle difference created by the presence, even at a distance, of Leopold, and the Regent, who had never liked Mercer, was quick to take advantage of the situation.

‘Coburg,’ wrote Charlotte, ‘has a great horror of appearing ungrateful & insensible to you & your kindness, but yet I see the P. R. has been putting him on his guard, & putting into his head about female friends … & of my having more confidence in & being more guided by them than by him.’

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

Charles Hesse Reappears

November came. It was the month when Parliament was sitting again, the month in which the Duke of York advised Charlotte to make ‘another push’. But Mercer heard nothing from Leopold, and while Charlotte waited in Weymouth she underwent what she described as an alarming adventure.

On Friday, 10 November, between four and five o’clock in the evening, the Princess was looking out of her dressing room window when she saw a young gentleman with his right arm in a leather sling walking on the esplanade. He looked exactly like Charles Hesse. Charlotte took out her telescope and had another look at him as he walked back. It was Charles Hesse.

As Charlotte told Mercer, ‘What to do was the next question.’ Was he there because he knew Charlotte was there? What would happen if the Prince Regent found out he had been there, even if he and Charlotte never met?

Charlotte went to General Garth and told him all that he needed to know. The old General went out, found the young Captain and sat down with him on a bench. Garth asked why Hesse was in Weymouth. The answer was that, while still recovering from his wound, Hesse was on his way to stay with friends in Cornwall. He had stopped off for the night in Weymouth because he had never seen it before. Garth then asked him if he knew that Princess Charlotte was staying in Weymouth. Hesse said that he did not. Garth believed him. I that case, said the General, it was the Captain’s duty to leave town at once. Hesse agreed. He was due to leave next day at noon, but if that was not enough he would try to find a way of leaving earlier. Garth said it was enough.

Next day Charlotte watched as Charles Hesse walked past Gloucester Lodge to join the Exeter coach. That evening, to guard against any future accusation of subterfuge, she wrote to the Duke of York and told him what had happened.

(…)

The Duke of York wrote back to Charlotte. ‘I can easily conceive how unexpected and unpleasant Mr H.’s appearance at Weymouth must have been for you, and think that in the very awkward situation in which it placed you, you acted quite right in sacrificing your own feelings, however disagreeable it must have been to you in confessing to General Garth the delicacy of your situation.’

Charlotte was pleased by her uncle’s approval, but while Leopold’s silence continued, the Duke’s next letter brought even greater comfort. ‘You may be assured, dearest Charlotte, that tho’ absent you are not forgot, and that your real friends are doing everything in their power to serve you and further your wishes, and I cannot but be confident that the patience and acquiescence which you have shown in all the arrangements which have been made for you, will have a proper effect.’

‘I think, that he does know something he don’t like to say’, wrote Charlotte hopefully to Mercer.

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

Picture: Frederick Duke of York and Albany by John Jackson, unknown date, National Portrait Gallery

Charlotte Returns to Weymouth

At first Charlotte found it easy enough to follow the advice to be patient with her father. But it was not so easy to be patient with Leopold. As soon as she reached Weymouth, she wrote to Mercer telling her that ‘the Leo’ was in Paris, and begging her to write to him, although she added, ‘Preach up prudence. A false step now I feel would ruin all.’

In the weeks and then months that followed, Mercer wrote encouraging letters to Leopold, Leopold wrote back to Mercer, Mercer passed on what he had said to Charlotte, and in her answers Charlotte became more and more eager and less and less inclined to go on writing.

On 21 August, late at night, she wrote:

Your account of him constantly at Lady Castlereagh’s stupid suppers does not astonish me… Oh why should he not come over, it is so near & it is but a run over of a few hours. I quite languish for his arrival. He is really wrong in keeping back as he does. Having got your letter what more can he wish for to bring him? Don’t you know an old proverb wh. says, ‘Hope long delayed maketh the heart sick’. What does he mean about a crisis? I see & hear of nothing that is like it.

Just over a week later, after Mercer had induced Leopold to share his feelings with her, Charlotte wrote, ‘I will tell you candidly that I am delighted, not to say charmed & flattered at what Leo writes about his sentiments and feelings for me, & the way in wh. he expresses himself is peculiarly pleasing.’

After another month she was beginning to hope that Leopold had decided to come over, and yet at the same time both she and Mercer were worried that someone was advising him against it – it was possible that ‘hints might have reached him through the Prussians’ about Prince August, or that somebody had told him about Charles Hesse. If he did come, Charlotte wanted Mercer to meet him and explain.

If you see him long enough to have such confidential & various conversation with him, I allow you…to clear all that up to him in the best manner you please, & even if think it necessary, to hint also at Hesse’s affair since I was quite clear (that unless he is well prepared & armed against all the lies & different things that will be told him) he will not know what to believe, who to credit, or how to act.

A week later, still hoping that Leopold was coming soon, Charlotte was in a mood to be devious. She told Mercer, ‘I give you carte blanche if you see him, to say & do all that circumstances will allow & require. Don’t send him any of his letters, let me see them when we meet, that you may honorably be able to keep to saying you never forwarded any letters to me.

Yet amid all the frustration and disappointment, the news that raised Charlotte’s hopes the highest was not about Leopold but about ‘Slender Billy’. It was announced in Holland that the Hereditary Prince of Orange was engaged to marry the Tsar’s younger sister, the Grand Duchess Anne.

The Dutch fleet was to be united with the Russian fleet. For those who were inclined to suspect a conspiracy, and who did not know how much Charlotte detested the young Prince of Orange, it looked as though the scheming Grand Duchess Catherine had brought about the breach between them as part of a long-term Russian plan. But for Charlotte the news was nothing more than a merciful release. Her father no longer had a pet plan to promote above any other.

But then she heard that several other eligible princes had been seen in London and at Windsor. On 14 October she wrote, ‘I have such a dread of all foreign Princes, the sight as well as the name of them alarm me from the idea of some intrigue or other going on for my marrying someone of them.’

By then it was a while since Mercer had heard from Leopold, and a week later Charlotte began to despair. ‘His silence to you is now what surprises & occupies me the most for you ought to have heard long before this.’

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

Charlotte Is Writing To The Prime Minister

At Warwick House, the news [about the battle of Waterloo] was, for the most part, a relief. Napoleon had decided to strike at the right flank and try to take on the allies one at time. So the Russians were too far away to be engaged – Leopold was safe. Wellington and Blücher were the only commanders who had been able to combine, and theirs were the armies that suffered casualties. Among these, Charlotte learned, both Charles Hesse and the Hereditary Prince of Orange had been wounded, although neither so severely that his life was in danger. But there was also a loss, and it was a loss that brought back the gloom that Warwick House had not seen since the death of Mrs Gagarin.

Two days before the battle of Waterloo, in an attempt to halt the French advance, the Duke of Brunswick had been killed leading his black cavalry in a charge at Quatre Bras. The little duchy had lost another duke to Napoleon.

(…)

Grief did not, however, distract Charlotte from what was now her only important objective. By the time she wrote that letter [to her mother], she had written to the Prime Minister asking him to represent her formally with her father and request him to offer her hand in marriage to Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg. If he did not agree, she warned, she would remain a spinster and refuse all other suitors.

This time the Prince Regent’s excuse was ‘the state of the Continent and the negotiations’ that followed the exile of Napoleon to St Helena. This, he said, was not the moment to consider such a proposal. In his report to Charlotte, Lord Liverpool told her that for the time being he felt there was no more he could do; the matter would have to be ‘postponed for his Royal Highness’s further consideration’.

When the Duke of York heard what had happened he agreed with the Prime Minister and advised Charlotte to be patient. He was in touch with Leopold and knew he was about to join the allied army in Paris. Duty might well prevent him from coming to England for a few months anyway, and meanwhile Charlotte was about to be sent away for another seaside exile in Weymouth. The Duke’s advice was to wait until November, when Parliament would be sitting again, and then ‘make another push’.

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

Picture: Portrait of the 2nd Earl of Liverpool by Thomas Lawrence, before 1827, National Portrait Gallery

Napoleon Returns To France

And then came the news that brought all negotiations in Brighton, Windsor, London, Vienna and anywhere else in Europe to a standstill. On 1 March Napoleon had escaped from the island of Elba. He had landed in France. His old army was rallying round him.

The Congress of Vienna broke up. The nations of Northern Europe made ready to go back to war.

Amid the anxiety on every other front, the emergency brought one relief to Charlotte. Captain Hesse came home to rejoin his regiment. Mercer and her father found and confronted him. He convinced them that all letters had been burned. The trunk that contained them was empty. With but two exceptions, every present that he had ever received from Charlotte was returned to Mercer. One exception was a turquoise ring, which he first said was still in his baggage and then said had been lost when he was wearing it round his plume in battle. The other was the watch. But Charlotte did not think that either of these was significant enough to be incriminating. The matter was at an end. The little hussar was no longer a threat.

On 14 May Mercer received a letter from Leopold. It was the answer to the one she had sent him much earlier, but it had taken a long time to reach her. It had been written in Vienna on 28 April. Leopold had little hope of going back to England now. He was about to rejoin the Russian army and take up his old command. But if Mercer could assure him that he would be welcome to the Princess, he would do all that he could come.

Mercer wrote back. She did not dare to give him that assurance. Making suggestions was as much as she could risk. If she was caught negotiating a royal marriage, she would never be allowed to see Charlotte again.

But on 2 June, before her letter reached him, Leopold wrote another to Mercer. After thinking about it, he had decided not to risk coming to England uninvited. If he did, he might offend the Regent, and without the Regent’s goodwill, his dream could never be fulfilled.

But by then Leopold would not have been able to come to England anyway. Napoleon had assembled 125,000 men in northern France. Further north, along the border, the allies were waiting. In another two weeks they would be fully prepared for a combined invasion. Meanwhile, if Napoleon struck first, they were almost ready to receive him. The Austrians were to the east of Strasbourg, in a long line between Basle and Worms. The Russians were in the centre, north-west of Frankfort. The Prussians were south-west of them, below Namur and Liege. The British, Dutch, Hanoverians and Brunswickers were to the west between Brussels and the sea.

And most of the men who had played leading parts in Charlotte’s short life were with them. Leopold was with the Russians in the centre; August was with Blücher’s Prussians; Charles Hesse, George FitzClarence, the Prince of Orange and the Duke of Brunswick were with Wellington beyond Brussels.

No matter what route Napoleon chose, at least one of them would be in harm’s way.

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

Charlotte Is Writing To Her Father

It is difficult to understand why the Regent was so stubborn in his determination to marry Charlotte to the Dutch prince. Certainly it was a good alliance for the country; but there was more behind his uncompromising support of the match than the country’s future: he believed that his enemies were responsible for Charlotte’s change of heart, that Lady Jersey in particular had insinuated herself into the affair, gaining Charlotte’s confidence and working upon her to defy her father. He also suspected the arch-enemy, the Princess of Wales: she it was who had planned the Hesse affair, resolved to compromise her daughter, in the hopes of insinuating William Austin as claimant to the Throne. If she were to succeed in this nefarious – but possibly imaginary – plot, not only the Dutch marriage, but any royal marriage for Charlotte, would be scotched. In his way, he allowed his imagination to take hold of him, and to override every other consideration including his daughter’s feelings.

When Charlotte decided to appeal to her father to put an end, once and for all, to the possibility of her marriage with the Prince of Orange, he wrote her a letter which threw her into the depths of despair. It is a cruel letter because the Regent is playing cat-and-mouse with his daughter, allowing her to think that he is a loving father, planning everything for her happiness; and at the same time cold as steel in his unswerving attitude to the Dutch marriage, reminding Charlotte, falsely, that she had ‘earnestly and ardently begged him to betrothe her to the Hereditary Prince’. ‘Nothing has happened (to my knowledge),’ he said, ‘… to account for this change of heart.’ He blames the advice of ‘mischievous, false and wicked persons’, for raising ‘these unreasonable and groundless doubts in her mind’; and he thanks heaven that she is now withdrawn from all communication with such counsellors, ‘and justly rely upon me, as your best friend, and most anxious and dispassionate adviser’.

He goes on to remind her of ‘the melancholy and frightful disclosures’ she had made to him on Christmas Day, and her mother’s attempts to place her in a compromising situation, in which – unless adopting the advice of those who have her real interest at heart – she must feel the effects for the rest of her life.

The Princess of Wales has only ‘to make known the documents so unfortunately in her possession’, to ruin Charlotte’s chances of marriage, ‘not only with the Prince of Orange, but with any Prince of character, power and respectability’. After this frightful threat, based upon what turned out to be a false premise (it was later disclosed by Captain Hesse that he had destroyed all the letters that he had received from Charlotte), he draws to a close, assuring Charlotte that the earnestness and interest which he has expressed need not alarm her: he has taken no steps to renew the union with the Prince of Orange; and that however much he might wish for a revival, it can only come ‘from the parties themselves’.

All that night Charlotte lay awake, turning over what she could say in reply to her father’s letter. ‘I find the answering of it more painful even than the perusal,’ she told him. The Regent had suggested that she discuss his views with ‘a friend … who may be already acquainted with … your story’. By this he clearly meant Mercer, whom he thought he had won over to his point of view. ‘I feel quite confident,’ he said, ‘that your friend’s advice will not differ even in a shadow from mine.’ He was mistaken; or Mercer had not, in her long interview with him at Brighton, spoken up as ‘impudently’ as she said she did.

Charlotte regretted terribly Mercer’s absence at this juncture. Nobody at Windsor could advise her: she could only stand by her determination. ‘I remain firm and unshaken, & no arguments, no threats, shall ever bend me to marry this detested Dutchman.’

She decided to show the Prince’s letter to the Queen, who, she said, ‘was all eagerness …’ to know what the Regent had written, but ‘when I told her it was not quite what I could have wished or hoped for, she instantly said, “That is very bad indeed,” & then followed a dead silence of 10 minutes.’ When, after dinner, Charlotte read the letter to her grandmother, the Queen, she said, was ‘deeply overcome & she wept, wh. is very uncommon for her. She was very affectionate tome, implored me on her knees not to marry ever a man I did not like.’ The Queen urged her to answer at once, ‘as the less he thought I was hesitating or wavering the better’. The whole conference, said Charlotte, seemed to have upset the Queen very much.

The Princess’s reply to her father, written without advice, was brilliant. She was gentle and affectionate, but made it clear that she was resolute in her decision. And she pointed out that it was by no one’s advice that she had broken off her marriage. ‘On the contrary, it was against the advice of many.’ ‘Believe me,’ she went on, ‘my reputation is as dear to me as any woman’s … but when I know … that I am now going to be placed under your more immediate care & attention I feel no longer any anxiety upon the score. Indeed,’ she added confidently ‘were the whole known to the world very little blame could attach to me considering how very young I was.’

She made no reference to marriage, beyond saying that the union with the Prince of Orange was ‘quite impossible’. The Prince could only complain, in reply, at the speed with which she had answered, allowing herself no time for thought. This, he said, had given him no inconsiderable degree of pain. And thus, on a note of sorrow rather than anger, he dropped the subject, which he was obliged, for one reason and another to do anyway.

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

Not the Orange Match Again …

Charlotte knew that she had at least two allies in the royal family. A week earlier, when it had not mattered so much, Princess Mary had abandoned her enigmatic attitude and ‘launched forth vehemently’ in praise of Leopold, partly because of his reputation as a man of the highest character, and partly because he came from a very old family. Then the Duke of York revealed himself as an ally, although, like Mercer, he advised Charlotte to keep quiet for the time being.

It was good advice. No proposal was likely to succeed with the Regent if it contradicted one of his own. But now that she had made up her mind, Charlotte did not feel inclined to wait. She persuaded Mercer that it would do no harm if ‘the Leo’, as she now called him, were to come over uninvited, and on 3 February she wrote to Mercer asking her to make it happen.

Before you named it I was hourly going to propose to you what certainly nothing could have authorised me or prompted me to have done, but our long intimacy & your kind affection for me. It was this, whether you thought you could by any means send him a hint that his presence at this moment in England would be of service to his views if they were the same as 6 months ago.

Next day, as if in justification, she wrote:

As I care for no man in the world now, I don’t see what it signifies as to my marrying one day sooner or later except for escaping the present evils that surround me. I don’t see what there is against my connecting myself with the most calm & perfect indifference to a man who, I know, has the highest & best character possible in every way, & is extremely prepossessing in his figure and appearance & who certainly did like me.

A few days later, however, the Prince Regent revealed his hand, proving not only that Mercer and the Duke of York were giving good advice but also that Mercer and Earl Grey had been justified in their suspicions after Christmas.

The Prince summoned Mercer and her father to Brighton, ostensibly to discuss their attempts to recover Charlotte’s letters from Captain Hesse. If those letters were to fall into the wrong hands, particularly her mother’s, he said, she would be ruined. He therefore appointed Lord Keith officially as his representative with instructions to interview Captain Hesse and find the letters.

After that the Prince turned abruptly to the possibility of a marriage with the Hereditary Prince of Orange. For Charlotte, he said, this was now ‘the only means of saving her reputation, getting out of her mother’s hands, and making herself quite happy’.

Mercer answered without a hint of respect. ‘It is not actually necessary to marry one man’, she said, ‘to apologise for writing love letters to another’.

The Prince said nothing. Emboldened by her own impatient impudence, Mercer went on, ‘The last time Princess Charlotte talked to me about it, she said that so far from repenting the step she had taken, she would rather continue to suffer all the restraint and privations she had these last six months than marry the Prince of Orange.’

The Prince did not seem to be convinced, or else he did not want to be. Mercer left the meeting frustrated. No matter what anyone thought or said, the Regent was clearly determined to have his own way.

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