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The Visit of the Grand Duchess Catherine

As soon as they were rid of Napoleon, all the European sovereigns were planning to come to England to celebrate their victory, and as a vanguard, or perhaps a reconnaissance, the Tsar’s favourite sister, the Grand Duchess Catherine, arrived while Napoleon was still at large.

The clever and cultured Grand Duchess Catherine was dark and dignified with slavonic, slightly Mongolian features. At the age of twenty-five she was already a widow. After nursing her husband, Prince George of Oldenberg, through his long, fatal illness, she went to neighbouring Holland, where she met Charlotte’s uncle William, the Duke of Clarence, who was there on a goodwill visit, and who was soon besotted with her.

(…) When the Grand Duchess arrived in London, the Prince Regent went round to the hotel to welcome her. But he went much too early. She was still changing to receive him when a footman came to announce his arrival. The meeting was more embarrassing than cordial.

That evening, when she dined at Carlton House, the Grand Duchess confirmed the opinion that she had formed earlier. She did not like the Prince Regent. But she liked very much his daughter, who was also present. In a letter to her brother the Tsar she described Charlotte as ‘the most interesting member of the family… She is blonde, has a handsome nose, a delicious mouth and fine teeth…She is full of spirit and positive in character. She seems to have an iron will in the smallest things…’ But ‘her manners’, wrote the Grand Duchess, ‘are so extraordinary that they take one’s breath away… She walks up to any man, young or old, especially to the older men, takes them by the hand, and shakes it with all her strength… She looks like a boy, or rather a ragamuffin. I really am telling you nothing but the strictest truth. She is ravishing, and it is a crime to have allowed her to acquire such habits.’

After that dinner the Grand Duchess Catherine and Princess Charlotte visited each other often at the Pulteney Hotel and Warwick House – so often in fact that the Prince Regent sent Sir Henry Halford to Warwick House with an order for Miss Knight. She was to do all that she could to reduce the frequency of these meetings. It was an order that Miss Knight had neither the power nor the will to obey. She could cut down on Charlotte’s visits to the Pulteney Hotel, but she could do nothing to prevent the Grand Duchess from coming round to Warwick House – which was fortunate. Since the Regent was preventing his daughter from appearing anywhere in society other than at Carlton House, these visits were almost the only occasions on which the Princess and the Grand Duchess were able to meet.

One evening at the dinner party given by Lord and Lady Liverpool, the Prince Regent sat with the Grand Duchess Catherine on his right and the Princess Lieven, wife of the Russian Ambassador, on his left. In the course of dinner the Grand Duchess turned to him.
‘Why, your Royal Highness, do you keep your daughter under lock and key?’ she asked. ‘Why does she appear nowhere?’
‘My daughter is too young, Madame, to appear in society’, said the Prince.
‘She is not too young for you to have chosen her a husband.’
The Prince was clearly uncomfortable. ‘She will not be married for another two years’, he said.
‘When she is married’, said the Grand Duchess, ‘I hope she will know how to make up for her present imprisonment.’
The Prince snapped back at her. ‘When she is married, Madame, she will do her husband’s will, just as at present she is doing mine.’
The Grand Duchess smiled and spoke very sweetly. ‘Ah, yes. Your Royal Highness is right. Between husband and wife there can only be one will.’
So far the conversation had been conducted in French. But now the Prince turned to the Princess Lieven and spoke in English, in rage, and loudly enough for everyone at the table to hear him.
‘This is intolerable!’

The Grand Duchess Catherine and Charlotte continued to meet, and the Grand Duchess was always as blunt with Charlotte as she had been with her father. She told her that she thought the Prince Regent was ‘a voluptuary’. And as for the Duke of Clarence, he was positively ‘vulgar’. While they were in Holland he had actually been so presumptuous as to propose to her.

It was at one of these meetings, on 5 April, that Lord Bathurst called to inform Princess Charlotte that the allies had entered Paris. Four days later news came that Napoleon had abdicated.

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

Picture: Ekaterina Pavlovna of Russia by anonymous (19 c., Hermitage)

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The Prince Of Orange Must Visit His Frogs Solo

Charlotte’s letters to Mercer take on a happier note at this point. ‘I have agreed without any demur or hesitation to see young P. when he comes,’ she wrote on December 8. She had received more accounts of him ‘from those who know him personally’, and felt that he could not, after all, be so bad: for one thing, ‘he is lively & likes fun & amusement’. A print of him was sent to Carlton House, and that evening, at a family party, it was placed upon a chair to be looked at, and ‘Princess Charlotte thought it not ugly,’ wrote Miss Knight.

At this party, attended by the Queen and two princesses, the Regent was ‘mighty busy & good-humoured’, she said. He was wearing a belt studded with rose-diamonds, to which he added a diamond clasp. It had been given to him by the Grand Seigneur of Turkey, he said, with a magnificent scimitar, but he did not greatly car for it. The ladies gathered round him, cooing with admiration, and Ladies Castlereagh and Hertford agreed with Charlotte that the diamonds would make beautiful ornaments; whereupon he undid the clasp, with a heave unwound the glittering thing from his well-corseted paunch, ‘and in the most amiable manner,’ said Charlotte, ‘gave it to me.’ She was in high favour. She dined at Carlton House two evenings in succession, and the Prince, she said, ‘was exceedingly kind & gracious … He has talked to me both days more than he has done for ages’.

On the second evening, December 9, a great many distinguished foreigners were present, including Madame de Staël, for whom Charlotte had a great admiration both as a writer and raconteur. She was accompanied by her husband and daughter, Albertine (good-humoured but silly, said Charlotte), and was ‘very pleasant’. ‘I think nothing could be more brilliant than the appearance of everything,’ wrote Charlotte, who was only just beginning to learn what Carlton House entertainment could be. Her letter to Mercer the next day bubbles with excitement and delight. ‘As to whether I was in beauty last night, I cannot answer,’ she began … ‘except by assuring you that I did not feel out of hea[l]th, or out of humour. Indeed no.’ She had blossomed under the Prince’s kindness, and had felt herself to be a success with his guests. She was happy, and even the news that she was going to Windsor for Christmas did not spoil her happiness.

Four days later, on December 13, her tone is still light-hearted, as she replies to a letter from Mercer, giving a favourable report of the Prince of Orange on his arrival at Plymouth. ‘I really admire the victory a single glimpse of his form has had upon you,’ Charlotte wrote, ‘& give my permission to your being in love with him for my sake according to the old proverb, “Love me, love my dog.”‘

This is quite a startling change of attitude, and shows how strong still was Mercer’s influence. Princess Mary, Sir Henry Halford, any member of ‘Government persons’ and even the Regent himself might try in vain to persuade her to consider the Orange alliance, but a word from Mercer in favour of the Prince, a suggestion that Charlotte should stop opposing the match, was enough to bring about a complete change of attitude. She had already agreed to see him: now she would even try to like him. She had had other good accounts of him – he was adored in the army: not only Lord Wellington, but all his brother officers spoke highly of him. Mercer’s letter had ‘eased me of 100,000 worrys’, she said.

All the same, she had her reservations. She agreed that the match would smooth out some of the problems now facing the Regent ‘with regard to the arrangement of the Netherlands’. Austria was demanding a bigger slice of Holland than had been planned and there was ‘an awkwardness … which requires much delicacy to remove’. The Netherlands rulers, the House of Orange, clearly needed British backing; but Charlotte was determined on one point: however much the young Prince might wish for the support of an English wife, nothing would induce her at any time to leave her native land. ‘As heiress presumptive to the Crown it is certain that I could not quit this country, as Queen of England still less.’ The Prince of Orange, said Charlotte firmly, must visit his frogs solo.’

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

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‘A Violent Orange Attack’

As her eighteenth birthday approached, Charlotte was hoping that Parliament would grant her freedom from governesses, and her own Establishment and income. But she feared the worst. ‘I am sure,’ she wrote, ‘there will be a tight business about my establishment as the P said that I had more liberty than any of his sisters & had more liberty to do what I pleased with my own time than any girl had. If these are the liberal plans he intends going upon, it will be charming, certainly…’

Sir Henry Halford had told her that it was hoped that she would choose a husband before any Establishment was appointed; this way, he indicated delicately, two birds could be killed with one stone. Grey’s advice, on the other hand, was to wait ’till your R.H.’s establishment shall have been fixed, till you shall have the advantage of such intercourse with society as your R.H.’s exalted station may with propriety allow’: in short, till she had gained some experience of the world, and was more sure of her own tastes and inclinations. This was what Charlotte wanted. ‘I have not the smallest inclination at present to marry, as I have seen so little, &, I may add, nothing of the world as yet, & I have so much before me in prospects that for a year or two it would not come into my head.’ She hoped that she would have the courage and determination to hold out for this; and it seemed at first that she might be successful. ‘I trust,’ she wrote to Mercer, ‘I have gained two points at least. One is that the Orange business is now quite out of the question, & quite given up; and the other is that the Prince has positively given me his promise that I should never be persuaded or forced into any alliance I did not like.’ Her father said that he would invite eligible princes to this country so that she might see them and make her own choice. This sounded like a fairy tale-and, indeed, so it was. Only just over a month later, Charlotte, now back in London, wrote to Mercer: ‘My torments and plagues are again beginning in spite of all promises made at Windsor. I have had a violent orange attack this morning…’

It was the ‘little Doctor’ who delivered it; and he was not long in dropping his bombshell. There was to be a great dinner, he told her, for the young Prince of Orange, who had been invited to England again, to be introduced to Charlotte. After the Prince solemn promise that the match should be given up, this came as a shock. Sir Henry then began use ‘every argument of seduction’ to try and interest Charlotte in the young Prince. He dangled before her everything that she would gain from this marriage: power, riches, freedom, pleasure-finally pointing out that it was ‘the general wish of the nation’ and would give ‘universal delight’. ‘The grand object now was to keep Holland affixed to this island,’ he said, and the marriage would accomplish this.

He then proceeded to knock down all criticisms of the young man’s looks: ‘that if he was too thin, he would fill out, if he had bad teeth that might be remedied, & that as to his being fair that had nothing to do with his manlyness…’ ‘He then,’ wrote Charlotte, added language I do assure you I never had herd before from anyone & certainly never expected to have done, except perhaps seeing something of the kind in a book.’ She made it clear that she was not amused, and the doctor quickly ‘turned it off with a laugh & assured me that could he find me an angel he should not think it too good.’

Charlotte decided to treat the impudent doctor to a display of ‘excessive pride&haughtiness’, and to make it clear that she was unmoved by his arguments. This match, she said, was beneath her notice: if she ever married, it should be with a person of the highest rank possible. She was in no hurry to be married, she told him, and ‘considered that 3 or 4 years hence would be quite time enough to think about such a thing’.

The next time Sir Henry called at Warwick House, Charlotte was engaged. He was confronted by Miss Knight, who said that the Princess was ‘certainly annoyed’ at what he had told her, especially after her father’s promises that she should not be forced into marriage against her will. She indicated that he had spoken without authority, which put him ‘quite out of countenance’. Indeed, faced by Cornelia’s fearless integrity, he seems to have wilted. He had not, he said, been authorized by the Prince to say ‘anything positively‘ to the Princess, only to ‘throw in some points of advice’ whenever he had an opportunity. The Prince, he said, was now ‘so pressed on all sides, particularly by his ministers, as the marriage would be so helpful to their policy’, that he ‘felt himself in an awkward predicament’ and did not at all wish to influence his daughter in her decision.

And so, after attempting to justify himself, the little doctor went away.

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

Sir Henry Halford, 1st Baronet, by Sir William Beechey, unknown date, National Portrait Gallery

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The Prince Regent Is Becoming More And More Suspicious

For Charlotte the spring and summer of 1813 were for the most part dreary and sad. The only balls that she attended were in the houses of her father or her uncles, and at all of them the Prince Regent was as paranoid as ever.

At one ball, given by the Duke and Duchess of York, the Prince saw that his daughter was again sitting on a sofa talking to the Duke of Gloucester, for whom, if he only knew it, she did not have ‘the smallest partiality’. He instructed Lady Liverpool to go over and tell her to change places with Lady Bathurst, who was sitting on the other side of her. Instead of obeying, Charlotte stood up and strode out of the room. Later she went back and apologised to the Duke, and she went home, in the words of Cornelia Knight, ‘indignant and hurt at having been watched and worried’.

The Prince was equally suspicious of the Duke of Devonshire, who was certainly very attentive to Charlotte. But, as she told Mercer, he would bestow his attentions somewhere else, where they might at least be appreciated. Sir Henry Halford, who was fast becoming the Prince’s favourite messenger, was sent more than once to admonish the Duchess of Leeds and Miss Knight for not keeping a close enough watch when the Duke of Devonshire was around. And on another occasion he was sent to tell Miss Knight that the Prince was not pleased to learn that she and Charlotte had been seen out in her carriage one morning on the road to Chiswick, where the Duke was giving a breakfast party at his villa – to which Miss Knight pleaded honestly that life at Warwick House was so dull that they had simply gone out to all the fancy carriages drive by.

The Prince even forbade Charlotte to continue sitting for the painter George Sanders at his studio, because while she was there she was exposed to the bad influence of such visitors as Lady Jersey. Both the Duchess of Leeds and Miss Knight insisted defiantly that the pious painter and his studio were beyond reproach. Charlotte was having her portrait painted as a birthday present for her father, and the visitors were only there to see how it was coming on, sometimes at the Prince’s request. But it was to no avail, and since Sanders refused to paint at Warwick House, where the light was as bad as everything else, the birthday present was never finished.

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

(c) National Galleries of Scotland; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Picture: George Sanders, by Andrew Geddes, (c) National Galleries of Scotland; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation from the page https://georgianera.wordpress.com/2015/05/28/george-sanders-1774-1846/

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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