Nevertheless, Charlotte’s decision to confess all to her father was the climax of a long-drawn-out period of anxiety on her part, a terror of discovery, and a dread of what her mother might in some unguarded moment say or write of the affair, which now assumed an importance quite out of proportion to its seriousness. Her first object was to recover her letters – all those regrettable cris de coeur, written without a thought but of pleasing the recipient, but now, with the fear of what might happen if they fell into the wrong hands, having a sinister importance. Even Hesse himself might betray her: she feared that he had not kept the mutual agreement to burn all letters – ‘which I did, most strictly, for certainly they were much too full of professions of nonsense not to have got him into into a desperate scrape if ever seen’. The correspondence had continued when Hesse moved away with his regiment to Portsmouth and Lewes, before finally crossingthe Channel to join the war. As far as Charlotte knew, her letters went with him, and so did her portrait, pressed upon ‘l’aimable sujet’ by the Princess of Wales. There were a ring and ‘several trinkets’, which Charlotte asked to have returned when she decided to end the correspondence. She gives the date for this decision as March 1813, but nearly a year later, in January 1814, after reading the casualties in the papers, she told her confidante, Mercer Elphinstone, ‘Were anything to happen to our friend I should feel it excessively, as it is impossible not to do for a person one has been so intimate with.’ The affair has certainly left its mark, and she describes it herself, ‘still out of spirits, still smarting for my own folly’. Nevertheless, ‘I beg to assure you,’ she told Mercer, ‘the little Lieutenant does not occupy a thought of mine further than wishing him well.’
The little Lieutenant had by no means disappeared from her life, however. Whether he was at home or abroad the thought of him haunted her, together with the missing packet of her letters – ‘those dreaded letters’ – which never turned up. In October 1814 she was dismayed to learn that Hesse had joined her mother’s party abroad,* and admitted to feeling hurt that the Princess should be encouraging the man she still regarded as hers. But, as she said later to her father, she could never make out whether Hesse was her lover or her mother’s. Now she was torn between hope that her mother would recover her letters, and terror of what she would do with them. ‘She is quite equal, I am sure, to produce any letters of mine that that might make a breach between the Prince Regent and me…’
Fortunately for Charlotte, who had worked herself up into a fever of anxiety, she now had an ally who was ready to give her comfort and advice, and to act as intermediary in a bid to get the letters back(…) In her firm, efficient way, Mercer wrote to Hesse, now abroad with his regiment, and persisted till she received an answer. Captain Hesse (as he now was) mentioned ‘those articles I have WITH me’ and promised that ‘should I be killed, they shall be sent to you, without being seen by any person’.
But this plan was not good enough for Miss Mercer. ‘Nonsense,’ she calls it, ‘as it is very uncertain whether or not the contents might be destroyed, or into whose hands they might fall;’ and as for the things he confessed to having with him, she firmly rejected his offer. ‘I am sure,’ she told Charlotte, ‘there is a greater chance of their being conveyed to me safely before his death than after it.’ ‘I must confess,’ she adds, ‘the shuffling letter does not make me more lenient with respect to his conduct throughout the whole affair,’ and she wrote again to Hesse, asking him briskly to ‘return, without loss of time, all the letters or presents you may now have with you’.
Captain Hesse must by his time have begun to regret that he had ever met Princess Charlotte. Mercer’s father, Viscount Keith, who knew all about the correspondence, now wrote himself repeating his daughter’s demands, and summoning Hesse to an interview when he was next in London. Hesse duly presented himself, but no letters, no box of trinkets were forthcoming. He told Lord Keith that the letters were not in existence. ‘I had given my word, that they were to be destroyed immediately after being read, and I have kept my word…’
Lord Keith now decided to present Hesse with a questionnaire, in which with Scottish thoroughness he put twenty-six searching questions to the young man, regarding his relationship with Princess Charlotte, the part played in the affair by the Princess of Wales, and the whereabouts of letters and trinkets not contained in the ‘paquet’ presented to Mercer the previous day. Hesse answered carefully and plausibly. Everything, he said, had been returned, except the letters ‘burned so soon as I received them’, and one ring, which ‘Mr. Hesse unfortunately lost, by wearing it round his feather in the field. The ring,’ he said, ‘was a small blue one.’ And so the love story ends, as did a later love story of Charlotte’s, with the loss of a small blue ring.
In July 1815, Charlotte learned from the Duke of York that Hesse had lost an arm at Waterloo-‘or lost the use of it from a very bad sword cut’. The latter seems to have been the truth, for on his last entrance into Charlotte’s life, at Weymouth in November of the same year, Hesse is described as having his arm in a leather sling. Charlotte was angry with him for being there, supposing, wrongly, that he knew of her presence; nevertheless she was interested enough to peer out of her window at him as he strolled on the promenade. ‘I watched him thro’ my teliscope,’ she wrote; ‘it was identically himself.’ Hesse perhaps not surprisingly, took himself off when he learned that his former love was in Weymouth. He applied to Lord Keith for a passage in a frigate sailing to the Mediterranean: ‘Effrontery,’ said Charlotte, by this time thoroughly disillusioned. ‘I should not wonder that he was not going again out and after my mother to tell all his griefs to her.’ She considered that the best thing that could be done ‘as he will be perpetually coming in my way’ would be to exchange him into a foreign regiment, ‘by which he would gain rank and be got rid of’. But she relented to add that ‘he really deserves something for his good behaviour towards me formely, wh. ought never to be forgot by whose who are most violent towards him…’
The last we hear of the Little Hussar is disappointing. He amused himself on the Continent, making love to a number of ladies, including the Queen of Naples, from whose vicinity he had to be forcibly expelled. After this adventure he became involved in several affairs of honour, and finally met his death in a duel with Count Leon, bastard son of Napoleon.
* On August 9, 1814, the Princess sailed to the Continent in the frigate Jason.
[an extract from ‘Prinny’s Daughter: A Biography of Princess Charlotte of Wales’ by Thea Home]
Portrait: Portrait of Admiral George Keith Elphinstone, 1st Viscount Keith (1746-1823) by George Sanders, after 1815, the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London