In January 1817 the Regent’s carriage was stoned, as he drove to open Parliament. There was desperate poverty and distress in the country, as a result of the long wars followed by a disastrous harvest in 1816. The Regent led an attempt to encourage British manufacturers, which was taken up with enthusiasm by Charlotte and Leopold. They themselves ordered £ 1, 000 worth of Spitalfields silk, some of which they planned to hang on the walls of their great gallery. Charlotte began to collect English china, and Princess Elizabeth sent her a vase to add to her collection. In return she presented her aunt with a teapot, in the spout of which was a tiny roll of paper bearing a verse.
‘Your vase, dear aunt, I have just received,
For which receive a tea-pot;
Nor shall I be, in truth, deceived,
If both should go to pot.’
The Coburgs practised economy and charity, and tried as far as possible to live like private people. Leopold insisted that the greater part of their entourage should sleep away from Claremont and only be on call when wanted. Their household shopping, Charlotte decreed, was to be done at Esher, and all bills paid on the nail (she had experienced what it was to be in debt). In spite of having a Privy Purse and a Treasurer, they liked to supervise their own household expenses, bourgeois fashion, and Miss Knight, arriving on a visit, retreated when she found them seated at a desk covered with books and papers. ‘Come in, come in!’ Charlotte called, ”tis only Mr. and Mrs. Coburg settling their accounts.’
They began to entertain, pleased to show off their fine house. As yet, the imposing gallery, with its vast carpet, was not furnished, but the drawing-room, with its walls covered in yellow Spitalfields silk stripped with satin, and chairs and sofas to match, was a pleasant setting for parties, and early in 1817 Charlotte’s new pianoforte was installed there, a Broadwood with a case of satinwood and rosewood decorated with ormolu, which was the twin to one made in the same year for Beethoven.
At first they held family parties: ‘The Glosters have just this moment left us,’ Charlotte wrote in September 1816, and was thankful that the visit had gone off so well, for they were ‘not the most agreeable people in the world’. She seemed to have forgotten her strange predilection for the Cheese, whom she now described as ‘tiresome’, but she hoped that marriage with Princess Mary would improve him. He seemed, she said, ‘very fond of Mary & to be very happy; he is certainly all attention to her, but I cannot say she looks the picture of happiness …’
No sooner had the Gloucesters gone than the Prince Regent paid them a visit, arriving on horseback from Hampton Court, and still ready for a three-hour walk round the estate.
Charlotte and Leopold were evidently too occupied entertaining their relations to fulfil an engagement in London, for on September 14 the Foundation Stone of the Royal Coburg Theatre* was laid on their behalf by an Alderman with the charming and suitable name of Goodbehere.
It was a great pleasure having the Duchess of York so near, at Oatlands. ‘We like her so much.’ ‘We are excellent neighbours & very sociable.’ And at Christmas time they were able to join in the charitable Duchess’s party. ‘Xmas eve is a great day always at Oatlands: the Duchess has a sort of fête and fair for everybody … It was the gayest and prettiest sight I ever saw I think, the numbers of children, their parents, and all the happy merry faces, the noises they make with their toys and things.’
* The Royal Coburg Theatre became The Royal Victoria Hall, and is now known as the Old Vic.
[an extract from ‘Prinny’s Daughter: A Biography of Princess Charlotte of Wales’ by Thea Holme]
Picture: portraits of Charlotte and Leopold from the cover of James Chambers’ book