of George III
Review by Cheryl Bolen
Princesses: The Six Daughters of George IIIFlora Fraser
Anchor Books, 2006
478 pages; $16.95
In the century and half since the last princess died, no one has
ever before had the fortitude to chronicle the lives of the six
daughters of George III (1738-1820) and his wife Charlotte of
Mecklenburg-Strelitz (1744-1818). Until Flora Fraser.
One of Englandís premier biographers of the late Georgian era,
Fraser (Beloved Emma) first became acquainted with the princesses
when doing archival research for her biography (Unruly Queen) of
their sister-in-law, the Prince Regentís wife.
"Given other circumstances, the letters of these six royal sisters
might have been filled only with Court gossip, pomp and fashion," Fraser
writes. "Instead their correspondence makes harrowing reading, revealing
the humility with which they met pain and horror, the tenacity with
which they pursued their individual dreams, and the stratagems they
devised to endure years of submission and indignity."
The circumstances which catapulted their lives onto a sorrowful
trajectory, of course, were the intermittent bouts of the kingís
insanity which terminated in a nine-year regency after he was declared
incompetent to rule.
His first occurrence of the illness was in 1788; it was another 23
years before the regency became official. Sadly, it was during those
years the princesses came of age, only to be denied the opportunities
for gaiety and marriage. The kingís illness turned a concerned mother
into a domineering tyrant who deprived the princesses of any hopes for
During those years, the princesses were forced to forgo personal
pleasures or aspirations for matrimony for fear it would incite another
relapse in the father who was so excessively fond of his daughters.
To a one, all the princesses wished to marry, to have their own
homes, to have children. Most of them would be denied these simple
The king himself said in 1805 ó when the Princess Royal was 39 and
the youngest princess, Amelia, 22 ó "I cannot deny that I have never
wished to see any of them marry: I am happy in their company, and do not
in the least want a separation."
When he spoke those words, "Royal," as the eldest sister was
always called, was the only sister to have married. Her father had
refused many offers for her hand, a fact that embittered her. She
finally succeeded in marrying a widow, the Hereditary Prince of
Wuttemberg, when she was thirty.
She was thrilled to escape "The Nunnery," a title the princesses
themselves dubbed their residences at Kew Palace and Windsor Castle. She
never regretted the decision to marry. While she never bore a live
child, she was an indulgent mother and grandmother to her step-children
and may have been the happiest of the sisters.
None of the sisters would ever become a mother, though the fourth
princess, Sophia (1777-1848), gave birth secretly to an illegitimate
child sired by her fatherís equerry, who was more than thirty years
older than she. She never married.
Amelia died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-seven, which many
think contributed to her fatherís final fall into hopeless insanity.
Even on her deathbed, her family would not allow Amelia to marry the
young officer she had been in love with for eight years.
Her sister, Princess Augusta (1768-1840), also fell in love with a
military man, Gen. Sir Brent Spencer. When she was 43 she wrote a letter
to the regent that begged to be allowed to marry the man who had shared
her "mutual affection" for twelve years. Request refused, she died a
Princess Mary had more luck. She demanded the regent allow her to
wed her cousin, the Duke of Gloucester, whose father was her fatherís
brother. The regent reluctantly agreed. At age forty, she finally
married. While it is doubtful she was in love with her husband, she
relished the first liberty she had ever tasted.
The sister who had most wanted to marry and had dreamed of bearing
a child, Princess Elizabeth, finally was granted one of her wishes. At
age forty-eight and well past child-bearing years, she married the
Landgrave of Hesse-Homburg and had a happy marriage for eleven years.
Fraserís research is meticulous, right down to the names of the
royal wet nurses and the salary paid to them. Almost all of the research
is original, delving into letters in collections, archives, and
libraries across the globe, a feat that had to have taken several years.
For the casual reader, there are a few problems. First, it is
difficult to chronicle six lives at once chronologically. We get a
snippet of one sister, but the narrative thread drops while there is an
awkward transition to another sister because of chronological
constraints. Therefore, the book makes for dry reading and lacks
For the historian, this work is a gem.
This review first appeared in The Quizzing Glass in February 2007.