Royal weddings in the Georgian era

On Tuesday 8th September 1761, in the Chapel Royal at St James’s Palace, the new King George III (he had ascended the throne a little less than a year earlier) married Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. The wedding took place only a few hours after their initial meeting.

The marriage ceremony began at 9 o’clock in the evening; beforehand the princess, attended by ten bridesmaids, sat under a white and silver canopy until the Duke of Cumberland conducted her to the side of the king and gave the bride’s hand to the bridegroom. Charlotte was nervous, and uncomfortably dressed on a hot evening in a heavy, sumptuous gown with a purple mantle laced with gold and lined with ermine, a diamond studded cap and small crown on her head. She spoke no English but was only required to say two words during the wedding; at the appropriate time and at the king’s prompting, she declared, ‘Ich will‘.

Unfinished portrait depicting the marriage of George III to Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz on 8 September 1761 by Sir Joshua Reynolds
Unfinished portrait depicting the marriage of George III to Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz on 8 September 1761 by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Royal Collection Trust

The new queen was just seventeen years old. Horace Walpole said of her that:

She is not tall nor a beauty. Pale and very thin; but looks sensible and genteel. Her hair is darkish and fine. Her forehead low, her nose very well except the nostrils spreading too wide. The mouth has the same fault, but her teeth are good. She talks a great deal, and French tolerably.

A kinder report, by the daughter of Charlotte’s German page, described Charlotte as having an ‘expressive and intelligent countenance… not tall, but of slight, pretty figure; her eyes bright and sparkling with good humour and vivacity’. Still, this same girl also claimed that George III was initially disappointed in his choice and by the bride’s appearance. In the end, however, none of this nor Walpole’s catty comments mattered: despite it being an arranged marriage, the royal couple quickly fell deeply in love with one another.

Queen Charlotte, when Princess of Mecklenburg-Strelitz c.1760. This portrait may be the one sent from Mecklenburg to George III before Charlotte's arrival in England for her marriage.
Queen Charlotte, when Princess of Mecklenburg-Strelitz c.1760. Royal Collection Trust. This portrait may be the one sent from Mecklenburg to George III before Charlotte’s arrival in England for her marriage.

George III and Queen Charlotte’s long marriage produced a large family. In 1795, their eldest son, George, Prince of Wales (later the Prince Regent and George IV) married Caroline of Brunswick. There has always been intense interest in a royal bride’s wedding dress and in 1795 it was no different. This is how the media of the day reported on it.

The Princess of Wales was very superb indeed, and the dress was the most costly that could be made. The body and train were of silver tissue festooned on each side, and tied up with rich cord and tassels. The sleeves, and round the bottom of the robe, were covered with rows of the finest point lace. The petticoat was likewise of silver tissue, covered all over with silver Venetian net, and tassels hanging down the sides. The waist was not more than six inches in length. In the procession to the chapel, and during the ceremony, her Royal Highness wore a crimson velvet mantling, trimmed with ermine, and over the shoulders hung a rich silver cord and tassels. The hoop was very small, such as is used for morning dresses; and so were the hoops of the Bride-maids, that they might be as unencumbered as possible in the procession. Her Royal Highness wore a superb coronet of diamonds. She had on a very rich ornament of brilliants, resembling a knight’s collar, fastened upon the right shoulder by a brilliant bow, and long brilliant tassels; and on the left shoulder by a rich epaulette of brilliants; and in the centre, in the place of a stomacher, was the Prince’s picture richly set in brilliants.

Caroline of Brunswick when Princess of Wales, depicted in her wedding dress by Gainsborough Dupont, 1795-96. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017
Caroline of Brunswick when Princess of Wales, depicted in her wedding dress by Gainsborough Dupont, 1795-96. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017

The marriage took place on the evening of Wednesday, 8th April 1795, again in the Chapel Royal at St James’s Palace. Crowds lined the streets on the approach to the palace, and it was standing room only in the two ante-chambers leading to the drawing room where those lucky enough to have been issued with tickets to the event were congregating.

The king and queen, the Prince of Wales, Caroline and the rest of the royal family had dined at the Queen’s House (now Buckingham Palace), and around 6pm they left there in a procession of coaches for St James’s (or Carlton House in the case of the prince) where they dressed for the wedding.

The Prince, on leaving the Queen’s House, had a hearty shake of the hand from the King, which brought tears into his eyes. His Majesty saluted the Princess in the Hall, and then got into his carriage, The Prince, after seeing the Princess home, went to Carlton House.

George IV when Prince of Wales, miniature by Richard Cosway, 1792.
George IV when Prince of Wales, miniature by Richard Cosway, 1792. National Portrait Gallery

The Prince of Wales wore a blue Genoa velvet coat and breeches, with a silver tissue waistcoat, and coat cuffs richly embroidered with silver and spangles. His Royal Highness wore a diamond star, with an embroidered garter at the knee; diamond shoe and knee-buckles and rich diamond hilted sword, and button and loop. His Royal Highness looked uncommonly well.

It was gone 9 o’clock before everyone was ready and the procession left the drawing room for the Chapel, the Duke of Clarence (later William IV) leading the bride. There was only one mishap. During the marriage ceremony, while kneeling in front of the Archbishop, the prince tried to stand up too soon and the service was stopped; the king noticed the dilemma, rose from his seat and whispered in his son’s ear. George kneeled once more and the service was concluded… was the Prince of Wales in a hurry to get the ceremony over and done with?

Oil sketch of the marriage of George, Prince of Wales, and Princess Caroline of Brunswick c. 1795-7 by William Hamilton
Oil sketch of the marriage of George, Prince of Wales, and Princess Caroline of Brunswick c. 1795-7 by William Hamilton; Royal Collection Trust

The wedding had been highly anticipated by everyone but the Prince of Wales! The following passage is from our latest book, A Georgian Heroine: The Intriguing Life of Rachel Charlotte Williams Biggs, which gives a different view of the wedding from that reported by the newspapers.

George IV, when the Prince of Wales, had married his first cousin, Caroline of Brunswick, under duress and because his father promised to sort out his debts and increase his allowance once he was wed. The marriage, as may have been predicted, was a total disaster. The exuberant Caroline was tactless and had a poor grasp of personal hygiene (she boasted that her personal toilette was but a ‘short’ one). The prince was rolling drunk during the wedding ceremony, recovering enough to consummate his marriage on the wedding night before falling drunk into the grate of the fireplace where Caroline left him. Later he was to claim that he had been intimate with his wife on only three occasions, twice on their wedding night and once on the following night but it proved enough and nine months later Caroline gave birth to a daughter, Princess Charlotte of Wales.

The Marriage of George IV (1762-1830) when Prince of Wales by Henry Singleton, 1795.
The Marriage of George IV (1762-1830) when Prince of Wales by Henry Singleton, 1795. Royal Collection Trust

To end this blog, we’ll also share with you an extract from the pages of our second book, A Right Royal Scandal: Two Marriages That Changed History, an anecdote relating to the marriage of George IV’s only legitimate child, his heir, Princess Charlotte of Wales. (George had several reputed illegitimate children; one that he acknowledged privately, if not publicly, was his daughter Georgiana Seymour whose mother was ‘the celebrated’ Grace Dalrymple Elliott.)

Back in London preparations were under way for the wedding of the Prince Regent’s daughter, Princess Charlotte, to the impoverished but handsome Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld (later known as Saxe-Coburg and Gotha); they married at the beginning of May 1816 in the Crimson Drawing Room at the regent’s London residence, Carlton House. The young bride was heard to giggle during the marriage ceremony, which took place on 2 May 1816, when Prince Leopold promised to endow her with all his worldly goods.

The Marriage of Princess Charlotte and Prince Leopold in the Crimson State Room, Carlton House, 1816
The Marriage of Princess Charlotte and Prince Leopold in the Crimson State Room, Carlton House, 1816; British School; National Trust, Croft Castle

Sources:

An Infamous Mistress: The Life, Loves and Family of the Celebrated Grace Dalrymple Elliott, Joanne Major & Sarah Murden, Pen & Sword, 2016

A Right Royal Scandal: Two Marriages That Changed History, Joanne Major & Sarah Murden, Pen & Sword, 2016

A Georgian Heroine: The Intriguing Life of Rachel Charlotte Williams Biggs, Joanne Major & Sarah Murden, Pen & Sword, 2017

Scot’s Magazine, September 1761 and April 1795

George III: A Personal History, Christopher Hibbert, Viking, 1998

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