The scramble for a royal heir

Although George III had 15 children, and all but two of them survived to adulthood, grandchildren – at least legitimate ones – were thin on the ground. In 1817, when the Prince Regent’s daughter, Princess Charlotte of Wales died in childbirth (her son was stillborn), there was something of a constitutional crisis.

Princess Charlotte of Wales, after George Dawe, 1817.
Princess Charlotte of Wales, after George Dawe, 1817. Royal Collection Trust.

Three of the king’s daughters had married, but none of them had any surviving issue.  The two eldest sons, George, the Prince Regent (and future George IV) and Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany had both separated from their wives long before; both were now childless, and weren’t in a position to provide an heir.

The Soldier's Return: Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albay and his wife, Princess Frederica.The Soldier's Return.
The Soldier’s Return: Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albay and his wife, Princess Frederica.The Soldier’s Return. © British Museum

Prince Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex was married and had children, but as he had married secretly and in contravention of the 1772 Royal Marriages Act, his union was deemed invalid and his children barred from the line of succession.

Prince Augustus, Duke of Sussex (1773-1843). Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017
Prince Augustus, Duke of Sussex (1773-1843). Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017

Prince Ernest Augustus, Duke of Cumberland was also married, to his first cousin, Frederica of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, but the couple – at that time – had no children (a daughter had been stillborn in 1817).

And so, an unseemly scramble to a) marry and/or b) beget an heir to the throne broke out. In 1818, there were three royal marriages.

Prince Adolphus, Duke of Cambridge, the king’s youngest surviving son (he was 44), was first off the starting block; he married Augusta of Hesse-Kassel in her homeland on 7 May 1818, and again in London (at Buckingham Palace) on 1 June. In a recurrent theme for the family, this marriage would, however, prove childless. Prince Edward, Duke of Kent was only a few weeks behind his younger brother; he settled on Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld and married in Coburg on 29 May, and again at Kew Palace on 11 July. The royal family tree is a tangled one and this marriage is a perfect example. The new Duchess of Kent had been the sister-in-law of the duke’s deceased niece, Princess Charlotte of Wales.

Victoria, Duchess of Kent (Queen Victoria's mother)
Victoria, Duchess of Kent. © Royal Collection Trust

Rounding up the year’s royal weddings was the king’s third son, Prince William, Duke of Clarence who already had a brood of ten children by his long-term mistress, the actress Dorothea Jordan, all born illegitimately and given the surname FitzClarence. He married Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen at Kew on 11 July in a double ceremony with his brother, Prince Edward.

La promenade en famille: a sketch from life. The Duke of Clarence (later William IV), Dorothea Jordan and some of their brood of children.
La promenade en famille: a sketch from life. The Duke of Clarence, Dorothea Jordan and some of their children.

The race to produce an heir was well and truly on. So, how did it play out?

After three weddings in 1818, several royal children were born the following year. The Duke and Duchess of Cumberland had a daughter, but she lived only a few hours and the Cambridges had a son. On 24 May 1819, Princess Alexandrina Victoria, daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Kent was born and, three days later, the Duke and Duchess of Cumberland had a boy, Prince George. The little princess took priority over the princes in the succession because her father, the Duke of Kent, was older than the Dukes of Cumberland and Cambridge.

Edward, Duke of Kent, 1818.
Edward, Duke of Kent, 1818. © Royal Collection Trust

George III died in 1820, and the Prince Regent took the throne as King George IV. At his death, ten years later, the Duke of Clarence was next in line and he ruled as William IV (the second son, Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany had died in 1827, still estranged from his wife). William IV’s wife and queen, Adelaide, suffered a succession of miscarriages and stillbirths, and the couple had no living children.

George IV by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1821. © Royal Collection Trust
George IV by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1821. © Royal Collection Trust

Princess Alexandrina Victoria, born because of that mad scramble for an heir, was next in the line of succession. Her father, the Duke of York, had died of pneumonia before she was a year old. In the portrait of her as a child with her mother (below), the young princess holds a miniature of her father.

Victoria, Duchess of Kent with Princess Victoria (holding a miniature of her late father, Edward, Duke of Kent) by Sir William Beechey, 1821.
Victoria, Duchess of Kent with Princess Victoria (holding a miniature of her late father, Edward, Duke of Kent) by Sir William Beechey, 1821. © Royal Collection Trust

Princess Alexandrina – known to her close family as Drina – is obviously much better known as Queen Victoria. She came to the throne on 20 June 1837 upon the death of her uncle, William IV, but as a woman was unable to also inherit Hanover which since George I had been held dually with the British crown. That went to the next male heir, her uncle Prince Ernest Augustus, Duke of Cumberland who became King of Hanover. Victoria’s cousin, Prince George, who was born just three days after her own birth, would in time become the last King of Hanover.

Hanoverian Family Tree. (Image sourced via the National Archives, © Royal Family History)
Hanoverian Family Tree. (Image sourced via the National Archives, © Royal Family History)
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2 thoughts on “The scramble for a royal heir

  1. susana

    Prince Adolphus, Duke of Cambridge did have children with Augusta, two daughters and a son. The youngest daughter was the mother of Mary of Teck, who married George V, and through her, is the reason Elizabeth II is the many times granddaughter of TWO of George III’s sons.

    Like

    1. Joanne Major

      You’re quite right Susana, and in hindsight we could have worded that differently; it’s such a tangled family tree! We’ve amended our article to reflect your comments. Thanks for reading. 🙂

      Like

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