Charlotte: The Forgotten Princess remembered at Brighton's Royal Pavilion

By Stephanie Pomfrett | 12 March 2012
An image of an oil painting of a 19th century Princess in a Royal dress
George Daw, Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales (1817)© National Portrait Gallery, London
Exhibition: Charlotte: The Forgotten Princess, Royal Pavilion, Brighton, until March 10 2013

As part of its Jubilee celebrations, the Royal Pavilion has launched a year-long exhibition exploring the life and death of Princess Charlotte, the only daughter of George IV. Had Charlotte lived, history would have been changed forever, but her death during childbirth in 1817, aged just 21, ensured that she has been largely forgotten.

The exhibition, however, shows a popular woman whose death caused public grief comparable to that of Princess Diana 180 years later. Hearing the news in Venice, Lord Byron opined that her death was “a shock even here and must have been an earthquake at home.”

A photo of a curator holding up a tiny dress with a pair of gloves
Brighton Museum curator Martin Pel with a gown made in 1817 for the baby of Princess Charlotte of Wales, the only daughter of George IV. Both mother and baby died in childbirth© Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton and Hove. Photo: Jim Holden
Even beggars were recorded by the Yorkshire diarist Anne Lister as having their own view of what went wrong: “Ah! Poor crater, if she had only had a sup of gin, she’d a’ done.”

What is evident throughout all of the exhibits is that despite the fact that Charlotte had an unhappy home life with warring parents (the Prince Regent was drunk when he married her mother, Caroline of Brunswick, and she was conceived on the one night they could stand to spend together), the princess had inherited her parents’ flirtatiousness and sense of fun.

She possessed “a will of bronze,” which maddened her tutors but endeared her to the public at large, who saw her as better potential ruler than her father and grandfather had been. Excerpts of her letters and portraits document her love life, which faltered until she met Prince Leopold, an obscure member of the Prussian aristocracy with barely £200 to his name.

A photo of a piece of white cloth from a dress with a royal emblem embroidered on it
The detail of the baby gown reveals an embroidered crown© Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton and Hove. Photo: Jim Holden
Their courtship took place at the Pavilion and, had Charlotte survived, could have been a love affair to rival that of Victoria and Albert (as an aside, had Charlotte lived, Victoria may never have been born, as the death of George IV’s heir meant that his brothers all had to scramble to marry and produce the next heir to the throne.)

The highlights of the exhibition are the dresses, which will be changed in six months. Currently, these are an exquisite cream and silver dress made in Spitalfields and worn as a sort of “Buy British” drive that George IV insisted on as a way to counter the increasing popularity of newly available Parisian couture.

The “Russian dress”, worn by Charlotte when she was pregnant, is beautiful. In the autumn, one of the dresses on show will be Charlotte’s wedding dress, the oldest in the Royal Collection.

It is hard not to leave the exhibition with a little sadness, as much of it is devoted to the outpouring of mourning brought about by her death. The tiny nightshirt made for the son that was born stillborn and portraits of her male midwife who committed suicide after her death leave the viewer with a whole host of “what-ifs”. It shows that, as a nation, we have always been capable of mass grief.

  • Open 10am-5.15pm (9.30am-5.45pm April-September, closed December 25-26, from 2.30pm December 24). Admission £7-£9.80 (£7.20-£10 from April 1, family ticket £15.40-£25.20, £15.70-£25.70 from April 1).

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