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King George III was not the luckiest of English sovereigns. America, and then his sons, in that order, gave him no end of grief, and the last few years of his life were clouded by madness. It is thus often overlooked that, before these troubles arose to haunt this most conscientious monarch, he also had a thankless task in trying to control his siblings.
Prince George was twelve when his father Frederick, Prince of Wales, suddenly died, leaving a young (and pregnant) widow and eight children. From that age George tried to be a father as well as eldest brother to them, but with limited success. While he followed the path of duty and led a life which was virtually beyond reproach, most of the rest of his family were less inhibited in doing just what they wanted.
The brothers had too much time on their hands and no responsibilities – let alone responsibility. Edward, Duke of York, was a pleasure-loving, extravagant young man whose illness and death at the age of 28 were almost certainly the result of too much good living. The longer-lived William, Duke of Gloucester and Henry, Duke of Cumberland, both had a roving eye and made secret marriages below their station, thus driving the King and his ministers to bring about the Royal Marriage Act of 1772 (still in force to this day), designed to prevent any more unsuitable royal matches.
Yet the most scandalous one of all was Caroline Matilda, whose unhappy saga dominates much of the book. To be fair to her, she was treated very badly. Barely out of the schoolroom before she was married off in her teens to the schizophrenic if not insane King Christian VII of Denmark, she then found out that her husband cared little for her. His idea of a night out was walking the streets of Copenhagen incognito, patronizing brothels and visiting private houses where he smashed furniture, windows, glasses and bottles, and challenging passers-by to fight.
After she had given her husband a son and heir, she found her consolation in the arms of their physician Dr Struensee. Their affair resulted in the birth of another child, speedily followed by his arrest for adultery, imprisonment and public execution. (The grim detail of this episode, I warn you, demands of the reader an especially strong stomach). Her marriage was annulled, her children were taken from her and she was imprisoned. Fortunately for her, three years later she caught scarlet fever and died. I can hear some of you asking 'was she the Princess Diana of her time?'
By his late thirties, King George was therefore left with only three of his siblings still alive. He was on bad terms with his rebellious brothers, and this only left him with his sister Augusta, Duchess of Brunswick. As she lived in Germany, he saw little of her, and she later inadvertently caused even more trouble for the ill-starred family. It was her daughter Caroline who would become the hopelessly unsuitable Princess of Wales, the wife of the Prince Regent, later King George IV - though that is another story entirely and beyond the scope of this book.
Stella Tillyard tells the sad and complicated story well with a good deal of sympathy for this dysfunctional family. It says much for her writing that she is able to bring the characters to life so well. The whole cauldron of scandal and soap opera situation has been part of the royal family picture in succeeding ages, and it is interesting (if hardly surprising) to learn that such marital troubles and adulterous intrigues are nothing new.
(This is a modified version of the review I originally posted on Bookbag)