Almost 200 years ago there was a very different royal wedding. It was not held in the grand and historically significant Westminster Abbey, like the 2011 marriage of Prince William and Catherine Middleton, but in the relatively small summer palace in the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. Kew Palace, originally ‘the White House’, was the home of Frederick, the Prince of Wales and his wife Augusta, parents of King George III. However, that was demolished at the turn of the nineteenth century and the palace proper became ‘the Dutch House’, a seventeenth century mansion that stood opposite. It was previously used as a school house for royal children. It was also where George III was housed during bouts of his illness prior to his final decline in 1810.
The old king was blind and presumed mad and therefore a Regency had been declared. The Prince Regent, later George IV, reigned over the country – and he was immensely unpopular. He was louche, dissolute, profligate and self-important and had been so all his adult life. His brothers generally followed his poor example, set up with mistresses and gambled and drank to their hearts’ content. The Regent’s daughter, Princess Charlotte, died in childbirth in 1817. This meant that the country would be left without an heir once the Regent’s middle-aged brothers died. It was suddenly imperative that they marry and produce legitimate heirs for the Hanover dynasty’s survival.
Suitable brides of child-bearing age were found from German duchies who were both Protestant and willing to marry the middle-aged dukes. The Duke of Clarence was to marry Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen and his brother, the Duke of Kent, Princess Victoire of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld. Victoire was the sister of Princess Charlotte’s widowed husband.
It was originally reported that the marriage of the Duke of Clarence was to take place at Carlton House, the Prince Regent’s residence, however the venue was later changed to Kew Palace. This was most likely due to Queen Charlotte’s ill-health. Indeed, the original day of the wedding was reported to be Thursday 9 July, but it was then postponed for two days in the hope of the Queen’s recovery.
It would appear that a last minute change of plan was needed for the Duke of Kent to re-marry his bride. This was because they had previously married in a Lutheran ceremony in Germany a few weeks earlier and Edward, Duke of Kent was now conscious of the importance of having a legitimate heir to the throne. Hence the re-marriage to affirm the legality of the union.
A temporary alter was erected in the first-floor drawing room large enough to accommodate the two couples. It was adorned in crimson velvet with matching cushions for the comfort of the brides and grooms when kneeling during the ceremony. And so, at 4 o’clock on the afternoon of 11 July 1818, guests gathered to witness the only double marriage in royal history.
Attendees included the Queen, who was supported by the Prince Regent, the Duke and Duchess of York, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, the Duchess of Gloucester, the Princess Augusta, the Princess Sophia of Gloucester, the Landgrave of Hesse-Cassel, the Duchess of Meiningen (Adelaide’s mother), the Lord Chancellor, the Earl of Liverpool, Lord Sidmouth and Count and Countess of Munster. The Prince Regent gave both brides away, the Archbishop of Canterbury lead the service and was assisted by the Bishop of London. With the ceremony complete, at five o’clock, the family, excusing the Queen, who had retired to her rooms, sat down for a sumptuous meal. Newspapers reported that they feasted upon turtle and other soups, fish and venison and an excellent dessert which included a great many fruits.
Once replete, about seven-thirty, the Duke and Duchess of Kent left Kew for Claremont in Prince Leopold’s travelling chariot, drawn by four beautiful grey horses. The rest of the royal party headed for Queen Charlotte’s Cottage, near the Pagoda in Kew Gardens, for tea. Afterwards, the Duke and Duchess of Clarence set out for his apartments in St James’ Palace.
Then, as now, the bridal gowns elicited great interest and the press reported full descriptions of the elaborate garments.
Duchess of Clarence’s Wedding Dress
‘A very rich and elegant silver tissue, with two broad flounces of beautiful Brussels point lace, each flounce headed with rich silver shell trimming. Body and sleeves superbly trimmed with Brussels point lace and silver tassels. The robe of rich silver tissue, lined with white satin, trimmed with Brussels lace and bordered with silver trimming to correspond, fastened at the waist with a brilliant diamond clasp. Head-dress a superb wreath of diamonds.’
Duchess of Kent’s Wedding Dress
‘A very rich and elegant gold tissue, with two superb borders of scolloped lama flouncing, each border headed with a rich gold trimming. The body and sleeves to correspond, richly trimmed with beautiful Brussels point lace, and tastefully ornamented with gold tassels. The robe of rich gold tissue, lined with white satin, and trimmed round with rich scalloped lama trimming to match the dress and fastened at the waist with a very brilliant clasp. Head-dress a wreath of diamonds.’
The festivities continued on Wednesday 15 July 1818, when the Prince Regent hosted a grand dinner to celebrate his brothers’ marriages. The press called it The Prince Regent’s Grand Entertainment.
Both marriages occurred due to the lack of heirs and the need to produce more. Sadly, the Duke and Duchess of Clarence’s attempts to produce heirs ended in failure. They succeeded in having two live births, but tragically both babies died as infants. The first a few hours old, the second a few months old. The Duke of Clarence succeeded his brother the Prince Regent to the British throne as William IV.
The Duke and Duchess of Kent produced one legitimate heir. Whilst living in Germany, the Duke became convinced of the need for this child to be born British and proceeded to escort his heavily pregnant wife back to London. Princess Alexandrina Victoria was born at Kensington Palace on 24 May 1819. The Duke died eight months later. Princess Victoria succeeded her uncle William to the British throne on 20 June 1837.
The Windsor and Eton Express, The Royal Marriages, Sunday 12 July
Morning Post Thursday 9 July
Volunteer Handbook Kew Palace 2013
Volunteer Handbook Kew Palace 2014
Images: when not author’s own, Wikimedia Commons