Princess Elizabeth of the United Kingdom was born on 22 May 1770 – exactly 250 years ago today – as the third daughter and seventh child of King George III and Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Her elder siblings were the future King George IV, Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany, the future King William IV, Charlotte, Princess Royal, Prince Edward, Duke of Kent and Strathearn – the father of Queen Victoria, and Princess Augusta. Her younger siblings were Ernest Augustus, later King of Hanover, Prince Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex, Prince Adolphus, Duke of Cambridge, Princess Mary, Duchess of Gloucester and Edinburgh, Princess Sophia, Prince Octavius (died in childhood), Prince Alfred (died in childhood) and Princess Amelia.
Elizabeth was born at Buckingham Palace, then known as Buckingham House. She was christened in the Great Council Chamber at St. James’s Palace on 17 June 1770. One of her godmothers was Carolina of Orange-Nassau, her paternal first cousin-once-removed. Elizabeth and her two elder sisters were put under the care of a governess and a sub-governess. All three Princesses were praised for their retentive memory. She was described at the age of four with the words, “Princess Elizabeth is a lovely little fat sensible thing and so tidy that she never leaves her needles, or a scrap of work without putting them all in a tiny bag, for the purpose.”1
In the spring of 1780, Elizabeth suffered from disfiguring boils and she and some of her siblings were taken to the seaside for their health. She spent her time reading the psalms and doing various lessons. She was also recognised for her talent for drawing. She would eventually publish several books with her own engravings. In 1785, all six Princesses came down with whooping cough, but they were generally in good health. Elizabeth once became extremely ill and was diagnosed with an inflammation on her lungs with severe spasms. Her parents feared for her life, and she was bled twice in 48 hours. It was thought that she only had days to live until she suddenly recovered. She spent much of 1786 recovering at Kew and would not be entirely well for another two years. She would later call it her “great illness.”2 She spent a lot of time reading and drawing and began learning to play the harpsichord. In November 1786 she wrote to her brother Augustus, “Having been some length of time separated from all the family, as well as masters, I now must make up for the time I have been without them.”3
By then, her father had begun to suffer from recurrent bouts of ill-health, which have still have no settled diagnosis. At the end of 1788, he had a hysteric fit and said to Elizabeth, “You know what it is to be nervous but was you ever so bad as this?” She answered, “Yes” and he seemed to calm down a bit.4 He soon experienced delirium and “an entire alienation of mind.”5 Elizabeth’s mother suffered under the situation and seemed unable to handle it all. Rumours soon spread that the King’s illness was hereditary, and this could possibly affect the Princesses’ marital prospects. When he subsequently (temporarily) recovered, the Princesses were over the moon and launched themselves into the celebrations. In 1789, the three elder sisters accompanied their father and mother for a “few dips in the sea.” 6
As Elizabeth and her sisters grew older, their father’s unwillingness to part with them became apparent. He said, “I cannot deny that I have never wished to see any of them marry: I am happy in their company, and do not in the least want a separation.”7 Queen Charlotte was more open in her approach, saying “For every one of them have at different times assured me that, happy as they are, they should like to settle if they could, and I feel I cannot blame them.”8 In an attempt to keep the King’s illness at bay, the subject of marriage became rather taboo in their household, and the Princesses became even more sheltered. Meanwhile, their brothers were making their way in the world.
In 1791, Elizabeth’s elder brother the Duke of York married Princess Frederica of Prussia, and in 1795, the Prince of Wales made an unhappy marriage to Caroline of Brunswick. In 1793, the Duke of Sussex married in contravention of the Royal Marriages Act 1772, Lady Augusta Murray. The Princess of Wales gave birth to a daughter named Charlotte in early 1796, but due to the unhappy state of the marriage, she would be the couple’s only child and her parents soon separated. Elizabeth was on her brother’s side and wrote, “You should never yield to the Princess, and she must submit which every woman ought.”9 For one of the Princesses, there was finally a light at the end of the tunnel. Marriage negotiations were taking place for the Princess Royal (Charlotte) to marry Frederick, Hereditary Prince of Württemberg. Elizabeth wrote, “My sister is very well pleased with him, and I really think he appears delighted with her. He has a very handsome countenance, is certainly very large – but very light with it and a most excellent manner. In short, we are all very pleased with him.”10 They were finally married on 18 May 1797.
As the King’s illness became harder to manage and after a particularly difficult episode where he was put in a straitjacket day and night, Elizabeth devoted her time to her mother. She wrote afterwards, “I have never quitted my mother’s room morning noon or night… I am told I am very much altered, look 20 years older. So adieu to looks of any kind, mes beaux jours sont passes. (my beautiful days have gone).”11
- Princesses: the six daughters of George III by Flora Fraser p.43
- Princesses: the six daughters of George III by Flora Fraser p.94-95
- Princesses: the six daughters of George III by Flora Fraser p.97
- Princesses: the six daughters of George III by Flora Fraser p.112
- Princesses: the six daughters of George III by Flora Fraser p.114
- Princesses: the six daughters of George III by Flora Fraser p.128
- Princesses: the six daughters of George III by Flora Fraser p.210
- Princesses: the six daughters of George III by Flora Fraser p.209
- Princesses: the six daughters of George III by Flora Fraser p.161
- Princesses: the six daughters of George III by Flora Fraser p.163
- Princesses: the six daughters of George III by Flora Fraser p.204