by Susan Flantzer
On November 6, 1817, a great tragedy struck the British Royal Family. Twenty-one year old Princess Charlotte, the only child of George, Prince of Wales, died after delivering a stillborn son. At the time of her death, Charlotte, who was second in line to the throne, was the only legitimate grandchild of King George III, despite the fact that thirteen of his fifteen children were still alive. Her death left no legitimate heir in the second generation and prompted the aging sons of King George III to begin a frantic search for brides to provide for the succession.
One of the sons was William, Duke of Clarence (the future King William IV). William had never married, but had lived for 20 years with actress Dorothea Jordan. Together they had ten illegitimate children, all of whom used the surname FitzClarence. William and Dorothea had separated in 1811 and Dorothea received a yearly allowance and the custody of their daughters, while William received the custody of their sons. There was a stipulation that Dorothea not return to acting to retain the allowance and the custody of her daughters. However, she did return to acting to help a son-in-law with a debt. William then got custody of their remaining daughters and Dorothea lost her allowance. She moved to France to escape creditors and died in poverty in 1816. Soon after the death of Princess Charlotte of Wales, negotiations began for the marriage of William to Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen and the engagement was announced on April 19, 1818. William was 52 and Adelaide was 25.
Adelaide Louisa Theresa Caroline Amelia (in German Adelheid Luise Therese Karoline Amalie) was born in the Elisabethenburg Palace in Meiningen (now in Germany) on August 13, 1792. She was the elder daughter and first child of George I, reigning Duke of Saxe-Meiningen and Princess Louise Eleanore of Hohenlohe-Langenburg. Adelaide’s father died when she was 11 years old and she, along with her younger siblings Ida and Bernhard, who became the reigning duke, were carefully raised by their mother and received an excellent education.
- Ida (1794 – 1852), married Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, had eight children
- Bernhard II, Duke of Saxe-Meiningen (1800 – 1882), married Marie Frederica of Hesse-Kassel, had two children
Adelaide and her mother traveled to England for her wedding and arrived in London on July 4, 1818. They stayed at Grillon’s Hotel where they were visited an hour after their arrival by the Prince Regent (the future King George IV) and William, who met his bride for the first time. William and Adelaide were married on July 14, 1818, at Kew Palace in the presence of an ailing Queen Charlotte who died in November of the same year. It was a double wedding as William’s brother Edward, Duke of Kent and Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, who had married in May at Coburg, were remarried by the Anglican rite at the same time. Despite the age difference, William and Adelaide’s marriage was a happy one. Adelaide was a good influence on William keeping his eating, drinking, and behavior in line. She was also a kind stepmother to the six children of William and Dorothea Jordan who were still at home.
Adelaide loved children, but was destined not to have one of her own. Her first child was born prematurely on March 27, 1819, as a result of Adelaide being ill with pleurisy. The baby girl was baptized Charlotte Augusta Louisa and died the same day. Adelaide suffered a miscarriage on September 5, 1819. On December 19, 1820, Adelaide gave birth to a girl, Elizabeth Georgiana Adelaide, six weeks prematurely. Princess Elizabeth, who had been healthy despite being premature, died 12 weeks later on March 4, 1821, of the then inoperable condition of a strangulated hernia. Twin boys were stillborn on April 23, 1822. A child of William and Adelaide would have succeeded to the throne as William’s two elder brothers (George IV and Frederick, Duke of York) had no surviving children. Adelaide wrote to her widowed sister-in-law the Duchess of Kent, “My children are dead, but your child lives, and she is mine too.” That child was Queen Victoria. Adelaide had close and loving relationships with her stepchildren and step-grandchildren, with her brother and sister’s children, and with William’s nieces and nephews, the future Queen Victoria and the Cambridge children. Queen Victoria used the name Adelaide in honor of her aunt when she gave birth to her first child Victoria Adelaide Mary Louise and Adelaide was one of the godparents.
William succeeded to the throne when his brother King George IV died on June 26, 1830, and both William and Adelaide were crowned on September 8, 1831. During William’s reign, Adelaide was admired by the British people and helped her husband with the proper etiquette and often covered many of his gaffes. Both William and Adelaide were very fond of their niece Princess Victoria of Kent who was the heiress presumptive and wanted to be closer to her. However, the Duchess of Kent did not allow this. In addition, she was rude to Queen Adelaide by refusing to recognize the Queen’s precedence, ignoring her letters, and taking space in royal stables and apartments for her own use. At a dinner, in front of Queen Adelaide, the Duchess of Kent, Princess Victoria of Kent and many guests, King William announced that the Duchess of Kent did not know how to behave and he was insulted by her behavior. He further said that he hoped he did not die until Victoria was 18 so that the Duchess would not serve as Regent. The King, Queen, and Duchess never fully reconciled, but Victoria always viewed the King and Queen with kindness.
King William IV died of heart failure on June 20, 1837, at Windsor Castle and Victoria had turned 18 on May 24. Adelaide had stayed at her husband’s side for three weeks, not sleeping in her bed for the last 10 days. Adelaide was the first Queen Dowager in more than a century, the last one being Catherine of Braganza, King Charles II’s widow. She survived William by 12 years, dying on December 2, 1849, at the age of 57. She was buried after a simple funeral in accordance with her wishes in the Royal Tomb House beneath St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle where her husband had been buried.