Andrea/Cara here. I recently saw a fascinating museum exhibit entitled “Enlightened Princesses: Caroline, Augusta, Charlotte and the Shaping of the Modern World.” These three German princesses—Caroline of Ansbach, Augusta of Saxe-Gotha and Charlotte of Mecklenberg-Strelitz—all married into the British royal family and each had a profound influence on their adopted country. Needless to say, I came away enlightened!
According to Amy Meyers, Director of the Yale Center for British Art and the organizing curator, “The princesses had sweeping intellectual, social, cultural, and political interests, which helped to shape the courts in which they lived, and encouraged the era’s greatest philosophers, scientists, artists, and architects to develop important ideas that would guide ensuing generations. The palaces and royal gardens they inhabited served as incubators for enlightened conversation and experimentation, and functioned as platforms to project the latest cultural developments to an international audience.”
Of the three, I was most familiar with Caroline of Ansbach. Orphaned at age eleven, she went live with Friederich III, Elector of Brandenberg, and the first King of Prussia. A highly intelligent and attractive woman, she thrived in Freiderich’s open-minded court, where she became friends with Gottfried Leibnitz, one of the leading intellectual giants of the 18th century. She then married George Augustus of Hanover, and when his father acceded to the British throne as George I on the death of Queen Anne, the young couple followed him to London as the Prince and Princess of Wales.
Caroline was very involved in politics—she and her husband were often at loggerheads with George I, and for a time they were under house arrest and forbidden to see their children, Later, she served as Regent several times during her husband’s reign George II, when he made prolonged visits to Germany. But it was as a leader in shaping the culture of her court and the country for which she has earned high accolades from historians. Lucy Wortley called her “the cleverest queen consort ever to sit on the throne of England.”
It was Caroline who compiled an extensive library at St. James’s Palace, and she surrounded herself with artists, musicians, intellectuals and men of science, encouraging a lively exchange of ideas and creativity with her patronage. A musician in her own right, she was very interested in the discipline, and George Frideric Handel was a great favorite. He composed a number of works for the royal family—one of his coronation anthems, created for the coronation of George II, has been played at every British coronation since.
Science was also of interest. Caroline had a large orrery, a mechanical device for tracking the position of the planets, at Kensington Palace. And in the field of medicine, she was instrumental in popularizing the vaccination process for smallpox in England, having contracted the disease herself as a young woman.
Augusta of Saxe-Gotha married Caroline’s eldest son, Frederick. She never became queen, as her husband died at a young age. But as the Princess of Wales, and mother of the future George III, she too had a profound influence of the social and cultural life of England. Her greatest interest was in botany, and as the dowager Princess of Wales, she greatly expanded Kew Gardens, using specimens brought back from the far-flung British colonies. She worked with the noted architect, Sir William Chambers to design several grand building for the gardens. The Chinese pagoda, built in 1761, still stand there today.
Like her mother-in-law Caroline and daughter-in-law Charlotte (the personal relationships with both of them with strained) Augusta was very interested in current theories on raising children, and was very active overseeing the education of future king. Other areas of social welfare drew her patronage, most notably the Foundling Hospital, which cared for London’s orphaned and abandoned children.
Charlotte of Mecklenberg-Strelitz was also a serious amateur botanist, and continued the work of expanding Kew Gardens. (The South African Bird of Paradise flower was named Strelitzia reginae in her honor.) She and King George III were also ardent lovers of music. Johann Christian Bach, the son of the legendary J. S. Bach, was her music master, and the young Wolfgang Mozart performed for the royal couple during his tour of the Britain.
Charlotte was also a generous patron to craftsmen, silversmiths, and artists. In addition she founded hospitals and orphanages. She also believed in the education of women, and saw to that her daughters received a rigorous program of instruction.
The exhibit was designed to highlight the fact that though history often overlooks their contributions to shaping the intellectual, artistic and political climate of their times, the princesses were in fact very influential, and helped nurture the ideals of the Enlightenment.
So, do you have a favorite princess in history? I have to say, I think the current Princess Kate of Great Britain is a wonderful credit to the monarchy, and to the spirit of these past princesses.