Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Children of George III: Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex

The sixth son (and ninth child) of King George and Queen Charlotte made his way into the world on February 16, 1773, at Buckingham House in London. Although very much a “middle” child in terms of birth order, Augustus would wind up very different from his eight brothers...but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

He was lumped in with his brothers Ernest and Adolphus, in the way that the children of this large family seemed to be grouped into subsets by their parents—there were only three years between the youngest and eldest of the trio. After leaving the nursery, the three were given their own house at Kew Green, near to their other siblings’ establishments. Augustus seems to have been an intelligent, bookish child, a tendency that was reinforced by the fact that he was subject to severe asthmatic attacks and could not lead as boisterous a life as his brothers.

In July of 1786 at age thirteen, Augustus was bundled off to the University of Gottingen with Ernest and Adolphus to perfect his German and to prepare for military service like their older brothers. But for Augustus, this was not to be; though he harbored romantic dreams of joining the navy, his health would not permit it...and thus he became the only one of George III’s sons not to have a military career.

Indeed, his asthma was sufficiently bad that it was decided that he should spend winters in a warmer climate, and so for the next several years he was shipped off to Italy to avoid winter cold. He enjoyed his Italian travels, soaking up art and architecture as well as sunshine. He had hopes of perhaps returning home and becoming an academic...but what happened instead was that he fell in love, at age twenty, with Lady Augusta Murray, daughter of the Earl of Dunmore, who was traveling in Rome in the spring of 1793 with her mother and sister. Lady Augusta was some years his senior and, it seems, perhaps a tad on the predatory side...for by April, she’d gotten him to propose, and they were secretly married.

What Lady Augusta seems to have forgotten is that any marriage contracted by a child of the sovereign without his permission was immediately void. The couple returned to England and remarried there—by which time Lady A. was pregnant—but the result was the same. Eventually Augustus was sent back to Italy, his tail between his legs, while Lady Augusta was hauled before the Privy Council  where the marriage was declared invalid and the first of the king’s 50-odd illegitimate grandchildren was formally declared a bastard.

Augustus mostly continued to live abroad for the next few years, which included a brief reunion with Lady Augusta which produced a daughter (though some dispute that the child was the prince’s) until the continental situation and a certain French general named Napoleon made that impossible; thereafter, he moved into Kensington Palace and began to accumulate an enormous library. He was made a royal duke in 1801, and seems to have spend much of his time with his books and with patronage of various societies, from Masons to orphans’ hospitals to the Society of Arts, of which he became president. In 1806 he received custody of his children, and was a gentle, loving papa to them.

These years were quiet ones for him, for if he was unlike his brothers in not having a military career, he was also unlike them in being an avowed liberal Whig and spoke in Parliament in favor of many Whig causes, including Catholic Emancipation. He did not get on well with his eldest brother, the Prince of Wales (due in great part to his siding with Princess Charlotte in her marriage travails and with his estranged wife, Princess Caroline) and so kept to himself and his books until George IV’s death. Though his asthma eased, he remained something of a hypochondriac all his life, and insisted on wearing a black skullcap at all times to protect his head from drafts. With William’s ascension, he had more of a public life: William made him Keeper of St. James and Hyde Parks, and he was named president of the Royal Society in 1830 and was an active participant in its meetings.

In 1830, Lady Augusta Murray died, and a year later, Augustus was married again—once more without formal permission—to another earl’s daughter, the widowed Lady Cecelia Buggin, whom Queen Victoria later created Duchess of Inverness in gratitude to her uncle’s giving precedence to Prince Albert (and by the way, Augustus gave the bride away at Victoria's wedding.) Augustus and his second wife had a happy marriage for the next thirteen years, until Augustus was felled by an attack of erysipelas, a bacterial skin infection, in 1843.

On the whole, he sounds like the best of George and Charlotte’s sons (with the possible exception of his younger brother Adolphus). Unlike his brothers he was not a spendthrift (aside from his collector’s passion for books—his library exceeded 50,000 volumes!) and seems to have been a genuinely good—if at times eccentric—person.

1 comment:

QNPoohBear said...

He does sound like the best of the lot. I don't blame Lady Augusta for being an opportunist. The stigma of her father's failure as governor of the colony of Virginia must have followed the family forever. I saw both her parents on a visit to Colonial Williamsburg once. If I make it there again, I'll see if Lady Dunmore will talk about her small daughter.