As a daughter of King George III and Queen Charlotte, Princess Sophia should've had the world at her feet. Instead, she lived in a near-lifelong lockdown thanks to a family riddled with illness, fear, and scandal. Let’s unlock these desperate facts about Princess Sophia, the good girl who couldn’t shake her bad reputation.
Princess Sophia, born November 3, 1777, was the fifth daughter of King George III and Queen Charlotte—and the 12th child out of a whopping 15. The King was especially thrilled to have another girl in the family, as he’d always preferred his daughters to his sons.
Sophia was equally devoted to her doting papa, but that didn’t mean she was a perfect angel.
Queen Charlotte ran a pretty tight ship, but with such a big family, she couldn't control everyone, especially Sophia and her younger sisters. How wild were they? They caused a public embarrassment. In 1785, while famous artist John Singleton Copley was trying to paint their portrait, he couldn’t get them to hold still.
The girls' bouncing off the walls so frazzled him, in fact, that he never accepted another portrait request again. But Sophia did have her good sides.
Many considered Sophia to be the cleverest of her sisters. She was a “delightful though moody girl” with a passionate nature and sympathy for the less fortunate. Once, when her father read her a news article about poor conditions for starving prisoners, Sophia even donated her allowance to buy them bread.
It’s hard to imagine such a sensitive child dealing with the nightmare that was about to unfold.
In 1788, Sophia witnessed a nightmare. Her father suffered the first of several mental breakdowns that changed her family forever. After likely suffering an attack of the blood disease porphyria or bipolar disorder, the King began rambling for hours on end, sometimes foaming at the mouth in the process.
The distraught Queen grew terrified of her husband and kept daughters close. Like, really close.
Queen Charlotte wouldn’t abandon her manic husband, but she took not wanting to be alone with him to the extreme. She moved Sophia and her sisters into her bedroom, where she insisted they sleep with her every night. Sure, she wanted to keep an eye on them, but it also meant King George couldn't visit her alone as easily.
Meanwhile, the rest of Sophia's family was falling apart in an entirely different way.
Soon, Sophia's mother and eldest brother, George IV, then the Prince of Wales, began fighting over who’d get to be Regent should the government declare the King unfit to rule. Charlotte even accused her son of conspiring with doctors to deem the King permanently insane, and frequently denied him access to his father in retaliation.
But Sophia didn't escape her mother's wrath either.
Even after the King got better the next year, the Queen sank into such a depression that, according to historian AW Purdue, she was no longer “benignly maternal”. She was so suspicious and quick to anger that Sophia began to fear her, and learned to tiptoe around her dark moods.
If Sophia hoped that one day a suitable marriage would be her ticket out of this situation, she had no such luck.
Once upon a time, before the meltdown of 1788, King George promised to take his daughters husband-hunting, even though he later admitted “I have never wished to see any of them marry". Well, after his recovery, all talk of royal weddings stalled, and poor Sophia had little excitement for the future.
That's when it all began to get too close for comfort.
Around this time, as young as Sophia was, she began to notice alarming behavior in her father. He had always doted on her, but now he demanded her attention and affection at all times. Meanwhile, their mother wasn't much better, still keeping her girls close at all times.
George’s girls started getting anxious about their futures. They were right to worry.
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In 1792, at the age of 14, Sophia made her debut at court, but eligible crushes would’ve been hard to spot thanks to her biggest insecurity: She hated how she looked in her glasses. She was super near-sighted, but refused to wear spectacles in public because she was afraid the papers would mention them.
It definitely wouldn’t have been the worst thing printed about Sophia in her lifetime, and soon bad vision was the least of her health problems.
In the summer of 1793, Sophia began to have trouble swallowing. Scarier still, she’d have anywhere between 50 and 80 convulsions and fainting spells a day. The family sent her to take the waters at Tunbridge Wells to recuperate, and after some months, she seemed to have made a full recovery. Yet there was always a dark feeling lurking.
Many worried this meant she had inherited her father’s illness, and that soon she too would be insane. The truth was actually sadder.
Sophia never did develop mental health issues, but that doesn't mean her childhood got much better. With her father seeming to always teeter on insanity, her mother kept Sophia and her other young daughters on the tightest leash imaginable.
The girls were almost never allowed out of the palace, and met precious few new people. Sophia once said her days were so “deadly dull...I wished myself a kangaroo”. But she did find ways to amuse herself.
Sophia and her sisters lived within strict confines, it's true. But that's not the whole story. While the world—and their mother—thought they were blank slates, they found ways to get ahold of newspapers and Court gossip around the palace.
Although they were determined to remain knowledgable in this department, when it came to love they were in serious trouble.
Royal decree meant that none of the King's daughters could marry without his consent, which he definitely wasn't up to giving. As a result of this and her isolation, Sophia mostly only had court pages or equerries to flirt with. But that hasn't stopped people from having other ideas about her young romantic life.
In the popular Netflix series Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story, the Queen blames her daughters for failing to find husbands and produce legitimate heirs...when in reality, that’s all they wanted to do. Queen Charlotte barred so many suitors from their company that the girls referred to their home as “the nunnery”.
Still, a change was coming.
In 1797, Sophia got a peek at what the outside world might look like when her big sister Charlotte married Frederick, Hereditary Prince of Wurttemberg. He was overweight, had an illegitimate child, and his earlier wife had died under strange circumstances...but hey, beggars can’t be choosers.
Unfortunately, Charlotte’s marriage did nothing to open the door for Sophia and her other sisters; it only left them more starved for their own male attention. For Sophia, that meant breaking out desperate measures.
Sophia and her brother, the future George IV, stayed close throughout her life. But she might have had an ulterior motive for this. As he was one of the only people able to defy their mother, Sophia and her sisters constantly begged George to bust them out of their convent lifestyle and help them find husbands.
For now, though, there was little George could do, though he promised he'd try when he came into power. Frustrated, Sophia went right into disaster.
George IV's Caroline of Brunswick to Caroline of Brunswick was a very unhappy one for both parties, but at least Sophia got something out of it. Even after the union all but crashed and burned, Sophia stayed friends with Caroline and hung around her circles. As it happened, this would change her life. Uh, not in a good way.
Sophia was friends with one of Caroline's lady friends, Frances Garth. It proved to be a scandalous connection. By 1798, the young princess was crushing hard on Frances' uncle, Thomas Garth, who happened to also be her father's equerry. Soon, Sophia and Garth were a secret item, with Frances acting as their go-between.
It was a tangled web, and it gets more twisted.
In truth, Garth wasn’t exactly a catch. Not only was he 33 years Sophia's senior, he was also a “hideous old devil” with such a large, wine-colored birthmark on his face that one of her sisters called him “the purple light of love”. Love-starved Sophia, however, looked right past all that.
As one maid put it, she “was so violently in love with him that everyone saw it.” Well, not everyone...
Sophia was desperate for love and naive to the ways of the world, so she concocted a ruinous plan. She faked cramps and got herself moved from where she usually stayed into Windsor Castle, where her parents lived. Then, the very next time the parental units took a trip, she snuck Garth into her room.
One thing led to another—possibly a few times—and suddenly, Sophia had something else to hide.
Most, but not all, historians agree that Sophia became pregnant with Garth’s child. When the realization hit, the aftermath was astronomical. Her mother Queen Charlotte likely caught on and, after a probable bout of fury, knew she had one job and one job only: To keep the truth from the frail King George III at all costs.
Her idea was farcical, and it worked.
For the next months, Sophia's "condition" was an open secret to many in the palace, except the reigning monarch that is. They told the King Sophia had a bad case of dropsy, which explained any bloating, and sent her far away to Weymouth to recover. But what happened in Weymouth didn't stay in Weymouth.
According to some evidence, Sophia gave birth to Thomas “Tommy” Garth in August of 1800, and his biological father ended up raising him away from the prying eyes of the royal court. If this all sounds too scandalous to be true, I get it. But the other possibility isn't just scandalous, it's chilling.
One of the other speculations about this time in Sophia's life is not just that she had a secret love child, but that the love child actually belonged to her brother, Ernest the Duke of Cumberland. Even worse, the shoe fits here. Ernest had an infamously vulgar and aggressive appetite for women, and as a soldier even once wanted to raid a convent. But that's far from all.
Everyone in the palace knew about Ernest's rough ways, but Sophia herself made the darkest confession of all. In her letters to her lover Thomas Garth, she complained about her brother's "attempts" with her. Yeah, honestly, Garth is looking like a better and better option right now. Yet still, she was keeping secrets.
Historian Allison Weir suggests that Sophia and Garth might have made a secret trip to the altar, and points to a portrait of Sophia wearing a wedding ring as proof. Garth did give Sophia a ring, and in one of her love letters, she teased that it pinched her finger.
Unfortunately, Garth’s insufficient rank meant a real royal union could never take place. This all took a strain on their relationship, and led to a bitter end.
By 1805, the cracks in Sophia's secret love affair were starting to show. Her lover reacted scandalously. Perhaps afraid he was losing Sophia, Garth took to parading young Tommy around whenever the royal family was in town in Weymouth. When that wasn't enough, he called Sophia selfish and criticized her for not seeing her son, not that her family was going to let that happen.
With these antics, their relationship fell to pieces. Sophia was left trying to clean them up.
In trying to have a life of her own, Sophia felt she’d ruined hers forever. She lamented that her romance with Garth had destroyed her reputation, saying, “it is grievous to think what a little trifle will slur a young woman’s reputation forever”. Unfortunately for her, it was going to get a lot worse.
Right around this time, Sophia's father King George suffered further lapses into mania. The reality was brutal. He would often not recognize his own children, howl like a monkey, and generally walk around making inappropriate remarks, sending Sophia into throes of filial worry. Yet it got so much darker than that.
With the King once more very mentally ill, Queen Charlotte again barred him from her bedchamber. This was an act that reportedly enraged Sophia, who apparently found it cruel. Still, there may have been a much more disturbing reason for her reaction. Prepare to be shocked.
During these fits of madness, King George made wildly inappropriate advances toward Sophia, which she seemed to partly blame on her mother's coldness toward him in the bedroom. He was frequently overcome with "passionate lunges" and the poor girl could only describe his behavior delicately as “an over-kindness which greatly alarms me”.
Sophia was desperate to get out of that madhouse, but she blew her best shot.
In 1805, Sophia was secretly in love with a man whose identity is still a mystery, but it was serious enough that the suitor was on the brink of proposing marriage. Then Sophia made a heartbreaking decision. Her suitor didn’t know the sordid details of her love child, and Sophia both didn't feel like she could lie her way to the altar or tell him the truth.
Eventually, she stopped encouraging him and he went away. If she thought this was rock bottom, however, she was very wrong.
King George's girls were now full-blown adults, but very few of them led adult lives. This was especially true of Sophia's youngest sister Amelia, who was their father's absolute favorite...until tragedy struck. Like Sophia, Amelia had always been sickly—and in 1810, when she was just 27 years old, she died after a prolonged illness.
Then came the horrible aftershock.
Amelia's passing was the straw that broke King George's mind absolutely. Amelia's nurse described how, in the wake of her death, George exhibited "scenes of distress and crying every day, and was consumed with a "melancholy beyond description".
Sophia watched from the sidelines as her father slipped beyond her reach. But this did come with a strange upside.
In 1811, with King George III incapable of ruling, Sophia's brother George IV officially became Prince Regent. One of the first things he did with his new power was increase his sisters’ annual allowances so that Sophia and her siblings could have just a little independence.
Yet as with everything that came into Sophia's life, this was all a double-edged sword.
During this time, Sophia's mother Queen Charlotte grew apoplectic with rage that her royal son was undoing decades of her work keeping her daughters away from the world. She fought furiously with him, as well as with her daughters, to keep them from breaking free. Well, it didn't work...mostly.
Sophia's brother made good on his promises to free his sisters as best he could when he had the power to, and for some of them, it worked. One of her older sisters, Mary, wed a Duke at the ripe age of 40 just to get out of the palace, while another, Augusta, secured the Regent's permission to privately marry a long-time lover.
But for Sophia? Things didn't go so well. Even as the youngest of her sisters now that Amelia was gone, she remained without a husband. But she did have scandal.
As Sophia neared her mid-30s, she developed a new and scandalous crush. The royal doctor, Henry Halford, was so attentive and solicitous to her that the princess—still as starved for affection as ever—couldn't help but fall in love with the married man. It was surely a lonely existence, and it was about to get lonelier.
Sophia had always been close with her brother George's wife Caroline of Brunswick, and she was equally close with their daughter, her niece Charlotte. So in 1817, when Caroline of Brunswick perished in childbirth, the blow must have been crippling. Tragically though, this was just the harbinger of more loss.
Just a year later in 1818, Sophia lost the driving force of her life: her mother Queen Charlotte. The Queen had controlled and cajoled Sophia and her sisters since birth, but existence without her must have been rudderless, too. And still fate wasn't done with her. It had saved the worst for last.
Sophia's father King George III had been blind, insane, and cooped up inside Windsor Castle for nearly a decade, yet he had survived so many of his family members. In 1820, though, the monarch's bill finally came due. He passed that January after spending Christmas babbling for 58 hours straight.
Her brother was now officially King George IV, but Sophia somehow caused more trouble now than she ever had.
Sophia settled until her royal old maid role with alarming comfort. Her brother George IV was king for a decade, until 1830, and made sure she lived in comfort. When he died, her other brother William took over, and the family continued to dote on their baby sister. Only, this spoiled existence had an unsettling effect.
Around the time of William's reign, Sophia lived beside her niece, the future Queen Victoria, and the girl's mother, the Duchess of Kent. This was a fateful move. The Duchess was under the sway of her comptroller, a cunning and exacting man named Sir John Conroy, and Sophia soon fell under his sway. She should have thought twice.
Conroy was influential, to be sure, but little Victoria also detested him. After all, he and her mother had devised an incredibly strict upbringing for the young girl, and Conroy could be as sleazy and sycophantic as they come. Surprise, Surprise: Sophia had bad tase in men.
Then again, she may have had a very good reason to team up with Conroy.
In 1828, Sophia's past came back to haunt her in the worst way possible. Her alleged lovechild, Tommy Garth, came out of the woodwork with reportedly incriminating documents of his parents' relationship. More than that, he threatened to expose Sophia's youthful indiscretions unless the royal family paid him a massive sum of money.
All looked lost...until help came from a surprising quarter.
According to some, it was none other than John Conroy who swooped in to shut down Tommy's machinations—and either way, the young man eventually gave up his blackmail scheme. Whatever the case, Conroy so impressed Sophia, she soon even let him control her finances. This was a terrible idea.
Thanks to Sophia, Conroy lived a lavish lifestyle, squandering her money mostly on himself. But that wasn't even the worst part. People described how by this time, the princess had become "dizzy, easily muddled" and was a "confused, nearly blind aunt". Yes, Conroy was majorly taking advantage of her.
And then he made a big request.
Because Conroy knew the powerful Princess Victoria hated him, he got Sophia to spy on the girl whenever he was out of town and report back to him. Victoria was not pleased with this when she learned of it, and kept Sophia at arm's length forever after.
Princess Sophia's twilight years turned her into a royal snitch, and she went out with a similar bang.
On the morning of May 27, 1848, Sophia became gravely ill, and the 70-year-old princess was dead by 6:30 in the evening. Yet she had impeccable timing. Her niece Victoria's birthday had just passed, and the recently crowned Queen had been presiding over a birthday reception when Sophia's end came.
For a woman who had spent her life in the shadow of others, it's nice that Sophia got to steal someone's thunder just once.
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