As the mother of “Mad King George,” Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha got a raw deal in life—but that doesn’t excuse her unspeakably cruel behavior.
In another life, Princess Augusta might have been Queen of England. Instead, she got one brutal plot twist. She went through a horrific marriage, only to watch as her husband’s sudden end destroyed all her dreams of a crown. Then she watched her son become King…and descend into madness.
Yet after enduring these nightmares, Augusta turned into a nightmare herself. As any fan of the Bridgerton prequel Queen Charlotte might be able to tell you: This is the story of one of the most infuriating mothers-in-law in history.
No one is born an overbearing mother-in-law, and Princess Augusta’s early years as a royal were much different than where she ended up. She started out life in 1719 in the small German principality of Gotha…but she wasn’t there long. When she was just 16, Augusta’s family married her off to Prince Frederick, the son of the ruling King George II of Great Britain and the Prince of Wales to boot.
If this were a storybook, it would be the beginning of happily ever after. It was really the start of a horror show.
At the time, the teenage Augusta likely thought she was marrying her Prince Charming. The reality was a nightmare. Frederick was over a decade older than her and very experienced in debauchery; he was infamous for his gambling, drinking, and womanizing. In fact, Frederick’s motives for the marriage were…extremely shady, to say the least.
As it turns out, gambling, drinking, and womanizing cost a lot of money, and when Frederick—deeply in debt by this time—said yes to Augusta, he did it only for her dowry. He was looking for a wife, any wife, and the German Princess was merely good enough.
But within her first few moments in England, it became clear Augusta wasn’t necessarily the perfect bride.
Augusta wasn’t just extremely young when she married Frederick, she was also extremely naïve. For one, she didn’t speak English or French, only German, when she arrived at a royal court that spoke all three languages. Considering her wedding took place almost immediately after she docked, she didn’t get much chance to improve, either, before diving into the deep end.
Somehow, this only got worse.
There’s almost no way that Augusta knew anything about the, ahem, “birds and the bees” when she arrived in England. In fact, embarrassingly enough, courtiers witnessed the girl still playing with dolls through her windows in her first year as the Princess of Wales, so much so that her new sister-in-law had to instruct her to stop.
Frederick, however, saw this inexperience as an opportunity for himself.
Faced with his child bride’s naivety, the Prince of Wales came up with a cruel plan. He installed his current lover, Lady Archibald Hamilton, as one of Augusta’s ladies of the bedchamber. In the process, he somehow managed to convince Augusta that this meant there was no truth to the rumors about him and his mistress and simultaneously grant himself more access to said mistress.
Incredibly, though, Frederick’s cruelty was just starting to peak.
When Augusta married Prince Frederick, she had no idea who she was getting for a husband, it’s true. But it turns out, his whole family situation was in shambles. Frederick had been feuding with his parents, King George II and Queen Caroline of Ansbach, for years, and had even set up a kind of rival court in opposition to them.
Now, it’s never easy to get on with your in-laws, so Augusta was in a sticky situation. Um, she didn’t handle it the best.
Frederick had already started using Augusta as a pawn, but now he turned the heat up. He began instructing her to annoy his mother Queen Caroline any way she could. Augusta, still being a teenager, listened obediently, and would do things like arrive late to the chapel so she had to rudely push past the Queen Consort to get to her seat.
I’m sorry to say, but this gets way more embarrassing.
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Queen Caroline was no fool—in fact, she was legitimately one of the most intelligent women of her century—and she simply told her attendants to direct Augusta to another chapel entrance so that they would avoid any run-ins. Frederick, never one to let go of anything, then insisted Augusta make a show of refusing to enter the church if Caroline had already arrived.
It all got so ridiculous, Caroline once drawled about Augusta and her puppet master Frederick: "Poor creature, were she to spit in my face, I should only pity her for being under such a fool's direction, and wipe it off”. Well, the Queen hadn’t seen anything yet.
As naïve as Augusta was when she arrived at the royal palace, she obviously got a crash course in intimacy from Frederick, because she was pregnant within months. Except this is when the trouble started. Queen Caroline, not trusting her daughter-in-law or her son, stated her intention to be present at the birth to prove the child was genuine.
To be fair, there were frequent fears at the time of royal mothers substituting in stillborn children or live girls for healthy baby boys from a nearby village and calling them their own. But Queen Caroline’s comment led to an absolute disaster.
In July of 1737, Augusta went into labor—little knowing that this miracle of life was going to turn into another petty way for her husband to get back at his parents. As soon as she started feeling contractions, Frederick insisted she travel by carriage to the remote St James’s Palace. Why? Because he was insistent his mother and father would most certainly not be at the birth.
It got very twisted, very fast.
Frederick’s plan had been so sudden, St James’s wasn’t ready to receive the Princess of Wales or the baby she was currently carrying. As a result, poor teenage Augusta had to give birth to a royal heir—a girl they named Augusta as well—on a tablecloth. It was a harrowing enough introduction to motherhood, but it was going to get a lot worse.
Queen Caroline and King George II were aghast at Frederick’s actions, and they let the couple know it. Upon hearing the news, Caroline sped over to St James’s with an entourage. When she saw that the baby was a girl, and thus wasn’t likely a village changeling, she sneered that she was glad Augusta had birthed a “poor, ugly little she-mouse” instead of a “large, fat, healthy boy,” since at least she could trust the child was genuine.
Still, the Queen Consort didn’t stop at insulting words. Her next actions were drastic.
Relations between Augusta and her in-laws had clearly never been great, but the situation now took an enormous nosedive. In the wake of this bandit birth, the King and Queen completely banished Augusta and her husband from their court, sending them to live on the outskirts of society in Leicester House.
It could have turned into calm existence at last. But then fate threw another wrench into the works.
Just months after Augusta’s midnight ride, her nemesis Queen Caroline fell deathly ill. Disgustingly enough, a piece of the Queen’s intestine had poked through an old ulcer and was now slowly killing the monarch. Everyone knew the writing was on the wall, and even Augusta’s rascal Frederick tried to make up with his mother. Only, the response was chilling.
The monarchs were still so angry at Augusta and Frederick, both Caroline and King George II staunchly refused to see their prodigal son even during his mother’s twilight hours. But still, the royals twisted the knife in further. After Caroline passed, in agony, a few weeks later, she made sure to ban Frederick from her funeral.
Needless to say, Augusta was not living the charmed life she might have hoped for when she married Frederick…but she still had no clue what she was in for.
Just a few months after Caroline’s passing, Augusta gave birth to a son, the future King George III. And still, things didn’t get easier. For one, George was born two months premature, terrifying Augusta with the thought of his early demise. For another, King George II was still so miffed about everything that he barely paid any attention to her children—even though Augusta would go on to have nine.
When Augusta was pregnant with her last child, however, the King was forced to pay attention. Just for all the wrong reasons.
In 1751, Augusta was heavily pregnant—and she got news that shook her to the core. Her husband Frederick, who had previously seemed the picture of health, had died suddenly at their home. He was only 44 years old, and historians now believe the culprit was a brutally quick pulmonary embolism. Augusta couldn’t have reacted any worse.
After finding out about her husband’s passing, Augusta at first didn’t believe it. She was, as the doctor put it “brought reluctantly to the knowledge that [Frederick] was no more”. That said, it would have been hard to suddenly realize you would never be Queen of England, despite gritting your teeth through a horrible arranged marriage.
The situation hardly improved. Once Augusta accepted the tidings, she suffered a horrific bout of insomnia, and her servants had to force her into bed at six in the morning. But she wasn’t done yet.
For all that Frederick had been a legitimately awful husband to her for much of their marriage, Augusta felt honor-bound to mourn him. She also felt obligated to hide his darkest secrets. At eight in the morning after his passing, with just two hours of fitful sleep, she went into his room and burned all of his private (and likely very scandalous) letters she could find.
It was more than he deserved, but karma didn’t repay Augusta the same kindness.
In the wake of Frederick’s death, Augusta had an uphill climb ahead of her. No longer the Princess of Wales but instead a Dowager, she now had eight children to care for and a ninth, a girl she would name Caroline Matilda, on the way. Worst of all, King George II still despised his late son, and he made that very clear when he buried Frederick in a spartan funeral unfitting to his station.
Terrified that the King would leave her and her young family out in the cold, Augusta did what she had to do.
Soon after Frederick’s passing, King George II sent what was probably a boilerplate letter of condolence to Augusta about her loss. Her reply made every word count. With all the humility she could muster, she begged the King for mercy, forgiveness, and most of all protection. It was a very smart move that proved Augusta was no longer a babe in the woods, and it got her a hard-earned win.
The King, suddenly touched by her widowhood, threw all his support behind her, and even appointed her to act as regent if he was away until her son George—now the heir apparent—came of age. Except, well, this wasn’t a good thing.
Without her no-good husband dragging her down, Augusta now held immense power at court for the first time in her life. It began to go wrong almost immediately. First, Augusta suddenly kept a tight leash on her children, keeping them away from the public eye and being oddly secretive about their education.
People began to suspect something was up—and they thought they knew what that thing was.
Soon after becoming a widow, Augusta began to get very cozy with John Stuart, the Earl of Bute. Rumors swirled that the pair were having an affair—and Augusta made it ten times worse. When people asked why Bute was visiting her household through the backdoor, Augusta insisted he was just visiting her, not anyone else in the household. As if that made it not scandalous?
The truth, however, wasn’t what you’d expect.
In reality, it’s unlikely that Bute and Augusta were having a relationship. But his presence pointed to a more uncomfortable truth. Augusta was using him to tutor the future King George III, keeping the boy extremely secluded all the while. It was a strange, royal home-schooling situation that kept her son very under her thumb.
Looking back, this was a turning point. After years of acting as Frederick’s puppet, Augusta was going power-hungry. That hunger then turned into a mania.
By the time George came of age, Augusta was fully out of control—or rather, she was fully in control of George. She made practically every decision for her son, including where he lived and, more importantly, who he married. When George fell in love with a court lady, his mother and Bute dissuaded him. When George’s grandfather the King tried to make him a royal match, Augusta was there to nix it.
Instead, she was determined to steer her son to her own choice of bride. But you know what they say about the best laid plans…
In 1760, Augusta’s father-in-law the King passed without much warning at the age of 77, and suddenly her son was King George III. And, lest we forget, Augusta was now mother to the King of England. This was a good thing for our girl, sure—but it also meant she really had to find a wife for her boy as soon as possible. Her choice was…interesting.
Eventually Augusta hand-picked the 17-year-old Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz as her new daughter-in-law. Indeed, she was the one who drafted and then accepted the marriage proposal, in case you want to know just how up in George’s business she was. But why Charlotte? That answer is disturbing.
Simply put, since the teenaged Charlotte was from a small German principality—all very much like Augusta herself—everyone thought she would be reserved and retiring enough not to play any political games. But, also like Augusta, Charlotte would put up more of a fight than anybody guessed.
Augusta tried to show Charlotte who was boss from the very moment the girl stepped on English soil to marry King George. Reportedly, shortly after the wedding, George instructed Charlotte “not to meddle”—a directive that, given everything we know about Augusta, almost certainly came from Charlotte’s new mother-in-law. And Augusta had other ways of putting the girl in her place.
Even though Charlotte was Augusta’s bridal pick, she hardly took the girl under her wing. The Dowager kept Charlotte isolated from a great many people in the English court, apparently citing propriety and etiquette rules, and was reportedly mortified at Charlotte’s higher ranking over her whenever she was in the girl’s presence.
There was likely a hefty amount of jealousy driving Augusta’s actions; after all, Charlotte was Queen of England…and she wasn’t. Unfortunately, Augusta wasn’t finished.
Augusta had eyes everywhere in court, and she put them to chilling use. She set Charlotte up with attendants and ladies-in-waiting that were loyal to her, then got them to inform her on Charlotte’s every move, just to make sure the girl was under her power as much as possible. Meanwhile, if Charlotte tried to have any allies of her own, Augusta would admonish her for playing favorites.
But a downfall was coming for the meddling Dowager.
Augusta’s power kept growing, and soon the British citizens took notice. In 1762, she used her considerable influence to turn her favorite, the Earl of Bute, into the Prime Minister of England. Except…it backfired on her extremely hard. The public exploded with hatred towards Bute—and then they turned their gazes to Augusta herself.
In truth, the public hated the Earl of Bute on his own merits, but Augusta’s involvement with him made it that much worse. The citizens decried Bute as Augusta’s lackey, and there were even pamphlets that made calls to “Impeach the King’s mother”. Not the kind of publicity you want out there, and Augusta had to take drastic measures.
In the end, this little interlude earned both Augusta and Bute a place in the dark annals of history. As one commentator put it, “Bute was hated with a rage there have been few examples in English history”. It was such a disaster, in fact, that Bute resigned from the Prime Minister position just a year later, and Augusta moved away from open politics with her tail between her legs.
As it happened, though, the real threat to her legacy came from inside her own house.
Here’s a surprise: While King George III was devoted to his mother and took her counsel seriously, the rest of her children despised her. Her eldest daughter, Augusta of Great Britain, even actively befriended Queen Charlotte early on, mostly so she could talk trash about her mother in front of her. But in the end, Augusta’s worst experience came from her favorite child.
In 1765, the worst news yet came to Augusta. Her son King George III suffered a bout of mental illness—his first in what would be an increasingly disruptive disorder that may have been bipolar or porphyria. For days, George experienced a fever and insomnia alongside obvious cognitive issues.
It was eventually enough for the government to pass a Regency Act, though they repealed it after George showed signs of improvement. But Augusta’s role in all this crossed a huge line.
Perhaps Augusta (wrongly) hoped this madness was just a one-off, but that doesn’t absolve her of what she did. In the face of George’s burgeoning mental illness, she and her confidant the Earl of Bute kept any whiff of his troubling condition from his wife Queen Charlotte.
As always, Augusta had to be the one controlling the narrative. Still, karma always gets you in the end.
Augusta’s poor relationships with her children led several of her sons to make rogue marriages to women their mother—gasp!—hadn’t picked for them. Her son William married a Dowager Countess in secret in 1766, but her son Prince Henry truly insulted her by having not one but possibly two marriages she thought were beneath his station.
Augusta stewed with anger at the loss of her control over her younger sons. Once more, the real threat came from another child.
By now, Augusta was desperate to make sure her last child, Caroline Matilda, fell into line and had a marriage appropriate to her royal station. In fact, the Dowager had betrothed Caroline to the future King Christian VII of Denmark since the girl was 13 years old. In 1766, she sealed the deal just after Christian took the throne.
Augusta now had a blood daughter who was a Queen. It should have all gone well.
For a little while, Augusta might have thought that her daughter’s royal marriage was a triumph. It was truly a nightmare come to life. King Christian was mentally ill and deeply uninterested in his wife, and Augusta had to watch from afar as her daughter’s marriage devolved into petty fights in front of the entire Danish court.
Augusta, never one to back away from, well, anything, stuck her nose right in.
Upon hearing about the King and Queen of Denmark’s latest spat—which involved Christian exiling one of Caroline Matilda’s favorite ladies—Augusta decided she was the only one who could fix it. Accordingly, commanded that the King of Denmark reinstate the woman in question…only to hear a resounding “no” from the monarch.
Augusta, primly admitting defeat, then told Caroline to simply stop complaining and show more affection to her mentally ill husband. Unsurprisingly, this didn’t work.
Starting in 1770, Augusta got wind of extremely dark rumors surrounding her youngest daughter and the King of Denmark. The country’s Prime Minister had recently fallen, and everyone suspected Caroline Matilda was in the middle of the intrigue. Spurred into action once again, Augusta—now in her 50s—went to visit her troublesome child. The results did not please her.
Augusta wafted into where Caroline Matilda was staying, assuming she’d give the girl a good talking to and this would all go away. She got a supremely rude awakening. Caroline Matilda met her mother in breeches, a scandalous and defiant fashion choice for the time.
Sputtering, Augusta began complaining about her daughter’s impudence on all fronts. But, at long last, someone was about to school her.
Augusta may have started her royal tenure off as a naïve Princess under her husband’s influence, but for decades now she had gotten exactly what she wanted, whenever she wanted. Except not this time. In response to her objections, Caroline Matilda merely looked at her mother and snapped, "Pray, madam, allow me to govern my own kingdom as I please!"
But soon Augusta was in too much danger to deal with her wayward daughter.
In 1772, Augusta came to a terrifying realization: Her health was failing her. In fact, she had throat cancer that would eventually kill her. But, being Princess Augusta, she did not go gentle into that good night. Instead, she created a kind of farewell tour for herself, inviting her eldest daughter to visit her for an extended period. Whether she knew it or not, this was a recipe for drama.
Augusta seemed determined to go out with a bang, and her final months on Earth were filled with courtly turmoil. Queen Charlotte, who never had an easy relationship with the Dowager, now started picking fights with her daughter. She nitpicked about etiquette—just as Augusta had once done to her—and even controlled when and how King George III could see his sister.
Given Augusta’s penchant for pettily stirring the pot, this was all exactly in line with her legacy. Only, there was nothing petty about the next events.
In February of 1772, Augusta received tidings that brought her to her knees. Her daughter Caroline Matilda clearly had needed more oversight—because the King of Denmark had just arrested her for engaging in an affair with a courtier. This was no peccadillo, and the Danish court now had the girl imprisoned in Cronenberg Castle.
Suddenly, life dumped much more drama on the Dowager than she ever bargained for. It turned out to be the final blow.
Augusta’s last vestiges of strength left her when she heard about Caroline Matilda’s scandal. For 10 days, she subsisted only on cordials while she agonized over her daughter and slowly faded. Then, on February 8, 1772, at the age of 52, she finally passed.
By the end of the year, the King of Denmark forcibly divorced Caroline Matilda and placed her in exile, blackening her name for the rest of her life. Yet there was one final twist of fate Augusta mercifully missed.
In the end, Augusta never lived to see the fall of her royal daughter—or the full madness of her royal son. Over a decade after her passing, King George III lapsed into another bout of mental illness, making it clear that his issues were here to stay. He eventually passed in 1820, almost 50 years after his mother, with very little of his sanity left. All Augusta’s royal dreams were now dust.
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