Claremont House, now a private girls’ school
Charlotte became the centre of a tug of love as each parent tried to influence her. She loved her wildly indiscreet mother but could not respect her; and respected her father but could not love him. She seems to have been remarkably clear-sighted about them both: ‘My mother was wicked but she would not have turned so wicked had not my father been much more wicked still,’ she wrote.
Lake with island and pavilion
Knowing that her wayward mother needed protection from her father’s malice, must have placed a heavy emotional burden on her when she reluctantly agreed to marry William, Prince of Orange in 1813. What would happen to her mother if she, Charlotte, had to live in Holland? When she learnt that that was what her father, now Prince Regent, intended, she broke off the engagement. He was furious and put her under what was, more or less, house arrest.
Then her mother fled to Italy with her lover. Charlotte was deeply upset but it set her free to have a life of her own. In May 1816, she married Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, a popular match at home. The nation, increasingly fed up with the Prince Regent’s extravagance, now had a focus for their hopes for the future. It was also a happy marriage for Charlotte and Leopold personally. They set up home at Claremont, near Esher.
The house, originally built as a country retreat by Sir John Vanburgh, had had a number of notable owners, including the Duke of Newcastle and Clive of India. The first formal garden was designed by Charles Bridgeman who built the three acre amphitheatre; then, when informality became the rage, William Kent redesigned the gardens around a serpentine lake. Lastly, Capability Brown rebuilt the house and re-located the Portsmouth road to give the estate more privacy.
The grotto by the lake
Charlotte and Leopold both loved Claremont and its gardens. They built a camellia greenhouse and planned a tea house with views over the lake. There is a belvedere tower from which you can see London and Windsor Castle on a clear day; a grotto; a small pavilion on the island in the lake; a bowling green; a skittle alley; and lots of winding walks leading to unexpected vistas. A quote engraved on the back of one of the benches says it all: ‘constant and never-failing source of amusement. Princess Charlotte & Prince Leopold, 1817.’
Rhododendrons by the lake
Alas, Charlotte had tragically little time to enjoy it. On 5th November, 1817, after a fifty hour labour, she gave birth to a stillborn son and died the following day. The tea-house was never built and her sorrowing husband built a Gothic mausoleum on the spot. It was demolished in the 1920s and all that remains now is a slab of concrete on which is engraved: My Charlotte is gone. Prince Leopold
Claremont House is now a private girls' school but Claremont Landscape Garden is owned by the National Trust and well worth a visit. www.nationaltrust.org.uk/claremont