Kensington Palace exterior

Photo credit: Historic Royal Palaces/SWNS

Enlightened Princesses is the title of an exhibition currently running at Kensington Palace. Anna Hyman set out to discover what it was all about.

Changes were taking place in Europe and beyond. The period known as The Age of Enlightenment, also the Age of Reason, was making its presence felt in intellectual and courtly circles; the philosophical movement started in Europe and was chiefly restricted to the 18th century.

Frederick the Great of Prussia certainly discoursed with intellectuals at his splendid palace of Sanssouci in Potsdam. As did the rulers of other German electorates in their royal courts; for this was long before Germany became the unified country it is today.

Hanover and the British Throne

map of GermanyIn Britain the reign of the Stuarts had ended without heirs.

William and Mary were childless, and whilst Mary’s sister Queen Anne did have children, not one of them survived beyond the age of 11.

However, the 1701 Act of Settlement named Anne’s distant cousin Sophia, Dowager Electress of Hanover, as her successor. She was also a protestant so eligible to take the British throne.

(Sophia had married Ernst Augustus, a protestant son of the Duke of Brunswick-Lϋneburg.)

Sadly she died a few months before Queen Anne, so it fell to her son to travel to England and inherit the British crown.

Introducing the Three Princesses

Sophia, intelligent and well educated, had followed the example of other royal houses by inviting the intellectuals of the day to her court to discuss the topics of this new age of reason. Amongst her court was her daughter in law, Caroline of Ansbach, the wife of George Augustus (later to become George II).

And in their respective courts Augusta of Saxe-Gotha and Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz were also being influenced by movers and shakers of the day. All three princesses seemed destined to play a major role in this new British royal family.

Having grown up and been educated in courts, where discussions about science, medicine, the arts and philanthropy were taking place, it was not surprising that the women brought their interests and knowledge with them to the British court.

The Enlightened Princesses

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Photo credit: Historic Royal Palaces/SWNS

To learn more about the Enlightened Princesses and the role they played in the Age of Reason and the influence they were to have on the roles of subsequent generations of women in the British royal family, I headed to Kensington Palace to view an exhibition dedicated to them.

The exhibition itself is divided into themes dealing with specific subjects and the contribution the three women played according to their own interests - the arts, horticulture, philanthropy, science, medicine, and education.

The first of our Enlightened Princesses was Caroline of Ansbach, queen consort of George II. She was followed by Augusta of Saxe-Gotha who married Frederick, Prince of Wales and finally Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, queen consort of George III.

Caroline of Ansbach

Queen Caroline of Ansbach Joseph Highmore c.1735 Royal Collection Trust Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017

Queen Caroline was arguably the most intelligent of the trio – fluent in many languages and in frequent correspondence with the likes of Voltaire and Leibniz.

She was interested in research, and in particular science (Sir Isaac Newton created scientific experiments for her) and medicine.

She was also one of the first women to have her children inoculated against the feared and deadly smallpox.

Architecture and garden design were also interests of hers and it was because of her, and the talents of William Kent, that Richmond Park, for one, began to take on the form that we see today.

Music was another of her passions. She was a friend of Handel and because of his interest became a supporter of the Foundling Hospital, the UK’s first children’s charity.

Photo credit: Historic Royal Palaces/SWNS

Under the name Coram (in honour of its founder Thomas Coram), the charity still exists today continuing its work with children and young people.

Augusta...

Augusta and family

Augusta shared similar interests, including the Foundling Hospital and garden design, natural history and horticulture. Much of her enthusiasm was directed at improving the gardens at Kew Palace (Kew Gardens).

Following her husband’s death she was instrumental in enlarging and adding to the palace grounds with buildings such as the magnificent pagoda, and setting up a system of plant classification – for which Kew is still renowned.

… and Charlotte 

Queen Charlotte Johann Joseph Zoffany 1771 Royal Collection Trust Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017

Charlotte was also a keen botanist. She started an impressive plant collection – including many exotic foreign species.

Indeed, the plant the Bird of Paradise, Strelitzia Reginae was so named in her honour, but she was also interested in obstetrics.

It was she who insisted on giving birth to her many babies under the medical direction of a doctor – William Hunter – rather than following in the tradition of having unqualified women in attendance.

She was also keenly interested in music and a supporter of a number of charities.

Photo credit: Historic Royal Palaces/SWNS

Displays and Exhibits

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Photo credit: Historic Royal Palaces/SWNS

The exhibition has some fascinating displays and exhibits illustrating the princesses various interests. Amongst the items are lovely botanical illustrations, porcelain and fabrics as well as the latest trends in household items and objects from the colonies and other parts of the world.

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Photo credit: Historic Royal Palaces/SWNS

Two of my favourite exhibits are the intricate steps of dance delightfully projected in sequence onto the floor; as well as a transcription of a fascinating letter from a Mrs Eliza Pinckney (a plantation owner from South Carolina) describing her audience with Augusta and the presentation to her of some birds.

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Photo credit: Historic Royal Palaces/SWNS

Far from flattering, but certainly interesting to look at, is the display of a number of satirical prints and cartoons of the princesses and their families.

Their legacy

The example of the three Princesses who pursued their varied interests into wide ranging patronage, covering the fields of charity, social welfare and research has played a huge part in forming the role of today’s royal women.

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Photo credit: Historic Royal Palaces/SWNS

The exhibition, which continues until 12 November 2017, is fascinating. It gives a really interesting glimpse into the changes and developments taking place all those years ago. Changes that have not only affected subsequent royal families, but also reach down to our lives today.

I have been so inspired by Caroline, Charlotte and Augusta that I want to know more about their lives and the Enlightenment. And I have a feeling that a visit to the parts of Germany where they grew up might also be included.

More Information

Kensington Palace

Tickets: Kensington Palace tickets - Adult: £17.00 / Child: Free / Concessions: £13.50/ Members: Free. Entry to the exhibition is included in the general admission prices.
Opening Hours: Monday-Sunday: 10.00-18.00 (Last Admission at 17.00)
Address: Kensington Palace, Kensington Gardens, London W8 4PX.
NB: Due to interest in the Diana: Her Fashion Story exhibition, advance tickets for Kensington Palace are limited and several dates are sold out. Check the website (https://www.hrp.org.uk/kensington-palace/visit/#gs.yn_2h6Q ), limited number of tickets at the palace for days when advance tickets are sold out online.
Germany: www.germany.travel 

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