I am delighted to welcome Geri Walton as my guest today.
Geri is a history graduate and writer. Her first book, Marie Antoinette’s Confidante: The Rise and Fall of the Princesse de Lamballe, examines the relationship between Queen Marie Antoinette and Marie Thérèse, the Princess de Lamballe. Based on a wide variety of historical sources it captures the waning days and grisly demise of the French monarchy.
Guest Post – Queen Charlotte’s Fictitious Sister
The story of Sarah Wilson.
When Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz arrived in England, no one would have called her a beauty. However, she did have other impressive qualities. She had an agreeable manner, “unaffected modesty,” and a graceful and expressive way of speaking. Charlotte was also unbendingly loyal to her servants and there were no household upheavals related to party connections or political issues. Yet, of all the Queen’s qualities, it was her goodness that shone the most and the thing that many people remembered.
An example of the Queen’s goodness was demonstrated around 1771. In June, shortly after the Queen delivered her son Ernest-Augustus, a woman named Sarah Wilson became a maidservant to Caroline Vernon. Vernon was lady-in-waiting to Queen Charlotte, and because of that, Wilson was allowed access to the Queen’s apartments.
Access to Queen Charlotte’s Apartments
With access to the Queen’s apartments, Sarah Wilson snuck in and pilfered clothing and other items belonging to the Queen. Wilson also broke open a locked cabinet, rifled through it, and stole several valuables. Of course, it did not take long for the thefts to be discovered and for Sarah Wilson to be charged as a thief.
The Trial and the Journey to America
After Sarah Wilson was apprehended, she was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to death. The Queen’s goodness showed when she intervened on Wilson’s behalf and had Wilson’s sentence reduced: Sarah Wilson would not be executed but rather sent to the colony of Maryland. Thus, Wilson arrived in Baltimore, Maryland, in the fall of 1771 and subsequently became an indentured servant to a William Devall of Bush Creek, of Frederick County.
Wilson did not remain with Devall for long. A few days after Wilson began working for Devall, she escaped to Charlestown, South Carolina, and there began to pass herself off as a sister to the Queen. Sarah Wilson called herself Princess Susannah Caroline Matilda. Apparently, Wilson had also retained some clothes of the Queen, some jewels, and a few other possessions, “among which was a miniature of Her Majesty.” These possessions allowed Sarah Wilson to appear regal and royal.
To ensure the ruse worked, Sarah Wilson told everyone she left England to avoid an unpleasant marriage that was about to be thrust upon by her “august relations.” Her ruse was so perfect that the Charlestown town crier announced her as “her Serene Highness,” and she met some of the most respectable and important people of the area. In addition, under this pretense as the Queen’s sister, Wilson travelled from house to house making “astonishing impressions in many places, affecting the mode of royalty so inimitably, that many had the honour to kiss her hand.”
Despite Sarah Wilson’s skill at impersonating royalty, not everyone she met was gullible. Some people questioned why Wilson only spoke English, when, similar to Queen Charlotte, she was supposedly born in Germany. Another thing that raised people’s suspicions was that most people were unaware Queen Charlotte had a sister, let alone a younger one.
Eventually, Sarah Wilson’s impersonation ruse came to an end when Devall received word that someone looking much like Wilson was claiming to be the Queen’s sister. He published a notice in the newspaper that stated: “SARAH WILSON … has changed her name to Lady Susanna Caroline Matilda, which made the public believe that she was his Majesty’s sister; she has a blemish in her right eye, black rolled hair, stoops in the shoulders, makes a common practice of writing and marking her clothes with a crown and a B. Whoever secures the said servant woman, or takes her home, shall receive Five Pistoles, besides all costs and charges.”
The five pistoles went to a Michael Dalton who found Wilson near Charlestown in Virginia and dragged her back to Bush Creek. There Wilson remained for two years until Devall became a rebel in America’s War of Independence. At that time, Wilson once again fled. The last report of Wilson was when she married a Dragoon officer named William Talbot. They later opened a business in the Bowery area of New York and had a large family.
- “Advertisement,” in Caledonian Mercury, 26 June 1773
- “America,” in Caledonian Mercury, 26 June 1773
- “America,” in Reading Mercury, 28 June 1773
- Appleby, Joyce and et al, Encyclopedia of Women in American History, 2015
- Watkins, John, Memoirs of Her Most Excellent Majesty Sophia-Charlotte, 1819