This is the sad story of Princess Sophia. An unworldly and shy woman who was seduced by a man 33 years her senior, gave birth to his illegitimate child and was blackmailed by her son to pay his father’s debts.
According to biographer Christopher Hibbert, in her young adulthood Princess Sophia, the 5th daughter of King George III, was a “delightful though moody girl, pretty, delicate and passionate.” She was devoted to her father, though she occasionally found him exasperating. She wrote that “the dear King is all kindness to me, and I cannot say how grateful I feel for it.”
The King had told his daughters he would take them to Hanover and find them suitable husbands despite misgivings concerning marriage; he was well aware of his sisters’ experience. His eldest sister, Augusta had never fully adapted to life in Brunswick after her marriage to Charles William Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg, Prince of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel. She did not like the German court and they did not like her. Her situation was made worse by the fact that her eldest sons were born with disabilities.
George’s sister Caroline had suffered a far worse fate; at the age of 15, she was married to her cousin, Christian VII of Denmark in 1766. A year later her husband abandoned her for his mistress Støvlet-Cathrine publicly declaring that he could not love Caroline because it was “unfashionable to love one’s wife”. Caroline was left neglected and unhappy as her young husband sank into a mental stupor of paranoia, self-mutilation, and hallucinations.
She took comfort with her husband’s doctor, Johann Friedrich Struensee, and Enlightenment man who ran Denmark with the half-crazed King introducing widespread reforms. The affair between Caroline and Struensee resulted in Caroline giving birth to his child, her divorce, and Struensee’s execution in 1772. Caroline, retaining her title but not her children, eventually left Denmark and passed her remaining days in exile at Celle Castle in Hanover. She died there of scarlet fever on 10 May 1775, at the age of 23.
George was unable to keep his promise due to his own ill health but when Sophia was born the King went to Parliament to negotiate allowances for his daughter and his younger sons. Like her siblings, Sophia was to receive an allowance of £6,000 a year either upon her marriages or the king’s death. This would have made her an attractive marriage prospect but Sophia ruined what prospects she had when she met and fell in love with one of her father’s equerries, Colonel, Thomas Garth, a man thirty-three years her senior.
Garth had a large purple birthmark on his face, causing Sophia’s sister Mary to refer to him as “the purple light of love.” Courtier and diarist Charles Greville, on the other hand, described him as a “hideous old devil,” and one of her ladies-in-waiting wrote, “the princess was so violently in love with him that everyone saw it. She could not contain herself in his presence.”
Sophia’s downfall came when she found herself pregnant with Garth’s child. Although there has been much debate amongst historians as to whether the child was Garth’s or her uncle’s, the Duke of Cumberland’s, Thomas Garth adopted the child, educated him and brought him into his regiment calling him his nephew.
Sophia never married and remained at court until her mother Queen Charlotte died. After the queen’s death, Sophia lived in Kensington Palace next to her niece Princess Victoria of Kent, the future Queen Victoria. Like her sister-in-law the Duchess of Kent, Sophia fell under the spell of Victoria’s comptroller Sir John Conroy and let him manage her money. The lonely and unworldly Sophia fell under Conroy’s spell and he used her affection to rob her.
Her son, Tommy Garth of the 15th Hussars (1800-1873), learned of his true heritage when his father thought he was on his deathbed in 1828. With the family deep in debt, he tried to blackmail the royal family with evidence of his mother’s true identity. As historian Flora Fraser writes, all parties played unfairly. The royal family offered young Garth £3,000 for his box of evidence; they took the box but did not pay him so he went to the papers. The press dug up the gossip concerning the possibility of the Duke of Cumberland being his true father making the latter part of Sophia’s life very difficult.
Charles Greville summed Sophia up with he wrote in his diary in May 1848, shortly after she died: “Princess Sophia died a few days ago, while the Queen [Victoria] was holding the Drawing-room for her Birthday. She [Sophia] was blind, helpless, and suffered martyrdom; a very clever, well-informed woman, but who never lived in the world.”
Fraser, Flora (2004). Princesses: The Six Daughters of George III. London: John Murray. ISBN 0-7195-6109-4.
Hibbert, Christopher (2000). George III: A Personal History. Basic Books. ISBN 0-465-02724-5.
Hibbert, Christopher (2001). Queen Victoria: A Personal History. De Capo Press. ISBN 0-306-81085-9.