Princess Frederica Charlotte of Prussia - Duchess of York (7 May 1767 – 6 August 1820)
Born in Charlottenburg, the princess did not have a good childhood.
She was the only child of Frederick William II of Prussia and his first wife Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Lüneburg, his . Their marriage was extremely unhappy as a result of their mutual infidelities and, after several affairs with musicians and officers, in 1769 the scandal erupted when the Crown Princess became pregnant. She planned to escape from Prussia with her lover, but she was betrayed and captured. After the divorce was quickly granted, Elisabeth Christine (who retained her title) was placed under house arrest in the castle of Stettin, where she remained for the next seventy-one years until her death in 1840, aged 93.
Frederica Charlotte never saw her mother again, and was raised by her paternal grandmother Princess Luise Amalie and her stepmother Frederika Louisa of Hesse-Darmstadt, who married the Crown Prince almost immediately after his divorce.
Having met Frederick, Duke of York at the court of her uncle, Frederick the Great, the couple married on the 29th of September 1791 at Charlottenburg Palace to satisfy the requirements of the Prussians and again at Buckingham Palace on the 23rd of November to satisfy the British ethic.
That the Duke was totally enamoured with her is beyond question, he had written to his good friend and former tutor, General Grenville "I have no doubt of being perfectly happy. The Princess is the best girl that ever existed and the more I see of her, the more I like her". It is not difficult to understand why the duke was so smitten, the "Ladies Monthly Magazine described her "In stature, the Duchess of York was rather below the common height and her figure was proportionately delicate and slight, her countenance was pleasing, her complexion was exceedingly fair, her hair light, her eyelashes extremely long and her eyes blue and remarkably brilliant". Sadly the duke's happiness failed to last for very long and the couple separated.
It is probably fair to say that whilst the duke's affairs were a major factor in their separation, these dalliances were so much a part of 'high society' at the time that they appear, on occasions, to have been regarded almost as some sort of immoral obligation.
Away from the Prussian court, Frederica seems to have much preferred the tranquility offered by Oatlands to the intensity of British society in which her husband flourished - how could he not? As the second son of King George III ("Mad King George") and younger brother of the Prince Regent (later George IV), most noted for the rather bizarre Royal Pavilion at Brighton, his fondness for gambling, military training, love of protocol and ceremony and association with the slightly more outrageous elements in the upper social set of the day, the relatively sedate seclusion of Oatlands was a very far cry from the world he knew.
The Duchess of York is sometimes described elsewhere as having been 'eccentric' but that seems a rather hard and unfair description to have applied to a, by all accounts, very gentle and sweet natured woman who, devoid of children and husband, immersed herself in her pets (though the number and range of these undoubtedly gave weight to the use of the term), handicrafts - at which she seemed highly skilled, and the interests of the local population. She was described during her lifetime as "clever and well-informed; she likes society and dislikes all form and ceremony, but in the midst of the most familiar intercourse she always preserves a certain dignity of manner" and was noted for having a good sense of humour. Her likeness for society leaned more towards the artistic than her husband's and many of the great writers of the time relished her friendship - to them, and to her other true friends, she was always known as "Freddie" and signed her numerous notes and letters to them "F".
Her fondness for animals was legendary but to some who knew her, but neither understood her nor saw the strength of feelings for which she had few outlets, this was a clear sign of eccentricity - however easy it may be to over-indulge when one has the means to do so,
Her collection of animals varied wildly in its scope according to contemporary sources, dependent, one suspects, on whether the writer was in favour or against the keeping of animals as pets. It undoubtedly included a large number of dogs over her lifetime at Oatlands and may have included the odd monkey or two and, almost certainly she would have had her favourite horses within the stables.
In relation to the dogs, diarist and dandy Thomas Raikes wrote "There were some twenty or thirty different sorts in the house; and many a morning have I, to my annoyance, been awakened from an incipient slumber, after a long sitting at whist, by the noisy pack rushing along the gallery next to my bedroom, at the call of old Dawe, the footman, to their morning meal". Her father-in-law, King George III, once remarked "Affection must rest on something, and where there are no children, animals are the object.".
While it may have been easy to see her collection of dogs or all shapes an sizes as something of an eccentricity, it must be borne in mind that many of the dogs arrived with her in the form of presents from friends, those who wished to curry favour with her and from well-meaning local residents - some dogs of rather dubious breeding having been by way of a "thank you" for an act of kindness or charity.
If a contemporary print of the farmyard at Oatlands is to be believed, the collection included at least one ostrich, wallabies, exotic goats, wild and tame fowl and a pride of peacocks - not that the latter two were in any way unusual for a stately home and are still a common sight in such places. Raikes, again rather disparagingly, added more detail and assured his readers that there were "a colony of monkeys on the lawn and eagles in the menagerie".
It is not uncommon to provide a much loved pet with a 'decent burial' even today, but the duchess does seem to have gone a little over the top. In The Graphic of March 31st 1883, Lord Macauley (not noted as a lover of dogs even in their live state, was even less enamoured with them after death) is quoted as recalling her 'pet cemetery' as that most singular monument of human folly" and went on to comment on the gravestones to "... sixty-four of Her Royal Highness's curs.", and continued "I can understand, however, that even a sensible man may have a fondness for a dog. But sixty-four dogs! Why it is hardly conceivable that there there should be a warm affection in any heart for sixty-four human beings. I had formed a better opinion of the Duchess.".
The 'cemetery' was situated adjacent to the small lake that fronted The Grotto and, according to one later account "... was accesed through a gateway like that under which coffins were laid in the churchyards in that part of the country; there was a sort of chapel; and there were gravestones and mausoleums". This author certainly remembers the gravestones in their original location in the early 1960s. but there were no signs of the elaborate gateway, chapel or mausoleums - these may have been destroyed when The Grotto was demolished in 1948.
The Original site of the pet cemetery is now covered in a modern houses but some of the gravestones were retained - what happened to the remainder is unknown - and have been relocated to be set into the lawn close to the Oatlands Park Hotel.
The collar of a dog named 'Satan" is preserved within the collections at Elmbridge Museum and bears the inscription "Satan! at her feet we depose our wiles
All must be good when Frederica smiles
The very saints rejoice and chant aloud in heaven
By Hompesch Satan's self is to an angel given"
The animal had been presented as a gift to the duchess by Baron Hompesch, a "notorious bully and duellist"
If the Duchess of York's affections had been reserved only for her animals then Lord Macauley might, to some degree, be forgiven for his scathing comments, but she was a 'people person' in equal measure. George Fisher, in his "A Companion & Key To The History Of England" records "... the children of the neighbourhood were considered by her nearly as her own, being clothed and educated unser her immediate supervision... she every Sunday summoned them into her presence and administered cake and wine to the joyful and innocent troop with her ow hands. As they grew up, apprentice premiums were allowed them and even small marriage portions were awarded to the young women" and adds that "the old and sick were also not forgotten".
When the duchess died on the 6th of August 1820 the inhabitants of Weybridge were deeply upset at the passing of their beloved Frederica, whose compassion had touched the poor and the ordinary as much as her humour had pleased her close friends and her pets had upset her detractors.
The London Gazette for 8th August 1820 carried the official court circular relating to the death of the Duchess of York and detailed the funeral arrangements and dress code to be adopted. In its edition of 19th August printed a detailed account of the funeral which had taken place the previous Sunday (13th August 1820).
In death, as in life. Frederica Duchess of York remained at Weybridge. Her body was interred in the chancel of St Nicholas at Weybridge (Weybridge Old Church) in a relatively simple vault at her request. Today the vault stands close to the tower of St James' church which replaced the old church in 1848. At a time of great sentimentality, the opportunity was taken to add a 'chantrey' showing a young girl kneeling to renounce an earthly coronet for a heavenly one and is accompanied by an elaborate verse - the simplicity which the duchess had requested, and shown throughout her life, fell victim to the whim of the age.
After her death, the people of Weybridge began a collection, organised by Mr Joseph Todd, landlord of the Ship Inn, to construct a memorial in her memory and that stands today as the tall column on Monument Green.
There were insufficient funds to provide for a completely new construction on the scale they thought appropriate, so the monument that had once stood at Seven Dials in London was purchased.
The monument, as it existed originally in London, had at its top a dial stone with six faces, each of which bore a sundial. Quite why it was referred to as seven dials is still a matter of conjecture, but it seems likely that the original plan for the area was for six roads to converge on the column, the seventh being added to maximise the return from ground rental.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, Seven Dials had become one of the most notorious slums in London. The area was described colourfully by Charles Dickens in his collection "Sketches by Boz":
"The stranger who finds himself in the Dials for the first time...at the entrance of Seven obscure passages, uncertain which to take, will see enough around him to keep his curiosity awake for no inconsiderable time..."
Although popular legend has it that the original column at Seven Dials was destroyed in an attempt to find buried treasure which was rumoured to be underneath, it was actually removed in 1773 by the Paving Commissioners in an attempt to rid the area of undesirables.
The remains of the demolished column were acquired by an architect James Paine, who kept them in his garden at Sayes Court, Addlestone. When the monument was re-erected at Weybridge, it was decided that the dial stone was too heavy to cap it, so a "ducal coronet" was used instead and the base was inscribed to the Duchess:
"This column was erected by the inhabitants of Weybridge and its vicinity on the 6th day of August 1822 by voluntary contribution, in token of their sincere esteem and regard for her late Royal Highness, the most excellent and illustrious Frederica Charlotte Ulrica Catherina, Duchess of York, who resided for upwards of thirty years at Oatlands in this parish, exercising every Christian virtue, and died, universally regretted, on the 6th day of August 1820."
In a second panel is inscribed:
Ye poor, suppress the mournful sigh,
Her spirit is with Christ on High,
In those bright realms of heavenly peace,
Where charity shall never cease,
Her deeds of mercy and of love,
Are registered in courts above.
The original Dial Stone was used as a mounting block at the Ship Inn before being moved to the old Weybridge Council Offices; it now stands at the west side of Weybridge Library, adjacent to the footpath leading from the car park to Church Street.
The ancestry of the Duchess of York, in regards to the double first cousin relationship of her parents is viewable here.
Oatlands House by J W Lindus Forge
Walton & Weybridge Local History Society (1972)
An Address To The Duchess of York, Against The Use Of Sugar
by Frederica Charlotte Ulrica Catherine (1792)
Available in reprint form from various publishers
George III: A Personal History by Christopher Hibbert
Basic Books (2000)