The Scandals of Princess Sophia

Princess Sophia Matilda of the United Kingdom was born on 3 November 1777, the 12th child of King George III and his consort, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz.

Gainsborough_-_Princess_Sophia,_1782 age 5

Little Sophia was loved, but what is considered “good parenting” has changed so radically since her time that her upbringing can horrify the modern reader. Her parents, especially her mother, were strict … embracing the ideology of sparing the metaphorical rod and spoiling the child. Worse, her mother responded to the king’s increasing mental instability by clinging more tightly to her daughters, whom she obsessively chaperoned and prevented from mixing in society. Sophia found life with her mother “deadly dull”, claiming that she “wished myself a kangaroo” for the freedom it would give her.

Thus Sophia, desperate for affection and emotional fulfillment, was easy pickings for a sexual predator. Contemporary rumors purported that Sophia gave birth to a illegitimate child while at Weymouth ‘for her health’ in 1800, and many modern historians think this was fact, rather than fiction.

Princess Sophia 1797

But who was the baby’s father?

The father of Sophia’s baby (presuming that the baby did exist, which evidence does strongly suggest) was probably the child of King George III’s chief equerry, the “hideous old devil” Major-General Thomas Garth. Although Garth was 33 years older than Sophia and had a port-wine birthmark on his face, Sophia believed herself to have fallen in love with him. A lady-in-waiting who witnessed their interactions wrote that, “the princess was so violently in love with him that everyone saw it. She could not contain herself in his presence.”

A baby boy, listed as a “foundling”, was christened as Thomas Ward at the parish church in Weymouth on August 11, 1800. Thomas ward was adopted by a local tailor and his wife, Samuel and Charlotte Sharland. When the child was around four, Major-General Garth adopted him and brought him to London. According to Sylvester Douglas, 1st Baron Glenbervie, it was a kind of open secret at court that little Tommy Garth was the love-child of Sophia and Major-General Garth:

The foundling which was left at the tailor’s at Weymouth … is now in a manner admitted by the people about Court to be the Princess Sophia’s and, as the story generally goes, by General Garth … it is now said that the Queen knows the child to be the Princess Sophia’s, but that the King does not …

However, there was also a fear within Sophia’s own family that her brother, Ernest Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, had fathered the little boy when he raped her, and Garth was merely taking responsibility for the boy out of love for Sophia. Because Cumberland was one of the most hated men in the United Kingdom, people have argued that this may have just been calumny against him. Nevertheless, the courtiers thought that Ernest was ‘obsessed’ with his little sister and everyone knew he was capable of doing something that vile; he had been suspected of rape multiple times while serving in the army.

Sophia was technically free to do as she pleased after Queen Charlotte’s death in 1818, but it was decided that she was too old to marry at that point. In truth, the persistent rumors of her fostered child with Garth would have scuttled any attempts at a royal union, and Garth wasn’t considered of sufficient rank to offer for her hand. Additionally, the sequestered and emotionally vulnerable Sophia was believed to be too unworldly to manage her own affairs or her own household.

Princess Sophia circa 1821 by John Linnell

Meanwhile, her son Tommy Garth was educated at Harrow School and eventually went into 15th The King’s Hussars, his father’s old regiment, utterly unaware that he was a king’s grandson. However, Garth learned of his true heritage in 1828, and tried to resolve the family’s debts by blackmailing the royal family with Sophia’s letters to the major-general, letters which made it clear that she was Tommy’s mother and that Cumberland had tried to sexually assault her on more than one occasion. The failed attempts at rape means Cumberland couldn’t be Tommy Garth’s father, but does prove beyond contestation that Cumberland was a vile excuse for a human being.

As historian Flora Fraser writes, all parties played unfair. 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.

Although the blackmail attempt failed, Tommy Garth continued “bullying importunities’ of Sophia for money for the rest of her life. However, I don’t see this as entirely unreasonable from Garth’s perspective. The bastards of male royalty were given stipends; why not him as well?  Garth must have been desperate, because he had been “committed in October 1830 for debt to the King’s Bench Prison, Southwark” and his wife died there while imprisoned with him in 1835. He was probably willing to do anything to avoid debtors prison again.

Over time she became increasingly shy of the outside world, and was particularly afraid of the demands of her own illegitimate child. Having gone blind in the late 1830s, the now elderly Sophia depended on the protection of her niece, Princess Victoria of Kent, the future Queen Victoria. Although Victoria didn’t love Sophia the way the former heir to the throne, Princess Charlotte of Wales, had loved her, Victoria was nonetheless very kind to her elderly maiden aunt. Sophia lived in Kensington Palace with Victoria and Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent, who disliked Sophia both because of Sophia’s ‘past’ and because Sophia was considered a spy for Princess Victoria’s comptroller, Sir John Conroy.

This is a bit hypocritical of the Duchess of Kent, since she also fell victim to the machinations of Conroy at this time. Perhaps the she was jealous that he hornswoggled Sophia out of her money as well?

Conroy took advantage of Sophia, who in her last years had become “dizzy, easily muddled… mourning her fading looks” and a “confused, nearly blind aunt.” … Sophia’s wealth allowed Conroy to live a rich lifestyle, acquiring for himself a house in Kensington for £4000, as well as two other estates for £18,000 … After her death, it was discovered that Conroy had squandered most of her money and that the princess had virtually no estate to bequeath

The poor, blind Princess Sophia died on the afternoon of 27 May 1848, unaware of how much Conroy had cheated her. She was buried, as requested, at Kensal Green Cemetery in London near her beloved brother, Prince Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex. Her brother and attempted rapist, Ernest, was by now King of Hanover, and didn’t attend her funeral.

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