On Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding day in 2018, Queen Elizabeth II gifted him with the Dukedom of Sussex. The title had laid vacant for the best part of 200 years, since its original and then most recent holder, Prince Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex (1773-1843) died without legitimate issue in 1843.
Prince Augustus Frederick himself was a rebellious character. The sixth son and ninth child of King George III and his queen consort, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, he was the only of his father’s sons who did not pursue a career in the army or navy. Instead, he was known for his liberal views such as the abolition of the slave trade, his multiple illegitimate marriages and for his fascination with literature, science and religion.
Here’s a break down of Prince Augustus Frederick’s intriguing life.
His asthma prevented him from joining the military
Augustus Frederick was born on 27 January 1773 at Buckingham House in London. As a child he was tutored at home before being sent with his brothers to the University of Göttingen, Germany, in 1786.
He is said to have had a particularly beautiful singing voice, grew to be more than six foot three inches tall and reportedly looked a lot like his elder brother George, Prince of Wales. However, he suffered severely from asthma so did not join his brothers in receiving military training in Hanover, though he did serve during the Napoleonic War in 1805 as Lieutenant-Colonel Commandant of the ‘Loyal North Britons’ Volunteers regiment.
He briefly considered becoming a cleric in the Church of England before deciding on a lifetime of travelling around Europe, engaging with religious, artistic and scientific discourse and occasionally intervening in politics.
He secretly married his first wife
While spending one winter in Rome in the hope that the warmer climate would help his asthma, the prince met Lady Augusta Murray, the second daughter of John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore and Lady Charlotte Stewart. They fell in love and were secretly married in a Church of England ceremony in Hotel Sarmiento, Rome, in the spring of 1793. As a result, the King’s minister of Hanover affairs was sent to Italy to discreetly escort Augustus Frederick back to London.
Back in London, the couple married again without revealing their true identities at St George’s, Hanover Square, in December of the same year. Both marriages took place without either the knowledge or consent of the king. As a result, the Prerogative Court annulled the marriage in 1794, arguing that it contravened the Royal Marriages Act of 1772, which required that royal marriages be approved by the king.
He had two children
Lady Augusta and Augustus Frederick had two children, daughters named Augustus Frederick d’Este and Augusta Emma. Though they originally took the surname Hanover, they later used d’Este, which was a family both of their parents were descended from.
The couple continued to live together until 1801. The same year, King George III created for his son the Dukedom of Sussex, Earl of Inverness, and Augustus Frederick received a parliamentary grant of £12,000. The couple separated, and Lady Augusta retained custody of the children and maintenance from the Duke of £4,000 a year.
He remarried, again contravening the Royal Marriages Act
After Lady Augusta died in 1830, the Duke married Lady Cecilia Underwood, the daughter of Arthur Gore, 2nd Earl of Arran. The marriage took place at Great Cumberland Place in the summer of 1831, and again contravened the Royal Marriages Act, meaning it was legally void.
Lady Cecilia assumed the name ‘Underwood’, her mother’s maiden name, by Royal Licence.
He fell out with his brother over the treatment of his niece
When heiress to the throne Princess Charlotte of Wales ran away from her father to join her mother at Connaught House, she pleaded with her uncle, the Duke of Sussex, to help her. Though the Princess claimed that she wanted to escape her father’s harsh treatment, the Duke had no legal right to stop her from being forcibly returned home.
The Duke wrote a letter to the Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, which demanded to see his niece and complained of her confinement at Carlton House. Later the same year, the Duke publicly addressed Lord Liverpool in the House of Lords, asking that Charlotte be allowed to see her friends, have personal liberty and go sea-bathing, which had been recommended for her health.
This had the desired effect: Charlotte was allowed to rise in Windsor Park and was sent to Weymouth for her health. However, the Duke’s involvement in his niece’s affairs led to the deterioration of the relationship between the Duke and his brother George.
He held liberal views
The Duke was politically ahead of his time, calling for the abolition of the slave trade and the removal of civil restrictions on Jews. Indeed, he was the first ever royal to be the patron of a Jewish charity, after he was impressed by the work in helping Jewish children and families living with disabilities at The Jews’ Hospital and Orphan Asylum (now called Norwood), of which Queen Elizabeth II was a patron.
He was also president of the Society of Arts from 1816 until his death, and president of the Royal Society between 1830 and 1838. He took a keen interest in biblical studies and the Hebrew language, with his library containing some 50,000 theological manuscripts, some of which were in Hebrew.
In 1838, he introduced the scientist John Herschel in a meeting, and gave a speech about the compatibility of science and religion.
He was Queen Victoria’s favourite uncle
Towards the end of the Duke’s life, he became known for his close relationship with his niece, Queen Victoria. He and his wife lived in apartments at Kensington Palace, and in the absence of her own father, gave her away at her wedding to Prince Albert in 1840.
The same year, the queen created Cecilia Duchess of Inverness, in her own right, which declared the remainder of male heirs born to the couple to be lawfully begotten. However, since the couple had no legitimate issue, the title Duke of Sussex became extinct upon his death three years later.
He asked to not be buried with other royals
In the years approaching his death, Augustus wore a black skull cap and was deeply worried about his health. In 1832, he started to go blind, but a new and radical cataract operation saved his sight.
He died in 1843 of erysipelas, a bacterial infection also known as St Anthony’s Fire. He specified in his will that he not have a state funeral, and instead be buried at Kensal Green Cemetery. He is buried opposite the tomb of his sister, Princess Sophia, in front of the main chapel.
Upon his death, The Times newspaper commented that ‘No death in the royal family short of the actual demise of a monarch could have occasioned a stronger feeling of deprivation’.