New England in the 1790s is perhaps the last place you’d expect to find a member of the British royal family. The Revolutionary War had ended less than 10 years earlier, and the relationship between the United States and Great Britain remained volatile, especially along the Canadian border. Nevertheless, deep in the winter of 1794, Prince Edward — George III’s fourth son and future father of Queen Victoria — passed through here. He stayed for about a month.
What possessed a British royal to visit the birthplace of the American Revolution, his father’s former territory and supposed hotbed of anti-monarchical sentiment?
In 1791, 23-year-old Edward was effectively living in exile in Canada with his French mistress, Julie de Saint-Laurent. In the years leading to his North American banishment, Edward had caused great anxiety for his father, King George. Not only had he incurred enormous debts in London and Gibraltar, he’d also developed a reputation for drunkenness. That was partly due to the influence of his elder brothers.
Prince Edward, Exiled in Canada
To protect Edward from his brothers’ corrupting influence, the King resolved to send him to Quebec City as commander of the Royal Fusiliers. Edward at first enjoyed his time in Canada. (He lived with Julie at 6 Rue Saint-Louis in a building now occupied by the French Consulate. But he soon tired of the location’s quiet nature. Feeling marooned at the Empire’s western edge, he concluded that Quebec must be the “most dreary and gloomy spot on the face of the earth.”
During a short leave from Canada, Edward visited New England. The trip was in no way intended to be an official “royal tour” of the United States. His father had tasked him with going to the West Indies to fight the French. Edward therefore had to travel to Boston, the nearest major port, to board HMS Roebuck in February 1794. The King chose Boston as Edward’s point of departure for a reason. He wanted to keep him away from the more cosmopolitan New York. The city was then home to many noble refugees fleeing the guillotine in France.
Bidding his mistress a sad adieu in Quebec City, Edward prepared for a long sleigh ride through the frozen wilderness of Lake Champlain and Northern New England. Madame de Saint-Laurent would soon leave for Halifax. There she’d board a ship headed first for New York and then England. Before their parting, the prince was particularly solicitous toward her. He tucked furs snugly around her and placed a large dog at her frozen toes.
Lake Champlain, Vermont
The first-ever visit by a British royal to New England hardly got off to a fortuitous start. The prince’s horse-drawn sleigh left Quebec on Jan. 22, 1794, and made its way across frozen Lake Champlain. But then the carriage bearing Prince Edward’s possessions, including his wardrobe, linens and other cargo, sank unceremoniously through the ice. Edward was devastated, not least because the cost of a new wardrobe would be yet another blow to his debt-encumbered finances.
Traveling on to Grand Isle in the middle of Lake Champlain, Edward stopped for a night in the snow-covered town of South Hero. Until recently it had been nothing but uninhabited woodlands. There he stayed in a tavern, the Two Heroes Inn, owned by Revolutionary War veteran Ebenezer Allen, the region’s first settler. The site of the ancient tavern, with its historical marker, can be visited today at the corner of South Street and U.S. Route Two on Grand Isle.
Burlington Welcomes Prince Edward
Burlington, Vermont, has the strange distinction of being the first New England city to welcome a member of the British royal family. Vermont itself had only been a member of the Union for three years when Prince Edward arrived in 1794. Burlington then was still a small settlement of about 330 citizens. The town had been organized only 10 years before. In 1794, only seven houses comprised its central district. The Burlington community was forced to host the royal party—consisting of two bodyguards, two royal aides, a cook, and the prince—in the only building large enough to contain it. That was early settler Phineas Loomis’s two-and-a-half-story oak-framed house, which stood at the corner of Pearl and Williams Street (where the Loomis Van Patten House stands today).
The prince received a warm welcome from Burlington’s most upstanding citizens, including justice of the peace Elnathan Keyes and other men. They wrote to Edward promising to treat him with the “respectful attention tied to your rank.” The prince accordingly granted them an audience.
Montpelier, Williamstown, and Brookfield, Vermont
Departing Burlington after a stay of two or three days, the royal party continued its journey through the forests of Vermont. A dirt-and-gravel road took them to the state’s capital city, Montpelier. That night, Colonel Davis, the city’s founder, welcomed Edward into his home beside the North Branch of the Winooski River and Rialto Bridge. According to one colorful account, the prince had brought a band of 15 or 20 armed guards. They included “tasters” who tested his food for poison. It’s said Colonel Davis laughed at Edward’s precautions, reassuring him that Vermont was far safer than London. That caused the prince to send the armed retinue back to Canada.
Later that evening, the prince stopped for dinner in Williamstown at the home of Judge Elijah Paine. Before the building of the Paine Turnpike, Paine’s home doubled as a tavern. He offered shelter to many travelers who followed the trail between Montreal and Boston. That night, Edward became, according to one historian, “chatty and jocose.” Unable to suppress his supercilious nature, he asked the judge’s wife if she’d ever read anything besides scripture or the psalms. Americans, he thought, were too rustic and uncultured to read much else. In response, the woman mentioned her familiarity with Peter Pindar’s satires (which were highly critical of the King and Queen). That quickly put the prince in his place.
Oh, Never Mind
Mrs. Paine’s quick-witted response was by no means the only correction Prince Edward received on his arduous journey. North of Brookfield, Edward stopped in the home of shoemaker Abner Pride for refreshments. He experienced a rather embarrassing encounter with one of his father’s former subjects. Perhaps forgetting that displays of royal entitlement were hardly likely to be well-received among the citizens of a new republic, Prince Edward, in high spirits, grabbed the shoemaker’s wife Abigail. He then kissed her forcefully on the lips. When Mrs. Abner expressed her indignation, the prince said, “Oh never mind, now you can tell your friends you’ve had the honor of being kissed by an English prince.”
The shoemaker responded by throwing the prince out of doors with a firm kick to the seat of his breeches. “Oh never mind, sir, now you can go home and tell your friends you’ve had the honor of being kicked out of doors by an American cobbler,” the man exclaimed.
According to a story passed down through several generations of inhabitants of Groton, Mass., Prince Edward stopped in the town on his way toward Boston. A snowstorm detained him for several nights. The elderly Converse Richardson, close to death at the time, had his wife receive the royal party in his tavern at the corner of Elm and Pleasant streets.
Groton lore connects the young prince with an unnamed local maiden, with whom he was said to have had a brief romance while the snowstorm raged through the town. According to a local historian, the girl had a son (possibly the product of that fateful affair?) who lived in Groton for many years.
Finally reaching Boston on February 6, Prince Edward stayed with the British consul Thomas McDonogh. Frustratingly, for the prince, he learned he would have to wait until February 16 to depart for the West Indies due to the HMS Roebuck running late. During this time, he attended the wedding of Nancy Geyer and Rufus Amory, son of the Loyalist merchant John Amory.
He next appeared at a ball at the Boston Concert Hall, where he danced exclusively with Mrs. Russell (wife of a wealthy Boston merchant). She unfortunately fainted during the last of their four “country dances.” According to Abigail Adams, the prince decided not to visit Massachusetts’ lieutenant-governor Samuel Adams and sent his aides instead. This created “some difficulty,” according to Henry Jackson. He did, however, dine with the widow of Founding Father John Hancock, who called him very charming. Edward then visited Cambridge to see Harvard College. He attended a social event in the home of Revolutionary War veteran Andrew Craigie. The latter, which served as George Washington’s headquarters during the war, can be visited today at 105 Brattle Street.
Prince Edward Pleases
Perhaps the most charming anecdote about Prince Edward’s time in Boston concerned a dinner in the home of the British consul. Edward told a story about an encounter he’d had with an elderly gentleman on his way from Northern New England. The man had said to him, “I hear you are King George’s son.” To which Edward replied, “They tell me so.” The American responded, “And, pray, how do you like this country?” “Very well,” said the prince. “And how do you think your father liked to lose it?” said the man. The prince, not missing a beat, replied, “Why, not half so well as I should like to live in it,” which pleased the man greatly.
Another gathering at the consul’s table saw Edward saluting the widow of a British officer. He thereby displeased the other women present, who’d received only a bow.
When the time came for Edward to depart, he took a special interest in the city’s French refugees. He offered them transport to the West Indies if they’d take it. Abigail Adams described his visit as “short” and said it was “best it should be so.” The city that gave birth to the American Revolution could only tolerate Edward’s royal presence for so long.
Andrew Warburton grew up in Bristol, England, and has lived in New England since 2009. His book, Fairies of New England: The Little People of the Hills and Forests, is forthcoming from the History Press (2024).
Images: Davis House, Photo by Magicpiano. Creative Commons Sharealike 3.0 license.