‘Alas, that England’s hope – her greatest pride,
Should thou in youthful loveliness have died!’
The Morning Post, 7 November 1817
Monday 6 November 2017 is the 200th anniversary of the death of Princess Charlotte, the granddaughter of King George III. She died at Claremont in Surrey after a protracted fifty-hour labour during which she delivered a stillborn son.
Charlotte Augusta of Wales was born on 7th January 1796. She was the daughter George, the Prince of Wales, who was Prince Regent from February 1811, and his wife Caroline of Brunswick. Charlotte was second in line to the throne and the only legitimate heir that the fifteen children of King George III and Queen Charlotte had managed to produce. George and Caroline’s marriage was arranged and the future King George IV took instant dislike to his bride and spent his wedding night drunk on the bedroom floor. Charlotte was born nine months after the wedding, but there was no chance of any more legitimate children as George kept himself, and Charlotte, as far away as possible from Caroline.
After a difficult upbringing punctuated by her parents constant warring, which necessitated her grandfather’s interference and stays with maiden aunts in Windsor, Charlotte had married Prince Leopold Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld in May 1816 and was said to be blissfully happy with her new domesticity.
Charlotte’s baby was due around 19 October, but she didn’t show signs of labour until the evening of 3 November. She was cared for by Sir Richard Croft, a fashionable male midwife, or accoucheur. After two days of labour, Charlotte’s personal physician, Doctor William Baillie, called on the assistance of obstetrician Doctor John Sims, but Dr Croft would not allow him to see Charlotte. Charlotte’s stillborn baby boy was born on 5 November and Charlotte appeared to recover well at first, but shortly after midnight went into decline. She was vomiting, cold to the touch, short of breath and haemorrhaging. She died during the early hours of 6 November and with her, two generations of Hanoverian succession.
The impact of Charlotte’s death cannot be underestimated, it undermined the stability of the monarchy and therefore the nation. The whole country went into mourning shocked at the loss of the most popular member of the royal family. The Cheltenham Chronicle reported that ‘there is no event that could have occasioned a more universal regret than the calamitous death of this most amiable princess.’ It was reported that the town of Kingston Upon Thames was the first place to set the example of ‘shutting their shops and houses upon the melancholy event of the death of the princess.’ Subsequently other areas of the metropolis followed suit, with ‘shops half closed and various places for public amusement shut’. Troops that had awaited eagerly in Carlisle to celebrate a royal birth with ‘smiles on their faces’ learned the news when the mail finally arrived on the Saturday after her death, resulting in ‘joy giving way to a deep heart-sickening sorrow.’
Charlotte’s elderly grandfather had been ill for years, presumed mad due to primitive medical theories of the age. His heir was his unpopular, dissipated and profligate son, who had only agreed to marry Charlotte’s mother to pay off massive debts. Charlotte’s death left the royal family without its heir and a constitutional crisis. Suddenly, as the royal line of succession opened up, Charlotte’s previously uninterested uncles, who were just as dissolute as their eldest brother, found suitable wives and embarked on securing the Hanoverian line. One newspaper highlighted the lack of royal heirs: ‘it is a remarkable circumstance that among the seven sons and five daughters of the king, not one has at present lawful issue to the crown…If it should so please providence that the immediate British branch should depart without legal successors this nation will have to look for the foreign relations of the royal family to fill the throne.’
Charlotte’s untimely death forced the Dukes of Clarence, Kent and Cambridge to marry and indeed the royal Dukes of Clarence and Kent celebrated a double wedding at Kew Palace in 1818. King George III’s seventh son, the Duke of Cumberland, also became involved in the race to beget an heir, resulting in four royal heirs born between March and May in 1819. As the Duke of Clarence’s daughter died in infancy, the succession after the royal brothers rested on Princess Alexandrina Victoria of Kent, who later would be crowned Queen Victoria.
Three months after Charlotte and her son died, her now infamous man-midwife shot himself, unable to live with the guilt of having two generations of royal heirs die under his care.
All images: Wikimedia Commons