The Passing of a Princess — The Regency Trigger

This past March, I wrote about the upcoming bicentennial of the English Regency, and how I plan to mark the various two-hundredth anniversaries of significant events from my favorite period of history. The anniversary of the first of those significant events falls on Tuesday of next week, 2 November 2010. In 1810, the second day of November fell on a Friday, and it was a black Friday indeed for the country and more importantly, for the king.

How the passing of a royal princess precipitated events which led to the Regency in England …

King George III and his wife, Queen Charlotte, had fifteen children, nine sons and six daughters. They were, for the most part, affectionate, if sometimes overbearing parents. Considering the infant mortality rate of the times, they were very lucky that they only lost their two youngest sons as children. Prince Octavius was named thus because he was their eighth son. This little boy quickly became his father’s favorite, particularly since by the time of his birth, in 1779, his elder brothers, George and Frederick, were already in conflict with their father and were certainly not acting the dutiful sons. King George III doted on his high-spirited, blue-eyed, golden-haired youngest son. About a year and a half after Prince Octavius was born, his mother gave birth to yet another son, Prince Alfred. Sadly, this little boy died before his second birthday from complications of a smallpox inoculation, leaving his elder brother, Octavius, as his father’s favorite. Only six months later, in May of 1783, after a brief illness of only two days duration, Prince Octavius suddenly died, at the age of only four years.

Both the king and the queen were devastated at the death of their young son, coming only a few short months after the death of his baby brother. Though official state mourning was not required for the deaths of royal children under the age of seven, it is reported that the passing of these young boys deeply grieved both of their parents. But three months later, a new light came into their lives to ease the pain of their loss. At the Royal Lodge, in Windsor Great Park, on 7 August 1783, Queen Charlotte was safely delivered of a healthy daughter, her fifteenth and last child. The birth of the new princess was believed by many to be a sign of hope in the face of the loss of the two young princes and the American colonies. This little girl was christened Amelia, probably after her father’s aunt Amelia. The ceremony took place in the Great Council Chamber of St. James’s Palace, on 18 September 1783, the Archbishop of Canterbury officiating, with her eldest brother, the Prince of Wales, standing as godfather and her sisters, Charlotte and Augusta, standing as godmothers.

The pretty, playful little princess Amelia quickly became her father’s new favorite, and he began to call her "Emily" in private. For five years, little Emily knew the tender devotion of her papa. But in 1788, King George experienced his first serious episode of mental illness in the summer of that year and she was kept away from him. In December, Dr. Willis, who was treating the deranged king at the White House at Kew, requested that the young Princess Amelia be brought to her father. The king immediately recognized his beloved child, but became very agitated when he understood she was being taken away, and swore violently that he would never allow anyone to separate them, ever again. The king was eventually calmed and Princess Amelia was removed from his presence. By February of 1789, her papa had recovered his senses, but little Emily’s life would never be quite the same again.

The strange behavior of her dear papa, her mother’s distress and the anxiety of her siblings threw a pall over her once idyllic life. King George III required ongoing care, and Queen Charlotte decided her first loyalty lay with her husband. She dedicated herself to his care at the cost of the care and education of her youngest daughters. Thus, Amelia, along with her older sisters, Mary and Sophia, were sent away from the king and queen, living in various royal residences in the care of governesses and servants. They communicated with their parents and siblings primarily by letter, with only infrequent visits for several years. However, this living situation also gave the youngest princesses more freedom than their elder sisters had known during their childhood. As a result, they were considered to be somewhat wild in comparison to the more sedate older princesses.

As she grew older, Amelia was allowed to see her royal papa more frequently. She remained his favorite and she continued to adore him. They were always happy to be together. Amelia had been a healthy child, but when she was fifteen, she accompanied the royal family to the seaside resort of Weymouth. While there, she complained that the wind caused terrible pain to the "drumsticks in her ears," though the doctors were at a loss to determine the cause. Then, in 1798, she was diagnosed with what was described as "tuberculosis of the knee." Her doctors were able to treat this successfully, and by the time she was seventeen, she was once again restored to health.

Princess Amelia matured into a tall and slender young woman with a graceful and dignified air. She was described as kind and gentle, but with a bright and lively manner. She had also become an accomplished horsewoman and a benefactress to several young children in difficult circumstances. But her over-protective parents kept her isolated from others of her age. She was still much in the company of servants and other members of the royal household. In 1801, concern for her health saw her sent to Weymouth in the company of a governess and General, the Honorable Sir Charles FitzRoy, an equerry to King George, whom the king had appointed to attend the princess on her daily rides. Nearly twenty years her senior, he was a handsome, charming and worldly man. He was a great favorite with the king, who preferred to have him always in his presence. The king seemed to prefer the company of the general over that of his own sons and thus the general acquired the nickname "Prince Charles." But the king was willing to make the sacrifice of General FitzRoy’s company to ensure the safety of his beloved Emily.

Since riding had been expressly prescribed as part of the young princess’s health regimen, she was constantly in the company of General FitzRoy. Amelia was delighted with this turn of events, as she had nurtured a tendre for Sir Charles since she was sixteen. They soon became close and maintained their relationship surreptitiously after Princess Amelia’s party returned to Windsor. By 1803, their partiality for one another had come to the attention of her mother. Queen Charlotte was well aware there was no hope for the couple, for though General FitzRoy was descended from King Charles II, his descent was through the bastard line. He was not an eligible parti for a royal princess. The queen made that situation clear to her young daughter, but did not forbid meetings between the couple, primarily because it would have come to the notice of the king, something she was eager to avoid, should it trigger another episode of madness. By this time, King George was already beginning to loose his eyesight, which helped to protect him from the knowledge that his favorite daughter was in love with his favorite equerry.

It is believed the couple’s regard for one another never wavered, though they became even more circumspect when they met in public. They did maintain a private correspondence for many years which allowed them to sustain their relationship. General FitzRoy was known to be an honorable man, and Princess Amelia was a dutiful daughter, so it is unlikely that their relationship was ever fully consummated. But it is possible they were able to enjoy some light physical intimacy on occasion. All knowledge of this affair was carefully kept from the king, but evidence suggests that the Prince of Wales was aware of the relationship and sympathetic to the couple, as was the Duke of York.

For five years the couple continued in this way, unknowingly aided and abetted by the king himself. George III routinely placed Amelia in the care of General FitzRoy, for a ride in the park, a dance at a ball, or a game of cards. Meanwhile, they bided their time, waiting for the princess to reach her majority, of age twenty-five, at which time she could petition parliament to marry the man of her choice as was required by the Royal Marriages Act. By 1808, Amelia’s health was once more beginning to fail. She was showing clear symptoms of consumption, and was slowly but steadily growing weaker. She believed she would recover, as she had from previous illnesses and in consultation with her beloved Charles, the decision was made to delay the petition to Parliament until she was well again.

But Princess Amelia did not recover. Instead, she grew increasing more listless and weak. Her illness was ignored for some time by the queen, who believed it the result of severe love sickness and that it would eventually pass. The queen also did not like change, and did not wish to employ physicians other than those already attending at court, for fear of upsetting the king. And so, Amelia was regularly cupped and blistered on order of her physician, Sir Francis Millman, neither of which treatment did her any good. Several courtiers urged her to allow other doctors to see the princess, but the queen consistently refused. There are some who believed the queen was unwilling to dismiss Millman for fear of offending him, in light of the many royal secrets of which he was privy.

By 1809, Amelia had become almost a complete invalid, only able to leave her bed for occasional brief walks in the garden. All reports are that she was sweet and amiable throughout her long illness, showing a quiet and steady resolution and fortitude in the face of her suffering. Perhaps her greatest pain was that she was not allowed visitors outside her immediate family and thus was seldom able to see her dear Charles. However, with the connivance of her sisters Augusta and Mary, occasional clandestine visits by General FitzRoy were arranged. They were also able to continue to correspond, with the assistance of friends in the royal household who smuggled their letters for them.

The king began to realize the seriousness of his Emily’s illness when she was too weak to attend the celebrations for his jubilee on 25 October 1810. He then demanded reports from her doctors on her condition every morning at seven o’clock and again through the day every two hours. Though he was by now almost completely blind from cataracts, he was conducted to her room to visit her every day at three o’clock where they often discussed spiritual matters, particularly those relating to salvation. It is reported that she took much comfort from these conversations, though the king left her side each day in tears.

When Princess Amelia knew she was going to die, she commissioned the royal jewelers, Rundell, Bridge and Rundell, to make a ring for her father by which he might remember her. Mr. Rundell left her presence at twelve o’clock and they worked as quickly as they could, in order to have it ready for her father’s three o’clock visit the following day. It is said that one of Rundell’s men knocked up the French jeweler Lebarre at two o’clock in the morning to work on the principal part of the ring. She had them set a crystal which was very precious to her over a lock of her hair in a band set with diamond sparks. The inside of the gold band was cut with the inscription "Amelia" and "Remember Me." The finished ring was delivered to her at about a quarter to three the following day, just before the arrival of the king. She slipped the ring on his finger whispered, "Please wear this for my sake, and I hope you will not forget me." Her doting, grieving father replied, "That I can never do, you are engraven on my heart," and burst into tears.

Princess Amelia died quietly at Windsor in Augusta Lodge, with her sister Mary at her side, at about one o’clock on Friday, 2 November 1810, aged twenty-seven. That day was also the birthday of her brother, the Duke of Kent. She was laid to rest by torchlight on the evening of 13 November 1810, in the new royal vault in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor, even though work was not yet quite complete. Her father had selected as her funeral anthem the sixteenth Psalm, which he and his Emily had often sung together. But the king did not attend the funeral as he was too prostrate with grief. Nor did her beloved Charles attend the service, as he was severely ill with a fever, believed by some to be the result of grief. Neither the queen nor her sisters were present at the funeral, as it was not accepted for female relatives to take part in the funeral of a family member. All of her brothers were in attendance, however.

Princess Amelia left a will, in which she left the bulk of her possessions to General Sir Charles FitzRoy, making it clear her intention to marry him. But this was kept from the king, who was still having intermittent lucid moments, fearing this information would unbalance him. But by January of the following year, it was clear those brief lucid moments were over and after some debate in Parliament, the Prince of Wales was made Regent on 5 February 1811. Permanently deranged, blind from cataracts and suffering painfully from rheumatism, the old king lived out the next ten years of his life in seclusion at Windsor, where he often spoke of his dear son Octavius and his beloved daughter Emily. He began planning Octavius’s marriage when the young prince would have reached his seventeenth year, and for the remainder of his life, he believed that Princess Amelia was alive and happy and living in Hanover.

And so, the passing of a beloved royal princess precipitated her father’s final descent into madness and her brother’s rise to power as Regent of England. And the two-hundredth anniversary of that sad event is next Tuesday, 2 November 2010.

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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2 Responses to The Passing of a Princess — The Regency Trigger

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