Sir William Knighton: Prinny’s Éminence Grise?

Over the years, I have read a number of biographies of George IV, as well as biographies of some of those who made up his circle. There were always brief, sometimes vague, references to one shadowy member of that circle, Sir William Knighton. But the substance of the man always seemed just out of reach. I could never get a good picture of who he really was or his true position in the Regent’s household. I had the sense that Knighton may have been Prinny’s éminence grise, just as Friar Leclerc had been to Cardinal Richelieu. But there was never enough information on Knighton to know for sure. Now there is.

In 1976, Dr. William I. C. Morris, an eminent doctor and professor of obstetrics and gynecology in Manchester, wrote a brief biography of Knighton, entitled "Sir William Knighton:  The Invisible Accoucheur." That article was the first, and only, biography of William Knighton written since Knighton’s death. But that article was published in the Manchester Medical Gazette, which was not widely circulated outside the medical community. Thus, there has, to all intents and purposes, been no biography of William Knighton available to scholars and those of us who are interested in Regency history, particularly of the people who surrounded the Regent himself. Until now. A few weeks ago, I received an email from Charlotte Frost, a historian who has written the first full biography of William Knighton in the nearly two centuries since his passing. She asked if I would like to review her new book, and sent me a copy when I replied that I would. Those of you who have corresponded with me privately know that I do not pull my punches regarding my opinion of Regency research materials, regardless of how I come by them, nor will I do so here.

What I think of Charlotte Frost’s new book, Sir William Knighton:   The Strange Career of a Regency Physician

I think Charlotte Frost must have the patience of a saint, and she must be deadly with jigsaw puzzles, because that is essentially what this biography of Knighton is, the painstaking piecing together of all the available details of his life from many dozens of disparate sources. Though his wife had begun a "memoir" of his life in his later years, and published it after his passing, it was written for Knighton and his contemporaries, with no intention of rocking any boats or upsetting any apple-carts with any pesky, inconvenient facts. Frost has consulted many diverse contemporary sources to glean all the information they contained on Knighton, thus allowing her to fill in the blanks and present a more fully rounded picture of his life. For those life events for which she did not have specific personal information on Knighton, such as his apprenticeship and his time at university in Edinburgh, she studied those who had similar experiences at approximately the same time and place, to provide as much detail as she could about what those experiences must have been like for Knighton.

Something I particularly appreciated about this book was Frost’s presentation of what can be considered the Dramatis personæ of her biography, in the Introduction. There were quite a number of Williams in the Knighton family; besides himself there was his grandfather, his father, his son and grandson. There was also a coterie of Dorothys and Dorotheas, including his mother, his wife and his daughter. Before the story opens, Frost explains who was who, and provides them each with a unique identifier which she uses throughout the book. She does the same with a number of the other major characters in Knighton’s life who acquired titles or for any other reason had more than one name over the course of their lives. Thus, the reader is easily able to keep track of just who is being discussed at any given time, without interrupting the flow of the narrative.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this biography is that Frost actually knows more about Knighton’s origins than he did himself. He grew up believing his father, who had died when he was very young, was an alcoholic and a failure. That belief had a powerful impact on Knighton’s personal philosophy and how he lived his life. Yet Frost’s detailed research showed that Knighton’s father was neither a wastrel nor a drunkard. In fact, William Senior was a hard-working and prosperous farmer. But believing the opposite, Knighton worked very hard to make a success of his life, apparently in order to be as unlike his mistaken perception of his father as possible. He surely succeeded beyond even his wildest dreams, becoming a physician and eventually one of the closest confidants of the man who would become King George IV of England. But was he a power-broker, the man who pulled the strings of a puppet king? Was he Prinny’s éminence grise?

In a word, no. After reading Frost’s biography, it is clear to me that Knighton was a decent, hard-working man, loyal nearly to a fault, who did his best to serve his king. Regardless of the fact that that king was a spoiled, indolent, irresponsible spendthrift and unmitigated hypochondriac. Though Knighton replaced the man who had been Prinny’s private secretary, he never held that post himself, as the position was abolished when the previous holder departed. Yet Knighton did all the work of that position and more. He often had to coax and cajole George into simply doing his duty as the head of state, reading and signing government documents, meeting with the members of his Privy Council, attending Parliament, &c. Knighton also took over and sorted out the royal finances, eventually paying off the bulk of the enormous debt George had incurred with his lavish spending. But it does not appear that Knighton tried to influence George in terms of political or governmental policy, despite what many of his rivals, adversaries, or the press, said of him. He also handled many delicate matters for George, not the least of which was Harriette Wilson‘s attempt at blackmail when her memoirs were being published. My take on reading this biography was that Knighton was more George’s fix-it man than he was a malign influence on the throne. And he did it all quietly, discreetly, protecting his monarch as much as he could, even at the cost of his own reputation, and to some extent, his health.

Frost also provides an interesting picture of Knighton’s early life, how the farmer’s son became a successful doctor in London. And it was as a doctor that he initially entered Prinny’s household. For the first few years, he did act as one of George’s physicians. It seems that the Prince Regent soon developed great confidence in Knighton’s skills. So much so that perhaps he put the life of his own daughter at risk. In his book, Charlotte & Leopold:   The True Story of the Original People’s Princess, James Chambers noted that when Charlotte was expecting, Leopold was advised to have Sir William Knighton attend her, as he was acknowledged as being the best accoucheur in London. But the Regent mandated that Sir Richard Croft should attend the princess. Croft was a fashionable accoucheur, but he had significantly less real medical training than did Knighton. Did Prinny, a confirmed hypochondriac, make that decision so he could keep Knighton by his side, unwilling to be without his physician’s full-time attention? We can only wonder what the outcome might have been, had Knighton been attending Charlotte. As George came to more fully trust Knighton, he gave him more and more responsibility outside the medical sphere, though he seems never to have forgotten that Knighton was a medical man and took advantage of those skills when it suited him for as long as Knighton was in his service.

I do take mild umbrage with the characterization of the flourish on the lower-case "s" in Knighton’s handwriting as "irritating." Though I have not seen the documents myself, I suspect he was actually writing in the conventional style of his time, using the long s form, just as any of his contemporaries would have done. If he had not done so, those of his own time might have been irritated when trying to read what he had written. Beyond picking that tiny nit, I found this is a well-researched and well-written biography of an important figure in the household of George IV. A figure who, until now, has kept to the shadows, eluding the spotlight. Charlotte Frost has shone that spotlight full on him and she has revealed a man who rose from orphaned farmer’s son to become one of the closest confidants and reliable supports of the King of England. A man of natural intelligence, strong character and high morals who employed his considerable talents in the service of his king and country, even though his efforts were not appreciated by many during his lifetime. I found I liked him, very much.

There may be some scholars and academics who will disparage the lack of footnotes or end notes in this book. However, Frost refers to her sources in the text, many of which are original materials, so I did not find the lack of notes a deficiency. I was very impressed by the bibliography, which is substantial and well-organized. As a life-long bibliophile, I care a great deal about the physical aspects of books. Though Sir William Knighton:   The Strange Career of a Regency Physician, is published by a small press, it is on good quality paper, and printed with a clean, legible type-face. The book is soft-bound, with a nicely designed cover. Knighton’s portrait as a man in his prime, by Thomas Lawrence, is on the front cover, and his portrait by David Wilke as an older man is on the back, both in color. Knighton was a friend of both artists, so these portraits were not just records of his appearance by disinterested painters. Both portraitists knew him, and each seems to have captured the honest, serious nature of their subject on canvas.

I enjoyed reading Charlotte Frost’s biography of Sir William Knighton, not only for the clear picture of the man she portrays, but also for the ambiance of the time which she provides. If you are interested in how a man might rise from farmer’s son to royal intimate, or you want to know more about the inner workings of the regal household, you will be very pleased with Sir William Knighton:   The Strange Career of a Regency Physician. You can acquire your own copy from Authors Online, which offers the book in both hard copy and ebook formats.

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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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24 Responses to Sir William Knighton: Prinny’s Éminence Grise?

  1. Charles Bazalgette says:

    Thanks for the review and for bringing this book to my attention. It looks as if it rehabilitates the man, who was widely regarded as something of a snake and Lady Conyngham’s puppet. It looks as if a lot of people were jealous of a man who was able to have such influence over the Regent. That influence was seemingly for good. I must have a read of this book.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I was very surprised when I read the book, as I had the same opinion of Knighton which you did. But once I read Ms. Frost’s biography, my impression was that all the bad things which were believed about him were due to what amounts to libel by contemporaries who either disliked him, or were jealous of his position and accomplishments. Knighton simply had too much dignity to make any attempt to refute the things that were said and written of him, he just ignored them and went about his business. And, he also suffered under the handicap of not being from an aristocratic family. It is obvious from the biography that many of the ton simply did not like him because of his humble origins.

      Knighton seems to have tolerated Lady Conyngham and her family, because Prinny was attached to them. But he certainly did not go out of his way to please her. In fact, he tried to rein in some of her spending, or George’s spending on her. That cannot have made Knighton points with her, but without him, George’s debts would have been even more excessive, so England should have been grateful to him, rather than lampooning him.

      In my opinion, George did not deserve such a loyal and dedicated man of business as Knighton so clearly was, but I doubt Knighton would agree with me. He was very loyal, and he took his responsibilities very seriously. Too bad others around the King did not appreciate much of what Knighton did.

      I think you will enjoy this book.

      Regards,

      Kat

  2. Charles Bazalgette says:

    I read the earliest bio of Knighton, published soon after his death. It had nothing about any ill-feeling, jealousy etc as far as I recall. Perhaps it needs to be revisited and taken as more fair and accurate than it has been given credit for.
    I found it particularly interesting that Prinny would not allow Knighton to attend the confinement of Princess Charlotte. It might have made a big difference to history, as well as saving the life of Sir Richard Croft.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Then you would have read the Memoirs, written by his wife, with input from Knighton. That was, of course, one of the primary sources which Ms. Frost mined for her biography. But as she noted in her introduction, it was written for his family and friends, with no intention of offending the surviving royal family with any unpleasantness. And, as Knighton was advising his wife as she wrote it, my guess is that he would not lower himself to try to refute comments about him which he knew were untrue. He also seems to have kept some things from her, which never made their way into the Memoirs.

      On the subject of Knighton vs. Croft, that is not in Frost’s biography, but was my conjecture, as I had recently read Chambers’ book on Charlotte and Leopold. Chambers wrote that Leopold was advised to request Knighton, but there is no documentary evidence of whther or not he did so. Prinny must have known that Knighton was the more experienced and better trained physician, yet he chose Croft to attend Charlotte. To me, that smacks of extreme selfishness, wanting to keep Knighton available for himself. It is, however, also possible, that Prinny thought he was doing the right thing by having the most fashionable man attend Charlotte. She, apparently, had no say in the matter whatsoever. Sheesh!

      =^..^=

  3. Charles Bazalgette says:

    Yes, and it probably wasn’t Croft’s fault that she died, though he doesn’t seem to have been as attentive as some people thought he should. Didn’t stop him falling into a depression and blowing his brains out though. It sounds like the selfish hand of Prinny, I agree.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      You may be less forgiving of Croft if you read Chambers’ book on Charlotte and Leopold. Croft put her on a “lowering” diet for over a month before the child was due to be born, which certainly did not do her any good, so he may very well have contributed to her death. Knighton made it a point not to do that when his own daughter was expecting.

      And, Croft did not even have the good grace to blow his brains out at home. He did it in the home of a patient. According to Chambers, he went down to the library while the woman was in the early stages of labor, poured himself a drink and apparently, came across a gun belonging to the woman’s husband. He sat down in a wing chair, put the gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. Not exactly considerate of that patient, either.

      Yes, I think the man was in a great deal of emotional pain, probably some of it guilt over the death of Charlotte and her child, but to snap, just like that? There must have been more than that going on with him.

      Regards,

      Kat

  4. Charles Bazalgette says:

    Funny, the conflicting stories about his death. I have read the inquest details in The Times. It says in fact that he had been seen to be very depressed for many months. He attended a confinement at a patient’s house on the night of 5 November 1817 and it seems to have been a long labour. He was given an upstairs room in which to rest, and some time after he retired, shots were heard. He had used two pistols and was not surprisingly very dead when found. This implies that he had been carrying the pistols around with him in his bag, prepared for a moment when he would be at his lowest ebb. I agree it was not so good for the wallpaper. I think his treatment of Charlotte was more down to ignorance than anything else.

  5. Charles Bazalgette says:

    Sorry – got the date wrong – it was Friday 13 February 1818

  6. Charles Bazalgette says:

    I have dug out all of The Times reports and will transcribe them and probably blog them to set the record straight.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Sounds like a good plan! Croft also deserves a fair hearing, just as did Knighton. And clearly, there may be more to this story than was presented in Chambers’ book.

      Thanks for your persistence.

      If you want to post back here when you publish on your blog, you are most welcome to do so.

      =^..^=

  7. Charles Bazalgette says:

    Will do, Kat. I am transcribing the reports now. Even The Times got all sorts of things wrong at first. It was only at the final full inquest that the full story emerged. The other stories were probably circulated by his family as less shocking than the truth – for example that it was an impulse because the (loaded) pistols just happened to be lying around. Quite the opposite was true as you will see…

  8. Charles Bazalgette says:

    Dear Kat,
    Many thanks for stimulating me to dig all this stuff out. It is Friday afternoon and things were a bit slow work-wise, so I was able to put the blog about Croft together. I think this is probably the fullest account ever published.
    See:
    http://chasbaz.posterous.com/the-tragic-death-of-sir-richard-croft
    Best wishes,
    Charles

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      WOW!!! Nice work, Charles! As you say, your blog post may well be the most complete collection of all this material in one place. And, I was very pleased to read that the lady who was in labor when all this happened was doing well. I did wonder what had happened to her.

      Thanks for setting the record straight!

      Kat

  9. Charles Bazalgette says:

    Thanks, Kat! Unfortunately your comments directly on my blog were lost because Posterous decided to make a duplicate blog. I was able to delete this today but the comments went with it.

    I was reading ‘Prinny and His Pals’ in more detail last night. While we agreed that much of it doesn’t look too new, some of the later chapters have some merit and actually made me feel a bit fonder of George. Anyway, he has a chapter on Knighton (a Sanctimonious Companion). He does describe his achievements but you do later see words like ‘insufferable’ and ‘grasping’ emerging later. It will be interesting to read Frost’s book since there are still signs of attitude showing in Ambrose’s.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I will revisit your blog when I get a chance, and try to recreate my original comment. It was mostly about the drawing of Croft you posted.

      Frost did include the Ambrose book in her bibliography, but after reading her biography of Knighton, my take is that Ambrose was only parroting what Knighton’s enemies were saying about him, which were found in many letters and diaries of the era. I don’t think he spent any time researching Knighton himself, certainly not to the extent that Charlotte Frost has done. I do think you will enjoy reading her biography of Knighton, I know I did.

      Regards,

      Kat

  10. Charles Bazalgette says:

    I re-added the picture, which seemed to have vanished – yet another Posterous feature…
    Your remark about the parrot reflects my reaction too. Why are we so nasty to Ambrose? Don’t answer that!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Glad you were able to put the picture of Croft back. It is, to the best of my knowledge, the only picture of him. It is nice to have it there with the sad story of his passing. Thank you again for taking the time to transcribe and post all that information.

      I will not answer your last question, as you already know my opinion of Ambrose. Meow!

      =^..^=

  11. I wish I’d done more work on this. It’s a defining moment in the Regency, and several people have asked me about it.

    The choice of Croft rather than Knighton is narrated in Mrs Herbert Jones’s ‘The Princess Charlotte of Wales’. Mrs Jones wrote that Knighton was ‘personally known’ to Princess Charlotte’s close friend, Lady Ashbrook, who in November 1816 had given birth to a daughter to whom Charlotte was godmother. According to Mrs Jones, Lady Ashbrook recommended Knighton to Charlotte. Believing that Charlotte had followed her advice, she was appalled to learn of Croft’s appointment. Several biographies of Princess Charlotte use this account but, as I could not corroborate it and Mrs Jones did not publish until 1885, I rejected it as hearsay. However Mrs Jones is more reliable than I first thought. A member of her husband’s family was miniaturist to Princess Charlotte, and she had access to the correspondence of and probably met Lady Ashbrook, who died in the year of publication aged 95.

    Incidentally, I have just discovered in Franco Crainz’s ‘An Obstetric Tragedy’ (1977) a revealing letter from Knighton to Croft written three days after Princess Charlotte’s death. Knighton had seen the Prince Regent and several of Charlotte’s close friends and reassured them that Croft’s management of her pregnancy had been correct. He advised Croft, ‘You have nothing to do, but to be quiet, and the whole thing will be satisfactorily got under.’ Yes, that’s right, ‘under’ , not ‘over’.

    PS: I do look forward to your posts, Kat. Thank you for them.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Thank you for taking the time to post all these new references. New to me, at least, and probably to others who have posted comments here.

      I think it is very indicative of Knighton’s professional courtesy and innate kindness that he would write such a letter to Croft. It is a pity that Croft did not follow “Dr. Knighton’s orders” and allow himself to “get under it.” Based on the detail which you provided in your biography regarding the way childbirth was managed at the time, it would seem that Croft pretty much followed the accepted practice of the day. Women of today, however, can only be thankful that medicine has come such a long way since then!

      Also, thank you for your kind words regarding the articles posted here. I am glad to know that you enjoy them.

      Regards,

      Kat

  12. Charles Bazalgette says:

    This is most interesting, Charlotte. I would welcome the opportunity to check out these sources and maybe quote a little from them in my effort. My gggggfr’s connection with Croft is that he was one of the doctors who treated his son. I have a copy of a letter that Louis wrote to Knighton in 1823 plaintively asking for the remaining 10% of his debt (withheld by Parliament) to be paid, as had been promised by Prinny.
    The question of Croft’s ‘starvation’ of Charlotte during her pregnancy is one which bothers many people. Was that accepted practice, would Knighton have done the same, and did it weaken her? The accounts I have read suggest that it was the presentation of the baby and the lack of use of forceps by Croft that was critical. Plus the probable porphyria.
    I really plan to read your book, Charlotte!
    Best wishes,
    Charles

  13. Charles Bazalgette says:

    Further to this, the Ashbrook/Ashworth story and the question of starvation also appears in
    The beloved princess, Princess Charlotte of Wales, by Pearce, Charles E., Published 1911

    “Princess Charlotte’s persistent ill-luck mysteriously pursued her to the last. When she was expecting to crown her hopes and those of her husband, and the question of her medical attendant became of importance, her intimate friend Lady Ashworth urged her to have Sir William Knighton , an accoucheur of some eminence. The matter was apparently settled, and Lady Ashworth went away to Rome. When she returned she found, to her dismay, that the Princess had, upon the advice of a lady, decided to appoint Sir Richard Croft. It was too late to alter the arrangement, and Croft, a pompous, vain, and self- opinionated man, entered upon his duties. Stockmar, who was part of the household at Claremont, de- scribes him as ” a long, thin man, no longer very young, fidgety and good-natured, seems to have more experience than learning or understanding.” Croft had a craze for lowering the physical strength of his patients, and this suicidal course was pursued with the Princess Charlotte. Miss Murray tells that the Princess was accustomed to have a mutton-chop and a glass of port for lunch. Croft did away with this, and substituted tea and bread and butter. She became weak and depressed, and one day a friend found her in tears. This mistaken treatment was continued for weeks. The calibre of Croft’s mind can be guessed from his foolish remark in reference to his suggestion that the Princess should wear no stays : ” A cow does not wear stays, why should the Princess Charlotte ? ”
    Her life was thrown away, for when the supreme moment was at hand, weak as she was, she was un- sustained for fifty hours by any kind of nourishment in the way of food ; the obstinate and self-deluded accoucheur thinking it much better that she should not eat. The baby — a boy of unusual beauty — was born. It was dead, and Croft tried to bring back life, but in vain. Meanwhile the mother was left to herself, for the accoucheur refused to have any other doctor present. Not even any of Charlotte’s ladies were with her, only the nurse.”

  14. Good point, Charles, about how Princess Charlotte might have fared under Knighton.

    Judith Schneid Lewis (‘In the Family Way. Childbearing in the British Aristocracy, 1760–1860’, 1986) portrays a profession still influenced by the ancient doctrine that the body contained four humours – yellow and black biles, phlegm and blood – whose imbalance caused ill health. Most pregnant women were considered to have too much blood, hence the lowering regimen of bland food, no eggs or meat, and cool bathing. However Knighton had no hesitation in allowing his heavily pregnant daughter to eat boiled mutton. Croft’s diet for Princess Charlotte also included meat, allowing one plainly cooked portion a day.

    Accoucheurs bled pregnant women in the belief that they were restoring the body’s natural balance, and I believe that Knighton would have bled Princess Charlotte for a variety of symptoms. Lewis identifies one patient bled repeatedly by Knighton during her pregnancy. In addition Knighton recommended bleeding for a child with a serious chest infection, and advised his wife to use leeches for what I would call flu-like symptoms.

    As to whether Knighton would have acted differently from Croft during the Princess’s prolonged labour, I read somewhere that Knighton’s close friend and colleague, Robert Gooch, successfully induced contractions in a sluggish uterus by pouring a jug of cold water over his patient’s stomach. But I can’t remember the reference, and it is by no means certain that Knighton would have used Gooch’s technique.

    In Georgette Heyer’s ‘A Civil Contract’, Knighton replaces Croft as the heroine’s accoucheur and places her on a more generous diet, much to her benefit. I wish I’d looked at the Heyer archive.

  15. I have just written a review of Charlotte’s book at http://chasbaz.posterous.com/review-sir-william-knighton-the-strange-caree. Not sure it’s as good as Kat’s but I hope it helps!

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