Regency Bicentennial:   The Death of Princess Charlotte

This coming Monday marks a sad Regency bicentennial, for Princess Charlotte died on that day in 1817. But this tragic event was not just the heartbreaking loss of a young mother and her child in childbirth, it was also the loss of the hope of a nation. Everyone in Britain, with the probable exception of the Regent, was looking forward to the reign of this beloved princess. Certainly, she was the only legitimate heir produced by any of the thirteen adult children of King George III. Even more importantly, most people in Britain believed she would revive the honor and integrity of the monarchy, which had been significantly diminished during the regency of her self-indulgent and dissolute father.

The passing of Princess Charlotte and the hope of a nation . . .

Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales was the only child of the Prince Regent and his estranged wife, Caroline of Brunswick. In May of 1816, Princess Charlotte married the man she loved, Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg. By an Act of Parliament, Claremont House and its surrounding estate, located about fifteen miles from London, was purchased for the young couple. In August of 1816, after their honeymoon, the royal couple took up residence at their new country home. Though they did occassionally travel to London, Brighton and elsewhere to attend royal events, they preferred to live quietly together in the country. In the first few months of their marriage, Princess Charlotte suffered two miscarriages. In the spring of 1817, shortly after her twenty-first birthday, Charlotte found she was once again pregnant. This time, it was generally believed that she had every hope of carrying the child to term. Her physicians estimated that the child would be born in mid-October of 1817.

Though Princess Charlotte and Prince Leopold were very happy at Claremont, for many reasons, her father, grandmother and several senior government officials wanted her lying-in to take place in London. Certainly, it was assumed that the best medical care would be available to the princess in the metropolis. But, more important to a number of key government officials, who would be expected to witness the birth and attest to the legitimacy of the newborn child, London was much more convenient for them. Initially, the intent was to have the young couple take up residence in Buckingham House, but neither of them wanted to live in the same house as Queen Charlotte and the unmarried royal princesses. Charlotte had discussed the possibility of leasing or purchasing Marlborough House from the Duke of Marlborough. Located on Pall Mall, it would have been conveniently located in central London, but it would have given the young couple a house of their own in the capital. Parliament agreed, and voted £10,000 for the purchase and renovation of Marlborough House as the London residence for Princess Charlotte and Prince Leopold. However, the renovation work had been delayed and when Prince Leopold came to London to inspect Marlborough House in September of 1817, he found the house unfit for habitation, particularly for his wife, who was expected to give birth the following month. After some negotiation, it was agreed that Charlotte and Leopold could remain at Claremont for the duration of her confinement.

When her physicians paid Princess Charlotte a visit in early October of 1817, they came to the conclusion that the birth was not imminent and was likely still several days or even weeks away. The princess was in apparently good health and continued to enjoy her usual activities right though the month, though early preparations were being made for the birth. A wet-nurse was hired for the expected child, a healthy young women who was the wife of a respectable yeoman who lived near the Claremont estate. Princess Charlotte, herself, interviewed the woman herself before she was officially engaged. The new wet-nurse would, of course, soon be expecting her own child. The princess asked her if she would like to give birth at Claremont, but when the woman said she would prefer to give birth in her own home, Charlotte gave her permission to do so. In early November, several express riders were on standby at Claremont, day and night, with their horses kept saddled. Therefore, they could depart without delay to carry the happy news to the key cabinet members and the royal family as soon as the child was born.

By early November of 1817, the British public was eagerly anticipating the birth of a child to their much-loved princess. On Tuesday, 4 November, a public announcement was made that the royal birth was about to take place. The eager and hopeful public began planning the festivities by which they would celebrate this happy and momentous event. Then at ten o’clock on the evening of Wednesday, 5 November 1817, a bulletin was issued from Claremont House:

At nine o’Clock this evening H. R. H. the Princess Charlotte was delivered of a still-born male child. Her Royal Highness is as well as can be expected.

(Signed) BAILLIE. CROFT. SIMS. [Charlotte’s doctors]

Though the populace was deeply disappointed and saddened to learn of the loss of the baby prince, the news that their princess was safe and "as well as can be expected" gave them hope for the future. Nearly everyone throughout the kingdom prayed for her complete recovery and return to good health. However, all hope was dashed the following day, when a letter sent to the Mayor of London by Lord Sidmouth, the Home Secretary, was made public:

My Lord,—It is with the deepest sorrow that I inform your Lordship that H.R.H. the Princess Charlotte expired this morning at half an hour past two o’clock.

I have the honor to be, etc.

Because she was the presumptive Heiress to the throne of Great Britain, Princess Charlotte had the best doctors to care for her during her pregnancy. Unfortunately for the princess, knowledge of obstetrics at that time was much more primitive than it is today. Probably due to her two miscarriages, in the last months of her pregnancy, she was put on a strict diet which forbid any "animal food," essentially a vegetarian diet which included very little solid food. Apparently, it was believed such a diet would reduce the size of the baby and thus reduce risk and pain during the delivery. The princess was also subject to a regimen of blood-letting at regular intervals. Both of these practices were considered medically appropriate at the time, but almost certainly weakened her constitution during the course of her pregnancy.

When Princess Charlotte went into labor on the evening of Monday, 3 November 1817, her doctors quickly ascertained that the child was breech, that is, was not positioned properly for a normal, head-first delivery. However, Dr. Richard Croft, her primary physician, decided not to use forceps to reposition the child, or take any other action, instead, choosing to let nature take its course. After more than fifty hours in labor, the child, a boy, was finally delivered, but he was stillborn. Charlotte appeared to be "as well as could be expected" after enduring such a difficult and protracted labor. After more than two days without any food, she was given a glass of port, which she complained made her feel tipsy, but was then given some food. A few hours later, she began showing signs of distress. She complained of a pain in her stomach and began vomiting. Her breathing had become labored, her skin was cold to the touch and her pulse was found to be rapid but very weak. The doctors discovered that she was suffering from shock and a post-partum hemorrhage. Compresses were applied, but nothing could be done to stop the bleeding and within a short time, the princess was gone.

The public’s reaction to the death of Princess Charlotte was intense. Henry Brougham wrote that "It really was as though every household throughout Great Britain had lost a favourite child." Everyone in the realm went into deep mourning and it became nearly impossible to find black cloth or black ribbon in any of the shops across the country. Even the very poor found some bit of black cloth or ribbon with which to make a black arm band, in order to show their sorrow at the loss of the princess and her baby son. The official royal mourning period was two weeks, during which the Royal Exchange and the Law Courts were closed, as were the docks and most shops throughout the country. Many private homes also closed the window shutters as a sign of mourning. It is reported that even gambling dens and brothels were closed on the day of the funeral. There were memorial services held for the princess in nearly every church in the land.

Charlotte’s mother, Princess Caroline, was abroad and is said to have fainted with shock when the news of her daughter’s death was delivered. The elderly Queen Charlotte was devastated by the news of her grand-daughter’s death. Many believe it hastened her own death, which occurred just a year later. In his madness, King George III was oblivious to the loss of his only legitimate grand-daughter. The Prince Regent was reported to be so prostrate with grief that he could not attend the funeral. Princess Charlotte and her son were laid to rest together, in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle, on Wednesday, 19 November 1817. Her husband, Prince Leopold, and her uncles, the royal dukes, did attend Charlotte’s funeral. The Duchess of York, Charlotte’s aunt, set up a public subscription to raise money for a commemorative monument for her niece. The public responded in great numbers and more than £12,000 was raised. Though the monument, a cenotaph created by the noted sculptor, Matthew C. Wyatt, was supposed to have been erected in Hyde Park, the Prince Regent usurped the plan and demanded that it be erected in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle. Though there was great public outrage at his arrogant actions, he refused to relent and the cenotaph was erected in St. George’s Chapel.

Sir Richard Croft, Princess Charlotte’s accoucheur, was investigated in the aftermath of her death, but he was exonerated. Even so, he was strongly criticised for his failure to use forceps to aid the princess during the course of her labor, despite the fact that it was widely acknowledged within the medical community that forceps could be dangerous. Though the use of forceps might ease a birth, there was always the danger that they could cause serious and irrevocable damage to the child or the mother. Some also accused him of being asleep during most of Charlotte’s long labor. The Prince Regent, Prince Leopold and the royal family supported Croft and made it clear they did not blame him for Charlotte’s death. Nevertheless, Sir Richard was deeply troubled by what had happened, and confided to a friend that "My mind is in a pitiable state." Just three months later, in February of 1818, while preparing to attend another young woman about to give birth, Sir Richard Croft took his own life.

Literally hundreds of sermons were given, and later published, in the wake of Princess Charlotte’s death. Even more elegiac poetry and commemorative prose was published, memorializing her and often speculating on how her loss diminished the country or how much better the country would have been had she survived. Some writers used the loss of the princess to motivate the public to support the charities and philanthropic efforts she had supported in her life. In particular, many urged that more aid be given to destitute young mothers and/or orphan children. Others wrote solely for the purpose of generating some income by taking advantage of the great public interest in anything related to Princess Charlotte. But in the very depressed economic situation of Britain in 1817, many of those writers felt they had no other options by which to support themselves.

Along with a host of memorial writings about the deceased princess, many manufacturers turned their attention to churning out a wide range of souvenir commemorative items, all of which were in high demand among the heartbroken public. Portraits of the princess, and especially prints of those portraits, sold very well. In addition, one could find commemorative medals and medallions, as well as a vast array of mourning rings and other jewelry. Most of these pieces carried an image of the princess ascending heavenward, or the figure of Britannia, wracked with grief. Not to be outdone, most potteries produced a plethora of ceramic items which commemorated Princess Charlotte, from plates and bowls to complete tea and chocolate services, as well as candlesticks, tureens and punch bowls. Some of the more ambitious potteries also produced miniature ceramic busts of the princess.

Dear Regency Authors, the death of Princess Charlotte and her baby son was certainly a tragedy for her husband and the royal family, but it was an even greater tragedy for the people of Britain, who had placed all of their hope for the future of a fresh, respectable and responsible monarchy in her. It is difficult today to understand how her death devastated the country, but the grief felt by people then can be compared to the outpouring of grief after the death of Princess Diana. Any Regency romances which are set in the last months of 1817, or in early 1818, should take that into consideration. The mood of the country was somber, nearly everyone was wearing some kind of mourning and many people were concerned about the future of the country.

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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10 Responses to Regency Bicentennial:   The Death of Princess Charlotte

  1. gordon759 says:

    I have a small souvenir plate, with a portrait of the princess surrounded by a black border. It has been passed down through my family, quite possibly from 1817. Such items were certainly treasured family possessions, and would have been displayed in many, if not most, homes of the period.
    I know of at least one instance where a wealthy person, in this case the Squire’s wife, gave souvenirs of the princess to the poor people of her village.

  2. I took a slightly different perspective to Charlotte’s death from the viewpoint of a fourteen-year-old about to be included in a Christmas house party, who said “Oh, this is too bad, we shall have to be in blacks for the party!” [Jane and the Christmas Masquerades] and had to be reproved. I’ve assumed that for most people it would be similar to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, which grew to alarmingly maudlin extent and became seriously irritating for those of us who wanted to just get on with our lives. I wonder how many people in 1817/18 would have started to be irritated by the extent of the ‘moaning, hysterical sorrow’ [a line from ‘oh what a circus’ from the rock opera ‘Evita’] as with the hysteria over Diana? at least we weren’t forced into mourning clothes for Diana, but with the high mortality rate, one more enforced mourning period must have been extremely trying.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I do agree with you that mourning for Diana was way over the top. However, I got the impression that things were different for Princess Charlotte. The whole country had their hopes pinned on her as the best replacement for her father, whom nearly everyone loathed. So I think most people felt a real loss at her death, and were sincere when they chose to wear something black to mourn her. But I did not find any indication that their behavior ranged into the hysterical, they were just terribly sad.

      Percy Bysshe Shelley did write an article at that time in which, though he lamented the death of the princess, he pointed out that it was no more tragic than the execution of three men on the same day she died for their part in the Pentrich Uprising. He also noted that she was not the only young mother who died in childbirth, that it was an all too common occurrence across the country and something for which he felt the medical profession was not doing enough.

      Plus, from what I understand, enforced mourning only applied to the aristocracy and gentry, other folks seem to have been free to do as they pleased.



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