Sunday, May 15, 2011

Princess Charlotte of Wales and Memento Mori Jewelry

By on Sunday, May 15, 2011 7 Comments

Picture Source
Princess Charlotte of Wales (1796 - 1817) was second in line to the British throne after her father, George the Prince of Wales (the future King George IV). But she died suddenly at 21 while he was still Regent standing in for his father,  mad King George III.

Her untimely death changed the course of history. Had she lived, there would have been no Queen Victoria, no Victorian age, no Abdication Crisis, no Queen Elizabeth II and no Prince William for Kate Middleton to marry.

Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales was the only child of the Prince of Wales and his cousin and consort, Caroline of Brunswick.

The Prince Regent by Sir Thomas Lawrence, c. 1814.George, Prince of Wales via Wikipedia

The marriage was a disaster right from the start. Prinny, as he was known, agreed to marry Caroline under duress. He needed Parliament to up his allowance as a married man because he was so heavily in debt.

Alas, Caroline was a poor choice of bride. His mistress  influenced the pick to ensure she herself stayed a favorite.  Caroline had indelicate manners, rambled a lot and worse, rarely bathed. He was so repulsed by her when they first met, he called for brandy. She wasn't impressed either, describing him as "very fat and he's nothing like as handsome as his portrait. "

Caroline of Brunswick (1768-1821)Caroline of Brunswick via WikipediaThat they even got together long enough to produce Charlotte was a minor miracle. According to his letters, he managed to do the deed 3 times during the first 2 days of marriage. George whined, "It required no small (effort) to conquer my aversion and overcome the disgust of her person. " He himself was totally drunk on their wedding day. Caroline retorted, " he passed the greatest part of his bridal night under the grate, where he fell, and where I left him. " The couple separated soon after that. Nine months later, Charlotte was born.

The public loathed George and all his brothers for their extravagant ways. They spent money like it was water and expected the taxpayers to pay for it all. So not surprisingly, the public was sympathetic towards Caroline and considered  her the wronged wife,  much to his disgust.

As for Charlotte, she was placed under the care of servants. George had little contact with his daughter but Caroline was able to visit Charlotte.  Growing up, Charlotte was a pawn between her battling parents with George having control and the upper hand over visitation rights. Despite it all, Charlotte became an admirable and strong young woman.

William II of Netherlands
George did not treat his daughter well when she became of marriageable age. She did not have a sufficient clothing allowance and was raised under very strict conditions. She also incurred her father's fury when she refused to marry William, the son and heir to William I of the Netherlands.

George was so verbally abusive, Charlotte recounted, "He spoke as if he had the most improper ideas of my inclinations. I see that he is compleatly [sic] poisoned against me, and that he will never come round . " Charlotte was lukewarm about marrying a foreign king because  "I could not quit this country, as Queen of England, still less. "

So while insisting she will never leave England, she did eventually sign the marriage contract which took many months to complete. During this time she managed to meet other people including a certain Lieutenant-General in the Russian cavalry, the dashing but poor  Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld.

 Charlotte meets Leopold via Wikipedia

Picture source
It was to be a brief engagement. Charlotte's mother and the public did not approve of the betrothal.  The self-assured 18-year-old Charlotte let William know that if they married, he would have to allow her mother to live with them, knowing full well her father would oppose it. So when William said no, Charlotte took the chance to break off the engagement.

An angry George then had her confined to her residence. Charlotte ran away to her mother's house but was eventually persuaded to return under her father's care.

If Caroline harbored maternal feelings at all, it wasn't sufficient to keep her close to her daughter. Later the same year, her father told her Caroline was leaving England for the Continent. Caroline was so fed up with her poor treatment she agreed to leave the country in exchange for a hefty annual allowance. Charlotte was upset with the news. Little did she know she would never see her mother again.

King Leopold was expected to be their investorPrince Leopold via Wikipedia
The following year, after fancying a Prussian prince who wasn't interested, Charlotte settled on her second choice, Prince Leopold, for a husband. He was not only a "good tempered man with good sence[sic]   " but he was also incredibly easy on the eye.

He was the youngest son of the ruler of an impoverished principality in what is now modern Germany. It was a Coburg family tradition to marry well not just for money but for status and power.

When he came to London with the Russian Tsar, it wasn't only to celebrate Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo but for much loftier ambitions such as courting the heir to the British throne.  With his good looks and charming manner, Charlotte could not fail to notice him!

Wedding of Charlotte and Leopold
Their 1816 wedding was the stuff of fairy tales but he was the Cinderella in this story! During the ceremony, Charlotte reportedly giggled at the part when the groom had to declare his willingness to share all he owned....which was next to nothing! However, his financial state was soon to change. The British Parliament, who dearly loved the princess and hoped for a long line of fine monarchs from this union, granted Leopold 50,000 pounds a year ($2 million in today's currency).

Picture source
As with all royal weddings past and present, the bride's trousseau was much discussed in the press. Her Regency period wedding dress which featured silver lace over white silk, is now in the City Museum of London. Prince Leopold, known as the handsomest man in Europe, wore the scarlet uniform of a British general.

Neither loved the other at the start but the marriage was a success. Leopold charmed her and everyone in London society. Charlotte soon worshiped the ground he trod on. Charlotte was no beauty but Leopold grew to care very much for Charlotte and what she represented - a bright future for himself - and so was the perfect husband.

Their happiness did not last. After 2 miscarriages, Charlotte carried the third pregnancy to term. But her health was considerably weakened following the prenatal advice she received. No exercise, bloodletting and a strict diet were prescribed in order to reduce the size of the baby at birth. Baron Stockmar, Leopold's right hand man and a trained physician himself, was appalled but he held his tongue.

The baby was in a transverse lie (sideways not head down) so the poor woman struggled through 50-odd hours of labor. A c-section was not a viable option back then and the medical community at the time was not in favor of the newly invented forceps. Charlotte eventually gave birth to a large stillborn son. Assured his wife was doing well, a sad but exhausted Leopold took an opiate and went to bed. He was thus not present when Charlotte hemorrhaged and convulsed to death just a few hours later.

Sir Richard Croft, the chief obstetrician, was so upset with the outcome, he committed suicide a few months later.  Charlotte's delivery is thus known historically as "the triple obstetrical tragedy" where mother, baby and doctor all perished.

Leopold was devastated. Her father fell ill and her mother fainted when told the terrible news. There was also a tremendous outpouring of public grief after her death, the likes of which were not seen again for another 180 years when Diana, the Princess of Wales died in 1997. The British people had pinned all their hopes on a new beginning with Charlotte as they so disliked the Regent and his equally spendthrift brothers. A British statesman, Henry Bougham wrote, "It really was as though every household throughout Great Britain had lost a favourite child."

Shops closed for 2 weeks. Everyone went into deep mourning - even the very poor wore black armbands.  Those who could afford it wore mourning jewelry. Mourning jewelry was very popular in past centuries for reminding people of those who have passed away. Princess Charlotte's passing thus brought forth such memento mori (Latin for remember your mortality) displaying her image.

The loss was especially hard on Leopold. Baron Stockmar wrote years later, "November saw the ruin of this happy home, and the destruction at one blow of every hope and happiness of Prince Leopold. He has never recovered the feeling of happiness which had blessed his short married life. " Another contemporary wrote, "Without Charlotte he was incomplete. It was as if he had lost his heart. "

Leopold himself described his heart-wrenching grief in a letter,   "Two generations gone. Gone in a moment! I have felt for myself, but I have also felt for the Prince Regent. My Charlotte is gone from the country—it has lost her. She was a good, she was an admirable woman. None could know my Charlotte as I did know her! It was my study, my duty, to know her character, but it was my delight!  "

The loss of Charlotte also affected the succession future of the British monarchy. None of her father's brothers had any legitimate children to inherit the throne. So those who were still single rushed off to the altar with suitable brides.

 Edward, the Duke of Kent and Princess Victoria, Princess of Leiningren

Leopold did much to persuade Edward, Duke of Kent  and his 31-year-old widowed sister, Princess Victoria to marry.  Edward abandoned his long time mistress, Julie de St Laurent in order to do so. He and Julie once lived here in Halifax from 1794-1800.  All that's left of the Prince's Lodge today is the Round House or music conservatory.

DSC_1026The Round House by archer10 (Dennis) via Flickr

Edward's  marriage to Princess Victoria produced one child, the future Queen Victoria, who was born in  1819, two years after Charlotte's death.  Leopold was to be her distant mentor in latter years. He, together with the ever faithful Stockmar, also prepared his nephew, Prince Albert, for the same role he once yearned to be - as Prince Consort when he married his cousin.

As for Leopold himself, he did alright later on. Stockmar, the consummate diplomat, managed to persuade the Belgians to accept Leopold as their new king. He also brokered a deal with the British Government which somehow allowed Leopold to keep much of the vast annuity once granted to him.

We Two: Victoria and Albert: Rulers, Partners, RivalsReference
Gillian Gill (2010) We Two: Victoria and Albert: Rulers, Partners, Rivals

More British Biographies
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  1. Thank you for another fascinating text connecting political history with the art of jewelery. Yours stands out among all newletters on jewellery, as you really broaden your readers' horizons. Much appreciated, Judith. (via email)

  2. What a great story and it has a connection to the city I love (Halifax).

  3. How do you make history so interesting? Loved it!

  4. An amazing story.
    "The triple obstetrical tragedy" was certainly tragically humorous in the fact that, though mother and infant often died during childbirth back in those days, very seldom did it also result in the physician's untimely death.

    I often wonder if our destinies are preordained as even the Royals (supposedly put on the throne by the power of God) had little control over their fate. To die at 21 seems all too young but perhaps it was just meant to be ... her destiny.

  5. I really love your history lessons! (via email)

  6. It's a forgotten story as it happened almost 200 years ago but her passing really did change what came after. There would have been no Prince William for Kate Middleton to marry!

    Yes, infant and maternal mortality was high in those days. But what is shocking is women in poorer parts of the world still die of postnatal hemorrhages. The most dangerous time for a new mother is the period right after delivery.