Towards the end of the 18th century, the succession of the crown exercised the mind of King George III, at least before he went mad. His eldest son, George, Prince of Wales, had contracted a marriage with Mrs Maria Fitzherbert which, under the terms of the Royal Marriage Act, was invalid. The King’s other sons lived in happy domesticity with their mistresses and natural children. The search for a suitable consort for the Prince of Wales was on.
The choice fell upon Caroline of Brunswick, a woman for whom personal hygiene was inconsequential. She was brought to meet George, who on first sight of her remarked, “…I am not well, pray get me a glass of brandy.” Caroline, after taking her leave of the Prince said, “I think he is very fat and nothing like as handsome as his portrait”. Not only was the Prince fat, he was a slob, a glutton, a hedonist and an alcoholic.
Nonetheless, they were married, and the Prince performed his royal duty, his Princess remarking on the size of his manhood, further speculating rumours about her ‘innocence’. The pair separated shortly afterwards.
Nine months later, Caroline was delivered of a daughter, Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales, who became the next in line to the throne after the Prince of Wales. Her education was supervised, if that is an appropriate description, by her father with spasmodic attempts by her mother. Charlotte was, and remained, very popular with the citizenry; by all accounts she was a very feisty young woman.
After many flirtatious episodes and a failed attempt to hitch her to the Prince of Orange, Charlotte’s eye fell upon the distinctly impoverished Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld. During their wedding in 1816, Charlotte giggled when Prince Leopold vowed to endow her with all his worldly goods. But it was a very happy union, a love match.
Charlotte had a miscarriage soon after, but in in 1817 it was clear that she was again pregnant, with the pregnancy progressing. Her expected date of confinement was around 19 October. It wasn’t until the evening of 3 November that her labour started. She was attended by Sir Richard Croft, a male midwife or accoucher.
Her labour continued, and in the night of 4 to 5 November it was clear that this was very prolonged; her attendants sent for John Sims, an expert with obstetrical forceps. Sims wasn’t allowed to see Charlotte; forceps weren’t used. Around 9pm on 5 November, after a labour of more than 48 hours, Charlotte delivered a large but stillborn male infant. Somewhat later, Charlotte had a major, exsanguinating postpartum haemorrhage from which she died.
Charlotte was but twenty-one years of age.
Had she lived, and outlived her grandfather and father, she would have become Queen of the United Kingdom.
Some months after Charlotte’s death, which the press and public blamed squarely on Sir Richard Croft, he, Croft, attended another young woman in labour; during this, he shot himself fatally.
Charlotte’s death had two repercussions. Firstly, the Kingdom was without an heir beyond the Prince Regent and his brothers, none of whom had legitimate issue. The Royal Princes, Charotte’s uncles, hastily discarded their mistresses and sought legitimate wives. Prince Edward married Leopold’s sister Victoria, with whom he had a daughter, Alexandrina Victoria. This Victoria’s uncle Leopold, then the first King of the Belgians, was later instrumental in her marriage to his nephew, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.
Secondly, the question of the use of obstetric forceps was widely discussed. These forceps were an invention of a family of refugee French Huguenots, the Chamberlens, who had fled to England and who kept the secret of their application for more than a century. Various improvements were later suggested, particularly by the Scot William Smellie in the mid 18th century. Quite why they weren’t used to assist Charlotte isn’t at all clear; although associated with significant risks, their use in desperate situations, like hers, might well have been life-saving.