The death of Princess Charlotte

An engraving of Princess Charlotte Augusta

In November 1817, Britain waited with bated breath for news that the Princess Charlotte had safely delivered her firstborn child. The baby was to be third in line to the throne, and would make its arrival at Claremont, the princess’ Esher home.

Giving birth 200 years ago was a perilous undertaking. Antenatal care was primitive and the princess had already suffered two miscarriages. 

It had been previously announced that the baby was expected in October. But nothing happened until the evening of Monday 3 November 1817, when Princess Charlotte began a gruelling 50-hour labour that would last for two days and two nights.

An impessive medical team headed by Sir Richard Croft, a fashionable London accoucheur or male midwife, stood ready to assist her.

Sir Richard Croft
A painting of Sir Richard Croft
Sir Richard Croft

At 3am the next day, grooms galloped out of Claremont to summon the chief ministers of the crown, whose presence was required when an heir to the throne was about to enter the world.   
Croft was concerned. The princess was remarkably large and he thought she might be about to have twins. Her pains were unusually feeble and were doing little to advance the labour. For a moment he thought he might have to perform a forceps delivery, with all the risk that entailed for mother and child.  

But with the labour progressing, he abandoned any thought of using forceps, and at 9pm on Wednesday 5 November the princess gave birth to a well-formed son who weighed nine pounds. But he was stillborn.

All attempts to revive the infant, including applying chest pressure to it, plunging it in warm water, rubbing it with mustard and plying it with brandy, proved unavailing. Charlotte’s nurse wrapped the dead infant in a shawl and, suffused in tears, carried it into the breakfast room to show the assembled ministers. 

Princess Charlotte took the baby’s loss stoically. Exhausted and hungry, she sat up in bed with a tray of chicken broth, toast and barley water.

Then, suddenly, everything changed.

At a quarter to midnight, the princess began to feel sick, and complained of a ringing in her ears. Soon she became extremely restless, had great difficulty in breathing, and complained of severe abdominal pain. She then turned stone cold. Her doctors frantically applied warm flannels and hot water bottles, and Croft administered “twenty drops of laudanum in wine and water.” There was no more he could do. At 2.30am on Thursday 6 November, Princess Charlotte died. She was 21 years old.   

A memorial relief triptych of Princess Charlotte
A memorial relief triptych of Princess Charlotte
A memorial relief triptych of Princess Charlotte

To this day the princess’s death remains a mystery. She may have been a victim of pulmonary embolism, postpartum haemorrhage, or a rare metabolic blood disorder known as porphyria.   

When the poet Lord Byron heard the dread news in Venice, he’s said to have uttered an anguished scream that echoed over the Grand Canal. “The death of the Princess Charlotte has been a shock even here and must have been an earthquake at home,” he wrote to a friend.

Charlotte and the infant were buried by night at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor on 19 November 1817 in an eerie state funeral.

" One met in the streets people of every class in tears, the churches full at all hours, the shops shut for a fortnight, and everyone, from the highest to the lowest, in a state of despair which it is impossible to describe"
- Dorothea Lieven, wife of the Russian ambassador to London

With the princess laid to rest, a grieving nation demanded mementoes of her. A tidal wave of tea services, memorial medals, prints and sculpture, metalwork and plate, textiles and jewelry soon appeared. For more reflective tastes there were sermons, dirges, elegies, monodies, poems and “memoirs” recounting her life, death and funeral.    

Dr. Croft never recovered from the catastrophe at Claremont. Abandoned by patients, shunned by colleagues and criticised in the newspapers and medical press, he grew increasingly despondent. His decision not to use forceps to assist the Princess undoubtedly weighed on his mind. On 13 February 1818 while attending another difficult birth, Croft found a gun and shot himself - adding a third death to the double loss of Princess Charlotte and her child.