Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales was laid to rest 200 years ago on 19 November 1817, and it can truly be said that the entire nation mourned. The 21 year old princess, second in line to the throne, had died of childbirth complications on 6 November, to the dismay of the kingdom. A royal death wouldn’t create such grief again until 180 years later, when Princess Diana was killed by a drink-driving accident in Paris in 1997.
So many people went into mourning that “linen-drapers ran out of black cloth” and the manufactures of “ribbons and other fancy goods (which could not be worn during the period of mourning) petitioned the government to shorten the period, fearing they would otherwise go bankrupt”. From dukes to the demimonde, from barons to beggars, people throughout the kingdom — and even in other countries — wore black as a token of their sadness.
The United Kingdom practically closed down for two weeks after her death. It was not only official government institutions, such as the palace, Royal Exchange, and the courts of law, that shuttered their windows and locked their doors. Ordinary shops, coffee-shops, tea houses, and victuallers (restaurants) closed in “an expression of feeling … in the same way as if the master, or a near family relation, had been lost.” Even the docks were closed to business to mark her passing, while all the ships in the harbors – foreign and domestic – flew their colors at half-mast.
This was no token bereavement; the young heir to the throne had been immensely popular and her death was crushing.
The hardest hit by Charlotte’s death were, of course, her family, especially her parents and her adoring husband, Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld.
Her father, the Prince Regent and future King George IV, tried to hold himself together, as was culturally mandated, and “struggled to hide the violence of keel affection, but he labored in vain, his thoughts agitated his entire frame and threw him into a paroxysm of agony” so severe that his doctors were called. The physicians decided to cup and bleed him, in the hopes of restoring his humors to harmony, which did not ease his emotional pain but was thought to have “composed the tumultuous raging of his distressed mind” and allowed him to function.
Her mother, Caroline of Brunswick, had to hear the news of her daughter’s death from a stranger, since her estranged husband didn’t bother to let her know about the catastrophe. The poor woman fainted with shock and horror on being told of her loss. This piece of cruelty did the Prince Regent no favors with the public.
Prince Leopold was utterly devastated by the loss of his bride. Dr Christian Stockmar wrote that Charlotte’s death was “the destruction at one blow of every hope and happiness” of the poor prince. In spite of being given both English citizenship and the right to the title of His Royal Highness, the unhappy Leopold returned to his native Bavaria. He wouldn’t remarry until after his ascension to the Belgian throne made it necessary more than a decade later. He wed Louise-Marie of Orléans in 1832, but his fondness for his late spouse reportedly remained undimmed. He would eventually name his only daughter Charlotte, in his first wife’s memory.
At 5:30 PM on Tuesday 18 November the hearse bearing the remains of the princess and her stillborn son processed through London from Claremont House to Windsor Castle, while mourning coaches conveying her distraught husband and members of her household followed behind. The procession was accompanied by the 10th Royal Hussars, and black-clad crowds lined the streets like respectful crows to say farewell to this adored princess and her baby.
Her coffin, with the small coffin of her son placed at the foot, lay in state at the Royal Lodge while visitors streamed by to pay their respects throughout the night and until the following afternoon. The remains of Charlotte and her son were then transported from the Lodge to St. George’s Chapel on the evening of 19 November, “flanked by the military, every fourth man bearing a flambeau,” where they were laid to rest with great ceremony.
The coffins of Princess Charlotte and her unnamed son were carried carefully inside the chapel and placed on a platform. A symbolic coronet and cushion was then put on top of Charlotte’s casket, to mark her as having been heir to the throne. After the funeral service and anthem, the coffins were carefully lowered into the Royal Vault, a tomb that had been built in 1810 as an intended resting place for King George III.
It is heartbreaking to think that Charlotte predeceased the grandfather who had loved her so much, and it is a blessing to know he was too mentally impaired by that time to understand that she had preceded him in death.
The Prince Regent, who probably wished that he too had gone mad by that point, was so grief-stricken that he couldn’t attend Charlotte’s funeral. His physicians feared that the heartbreak would literally kill him. Her husband, however, bravely attended the ceremony, although he appeared to be severely afflicted by his internal distress.
There was also a service for Princess Charlotte at St Paul’s Cathedral, and it was so thronged “by an unprecedented number of persons of both sees, the great part of them of a very respectable appearance” trying to get in the cathedral that they broke down the gates and smashed some of the panes of glass.
The tolling of the great bell of St Paul’s, from eight till nine, accompanied by the bells of the other churches, excited much feeling in the evening, when crowds in mourning assembled on Blackfriar’s bridge; and the solemn effect was increased by the stillness of the river, and by the moonlight.
Soon after her death the country was flooded by memorial tokens for Princess Charlotte Augusta. Songs and hymns were written in her memory, sheet music was composed, sermons were published on the topic of the loss, and elegies were printed throughout the nation. Reproductions of the princess’s likeness abounded. There were cheap black and white pencil drawings available in newspapers and as cards, watercolours and oils portraits for those who could afford them, and porcelain figurines of the lost heir. Her image was sold on everything from candlestick holders to jewellery to fireplace screens. Black enamel and gold rings engraved with her name and the date of her death were also popular reminders of the princess that Britain had lost.
Now, two centuries later, the national sorrow for the first woman described as “the people’s Princess” is almost forgotten. Few remember the young life cut off, and the loss of a woman called “the hope of Britain”. That is a reason for sorrow in itself.