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London's Tragic Princesses – A Country in Mourning

Following the recent publication of the autobiography of Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, it put me in mind of the tragedy of the death of his mother, Diana, Princess of Wales. I recall that I was out of the country on holiday in the preceding days. Back then, in 1997, there was no constant news and very little news of England when abroad. I recall flying back to London and, on returning to my home, passed a newsstand covered in images of Diana, Princess of Wales on holiday. The photos depicted a woman having a good time abroad and enjoying the sunshine. However, the headlines were so full of malice that it stopped me in my track and said to my travelling companion, “can’t they leave that woman alone? This nastiness is going to lead somewhere very dark.”

I awoke the next morning to news of her death.

I had lived in Kensington not far from her Kensington Palace home for 10 years and had, on occasion, seen the Princess in the neighbourhood or at work. One day I was cooking in my restaurant when my manager told me that Princess Diana was here with the boys. They requested fish and chips. It wasn’t on the menu, but I quickly whipped up a beer batter and got some good cod out of the fridge. I quickly pulled together some homemade tartar sauce. I believe I was told at the time that it was William’s birthday. I was happy to play a small part in their celebrations.

After the announcement that morning in August 1997, I dressed and walked over to the Palace. I had a small bunch of flowers and was one of a few dozen people who had started to gather. It was incredibly sad, but people were also remembering the good times; there were tears but also smiles. Within days the small display of flowers grew to an enormous sea of colour and the whole country seemed to be in full mourning. It put me in mind of the tragic death of another princess almost 200 years earlier.

Portrait of Caroline of Brunswick
Caroline of Brunswick

In 1795 George, Prince of Wales (later George IV), was wed to his first cousin, Caroline of Brunswick.

All royal marriages are acts of political expedience and none more so than the marriage of an heir to the throne. Caroline’s father had an army and King George III needed soldiers. Besides, Caroline was King George’s favourite niece (the daughter of his sister Augusta). Who better to control his wayward son?

Young George had already been married in secret ten years earlier to Mrs Maria Fitzherbert, a catholic twice widowed. The marriage fell foul of the Royal Marriages Act of 1772 and had to be kept secret. King George had not given his consent and was not informed. The marriage was quietly hushed up and never publicly acknowledged. When Caroline and George, first cousins, finally met it was clear to all that this was going to be no fairy-tale marriage. George could barely get out a word in his horror at seeing his future bride. He demanded a brandy and left the room. Caroline asked the attendants if he always was like that. She noted that she thought him very fat and not nearly as attractive as his portrait led her to believe.

Portrait of Prince of Wales (later George IV)
Prince of Wales (later George IV)

The marriage did go ahead and in the fortnight (yes, you read that right – just two weeks) that they lived as husband and wife Caroline did manage to conceive. Nine months later baby Charlotte Augusta was born.

Princess Charlotte was the hope of the nation. King George III suffered from bouts of mental illness and was rarely seen in public. In 1811, George, Prince of Wales, took over the throne, ruling as the Prince Regent, on his father’s behalf. King George III was miserly, the Prince Regent could not have been more different; he soon embarked on building himself palaces, buying the finest clothes and horses, and entertaining himself with fine food, drink, women, and gambling. For us, it’s hard to imagine a monarchy that doesn’t care even a little about public opinion.

In the background, young Princess Charlotte grew up. Everyone loved her and none more so than her father. She was tall, robust, and good-looking, not clever but very kind. After calling off an engagement to the poorly matched William of Orange, Charlotte married Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg in 1816. She was 20 years old, and the two newlyweds set up a country house at Claremont in Esher, Surrey, as well as a townhouse on the Mall, Marlborough House (you can learn more about their London home on our self-guided tour of Westminster).

Princess Charlotte marrying Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg
Princess Charlotte and Prince Leopold

The Daughter of England as she was often known, was finally a woman and free of her warring parents. The country celebrated. Surely a legitimate heir would soon follow.

Sure enough, in a short time, a pregnancy was announced. Charlotte and Leopold prepared for the coming child at their beautiful house refurbished by Sir John Soane with landscaped gardens by Capability Brown (a combination that makes me weep with envy). They were the picture of a loving couple looking forward not just to a child but an heir to the throne. Finally, in November of 1817, on a walk through the grounds of Claremont, the Princess started to feel that the baby was on the way. She entered the house, threw down her bonnet and coat, and climbed into bed. The Lord Great Chamberlain, Lord Chancellor and Prime Minister were all summoned.

Portrait of Princess Charlotte of Wales
Princess Charlotte of Wales

At 7 am the party were called into the bedroom to witness the birth. At 9 pm the Princess gave birth. Labour had lasted for 50 hours. It was a boy. Stillborn.

Charlotte and Leopold were obviously devastated but knew that other children would come; they were both young and they loved each other. They were going to be brave for each other. The household settled into a period of mourning and healing. It didn’t last long. In the middle of the night, Charlotte awoke with terrible stomach pains. The doctor was called back but it was too late. An hour later ‘the Daughter of England’ died of a haemorrhage.

The country plunged into a state of national mourning. The people’s feelings were exacerbated by the dislike they held for her father. The country also lost its only legitimate heir. Charlotte’s mother was not informed of her death. The Prince Regent refused to speak or write to his wife for the best part of 20 years and wouldn’t even pick up a pen to inform her of the death of their child. The death notice was left to Prince Leopold who, not surprisingly, couldn’t face the task for some time. Caroline had been living in Italy and a courier who had a note of the death for delivery to His Holiness, Pope Pius VII just happened to be travelling through the town where she lived. Caroline herself died just a few years later following yet another humiliation by her husband. A story for another day.

This blog post is not just about reflecting on past events, but also to introduce our self-guided tour experiences around the city centre of London. Our tours offer a unique opportunity to explore the Westminster area and central London, where you can immerse yourself in the rich history and culture of this amazing city.

So why not join us on one of our tours and discover the city for yourself? Whether you are a local resident or a visitor from abroad, our tours are sure to leave a lasting impression.

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