Authors: James Chambers
I would like to express my deepest gratitude to Charlie Viney, Ben Yarde-Buller, Sam Carter, Francesca Yarde-Buller, Dr Stephen Steinberg, Ben Illis and Emily Carter. Without their encouragement, enthusiasm and help it would not have been possible to tell this story.
o one knows better than a medical man how to kill himself. Sir Richard Croft did it very neatly. He slouched in a tall wing chair and put a pistol in his mouth. When he pulled the trigger, his blood and brains were caught by the back of the chair. Only the bullet tore on through into the wall.
For the last three months, the tall, grey, dignified and normally over-confident Sir Richard had been suffering from serious depression. So what he did was hardly a surprise to anyone. Yet, even so, it must have seemed selfishly melodramatic to do it in someone else's house rather than in the privacy of his own.
Despite his imposing manner, Sir Richard was not an eminent or even qualified physician. He was merely the most fashionable of the many accoucheurs, or âmen-midwives', who practised in England at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and his title was an inherited baronetcy rather than a well-earned knighthood. On the day of his death he was attending a patient, the wife of a rich clergyman, who was about to give birth in their large house in London's Harley Street. After a preliminary examination, he had as usual left his
patient alone with her husband and gone downstairs to wait for the next contractions. Shown by a servant into the study, he had selected a book, and somehow, unusually in the house of a clergyman, he had discovered a case with pistols in it.
Soon afterwards, when the crump of exploding black powder brought the vicar and his servants running, they found that Sir Richard had died instantly. The pistol had fallen from his right hand onto the floor, and the book, Shakespeare's
Love's Labour's Lost
, was lying on the table beside him beneath his limp left hand. It was open at the point towards the end of Act V, Scene II, where the King of Navarre asks,
âFair Sir, God save you! Where is the Princess?'
It was, said the coroner, âa singular coincidence'.
The princess whose whereabouts were the obvious cause of Sir Richard's remorse was another of his patients, Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales and Saxe-Coburg, and for the last three months she had been lying in her tomb at Windsor with the stillborn son whom she had survived for only five hours.
Her father, the Prince Regent, had written to Sir Richard to reassure him of his âentire confidence in the medical skill and ability which he displayed during the arduous and protracted labour'. But if the Prince Regent meant what he said, there was not a man or a woman in the kingdom who agreed with him. Their Princess was dead. There was no one to replace her. The nation's heart was broken, and Sir Richard Croft was the only man who could be blamed for it.
On the day after Princess Charlotte's death the leader in
proclaimed clumsily, âWe never recollect so strong and general an expression and indication of sorrow.' The wife of the Russian Ambassador, the famously libidinous Princess Lieven, put it much better: âOne met in the streets people of every class in tears, the churches full at all hours, the shops shut for a fortnight (an eloquent testimony from a
shop-keeping community), and everyone, from the highest to the lowest, in a state of despair which it is impossible to describe.'
Many years later in his memoirs, the Lord Chancellor, Lord Brougham, wrote, âIt really was as though every household throughout Great Britain had lost a favourite child.'
Princess Charlotte had been the most popular member of the royal family. Indeed, for most of her short life she had been the only popular member of it. When she was born, on 7 January 1796, the poet Leigh Hunt, not at his best, wrote, âSuch a fine young royal creature â Daughter of England!' When she died, little more than twenty-one years later, another poet, Thomas Campbell, echoed Hunt's words in an equally unremarkable dirge, which was performed to packed houses by Sarah Bartley at the new Drury Lane Theatre:
âDaughter of England! for a nation's sighs,
A nation's heart went with thine obsequies.'
By the time the costly war with Napoleon was over, the Daughter of England had become a symbol of hope. The reputation of the royal family still stood lower than it had for centuries. But eager, warm-hearted, unpretentious Charlotte was a happy and auspicious contrast to her dissolute father, her variously ineffectual or âwicked' uncles and her sad, mad grandfather. Because of her, the future seemed more secure. Old King George III was bound to die soon, and the Prince Regent had wrecked his own health so much that he was unlikely to outlive him for long. Until the dreadful news broke on 7 November 1817, everyone in the now disconsolate kingdom had been looking forward to the not-too-distant day when young Queen Charlotte would ascend the throne.
âShe would have behaved well', said the Duke of Wellington, âher death is one of the most serious misfortunes the country has ever met with'.
have grown up worthy of the Duke of Wellington's compliment was very nearly a miracle. She had emerged confident and merry from a childhood that would have turned almost anyone else into a suspicious recluse. She had never known the security of family life. Instead, her little world, like the great world beyond it, had been a world of conflict and duplicity. From the day she was born until the day she was married, she had seldom been anything but a victim. Her tutors and governesses had misrepresented her whenever it suited them in the course of their vindictive little rivalries. The leaders of the opposition had manipulated her cynically in their political manoeuvring. Worst of all, her own parents, whom she hardly ever saw, had used her as the principal pawn in their embarrassingly public squabbles.
Charlotte's father only married her mother for money â not because Princess Caroline of Brunswick was rich, but because the Prime Minister, William Pitt, had told him that, when he married, the government would raise his income. The increase was intended to cover the cost of an appropriately enlarged household,
but to the Prince it was an opportunity to continue his notorious extravagance.
He longed to be regarded as the leader of fashion, the nation's foremost sportsman and the most eminent connoisseur of art and architecture. To that end, he had squandered absurd sums on clothes and horses, and he had lavished fortunes on building and embellishing his pavilion in Brighton and his home in London, Carlton House, each of which he had crammed with an indiscriminate clutter of both exquisite and tasteless pictures and furniture. By 1794, when it was suggested that he should get married, he was hopelessly in debt.
Many of the âbeaux' and âbucks' who called themselves his friends were almost as extravagant as he was. A few of them had reduced themselves to penury on no more than the turn of a card. But these men had property to sell or pledge for credit. Charlotte's father did not. As Prince of Wales and heir to the throne he had an annual allowance of Â£60,000 from the privy purse, and as Duke of Cornwall he had an income of Â£13,000 a year from his duchy. That was all, and by 1794 it was no longer even enough to cover his cost of living, let alone pay the interest on a debt of over Â£600,000. His desperate creditors had petitioned the Prime Minister for help, but the government, which had bailed him out once already, had no intention of doing so again.
A suitable marriage was the Prince's only hope. The promised increase would raise his allowance from the privy purse to Â£100,000 a year. Although, in itself, even this would not be enough to support all his extravagance, it would at least enable him to start making annual payments to some of his creditors, and that in turn might encourage others to lend him more. He was unmoved when he was told that it was his duty to get married and provide the kingdom with an heir. But when he was told that a marriage would bring in more money, he agreed at once.
There was still one small problem, however. By his own admision,
His Royal Highness was already married. Nine years earlier, when he was only twenty-three, he had been secretly married to an older woman, a beautiful widow called Maria Fitzherbert. When the King and his Cabinet recovered from the initial shock of this news, they learned to their relief that it was not the impediment it might have been. In the opinion of the Lord Chancellor and the Attorney General, and with the reluctant concurrence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the marriage was undoubtedly null and void. Since Mrs Fitzherbert was a Roman Catholic it was forbidden by the Bill of Rights of 1689 and the Act of Settlement of 1700, and since the Prince had married without his father's permission, it was also in breach of the Royal Marriages Act of 1772.
The Prince was genuinely fond of Mrs Fitzherbert. But he was not so fond as to be faithful. He had recently acquired a mistress, the beautiful but sinister Lady Jersey, who was almost ten years his senior (even older than Mrs Fitzherbert). And he was not
fond of anyone as to allow them to stand between him and an opportunity to increase his income. The news that he was not legally married was as much of a relief to the Prince as it was to the government.
Once it was agreed that the Prince was free to marry, the next step was to find him a bride. There were two candidates, both of whom were his cousins. One was Princess Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, whose father was the brother of his mother, Queen Charlotte. The other was Princess Caroline of Brunswick, whose mother was a sister of his father, the King.
The Queen was enthusiastically in favour of Princess Louise, not only because Louise was her niece and reputedly the better looking, but also because, like many other people at court, she had heard too many unsavoury rumours about Princess Caroline. The Brunswicker Princess was said to be coarse and uninhibited. She was said to have had several affairs, one with an Irish officer in her father's army, and it was known that earlier marriage negotiations had been broken off without reason.
But the woman who had the most influence over the Prince of Wales, Lady Jersey, was equally enthusiastic in her support for Princess Caroline. Lady Jersey had managed to replace Mrs Fitzherbert in the Prince's bed, but she had not succeeded in replacing her in his heart. Now that good fortune had come to her aid and removed Mrs Fitzherbert from the stage altogether, Lady Jersey was determined to ensure that the next wife should be the least formidable rival; if only half the stories were true, Princess Caroline was certainly that.
Naturally the Prince was persuaded by Lady Jersey. Yet even after he had plumped for Princess Caroline, his mother made no secret of her continuing disapproval. From all that she was saying, it was obvious that she was going to make her daughter-in-law's life as difficult as she could â and she clearly realised what Lady Jersey was up to. Applying the old adage âmy enemy's enemy is my friend', she invited Lady Jersey to visit her regularly at Windsor. She lobbied everyone at court on Lady Jersey's behalf, recommending her for a position in the Prince's new household. In the end she succeeded. At the insistence of the mischievous old Queen, her son's mistress was appointed to serve as lady-in-waiting to his wife.
So a heartbroken but dignified Mrs Fitzherbert retired to a beautiful villa by the Thames at Twickenham, Marble Hill, and the greatest British diplomat of the age, James Harris, who had been created Baron Malmesbury six years earlier, was instructed to go to Brunswick and escort Princess Caroline to England.
Malmesbury was in King George's electorate of Hanover when he received his orders. He had gone there to rest after visiting Berlin, where he had used the promise of huge British subsidies to persuade the King of Prussia to keep his army on a war footing along the north bank of the Rhine.
Ever since the outbreak of the French Revolution, Pitt had been
using British money to bind the rest of Europe together in a coalition against the new republic. At the outset he had even managed to persuade the Prussians to go on the offensive. In 1792, after the French imprisoned their royal family, the Prussians had sent an army south across the Rhine, commanded by none other than Princess Caroline's father, the Duke of Brunswick.
When he reached Valmy, Brunswick was halted by an artillery barrage. It cost him only a few hundred men and should not have delayed him for long. But in the days that followed he lost thousands more to dysentery and was forced to march back into Prussia.
Meanwhile, further west, it was the French who went on the offensive. They invaded and occupied Belgium, which was then known as the Austrian Netherlands. But in the following year, shortly after they had guillotined their King, the French were routed at Neerwinden by an Austrian army, which was mostly paid with British money and was commanded by the brilliant Prince Frederick, the younger son of the Duke of Coburg. It was said in Paris at the time that the greatest enemies of the Revolution were Coburg and Pitt.
A few days after the battle twenty thousand British soldiers landed in Holland commanded by their King's second son, the Duke of York. The Duke joined forces with a small Dutch army led by the two sons of the Prince of Orange, and together they put themselves under the overall command of Prince Frederick.
At first Prince Frederick's success continued. The allies invaded France. The remnants of the French army faded away ahead of them. The road to Paris lay open. The city was undefended. It was one of the great lost opportunities of history. If the Princes of the Houses of Hanover, Orange and Saxe-Coburg had only been allowed to advance on the capital, the French monarchy might have been restored, Europe might have been spared the terrible war that ravaged it for the next twenty years, and Napoleon Bonaparte might have had nothing better to do with his life than accept the Ottoman
Emperor's invitation to go east and take command of his artillery.
But the allies did not advance. The British and Austrian governments diverted their armies onto much more trivial objectives â the British merely wanted to make a gesture and recapture Calais, which had been lost to the French during the reign of Bloody Mary over two hundred years earlier.
The new rulers of France were given time to recover. While they eliminated their internal enemies in the wanton slaughter that became known as âthe Terror', they introduced conscription and spent all the money they could raise on artillery. A few months later they returned to the offensive. Relying entirely on firepower, force of numbers and a cruel disdain for casualties, they defeated the allies and forced them to retreat. While Malmesbury was negotiating in Berlin, British soldiers were falling back through Holland.
Malmesbury was lucky to be in Hanover when he received his orders. He had only to cross the eastern border to be in Brunswick. If he had gone out from England, he would have had to choose between travelling on the direct route through Holland, which would have meant crossing a war zone, or else sailing north on the safe but much longer route round it.
He reached Brunswick on 20 November and was âmuch embarrassed' on being presented to Princess Caroline. It was clear from the dishevelled state of her clothes that no one had helped her to dress and that no one had ever taught her how to do it herself; it was also obvious for other reasons that it was at least several days since she had washed herself. The great Ambassador's report on what he saw was more matter-of-fact than diplomatic. âPretty face â not expressive of softness â her figure not graceful â fine eyes â good hands â tolerable teeth but going â fair hair and light eyebrows, good bustâ¦'
The Duke of Brunswick was much more interested in the progress of the war than in his daughter's impending marriage. But he was concerned enough to take Malmesbury aside one evening after
supper and give him what he thought was an honest assessment of her. âShe is no fool', he said, âbut she lacks judgement'.
It was an understatement. Twenty-six-year-old Princess Caroline did nothing discreetly. She was over-familiar with everyone, and her conversation was coarse and tactless. During his stay in Brunswick, Malmesbury spent most of his time teaching her manners, dignity and discretion.
They left for England on 29 December. On orders from London, they took the shortest route, expecting to meet up with the British squadron which, they were told, would be waiting for them off the coast of Holland. But when they came close to the Dutch border Malmesbury received a letter from General Harcourt, who had replaced the Duke of York as commander of the British army. Harcourt warned him that it was too dangerous to continue. The British were still retreating. If he tried to reach the coast now, he would have to pass through the French lines to do it. Despite the Princess's insistence that she was a Brunswicker and not afraid, Malmesbury took her back as far as Osnabruck, where they waited eagerly for news of a reversal of fortune for the allies.