200 years before the birth of Kate and Will’s daughter Charlotte, there was another Princess Charlotte who captivated a nation. Her father the Prince Regent and future King George IV was universally disliked for his excesses. Years of too much drinking, partying and general unrestrained living had not endeared him to the nation. His disastrous marriage to Caroline of Brunswick had ended in separation shortly after Charlotte’s birth, a mere nine months after their wedding. Charlotte was George’s only legitimate heir and a ray of hope in the eyes of a fed up nation.
On the 2nd of May 1816, Charlotte married Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coberg-Saalfeld. It was a love match for which Charlotte had fought hard. However, with King George III nearing the end of his life, while completely held in the grips of insanity, and her unpopular father acting as Regent, there was no time to waste in producing an heir.
After two miscarriages, it was announced in April of 1817 that Charlotte was once again pregnant. The nation was captivated by the news and bookies began taking bets as to the sex of the baby, economists were predicting a stock market rise after the birth.
After gaining what was considered too much weight, her Accoucheur (male midwife) Sir Richard Croft put her on a strict diet and occasionally had the princess bled. Unfortunately, this only served to weaken her. Leopold’s physician, German doctor Christian Stockmar, was appalled by what he saw as archaic prenatal practices. He had been asked to join Charlotte’s royal medical team but refused on the grounds that if something went wrong the foreigner would be blamed.
On the 3rd of November, Charlotte went into labour. The first stage went very slowly with weak contractions dragging out for 26 hours. Charlotte was not allowed food during this time. Early on, Dr Croft diagnosed the baby as breach but he took the decision not to intervene. Using forceps would have assisted in the delivery but, in a time before anaesthetics, forceps could have resulted in injury to the baby or even death to the mother.
The second stage of labour, which is characterised by the actual pushing, lasted an incredible 24 hours. The doctors became concerned when they spotted meconium, a dark green sludge which comes from a newborn’s bowels, a clear sign that the baby was in distress.
At some point during the labour, Charlotte’s personal physician, Dr. Matthew Baillie, sent for the noted obstetrician Dr. John Sims but Richard Croft refused to let him see her. On 5th of November, a full 50 hours after her water broke, an exhausted Charlotte gave birth to a 9 pound stillborn baby boy. The placenta was only partially separated after the birth and was manually removed.
The doctors afterwards determined that Charlotte was in relatively good health. They allowed her to eat then left her to rest. Around midnight the princess began to vomit and was having trouble breathing. Dr Croft arrived to find her cold to the touch with a feeble and erratic heart rate, she was also bleeding.
Leopold, who had not left his wife’s side throughout her difficult labour and delivery, had gone off to get some rest. When his wife took a turn for the worse, Dr Stockmar went to get him but found him difficult to rouse. At this point, Stockmar heard Charlotte shout his name. He ran in to see her but found that he was too late, Princess Charlotte was dead.
The accepted diagnosis for Charlotte’s death was a haemorrhage. Early intervention would have sped the labour along but still may not have saved the princess’s life. It is believed that her forced diet and sessions of being bled during pregnancy resulted in the princess almost certainly being anaemic during childbirth. A major loss of blood would have been too much for her overworked body to cope with.
The Prince Regent was so distraught by the death of his daughter that he could not attend her funeral. Charlotte’s mother Caroline fainted on hearing the news of her daughter’s death. Of Leopold, his physician and friend Dr Stockmar wrote, “November saw the ruin of this happy home, and the destruction at one blow of every hope and happiness of Prince Leopold. He has never recovered the feeling of happiness which had blessed his short married life.”
The rest of the country also grieved for the loss of their princess. Fabric suppliers ran out of the colour black as people went into mourning. It was said that even the poor and homeless wore black armbands. Shops closed for weeks and even gambling dens closed their doors on the day of Charlotte’s funeral. Charlotte was buried on the 19th of November 1817 at St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle.
Despite assurances from both the Prince Regent and Leopold that he was not to blame, Dr Croft was wracked with guilt over his part in Charlotte’s death. Three months later, he was found dead in his home from a self inflicted gunshot wound.
With the loss of The Prince Regent’s only legitimate heir, it fell on his brothers to provide for the future of the throne. George III’s fourth son, Prince Edward Duke of Kent soon proposed to Leopold’s sister Victoria, Dowager Princess of Leiningen. Together, they had Alexandrina Victoria who would later become Queen Victoria, one of the United Kingdom’s greatest monarchs.
The medical professional also learned a few lessons from this senseless tragedy. The use of contraction stimulants were implemented, birth anaesthesia became more widely used, doctors began experimenting with blood transfusions after birth and they were more likely to intervene with the use of forceps in prolonged second stages of labour. Queen Victoria would find birth anaesthesia especially useful in her nine pregnancies.