Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

A royal pregnancy gone wrong

George Dunea


Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales, ca. 1817 George Dawe 54.7” x 42.9”

Perhaps one of the most famous pregnancies gone wrong was that of Princess Charlotte, the granddaughter of King George III and in line to someday succeed to the throne of England. Brought up in a royal household wreaked by dissension, she grew up rebellious, capricious, and ill-mannered, but settled down after her marriage in May 1816 to the young and handsome Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg. She became so popular that her death caused a national outpouring of grief not seen again in England until the more recent death of the Princess of Wales.

Princess Charlotte became pregnant in early 1817 at the age of 21, having miscarried twice in the previous year. She survived being starved and occasionally bled by her doctors according to the misguided practices of the time. The delivery itself was protracted, her cervix slow to dilate, the baby large and in a transverse position, the royal physicians adhering to the school of thought that favored a conservative approach and brooked no intervention. Exhausted, deprived of analgesics according to the practice of the day, she delivered a dead fetus after 50 hours in labor and died soon thereafter from postpartum hemorrhage. Even according to the medical standards of the time the case was considered to have been mishandled, and two years later her physician committed suicide.

From Queen Victoria by Lytton Strachey, freely abridged:

On November 6, 1817, died the Princess Charlotte, only child of the Prince Regent, and heir to the crown of England. Her short life had hardly been a happy one. By nature impulsive, capricious, and vehement, she had always longed for liberty; and she had never possessed it. She had been brought up among violent family quarrels, had been early separated from her disreputable and eccentric mother, and handed over to the care of her disreputable and selfish father . . .

In May 1816 she was married to Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, who had shown considerable diplomatic skill at the Congress of Vienna, and he was now to try his hand at the task of taming a tumultuous Princess. Cold and formal in manner, collected in speech, careful in action, he soon dominated the wild, impetuous, generous creature by his side. There was much in her, he found, of which he could not approve. She quizzed, she stamped, she roared with laughter; she had very little of that self-command which is especially required of princes; her manners were abominable. . . . There was continual friction, but every scene ended in the same way. Standing before him like a rebellious boy in petticoats, her body pushed forward, her hands behind her back, with flaming cheeks and sparkling eyes, she would declare at last that she was ready to do whatever he wanted.

Among the members of the household was a young German physician, Christian Friedrich Stockmar. Prince Leopold, who had been struck by his ability, and, on his marriage, brought him to England as his personal physician. His position was a very humble one; but the Princess took a fancy to him, called him “Stocky,” and romped with him along the corridors.

When, in the spring of 1817, it was known that the Princess was expecting a child, the post of one of her physicians-in-ordinary was offered to him, and he had the good sense to refuse it. He perceived that his colleagues would be jealous of him, that his advice would probably not be taken, but that, if anything were to go wrong, it would be certainly the foreign doctor who would be blamed. Very soon, indeed, he came to the opinion that the low diet and constant bleedings, to which the unfortunate Princess was subjected, were an error; he drew the Prince aside, and begged him to communicate this opinion to the English doctors; but it was useless. The fashionable lowering treatment was continued for months. On November 5, at nine o’clock in the evening, after a labour of over fifty hours, the Princess was delivered of a dead boy. At midnight her exhausted strength gave way. Then, at last, Stockmar consented to see her; he went in, and found her obviously dying, while the doctors were plying her with wine. She seized his hand and pressed it. “They have made me tipsy,” she said. After a little he left her, and was already in the next room when he heard her call out in her loud voice “Stocky! Stocky!” As he ran back the death-rattle was in her throat. She tossed herself violently from side to side; then suddenly drew up her legs, and it was over.



A royal marriage also gone wrong

Einar Perman


Caroline Amelia Elizabeth of Brunswick, ca. 1820 James Lonsdale National Portrait Gallery, London

Princess Charlotte was the daughter of Queen Caroline, the wife of George IV. Caroline, a German princess, was 27 when she married George IV, then Prince of Wales. It was an arranged marriage. The Prince was 32 years old, known for his loose morals and lavish spending. He was deeply in debt. Parliament would agree to settle his accounts only if he married an approved Royal Princess and produced an heir. The Prince first met Caroline in 1795, just a few days before the wedding. He found her very unattractive, and was so drunk at the wedding ceremony that he had to be held up by his groomsmen. He continued to drink and ended up spending the wedding night passed out on the bedroom floor.

Somehow the bride and groom managed to consummate their marriage and their daughter Charlotte was born nine months later. The Prince treated his wife badly. She left him in 1797 but was forced to leave her daughter with him. She then went on to live in a way soon considered inappropriate for a Princess of Wales. In 1802 there were rumors that she was pregnant. In 1806 she adopted a four-year-old boy and rumors said that he was her illegitimate son. By this time her reputation was so bad that the government set up a Commission to report on “. . . the Inquiry into the Conduct of Her Royal Highness The Princess of Wales.” The Commission somehow managed to conclude that “. . . all particulars of conduct brought in accusation against her . . . to which the character of criminality can be ascribed are satisfactorily contradicted . . . and undeserving of credit . . . .”

The Prince of Wales continued to neglect her. She left England in 1814 to travel in Europe, where in 1818 the terrible news reached her that her daughter had died during a mishandled delivery. Her husband became King George IV in 1820 and she returned to England the same year to fight for the right to be Queen. George IV did all he could to scandalize her, but public opinion was with her, and he could not get his divorce. She died in 1821 at the age of 53.




GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief



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