|Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales, 1817|
Last week’s birth of George Alexander Louis to Prince William and Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, made headlines around the globe. Though the future can be anyone’s guess, baby Prince George seems destined to become the King of England one day. He is the third in the line of succession to the current monarch Queen Elizabeth II, following his grandfather Prince Charles and his father Prince William.
There was also a royal birth during the Regency era. But that birth, which occurred almost 200 years ago, was a cause for mourning instead of celebration. It also also concerned the birth of an heir, and what happened had far-reaching consequences.
Before we get to the birth, though, we have to start with a royal wedding. In May of 1816, Princess Charlotte, daughter and only child of the Prince Regent, cajoled her father into allowing her to marry the man of her own choosing, Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld. It was a happy occasion that led to what was by all accounts a happy marriage, though it was all too brief.
|Princess Charlotte and Prince Leopold |
attending the opera
By the fall of 1817 Charlotte and Leopold were expecting a baby. Charlotte went into labor on November 5. The baby, a boy, was stillborn. And several hours later, at 2:30 a.m. on November 6, Charlotte herself died. She was only 21 years old.
This event shocked not only the Prince Regent but the nation as well, and plunged everyone into mourning. Ordinary folk grieved for the young princess; linen drapers sold out of their stock of black cloth and even the poor wore black armbands. The Lord Chamberlain ordered widespread mourning attire for the court, decreeing that ladies were to wear black bombazine and muslin, with black crepe accessories. Gentlemen had to wear black clothes and plain cravats, with black accessories all the way down to their shoe buckles.
Two months of deepest mourning were observed before ladies of the court were permitted to transition to half-mourning, which included black silk garments with white accessories and grey dresses and men’s coats. It took several more months before mourning was lifted and bright colors and luxurious fabrics could be worn once again.
|An engraving of Princess Charlotte, |
supposedly based on a portrait of her by
Sir Thomas Lawrence. She is believed to have
posed for this in the last days of her life
But the deaths of Princess Charlotte and her royal baby were more than a tragedy for those who loved her; it meant that the line of succession was broken. The Prince Regent was 55 when his daughter died and he had no other legitimate heirs. He was unhappily married to Caroline of Brunswick and could barely tolerate the sight of her. The chances of their union producing another royal heir were nil.
To make matters worse, none of his equally middle-aged brothers had legitimate heirs, though some of them had sired plenty of illegitimate children. This situation propelled a royal race to produce a legitimate heir, preferably male.
The Prince Regent had fourteen brothers and sisters; the ones most involved in the race to beget an heir were the Prince’s eldest brothers: Frederick, William and Edward. Frederick, who’d been married since 1791, had no children. The other two men did their best to answer the royal call of duty and secure the succession. In 1818 William and Edward dismissed their respective mistresses and got married. Only Edward's marriage produced a child, but the baby born in 1819 was a girl.
|A portrait of King William IV, 1833|
When the Prince Regent became King George IV in 1820 and later died in 1830, he was succeeded by his brother William, the former Duke of Clarence, who was 64 years old. (The next in line to the throne, Frederick, had died three years earlier in 1827.)
And since William IV had no legal heirs (though he had 10 illegitimate children with his mistress, the actress Dorothea Jordan) when he died in 1837 the only legitimate heir that could be scrounged up was an 18-year-old girl, Edward's daughter who'd been born back in 1819. Edward himself had died in 1820.
You may have heard of this girl. Her name was Princess Alexandrina Victoria of Kent, and as Queen Victoria she went on to reign longer than any other British monarch in history or indeed any female monarch ever. Victoria’s reign lasted 63 years; Queen Elizabeth II only has to add a few more years to her reign to beat Victoria’s record.
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert produced nine children, and their line has been blessed with many descendants. One of those descendants is little Prince George, who is Queen Victoria’s fifth great-grandson. The fact that this royal baby may one day be another King George, just like his ancestor the Prince Regent, gives this modern-day royal birth another echo of the Regency.
|A photo of Prince George Alexander Louis|
in the arms of his mother, Catherine,
the Duchess of Cambridge, July 2013
- Laudermilk, Sharon and Hamlin, Teresa L. The Regency Companion, Garland Publishing Inc., New York & London, 1989.
- Priestley, J.B. The Prince of Pleasure and his Regency 1811-20, Harper & Row, New York and Evanston, 1969.
Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons