Six: A Nation’s Sorrows, a People’s Tears: The Politics of Mourning Princess Charlotte
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SIX A NATION’S SORROWS, A PEOPLE’S TEARS: THE POLITICS OF MOURNING PRINCESS CHARLOTTE The preceding year [1816] had afforded a happy augury to the nation, in the union of the daughter of the Prince Regent to Prince Leopold of Saxe Cobourg, which promised a lasting source of domestic felicity. The connexion was blest with a hope of progeny, which was brought to maturity early in November; but, to the unspeakable disappointment of the general expectation, the Princess sunk under the effort, and after having been the mother of a dead child, became herself the victim. (Annual Register. . .for the Year 1817) Now should a Nations Sorrows flow! For lo! tremendous cause appears, When public grief and private woe, Combine to ask a people’s tears. (Thomas Beck, “An Elegy on the Lamented Death of Her Royal Highness the Princess Charlotte”) “Catastrophe at Claremont” Princess Charlotte Augusta was delivered of a stillborn male infant . The child, had it lived, would have been third in line for A T 9:00 P.M. on November 5, 1817, after fifty hours of labor, the crown after its maternal grandfather, the Prince Regent, and its mother; attempts to “reanimate” the “perfectly formed,” nine-pound infant with mouth-to-mouth insufflation, salt and mustard rubs, chest pressure, and brandy were futile.1 The exhausted Princess is said to have remarked, “It is the will of God,” taken some nourishment, and tried to sleep. But toward midnight she complained of a ringing in her ears and vomited; forty-five minutes later her pulse became weak and irregular , her breathing labored; she was extremely agitated and restless and MOU RNING PRINCESS CHARLOTTE 197 could not be made comfortable. At 2:30 A.M. on November 6, the Princess died in childbed. In this chapter I am concerned not with the death of Princess Charlotte (the medical causes of which continue to be debated to this day in the obstetrical literature)2 , but with the documentary evidence of Britain’s response to it. The nation’s mourning following the “catastrophe at Claremont”3 is made known to us in nearly two hundred extant documents published within weeks (or in some cases, months) of November 6, 1817: pamphlets on Princess Charlotte’s life, death, and funeral; sermons delivered on Sunday the 16th, and on the funeral day; discourses; memoirs; and a myriad of dirges, monodies, elegies, and epitaphs, several swiftly collected as A Cypress Wreath, for the Tomb of her Late Royal Highness the Princess Charlotte of Wales.4 The national shock and sorrow recorded in these documents seem uncannily familiar now when media coverage gives an entire nation— and, indeed, the world—instant access to the most tragic of events. Princess Charlotte’s expectations had been those of the kingdom; when the morning papers appeared with black borders, the British nation was stunned. Bonfires stacked to celebrate the birth of a presumptive heir to the throne were dismantled; shops and theatres were closed, and official business suspended.5 Mourning was worn by aristocrats and laborers alike. On Sunday, November 16, memorial sermons were given in all corners of the kingdom, and on the following Wednesday, November 19, the day of the funeral, all commercial activity ground to a halt. Services were held, and if not held, demanded, in Anglican churches, Dissenting meeting-houses, Roman Catholic chapels, and synagogues; Coleridge himself translated Hyman Hurowitz’s “Hebrew Dirge.” Southey, the poet laureate, elegized the Princess, whose death, in the words of memorialist Robert Huish, “called into action all the poetical talent of the country.”6 Bells tolled from Edinburgh to Dover to Dublin. In France, Germany, and Holland, journalists and rulers alike published condolences; from Venice, Byron wrote, “The death of the Princess Charlotte has been a shock even here, and must have been an earthquake at home.”7 And Napoleon, in his cell at St. Helena, is reported to have said, “What has happened to the English that they have not stoned her accoucheurs?”8 Because of the dearth of legitimate issue among the Prince Regent’s siblings, the death of the Princess was swiftly understood as a monarchical crisis. On the demise of the Princess and her baby, the crown was in jeopardy of falling into the hands of a foreign ruler.9 Overnight, alarmist pamphlets appeared raising the threat of Jerome Bonaparte acceding to the British throne; others dwelled on the feeble-minded, adolescent 198 CHAPTER SIX Duke of Brunswick; still others exhorted the Dukes...


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