Charlotte of Wales – The triple obstetric tragedy

Princess Charlotte of Wales grew up knowing that she would one day be Queen. As the only child of the future George IV of the United Kingdom and Caroline of Brunswick, she would succeed her father. History would not play out that way. 

Charlotte was born almost nine months to the day after her parents’ marriage. They separated just three weeks into marriage and by some miracle, Caroline was pregnant. A lonely childhood in the middle of a feuding family followed. For Charlotte, marriage became the price she would have to pay to be free. As her father once said, “Depend upon it, as long as I live you shall never have an establishment unless you marry.” 1 A marriage between Charlotte and the Hereditary Prince of Orange (later King William II of the Netherlands) was being arranged, but he did not leave Charlotte with a good first impression. She was adamant that she would not leave England. “As heiress presumptive of the Crown, it is certain that I could not quit this country, as Queen of England still less. Therefore the P of O must visit his frogs solo.” 2 Then she met Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld.

Prince Leopold was the youngest surviving child of Duke Francis of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld and Countess Augusta of Reuss-Ebersdorf. He had been forced to find his own way in life, as a younger son he was not expected to inherit any position. It was a confusing time for Charlotte. She was being bullied to accept the Hereditary Prince of Orange, and now she had another option. She became determined that she would not marry the Hereditary Prince of Orange. She was advised to be patient.

On 2 May 1816, she finally married her prince in a dress that cost over £10,000 with a white and silver slip, covered with transparent silk net embroidered with silver lamé with shells and flowers. Her sleeves were trimmed with Brussels lace and her six feet long train was held with a diamond clasp. She wore a wreath of diamond leaves and roses, a diamond necklace and diamond earrings and a diamond bracelet. They were off to a happy start of their marriage. Charlotte began calling him “Doucement” as he continually whispered it to her when she became too excited or too loud. The next year, Charlotte was pregnant.

It was estimated that she would give birth around 19 October and by the end of August, preparations were in full swing. The team to assist Charlotte during childbirth consisted of Sir Richard Croft, Dr Baillie, a nurse named Mrs Griffiths and Dr John Sims, who had some experience with instruments and could be called when required. Sir Richard Croft had his own bedroom, and upon arrival, he immediately subjected Charlotte to a strict regime intended to reduce her weight. She was purged and bled regularly. 3

Charlotte quickly grew weaker and weaker. 19 October came and went. On 4 November around 7 o’clock in the evening, Charlotte’s labour began. She promised her nurse, “I will neither brawl nor shriek.”4 At midnight, she began to feel nauseous and around 3.30 Sir Richard Croft decided to send for witnesses, and Dr Baillie was fetched. At 5.15 the first arrival was the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies. The Home Secretary arrived at 5.45. At 6 o’clock, the Archbishop of Canterbury arrived. The last to arrive were the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Lord Chancellor and Dr Baillie. Charlotte’s labour continued ineffectively for the rest of the day.  By the evening she was tired and hungry. She had not slept for 36 hours and had not eaten for 24 hours. Sir Richard Croft would not allow her to eat or sleep.

At 10 o’clock in the evening, Dr Baillie was finally allowed to see the patient as the use of forceps may be required. Dr Sims was called for, and he arrived at 2 in the morning. Around 8.15 the witnesses were informed that the Princess was still making gradual progress and that it may not be necessary to use forceps. Another day went by but around 6 o’clock in the evening, meconium, a child’s first faeces, oozed onto the sheets. The baby was clearly in distress. Sometime during the next three hours, Charlotte gave birth to a stillborn boy. The doctors tried to revive him, but it was to no avail. Charlotte had borne it all with “a Brunswick heart”. 5 At 9 o’clock in the evening of 5 November, the witnesses were informed that the Princess had given birth to a stillborn son. The nurse carried in the corpse for inspection.

Meanwhile, Charlotte was still bleeding as her uterus had not fully contracted after the birth. The doctors removed the placenta by hand, and the bleeding appeared to have stopped. She was finally given something to eat and some camphor julep to stimulate her heart. The witnesses were sent home at 11 o’clock after being assured that the Princess was doing well. Leopold wrote a letter to his father and was probably given a sedative to sleep. Just after midnight, Charlotte took a turn for the worst. Her pulse was racing, and she vomited up the little food she had eaten. She clutched her stomach and cried, “Oh, what a pain! It is all here!” 6 By the time Sir Richard Croft was awoken, Charlotte was cold and had difficulty breathing. She was also bleeding again. He decided to warm her up by applying hot water bottles and blankets to her abdomen. The bleeding continued. Dr Baillie decided the Princess needed wine and brandy. 15 minutes later there was a rattle in her throat. Charlotte turned on her face, drew up her knees to her chest and fell silent. There was no pulse. Charlotte was gone.7 

Leopold was devasted by her death. “Life seems already to have lost all value to him, and he is convinced that no feeling of happiness can ever again enter his heart.” Charlotte and the baby were wrapped in linen and put into separate coffins. Even in the Netherlands, the Prince of Orange wept and ordered court mourning. 8 England sank into a deep feeling of mourning, their only focus of hope in this economic depression was taken away. In the evening of 18 November, a black carriage drawn by six horses carrying the little Prince, followed by a black hearse drawn by eight horses with Charlotte and a third carriage carrying Leopold set off for Windsor. Charlotte was installed in the Lower Lodge as her son was temporarily laid to rest in the Royal Vault in St George’s chapel. Leopold spent the night by Charlotte’s coffin.

Charlotte lay in state for a day before her coffin was carried to St George’s Chapel in the evening. The service lasted until 11 in the evening and was not attended by her father. Her grave would later be adorned with a marvellous marble statue paid for by the public.

Now the public needed a scapegoat. Sir Richard Croft may have already been contemplating suicide. On 13 February 1818, he slouched in a tall wing chair and put a pistol in his mouth. His blood and brains were caught by the back of the chair, but the bullet went through into the wall behind.

This “triple obstetric tragedy”, the death of child, mother, and practitioner, would eventually lead to physicians favouring quicker intervention during a protracted labour. For Charlotte, it would be too little too late.

  1. James Chambers (2007) Charlotte and Leopold p. 51
  2. James Chambers (2007) Charlotte and Leopold p. 76
  3. James Chambers (2007) Charlotte and Leopold p. 188
  4.  James Chambers (2007) Charlotte and Leopold p. 190
  5.   James Chambers (2007) Charlotte and Leopold p. 190 – 192
  6.  James Chambers (2007) Charlotte and Leopold p. 193
  7.   James Chambers (2007) Charlotte and Leopold p. 194
  8.  James Chambers (2007) Charlotte and Leopold p. 198 – 199



About Moniek 1061 Articles
My name is Moniek and I am from the Netherlands. I began this website in 2013 because I wanted to share these women's amazing stories.

1 Comment

  1. Now post partum hemorrage could be prevented and well managed because health care providers have much knowledge and skills in obstetric emergency.

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