Month: December 2012

Marrying into Madness

A mad ruler makes an exciting premise for a story (if I do say so myself!). The idea has been used in subplots for both A Game of Thrones and The Lord of the Rings but it also has a basis in history. I’m not just talking about George III; Juana La Loca of Castille and the ‘sleeping king’ Henry Plantagenet spring to my mind first, but there are a lot more (follow Joan Bos on Twitter using @madmonarchs – she posts great facts!). One Georgian Princess, however, had the singular  misfortune of being sister to one ‘mad’ king and wife to another.

Caroline Matilda was George III’s youngest sibling. Tragically, her father died before she was born, leaving George as a substitute. He felt this responsibility deeply and, as was so often the case with him, became overbearing in his desire to do right. However, Caroline was not subject to any of her brother’s ‘mad’ fits. No action during his guardianship suggested the whim of a lunatic. She would have witnessed an illness in 1765 where George was delirious and expected to die, but it’s unlikely she would have considered him insane. Like others at the time, she thought this an isolated incident of delirium brought on by a fever.

Caroline Matilda’s husband, however, was another kettle of fish. He was her – and George’s – first cousin, Christian King of Denmark. It’s fascinating to compare the mental troubles of these two cousins and the reaction of their wives, which were wildly different. One reason I am a supporter of the porphyria theory in George III’s case is that he showed no signs of instability or mania in his youth. He was a little slow to learn, rather shy and apt to blame himself, but that was all. Whereas Christian disturbed his family from an early age.

According to Veronica Baker-Smith in Royal Discord, Christian was already showing signs of instability by the time his mother, Louisa, died when he was two. She ascribes the King of Denmark’s early re-marriage to the fact that Christian was displaying overt mental illness, hence leaving the succession of Denmark in question. This would make sense, as the Danish King certainly loved his first wife and spoke of her on his deathbed. Following her sudden and tragic demise at age 27, from a similar internal rupture to the one that killed her mother Queen Caroline of Ansbach, he took to the bottle and then married Juliane Marie of Brunswick.

Juliane Marie took little interest in her step-children. She wasn’t unkind or unfair, just indifferent. She was far more interested in her own son, Frederick, when he was born and devoted her life to him. Christian, already troubled, was cut adrift after his mother died, and only had the familiar comfort of his sisters until he was six.  At this time, he was put under the care of a tutor named Reventlow, who was reported to be a harsh man. Of course, you only have to look at the upbringing of the Hanoverian princes to understand that most tutors were harsh at this time, but the circumstance certainly didn’t help the sensitive Christian. A new, softer tutor, Reverdil, came when Christian was eleven and was shocked at what he found. The boy had retreated to an intense inner life. He was petrified at the idea of becoming King, wanting nothing to do with it. Demons stalked his mind and he was determined to repel them by making himself as physically perfect as possible. If he was strong, he reasoned, he could fight of the monsters and become capable of fulfilling the roll of King. Quite heartbreaking words to hear from a thin, exquisite little boy, as handsome as a china doll.

It was to such a man that the fifteen-year-old Caroline Matilda was married. Whilst she didn’t seem to know the worst of his mental state, she was reluctant to marry and to leave England. She resented her brother for bundling her off into a dynastic match for political reasons and wept all through her proxy wedding ceremony. It’s rather ironic, considering George III’s daughters were later to complain that he didn’t find them husbands. It’s tough being King – you just can’t win! Caroline Matilda had grown up closely sheltered by her mother, Augusta, but she had a mind of her own. She listened to the endless harangues of how to behave, who to butter-up, who to avoid, and most of all, how to push the British influence over the French at the Danish court. It wasn’t long before she ignored these instructions, choosing instead to forge her own identity.

Despite Christian’s mania, he was not a bad prospect altogether. He was handsome and could be charming and witty. But there was no chance for Caroline Matilda to form an emotional bond with him. She was just part and parcel of the hereditary duties of kingship which so scared him. While Christian wanted to retire, she wanted to lead and make a place for herself at court. She tried hard to learn Danish and ingratiate herself with her new husband, but she met with indifference. He was quite happy to go travelling with his friends and leave her alone. This is why, I feel, Caroline Matilda and Charlotte differed so much in their responses to their husbands’ illnesses. While Charlotte, who was less independent-minded to start with, had a former love binding her loyalty, Caroline Matilda was free in her affections. She did have a child to tie her to Christian, born when she was just sixteen: heir to the throne, another Christian. However, his birth doesn’t seem to have bridged the pit of apathy between his parents.

Caroline Matilda chose instead to bestow her love on a court physician, Johann Friedrich Struensee. Her reasons for doing so were manifold. Not only did she need a plug to fill the emotional vacancy in her life, but Christian’s fits pushed her further and further away – and often placed her in need of protector. I’ve written in God Save the King about the emotional trauma caused to Queen Charlotte by George III’s bouts of mania, but quite frankly, his episodes were a walk in the park compared to Christian’s. Christian could often be violent, choosing to smash and destroy things, often throwing them from windows. He became obsessed with a prostitute and went out on the town in disguise, drinking and generally debauching with his friends. As you can imagine, the alcohol did nothing to ease his mental state. It’s little wonder Caroline Matilda had her head turned by the attentions of the handsome, charming, intelligent Struensee.

Caroline Matilda adopted Struensee’s radical, atheistical views for herself. The two made a little paradise, raising her son along Rousseau’s ideals and reforming the political world. It was a strange menage a trois: Christian was almost certainly aware of their relationship, but he viewed Struensee as his dearest friend and was quite happy to be guided by him. He was also probably relieved to have the responsibility of  a wife taken from him. Christian remained fond of Caroline Matilda, though he seemed to fear her in equal measure, and would do anything she said. Hence, it became quite easy for the lovers to pass their reforms through, since obtaining the King’s signature was no problem. It is widely accepted they also had a daughter, Louisa, and persuaded Christian to acknowledge her as his own. It is possible, of course, that Louisa was Christian’s child, but if you see portraits of her she has an unmistakable Struensee nose!

I have neither the space or the expertise to cover, in this post, the radical changes Caroline Matilda and Struensee brought about in Denmark and their political impact. If you would like to know the full story I can recommend Stella Tillyard’s  A Royal Affair or, if you want historical fiction, read The Visit of the Royal Physician by Per Olov Enquist. What is clear, however,  is that Caroline Matilda was a driving force in the changes. George III liked to believe that his sister was a “good girl”, corrupted by a wicked court. He couldn’t be more wrong. Caroline Matilda knew her own mind and seized her opportunities. I like to contrast this with the behaviour of Queen Charlotte during the Regency crisis. Although Charlotte’s son the Prince of Wales criticised her for dabbling in politics, she was, in fact, only trying to keep her husband’s government in power, ready for him to return. If she had wanted, she could have easily cast her lot in with her son and changed the political scene – but she had none of Caroline Matilda’s ambition. The irony was that Charlotte’s son wanted political power but didn’t have support, whilst Charlotte had the influence but didn’t want to rock the boat. Another thing to note is that Charlotte was accused by some papers of having an affair with the Prime Minister Pitt. Unlike the situation in Denmark, there was no basis for this scandal. A preliminary look into the characters of both Charlotte and Pitt will show you how unlikely this was.

Sadly, Caroline Matilda and Struensee’s ideals ultimately cost her freedom and his life. In a skillful coup, Struensee’s enemies and Juliane Marie arranged for the lovers to be arrested and took Christian into their own keeping. He was as pliable with them as he had been with his wife; he was quite willing to sign whatever was put before him. Struensee was executed for his relationship with the Queen, whilst Caroline Matilda was imprisoned and separated from her children. Eventually, after a highly fraught struggle, George III managed to get her released into his own keeping, but for safety and diplomacy, Caroline Matilda still had to live a hermit’s existence in Celle. This, strangely enough, was the home town of George I’s wife Sophia Dorothea – also imprisoned for adultery. Caroline Matilda continued to plot and plan in secret. She was part of many schemes to return her to Denmark – and the throne – when her sudden death at the tender age of 23 cut all  hopes short. Scarlet fever put an end to her brief, but eventful life.

I think it’s quite clear that Caroline Matilda’s story is a fascinating one that historical novelists should be drooling over. However, I only write things that have already been done if I think (a) I can do it better or, (b) I have something new to say. Quite frankly, I found The Visit of the Royal Physician so amazing, so exquisitely done, that I dare not follow it. However, Caroline Matilda’s story will feature in my novel about her mother, Augusta, and I look forward to interpreting this astonishing woman into fiction.

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The Christmas Tree

It’s the same every year as Christmas draws near: I have little time to write, even less to blog and without fail, I start to get wound up about Christmas trees.

What is it about these innocent little trees that gets my goat? Well, nothing they’ve done in particular. It’s only that, everywhere I go, people are telling me that Victoria and Albert brought the German tradition to England. And it’s then that the Georgian in me starts to scream.

Victoria and Albert certainly made the Christmas tree popular in England, but they were not the first monarchs to bring it into the royal household. The person who really deserves the credit is, in fact, my beloved Queen Charlotte.

As early as 1800, Charlotte introduced festive trees into her Christmas parties for children at the Upper Lodge in Windsor. The earliest description we have is of a yew tree in a tub, hung with sweet treats and decorated with candles.  One observer wrote of wax dolls within the branches, along with skipping ropes for boys and muslin for the girls, but I struggle to believe all of this was actually in the tree – for one thing, wouldn’t the muslin catch light? I think they must have meant it was under the tree, or presented as a gift to the children afterwards. There were no glass baubles or tinsel, but there were strings of almonds, raisins and toys (hopefully not flammable toys!). I would so love to see a recreation of this in the flesh – a tree lit with candles, not electric lights. Please do share if you’ve had that privilege!

Christmas trees were already popular in Germany, where Charlotte hailed from, and were widely believed to have been invented by the Protestant reformer Martin Luther. Apparently, Luther saw starlight shining through the branches of trees and wanted to recreate the effect in his own home. But evidence suggests Christmas trees in Germany go back even further, echoing the symbols of an ancient celtic ceremony. But this isn’t my area of expertise. However they started, Charlotte had grown up with Christmas trees in Germany and made them part of the celebrations with her new family in England.

I have a feeling that one day this might come up on QI (if it hasn’t already!), as so many people believe Victoria and Albert brought the tree to England. And if they were told it was Queen Charlotte, I have a feeling they would reply, “Who was she?” But now you know the truth and can get brownie points from Stephen Fry.

If you have any information about the history of Christmas trees, or examples of even earlier ones in England, I would love to hear from you!

Royal Pregnancy and Tragedy

I doubt there’s anyone reading this who hasn’t heard about the hoax call from an Australian radio-station that ended in tragedy this week. I would like to think this terrible incident would cause people to think twice before harassing the royals – at least for the sake of other people caught up in the stories, if not for the royals themselves – but hey, I also thought that when Princess Diana died.

Obviously the main tragedy lies with the nurse and her poor family, but I’m also sad for this unborn, future monarch. It’s a horrible shadow to have hanging over your birth and you can tell it will be mentioned in every future history book about him or her.  This particular situation reminded me so forcibly of another person whose life was devastated by a royal pregnancy and his part in it that I felt compelled to write a blog post about him. Ladies and gentlemen, spare a thought for the unfortunate Sir Richard Croft.

Croft was an eminent London physician who had worked alongside such names as Dr John Hunter and Dr Matthew Baille. I appreciate these doctors may mean nothing to you, but I can tell you they were highly esteemed. Croft had worked as one of the physicians to the royal family for years, even treating George III himself at times.

As such a respected doctor, he seemed to perfect choice to supervise the pregnancy and labour of George IV’s only daughter, Princess Charlotte. Charlotte had suffered two miscarriages previous to this pregnancy, so they were being extra careful. Alongside Croft, a nurse called Mrs Griffiths, who had 30 years midwifery experience, was in attendance.

Described as a long, thin, fidgety man, Croft was not the most popular person in Charlotte’s home of Claremont. The princess liked her own way and was not prepared for the strict regime he imposed. Firstly, there was the matter of her weight. The princess’ grandmother, Queen Charlotte, felt distinctly uneasy about her size. She was a voice of some experience, having given birth to fifteen children of her own. Croft shared the Queen’s concerns and subjected young Charlotte to a strict diet. She liked to have a mutton chop and a glass of port for her lunch, but this was now exchanged for tea and toast. While this seems a wise measure to modern eyes (can you imagine a pregnant woman drinking port these days?), his other treatments of bleeding and purges leave us feeling horrified. But as I’m sure you are aware, bleeding was considered a healthy thing to do in the period. Only Stockmar, physician to Charlotte’s husband, Leopold, demurred. “This lowering treatment is no longer regarded as sensible in Europe”, he explained. However, he let Croft get on with his job.

One sensible thing Croft did do was persuade Charlotte to stop wearing stays. Such a bodily restriction could hardly have been healthy for the baby’s growth. Unfortunately, he didn’t express himself in the most flattering way. “A cow does not wear stays,” said Croft. “Why should the Princess Charlotte?”

Perhaps unsurprisingly. Charlotte was left feeling depressed by the “lowering treatment” and dwelt on death. She had picked out patterns for the baby’s clothes with glee but didn’t want to see them when they arrived. All the same, when her pains finally began, she climbed into bed with courage, assuring Mrs Griffiths she would neither bawl nor shriek. It was a promise she kept.

It was an extremely difficult labour. The progress was slow, but this didn’t bother Croft at first. He allowed Leopold in the room to hold Charlotte’s hand, lie down beside her on the bed or walk in front of the fire as the hours passed by.  One thing he would not tolerate, however, was eating. As fifty excruciating hours rolled by, Charlotte had neither sleep nor food.

Witnesses for the royal birth began to arrive at Claremont and gathered in the breakfast room. They had a long wait ahead of them. Even Charlotte’s parrot, Coco, had had enough and began to sqwark. Croft realised that the baby was lying at a strange angle and, to make matters more troublesome, was an unusually large child.  He began to think surgical intervention may be required in the form of forceps. This was no light matter. Forceps were considered extremely dangerous at the time and would only be used in dire emergency. He summoned Dr Sims, an expert in the use of surgical instruments in pregnancy, who, despite being on call in the case of the princess,  took hours to arrive. He assured Croft that the labour was moving along gradually and there was no need to intervene.

Poor Charlotte’s labour lasted another day and there were signs the infant was in trouble. The child’s first faeces – which usually appear after birth – oozed out onto the sheets. A further three hours went by before the royal baby finally emerged into the world – large, male and stillborn. Everything was tried to restore the young prince. He was slapped, shaken, plunged into hot water, rubbed with salt and mustard, all to no avail. His little life was over before it began.

Croft, Mrs Griffiths and Leopold were devastated. Charlotte bore it better, seeming unnaturally composed – I expect she was far too exhausted to let her real emotions show, and she had always been a brave woman. While Leopold retired to a sedated sleep, Croft and Sims were disturbed by the fact that Charlotte continued to bleed. They decided to remove her placenta by hand, rather than wait for it to come naturally. After they had done so, the bleeding stopped and Charlotte was finally allowed chicken broth – her first food in two days. She was given camphor julep  as a stimulant and seemed relatively cheerful, teasing Mrs Griffiths about her gown before drifting off into a well deserved sleep.

Around midnight, Charlotte awoke to unbearable pain and a singing in her head. She threw up all the broth and, clutching her stomach, cried “Oh, what a pain! It is all here!” The terrified Mrs Griffiths ran out to fetch Croft, who found his patient freezing cold and unable to remain in the same posture for more than a minute, due to her intense pain. Though she struggled to breath, she complained about the cold. In a moment of blind panic, Croft and Griffiths did all they could to warm her up. They forced alcohol down her, stoked up the fire, and put down a deluge of blankets. Had they been calmer, they would have noticed she was bleeding again. They would also have remembered that the medical practice of their time recommended cold compresses in such cases – not the inferno they were creating.

Stockmar, disturbed by the fracas, came in to hear Charlotte’s complaints that the doctors had made her tipsy. He was horrified by the heat in the room but his protests came too late. All he could do was try to wake Leopold so he could say goodbye to his darling wife. Even these efforts were in vain – Leopold’s sedatives had done their trick. Without him, Charlotte turned onto her face, drew her knees up to her chest and breathed her last.

The outpouring of national grief can scarcely be imagined. The death of two heirs to the throne at once left England with only George III’s ageing sons to inherit. They were hardly popular, while the people had adored Charlotte. It is natural, when tragedy strikes, to want someone to blame – whether that person be yourself or another individual. England chose Croft. While the royal family thanked him for his care of Charlotte and showed no signs of hostility, the public were another matter. Even today, Croft seems to be branded as the man who “killed” Princess Charlotte. It was true that he had an over-confident manner and made mistakes, but I was astonished to find historian James Chambers describing him as “not an eminent or even qualified physician. He was merely the most fashionable of the many accoucheurs…and his title was an inherited baronetcy rather than a well-earned knighthood”. Such censure is, I feel, grossly unfair. It was hardly likely that a family as used to needing doctors asthe royals (remember the King’s still ongoing madness? The childhood ailments of fifteen children, let alone their births?) would make a choice on the whim of fashion.

George IV wrote to Croft to assure him of his “confidence in the medical skill and ability which he displayed during the arduous and protracted labour”. It was a confidence that at least some others must have shared, for Croft continued to get work. But the continual morning for Charlotte – the poems, the full churches, the shops draped in black – were an ever-present nettle on his conscience. You can picture him reliving the hours again and again, seeing things he could have done differently, cursing himself for the panic which led him to heat Charlotte up rather than cool her down.  He finally broke when attending the wife of a rich clergyman in Harley Street. Her case bore similarities to Charlotte’s, although there was no cause for extreme concern as yet. While awaiting the next contractions, he left husband and wife alone and retired to the study. There, he sat in a wing-chair and opened a volume of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost on a significant quote: “Fair sir, God save you! Where is the Princess?” He then took a pair of pistols and shot himself through the head.

Poor Sir Richard Croft became the third victim of the national tragedy, although few people mourned for his wife and four children as intensely as they did for their princess. There were even wicked people who thought justice had been served on him. I always wonder about the vicar’s wife – what did she do without his help in the birth? Did she survive? And again, what about the unfortunate baby whose birth was preceded by bloody scene downstairs?  Perhaps I will never find out. They were just another set of innocents caught up in a national tragedy, more ripples skating across the pool that we fail to see, because we are focusing on where the stone dropped.