Month: August 2013

A Grizzly End

Caroline in later years

I have to admit it: I’m a bit weird. Why? Because I actually enjoy writing death scenes. With so many emotions at play – terror, relief, despair, regret and resignation to name but a few – the author has rich material to work with. Now that I write about real people and events, I no longer suffer the customary guilt at killing off a character. It actually happened, so it’s not my fault!

However, not all biographical fiction should follow the protagonist all the way to their final moments. There are times where, quite frankly, you need a happier ending. My original plan for Mistress of the Court included Caroline of Ansbach’s death, but I’ve come to realise it will fit in better to my novel about Augusta, which starts in the year of Caroline’s demise. Also, by using Augusta’s point of view, I won’t have to put my readers through the gory details. But for you, my dear blog followers, I will give a true Horrible History.

The main reason I wanted to write Caroline’s death scene is that it demonstrates, more than any other event in her remarkable life, the extraordinary courage of the woman. To the very end, she was more concerned about her husband and retained her sense of humour. This would be admirable in any death, but in Caroline’s grim circumstances it was nothing short of miraculous. I’m currently in a lot of pain myself, suffering from a protruding spinal disc that’s pressing on my sciatic nerve. When I find this hard to bear, I think of Caroline and try to be as brave as she was!

Caroline's memorial by the Serpentine

The story of Caroline’s death begins in December 1724, nearly thirteen years before she actually passed away. At this time, Caroline was 41 and gave birth to the last of her children, a daughter named Louisa. During the difficult labour, Caroline suffered from a rupture or an umbilical hernia. Rather than telling her doctors, she chose to conceal her injury. Just why she did this is hard to comprehend, but it is inextricably tied up with the pride inherent in Caroline’s character. She was no prude, but she was ashamed of her hernia. It occurred at a period in her life when she feared she was losing her hold on her husband, George II, as her physical attractions began to wane. Her great friend and advisor Robert Walpole told her bluntly that she couldn’t expect to have the same sexual influence over the King as she used to. Somehow, it seems, having the hernia made her feel less attractive and less of a woman. Moreover, she knew George II had little sympathy with any illness other than his own. To avoid annoying and bothering him, she took part in an elaborate cover-up, which would ultimately cost her life.

There are clues to Caroline’s state of health littered through the court journals, which we can see now in hindsight. Firstly, she took to wearing the soft stays, later known as “jumps”, which were designed for pregnancy, at all times. This must have been a measure to avoid added pressure on her hernia. She questioned Sir Robert Walpole closely about the death of his wife, because she thought she detected some symptoms similar to her own. And then there was the strange closeness between Caroline and her woman of the bedchamber Mrs Clayton, who had always been a favourite. Mrs Clayton suddenly acquired a power over the formidable queen – no doubt she had discovered the hernia in performing one of her daily duties and was paid to keep her mouth shut.

These seem extraordinary lengths to go to over a hernia. But the behaviour is consistent with Caroline’s other health problems. She was a martyr to gout, but refused to admit it, plunging her feet into ice-cold water to reduce the swelling so she could squeeze shoes on and limp around the gardens with her husband. There were times when she had to be wheeled around in a chair by her favourite son, the Duke of Cumberland. Caroline found it almost impossible to accept weakness, though she admitted to her folly at the end. “Remember,” she told her daughter Louisa, “I die by being giddy and obstinate in keeping my disorder secret”.

Umbilical Hernia Illustration

It appears George II discovered Caroline’s hernia when he returned from a perilous sea voyage in 1736. Reconciled after a long period of hostility, the couple were sexually active once more. However, the charade went on, to the extent that Caroline forced herself to attend drawing rooms in the evening after being confined to bed with pain most of the day. It is typical of George II that he encouraged her to do this rather than make a fuss. It seems heartless – and yet, when his wife finally collapsed, the King was devastated.

On 9 November 1737, Caroline walked over to supervise the work on a private library she was building for herself in St. James’s Palace. She was seized with pain and dropped down. She retired to bed for the whole afternoon and George II was so concerned that this time, he offered to excuse her from attending the drawing-room. In typical Caroline style, she persuaded her husband the ailment was temporary and forced herself through what must have been an agonising ordeal. The social duties over, she returned to the quiet sanctuary of her bedroom and the companionship of her daughter, Princess Caroline, and Lord Hervey. Both Hervey and young Caroline were delicate and suggested hundreds of their own remedies to heal the ailing queen. Nothing was effectual. Snakeroot made her feverish and she could only keep down a slug of brandy for half an hour. As the queen’s illness increased, so did that of her daughter, and in the end young Caroline had to be rushed from the room with rheumatic pains and nosebleeds. It must have been a scene of pure uproar.

With touching devotion, George II slept beside Caroline outside of her coverlet all night. However, she probably wished him away quite soon, when he complained that she wouldn’t lie still. “How the devil can you expect to sleep? You want to rest and the doctors tell you nothing can do so much good, yet you are always moving about”. When she obeyed his commands – a difficult enough thing to do in pain – she was upbraided for “lying and staring like a calf that just had its throat cut”. This sounds brutal to our ears, but Caroline would have understood these outbursts were the blustery George’s way of coping with his overpowering emotions. If he lost Caroline, his world would fall apart, and when he couldn’t control something he feared, he shouted at it.

Mourning ring for Caroline from "The art of mourning" website

Some historians lump the days following Caroline’s collapse together, highlighting her most significant words and gestures. What this approach fails to convey is firstly, the court hoped she might recover, and secondly that the poor woman lingered in agony for nearly two weeks. On 10th November she underwent those classic Georgian treatments, blistering and purging, probably doing more harm than good. Using her highly developed acting skills,  she persuaded her husband to attend his evening social duties with Princess Amelia (Emily) taking the queen’s place. But when George left, Caroline’s condition worsened – or, perhaps, showed truly for the first time that day, now she could let the pretence down. She wept and said she had “a pain nobody knows of”. Absurdly, royal etiquette didn’t allow the physicians to examine her without express permission, so the rupture remained, festering away undiscovered.

It was George who finally cracked and made Caroline give up her vain charade. After spending the 11th debating whether their eldest son, currently out of favour, should be permitted in to the sick room and assuring Caroline repeatedly that she was the best woman ever born, he betrayed her secret for her own good. On the 12th, despite Caroline’s protestations, George told Dr Ranby about the hernia. Caroline’s response was to turn her face to the wall and call him a  “lying fool”.  But the cat was out of the bag and Ranby made her put her hand where the pain was.

What the doctor found appalled him. “There is no more time to be lost, your majesty has concealed it too long already”. Part of the decayed bowel was infected and Ranby feared this would spread “until it reached a vital part”. He took the decision to operate. But whereas now we’d push the hernia back in, the Georgian doctors simply cut it off – thus unwittingly destroying Caroline’s entire bowel system. Unsurprisingly, there was a horrific stench.

Yet the court was optimistic the butchery would work. Even Caroline, on 13th, astonishingly attested she felt better and would last three more days. She thought she would die on a Wednesday, since she was born, married, gave birth to her first child, heard of her accession to the throne and had her coronation on a Wednesday.But she was selling her sturdy frame short – she would endure for a further seven painful days.

Mourning plate for Caroline - from the art of mourning website

Although they were operating on her almost daily, Caroline kept her wicked sense of humour. She asked the doctor to stop “before you begin and let me have a full view of your comical face”.  She joked that Ranby “would rather be cutting his wife”, and fell into fits of laughter when old Dr Bussier, who stood observing the operation, leaned in too close and set his wig on fire. From these bursts of merriment you would suppose the operations were not major, but this was far from the case. Dr Ranby had to change his cap and waistcoat half way through each session since he’d soaked them in sweat. Caroline occasionally let out a groan, but quickly apologised and assured the doctors she knew they were only trying to help her.

In the days that followed, Caroline had several visitors. Her minister Walpole practically begged her not to die, assuring her “Your life is of such consequence to your husband, your children, to this country and indeed to many other countries”. Resigned to her fate, Caroline told him “I have nothing to say to you but to recommend the King, my children and the Kingdom to your care”.

It was on the 17th things took a turn for the worse. Most historians skirt around the grim details, but good old Lucy Worsley gives a full account in Courtiers when she asserts “Caroline’s stomach practically exploded”. And no wonder, considering the doctors had removed part of her bowel. Her violent vomiting recommenced and excrement seeped out of her wound, soaking through the quilts and flowing onto the floor. It must have been a truly horrific sight, and we can only imagine Caroline’s horror. She’d certainly had enough of her ordeal. “I wish it was at an end,” she sighed, “but my nasty heart will not break.” At last, the doctor had to confess there was no hope left for the queen. In characteristic style, George II punched him in the face.

Long accustomed to the idea of death, Caroline had prepared what she wanted to say to her children. She charged Princess Caroline with the education of her two youngest daughters, Mary and Louisa – “It is a fine legacy I leave you.” Poor, distraught Princess Caroline wailed that she wouldn’t survive her mother for a year, her heart would be broken. Broken it was, but the Princess outlived her mother by 20 years. I’ve discussed Caroline’s feelings toward her eldest son, Frederick, in my Hanoverian Mothers series. From her favourite son, William, she parted tenderly, encouraging him to look after his father. “You know I have always loved you tenderly and I place my chief hope in you. Show your gratitude to me in your behaviour to the King. Attempt nothing ever against your brother and endeavour to mortify him in no other way than by showing superior merit”.

George towards the end of his life

But it’s the parting from George II that touches the heart keenly. Strange and unconventional as their royal romance was, it had foundations in true love. Caroline didn’t want George to be lonely and urged him to marry again. Crying, he said he would have mistresses instead. Still unable to resist a joke, Caroline cried “My God! That never stopped you before.”  But George would stand by his words – he never took another wife. As he explained, he never saw another woman “fit to buckle Caroline’s shoe”. Caroline removed the ruby ring placed on her finger at the coronation and put it in her husband’s hand, saying “This is the last thing I have to give you. All I ever possessed came from you. My will you will find a very short one: I give all I have to you.”

Death finally came from Caroline on 20th November 1737. Yet until the end, she remained more considerate for her family than herself. It was about 10 o’clock at night. Princess Amelia dozed on a couch in the corner of the room and George slept at the foot of the bed, when Caroline suddenly asked her bedchamber woman to take the candle away. Princess Amelia asked if the light was hurting her eyes, to which Caroline replied: “No – I would spare you the affliction of seeing me die.”  Almost at once, the death rattle began in her throat. She begged her daughter to open the window and pray. Obediently, Amelia sat down and read aloud from the prayer-book as the last few breaths left Caroline’s body. In one last gesture, Caroline covered her mouth and whispered “I am going”. She died holding George’s hand.

The grief of the family and indeed the nation was acute. George almost started crying when he gave his opening speech to parliament and for a time all queens had to be removed from his card deck, lest they made him weep. Caroline lay in state in a coffin of lead and English oak, guarded by soldiers with their axes reversed. Tapers burnt night and day, casting doleful shadows on the walls hung with black and purple. It was George’s express wish that one side of Caroline’s coffin would be opened when he finally came to rest beside her, that their ashes might intermingle. For all the bluster, he was a softy at heart!

Caroline surrounded by angels

Britain feared that, without Caroline’s wily politics, the remainder of George’s reign would be an unstable one. This was somewhat true – he went to war and also faced off the claims of Bonnie Prince Charlie – but he held the throne in a good position for his grandson, George III, to take it in 1760.

I end with a quote from a contemporary poem written on Caroline’s death. The last line in particular makes me sad, as so many people have forgotten about her. Let’s hope this post and Mistress of the Court go some way towards solving that problem :)

The Lord hath taken away His anointed with a stroke;the breath of our nostrils is taken away.

The great Princess is no more, under whose shadow we said we should be safe, and promised ourselves lasting peace – she, who future generations will know as Caroline the Illustrious.


A Fragrant Court


When historical novelists try to the capture the past for readers, they have to skilfully manipulate the senses. Dress looked different, speech sounded different, food tasted different. But I think the change we’d notice most, coming from the 21st century, would be the smell.

Let’s face it: our characters were stinky. For the most part, their fellows wouldn’t notice it, being in an equal state of uncleanliness. Who knows, perhaps they would think a freshly bathed person smelt strange, since they weren’t used to it. In general, it was only the hands, face and sometimes the feet and personal areas that were washed everyday. Full immersion in water was rare, as was laundering the heavy, expensive materials that made up court dress. For the most part, they would have been packed away with herbs in hopes of keeping both smells and parasites away. I’m in a unique position at the moment, writing about Caroline of Ansbach, who was a frequent bather. Some contemporaries found her washing excessive and blamed her of putting her health at risk. As someone so careful of her own hygiene, she must have been particularly sensitive to smells. It therefore beholds me, when I’m writing from her point of view, to understand the olfactory world in which she lived.


I recently attended a workshop at Historic Royal Palaces called Fragrances of the Georgian Court, lead by Tanya Moulding. Tanya fully earned her title of “The Perfume Mistress”, opening our nostrils to a whole new world. I get the feeling some of my classmates didn’t enjoy sampling the unpleasant side of the court smells quite as much as I did – of course, they were repugnant, but I need to write about them, so I was sniffing to my heart’s content. I always prefer it in historical fiction when heroes are ascribed realistic scents, such as horses, sweat and leather than fresh lye soap and cologne. Yes, gentlemen of the court, particularly in the Regency period, may have used heavy feminine scents – but we have to remember this was screening something muskier and altogether less sweet beneath.

In particular, London was little better than an open sewer. With everything from human waste to rotting animal carcasses in the kennel, there was also the heaving, poisonous Thames. Although it hadn’t yet reached the proportions that would lead to “The Great Stink” in Victorian times, the odours that the river carried with it would have been sharp and pungent. Think rotting fish and plant matter and you’ll start to get an idea. To help recreate these smells for us, Tanya made concoctions featuring the stale, acidic scents of civet and castoreum . Both these come from the anal glands of animals – cats and beavers respectively – and were certainly stinky. What is surprising, however, is that these aromas were sometimes used as base notes in fragrances of the time – apparently, some people relished the warm musky quality at the heart of these animal scents.

Victorian cartoon showing the stinky Thames

So, how to mask all this unpleasantness without a can of  modern-day Febreeze? Well, firstly there was the Royal Herb Strewer. Although the role became more ceremonial as the Georgian age progressed, this busy figure would have been wafting her way around the court, trying her best to sweeten the air. The herbs she would lay amongst rushes and sometimes straw would depend, firstly, on the nature of the floor – no ruining expensive Turkey carpets! – and then the use of that room. For example, southernwood or wormwood was considered to be an aphrodisiac and may well have circled the royal bed.  To repel insects, chamomile, lavender, penny royal and rosemary would have come to the fore. Another lovely little gem was sweetflag – it smelt fatty and almost cinammony, with a seductive quality about it. So much for the rooms But what did the people use to hide their own bodily odour?

Orange blossom

Pomanders and scented gloves were dropping out of fashion, but everything from the pomade to the face powder of the Georgian toilette would have carried a scent. Men might favour spicier aromas such as clove, cinnamon and nutmeg, while women went for header notes of orange and rose. At Tanya’s workshop, we were given some of the following scents to sample and use to make our own Georgian inspired perfume. I wrote down my thoughts and descriptive words as I sniffed – you may well find these descriptions in some of my books now! – but I thought I would share them with you.

Top Notes – mainly citrus and sweet

  • Orange – As you would expect, sweet and zesty
  • Grapefruit – Like orange, but juicier and less overpowering
  • Lime – Fresh and sharp
  • Bitter orange – This one smelt like Christmas. Think orange peel, a deeper smell with a decided tang
  • Bergamont – A green smell, more delicate in nature than the others

Middle Notes – Flowers, herbs and spices

  • Lavender – Always a favourite of mine, powdery and soothing.
  • Jasmine – Delicious and heady but sickly sweet
  • Rose Otto – I’ll go into more detail on this later, but Rose Otto is not the same as a simple rose scent. It is deeper, slightly less floral and has notes of honey and wax to it.
  • Orange blossom – This didn’t smell like I thought it would. I expected the zing of the original orange, but this was less zesty and more musky
  • Geranium – Surprisingly unlike the geraniums I sniff in my mum’s garden. Minty and peppery.
  • Rosemary – Lemony, a little peppery. It has a very strong undertone and screams “I am a herb!” Again, this oil smelt different from the fresh rosemary you would crush in your hands to get the scent of.
  • Violet leaf – A wet scent, putting me in mind of leaves after a downpour.
  • Black pepper – Smokey and chocolatey, this was another scent famed as an aphrodisiac.

Base notes – Woods and resins

  • Cedarwood – there were two varieties of the cedarwood, but the one I smelt reminded me of wax and leather. It had a watered-down sweetness to it.
  • Frankincense – Musky and spicy with the merest hint of lemon. A smell that goes deep down into your nostrils.
  • Benzoin – I loved this one! It smelt like caramel and alcohol, reminding me of liquers
  • Vanilla – Creamy and smooth as always
  • As described above, civet and castoreum were also an option, but they just reminded me too much of a kitty-litter tray.

For my own Georgian perfume, I wanted to get sweet scents throughout, nothing too floral. I find overly flowery perfumes don’t sit well on my skin – I’m better with vanillas and honeys. Tanya was on hand for advice throughout, and I started off with the following blend of my favourites:

Bergamont – 1 drop

Orange blossom – 4 drops

Lavender – 1 drop

Benzoin – 1 drop

Distilled in this way, the lavender wasn’t over-powering. While I like the smell, it has a tendency to sweep all others aside and that wasn’t what I wanted. Pleased with the results, I repeated the recipe to make it stronger. I still liked it, but wanted to add a touch more sweetness. Tanya recommended some mandarin. I added a drop of this and it worked, but something was still missing. There was a slight kick I needed that I couldn’t describe. I found myself sniffing the rose otto again and again. It’s another strong scent that claims its own ground and I was apprehensive of using it, lest I drown out all my hard work. Finally biting the bullet, I added just one drop. As I expected, it was a little too strong. By now my nose was accustomed to what would balance things out, and I added three drops of vanilla and another of mandarin and stirred . . . It was perfect! I had my own Georgian perfume, a mixture of seven very different scents that somehow combined together into something sweet, tangy and lightly floral all at once. For full Georgian effect, I will be wearing my new perfume when I appear dressed as a Georgian at the Festival of Romance in November. I’m  hoping it will complement my orange blossom pomade and lavender hair powder – you’ll certainly smell me from a long way off!


Several members of the class had dizzy spells and needed to seek some air. In between sniffing, we were offered pots of freshly ground coffee to refresh the nostrils. I found myself thinking how overpowering it must have been to spend a day in the Georgian court. Not only would you have the nauseous smells turning your stomach, you would have all this fragrance fizzing in your brain, trying to mask it but probably just blending with it. It made me wonder how people managed to breathe! The only modern comparison I can think of is being on the tube in summer in rush hour, with a group of people who forgot their deodorant, and letting a big bottle of Chanel Number 5 smash on the floor and puddle around your feet. Feeling faint? I know I am.

Caroline's bathroom

I promised you a little bit more about rose otto. I think the reason I was drawn to it was that it reminded me of the scent in Queen Caroline’s bathroom at Hampton Court.  The best post I can refer you to about the Georgian rooms at Hampton Court is by the wonderful Brimstone Butterfly who has sadly passed away but continues to inspire me with her blog. I had always assumed the rose smell in Queen Caroline’s bathroom was added on purpose, but as you will read in the blog post, it seems to be something of a phenomenon that not all people can smell. Rosewater that seeped into the porous walls? Who knows? The funny thing is, the scent seems to travel. For me it is there on some days, not on others. On one trip to Hampton Court I could smell it the whole way through Queen Caroline’s private apartments, another only in the bathroom. The more superstitious suggest it is the dead queen’s lingering spirit. I can’t say I fully subscribe to this theory, but I can tell you of one rather odd thing that happened to me. I was visiting on a weekday and the apartments were practically deserted except for a few staff. I walked up and down again and again, taking notes and familiarising myself with the rooms and their order for my novel. No rose scent that day. I must have been there for the best part of an hour. Just as I walked up to the bedroom to make my final round, I said, rather sadly to myself, since there was no one nearby to think me a weirdo, “Oh, so you’re not with me today, then, Caroline?” Almost at once the smell of rose otto enveloped me, stronger than I had ever smelt it before. I wasn’t scared at all, but smiled. As I completed my last walk up and down the apartments, the scent lingered protectively around me and followed me all the way down to Fountain Court. Very strange, but I swear to you, entirely true. For this reason, rose otto will always be special to me.

Caroline : a sweet smelling companion