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!
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”.
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.
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.
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”.
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!
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.