When you buy Queen of Bedlam next Tuesday (which you’re obviously going to do, right?) you will see an advert in the back for next year’s novel Mistress of the Court. This will tell the story of George II’s mistress Henrietta Howard and her formidable mistress Queen Caroline. There was literally so much to squeeze into this book that I didn’t get as much space as I wanted to explore the life of George II’s five daughters – maybe another novel in the future! But it’s George and Caroline’s third daughter, another Caroline, who I want to tell you about today. In Mistress of the Court I refer to her as Carrie to avoid confusion with her mother, and will do so here too.
Carrie was always a sickly child. In her infancy, her ill health forced her to remain behind in Hanover with Prince Frederick while the rest of her family went to take the British throne. Inured to suffering, she was an empathetic child who took on the role as peacemaker between her siblings. She was extremely close to her eldest sister Anne, but when Anne married Carrie became the confidante and main companion of her mother. Despite her mild nature, Carrie shared her mother’s disgust with the behaviour of her brother Prince Frederick and vowed she would leave the palace at a grand gallop the moment he became king. Another thing she shared with her mother was a tendency to hold onto weight. It doesn’t show in the portrait above, but Carrie became hugely fat.
Three of George II’s five daughters married – the spinsters were Amelia and Carrie. Amelia was quite content with her unmarried state, as she explained in an impassioned letter to her sister Anne, but Carrie was not. She had an affectionate heart and it seems she had bestowed it on her mother’s servant Lord Hervey. Not only was Hervey married, he took both male and female lovers. But Carrie was not one of them. While Hervey’s memoirs show he had a high respect and friendship for the princess, he had no romantic interest in her.
Carrie was devastated by the death of her mother and the love of her life, which came within a few years of each other. However, she managed to drag on her sad existence, taking comfort in charitable work before she died at the age of just 44.
In many respects Carrie is now a forgotten princess. Given her good nature and courage, she does not deserve to be so. To give her a voice, I have written as short story about her experience as I imagine it when Queen Caroline died. I hope you will enjoy it. Please remember, as always, it is my copyright.
Nothing prepares you for the loss of a mother. It is a secret terror; a scream locked deep inside your head. You are never ready; not even when the colour drains from her eyes and age folds her skin. It is always too soon.
I was with her inspecting work on the new library, dizzy with the scent of shaved wood and paint, when she fell. One moment she stood tall, barking orders to the builders. Then she collapsed, her limbs folding like a marionette with its strings cut.
Help. The word stuck in my throat, blocked by terror. She lay, a mountain of flesh with brocade puddled around her. I yearned to run, to help, to scream, but I could do nothing. My body froze to the spot.
Servants swarmed around my mother, calling. I couldn’t hear them. It all moved around me in a magic lantern show, as if I had no part in the proceedings.
At last, someone shoved me forward and I bent over her prone form. “Mama?” My voice came strangled. “Did your legs give way, Mama? Is it the gout?”
Her red, blotchy face gaped at me, a landed carp. She couldn’t speak. I had never known my indomitable mother lost for words before.
They put her to bed at St. James’s Palace, shutting daylight out of her room and burning sour vinegar. I took my usual place, the favourite daughter’s place: at her side. It was cruel to see pain carved into those beloved features. I thought of all the times I had fallen down as a child and she had picked me up, the many nights she’d sat by my sickbed. Now I had to be strong for her. Alas, I never had the steely character of my mother, the Queen. Soft as a bag of feathers, she called me. But I knew, as I watched her sweaty head toss and turn on the pillow, grey curls plastered to her forehead, that she was a part of me. Bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh. I was even named for her.
At last, Lord Hervey came. When his elegant form swept into the room, a vision of peacock silk and silver embroidery, my shoulders relaxed. This man I worshipped and admired in secret would make everything right.
Lord Hervey clamped his hat under his elbow. “My dear Princess Caroline! What is this? What ails the Queen?”
I started up, knocking my knees against the side of the mattress. My cheeks burnt, as they always did in his presence. “She fell,” I gasped. “She fell.”
My mother shifted on the bed, groaning. “My Lord Hervey, it is that nasty colic I had at Hampton Court. It’s intolerable to be plagued with a new distemper, at my age.” Her chest moved – she tried to laugh, but it turned into a retch. I grabbed a bowl and ran forward, turning her head as vomit spilled from her mouth.
Panic scrabbled inside me. “My lord, you suffer from colic. What do you take? The doctors will administer nothing until the King returns.”
He drew away, nose wrinkled at the stench of sick. “Er – snake-root. Brandy.”
My eyes filled with tears. “Fetch some, for mercy’s sake. Please. I must give her some relief.”
We tried everything: Sir Walter Rayleigh’s Cordial, Daffy’s Elixir, usquebaugh, mint water. She brought them back up.
She held my arm, blue eyes shining like chips of ice. “Poor Caroline, you are very ill too. We will soon meet in a better place.”
By the time the King arrived, I was frantic. I don’t recall anything but the blare of his voice. I’d cried my eyes in to swollen, puffy slots. Exhausted pressure swam around my head until finally it erupted in a nosebleed. They sent me to bed, stained red and brown.
In the morning, my father unravelled. Enormous bags circled his eyes. He’d removed his wig to show a tender, stubbly scalp. His clothes were tousled; he must have laid the whole night beside her on the coverlet. “How the devil can you expect to sleep?” he barked. “You are always moving about.”
I bristled; would he continue to berate my mother, even now? But when I looked into his face I saw my own stark terror staring back at me. He shouted only from fear.
“It hurts,” the Queen gasped. “I have to move when it hurts.”
The doctors cut into the crook of her elbow and caught dark blood in a porcelain bowl. They heated cups and made blisters on her legs. My mother wept. With every tear that fell from her eye, another piece of my world crumbled.
The next day my father spoke to Dr Ranby. “I know what this illness proceeds from. But I promised the Queen I would never speak of it.”
A strange sound rose from the bed; something between a wheeze and groan. “What are you saying, you lying fool?” I’d never heard that venom in my mother’s voice.
The King’s face drooped and he shook his head. “She has a rupture.”
“I don’t! You blockhead! All the pain is here!” She clamped a hand to her stomach.
The King nodded to Dr Ranby. They moved forward; my father held her down as she screamed. Ranby probed her abdomen; his eyes grew dull. “It is a rupture. Your Majesty has concealed it too long already. There is no time to be lost.”
My mind twirled with the news, imagining a rupture in her stomach, in my family. How long had it been there? And my father knew? Jealousy teased my thoughts. My mother shared all with me – I couldn’t imagine why she’d conceal something like this.
Lord Hervey held my hand through the operation. In spite of everything, a chink of my soul rejoiced at his touch. It was a sickening business. The rupture swelled red and fierce, a rosebud pushing out beneath the skin. The surgeons cut away until sweat drenched through their clothes and they were obliged to change.
“You are the best woman in the world,” my father repeated. “The very best.”
He was right. My mother was braver than us all. Even when she groaned, there was an apology. “Don’t mind me. I know you’re only trying to help.”
I yearned to be like her. But I was a brunette to her blonde, plain before her beauty, weak beside her strength. They put me in the ante-room and bled me from both arms. My hope seeped away with the dark, red liquid. What was I without her? I cared for no other in my family. No one understood me.
When I awoke in the night, I found him, curled on a couch at the foot of my bed. My Lord Hervey; his soft feminine features, grey in the gloom. I longed to reach out and touch him, to plant a kiss on those delicate lips. He must care for me. Why else would he come? He couldn’t love his wife, when he spent so many hours here.I thought then that perhaps the operation would work. The Queen’s illness would turn into a blessing. I would lie in the same room as my secret love and watch him sleep, and tomorrow he would show his heart.
But it was a fantasy. All that met me in the morning was a hideous squelching sound. I dashed into the Queen’s room. Tangy, rotten smells clawed at the back of my throat. I danced back, eyes watering, as something wet seeped through the toe of my stockings. It couldn’t be . . .
Horror possessed me. My mother’s stomach was a fountain, oozing brown filth. Reeking liquid soaked through her shift, her coverlets, and dripped onto the floor. My knees gave way. Crawling in muck, I vomited.
“I wish it was at an end!” she wailed, splashing her hands on the stained bed. “But my nasty heart will not break.”
Hers was the only one that did not. Dr Ranby whispered to my father with tears in his eyes, his voice like gravel. “Your Majesty, I fear there is no hope.”
My father whipped round and punched him in the face.
When they’d cleaned and stopped the vile flow, we clustered round her. Everything still smelt of manure.
My head buzzed. I couldn’t believe this would be the last time. How could I put what she meant to me into words, into a look? My mind groped the black void of a future without her. It was cold and airless. I would never survive.
“I leave you a legacy, Caroline.” Her watery eyes bored into mine. “You must care for your little sisters. Supervise their education.”
I would rather act like a soldier and follow my leader into death. I wish she’d asked it of me. But what she required was much harder: she wanted me to live. To go on, without her.
The King blubbered like a boy. I hadn’t consider, until then, that my parents were in love. Perhaps my mother meant as much to him as Lord Hervey did to me.
“I have nothing to tell you, my dear.” She reached out, wincing, to take his hand. “I always told you my thoughts as fast as they arose. You know all.”
Absurd jealousy prickled my ribs. She was mine, not his. She had been there every minute of my life, even before I drew breath.
She withdrew her hand. A large, ruby ring sat on her stout finger, a glob of blood. I recognised it as the one she received at her Coronation; that day when she’d sparkled like sunshine on water. She pulled it off with difficulty and held it out to the King. “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.”
The King shielded his eyes. “Ah, God, let it alone! Is it not perfectly safe on your finger?” It occurred to me how solid the hand would turn after death. Waxy skin, frozen forever. Would we be able to prize her ring away? “You will grow well again,” the King said, leaning down to kiss her. Tears rolled down her cheeks, but they were not her own. “The doctors tell me you are better.”
Cruel hope shoved forward, seducing me with honeyed words. Why did it rear its head now, when I knew all was lost? Couldn’t it be kind and let me surrender?
My mother shook her head. “Remarry, when I’m gone.”
Sobs cracked from his chest. He cuffed his eyes again and again, but still the tears came. “No,” he panted. “Never! There is no woman fit to buckle your shoe! I will take mistresses.”
And suddenly, there it was: my mother’s wry smile. Her thin eyebrows arched. “My God, that never stopped you before.”
I was asleep in my room when the death rattle began. Satin and soft pillows shielded me from reality. But then Mrs Purcell’s cold hand darted beneath my quilt and clamped on my arm. I woke with a start. My chest was tight; I couldn’t fill my lungs.
Her gaunt face swam toward me through the shadows. Her eyes were wild. “It is the end.”
Somehow I gained my feet and dashed through the palace. I had to see her before, before . . . Only one candle burnt beside the bed. By the flickering flame, I saw her face, puffed and blue.
My father was there, and my sister Emily. The Queen wheezed at them. “Open the window. Pray.”
As the King darted to open the casement, Emily dropped to her knees. “Our Father, which art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name.”
There was a long, low creak, like the groan of a ship.
“No. It can’t be.” Grabbing a hand mirror from the Queen’s dressing table, I ran to her side and held it before her parched lips. No mist came; no drops of damp. It was over.
Just then, a gust of wind blew through the window and extinguished the candle. She was gone, leaving nothing but the aura of royalty, the ghost of her orange-blossom perfume. With no one to remain strong for, I broke down, my life ripped at the seams.
The King wept. I wanted none of his tears, the louse. He’d never been faithful; he’d distressed my mother with graphic tales of his conquests and hung portraits of his mistresses in their bedchamber. Now he had the hypocrisy to sob his heart out, as if he were the one to be pitied.
Lord Hervey practically carried me to my room, somehow supporting my bulky frame with his slender arms. I clung to him, desperate. My anchor, the only shred of humanity I still cared about. We sat together on my bed in silence, letting time stretch.
Grief numbed me to the core. Like a leech, it drained my vitality until there was nothing but a raw absence. The truth rattled in my skull but I couldn’t grab hold; it was hot enough to sear the skin from my hands. “What will I do?” I croaked.
He started from his reverie. “I don’t know.”
“What will you do? Your office dies with her.” A chasm opened inside me. Surely he wouldn’t leave the palace, rob me of my last comfort? “Will you ask the King for a place?”
He shook his head. “I don’t think so. Without her . . .” He didn’t finish.
Misery took me in a stranglehold. Burning tears rushed from my eyes. I couldn’t endure it. Fevered from lack of sleep, beaten down with grief, and now heartbroken too. I wished God had taken me, instead of the Queen. “You cannot leave.” I looked earnestly into his face, trying to convey my need in a single glance. But even as I did it, I knew my countenance was too pudgy and plain to touch his heart. “Please don’t leave me,” I whispered. “Whatever would I do without you?”
He took my hand and squeezed. My skin quivered with excitement. “You will marry, my dear princess. Duty no longer binds you. Fly free.”
Cruel man. Didn’t he realise I wanted none but him? The idea he could so happily consign me to another man mortified me. “Duty does bind me. I promised the Queen I would care for the little ones.”
Hervey’s eyes filled. Tears for her, not for me. “She would have wanted you to be happy.”
I deflated onto my bed. “Marriage would not make me happy,” I told the painted ceiling. “Because I cannot marry for love.”
I heard Hervey shift on the bed. “It doesn’t signify. I married for love, yet I am not happy.”
My pulse skittered. It was rare that he spoke of his wife, that goddess of shining black hair and lively eyes. “You do not love her, now?” I whispered with hope. “Your passion has burnt out?”
His voice came soft as velvet. “No. Transferred. The person I love is . . . unattainable.”
Every fibre thrilled. He couldn’t mean…? I propped myself up on my elbows, greedy for his words.
“You love another?” I panted, breathless. “A person barred to you from society and custom?”
He put one hand over his face. The other laced its trembling fingers through mine. “Oh, Caroline. It is such a relief to tell you at last.”
Joy rushed through me, warm as spirit. Only a few hours had passed since my mother’s death, but perhaps this was her last gift to me. My life would begin at her end.
I huddled against his arm, my heart in my throat. “The one I love is out of my reach, too.”
His hand squeezed mine. “Then, gentle Caroline, you will understand.”
“I do understand you.” Need throbbed through my voice. “I am always here to listen.”
He dropped the hand from his pale forehead and turned to face me. His eyes bore into my soul. Surely he saw my love, raw and naked in my look?
I swept down my eyelashes and wet my lips with the tip of my tongue. Blessed, blessed moment. It was going to happen at last: the dream I never dared hope would become reality.
But he kiss didn’t me. Instead, Hervey groaned. “It is churlish of me to burden you with my woes, at a time such as this.”
“No, not at all. Speak.”
He tilted his head in the shadows. I felt his breath, hot and sweet, brush my skin. “Sometimes I have thought you half-suspected the truth. But I couldn’t tell your mother. It would have slain me to see disgust or horror in her eyes.”
I couldn’t let him tread this path. He wouldn’t use my mother as an excuse to make us both miserable. He wasn’t so very low, to love a princess. Were it not for his wife, the Queen might have smiled on his suit.
“You should have confessed. She may have looked kindly upon you.” Upon us.
He shrugged. I wished I could make out his expression in the shifting darkness. “These things are too dangerous to speak of, without being sure.”
Words crowded my mouth. Hang the danger. I will run with you, anywhere. Defy the King. Defy them all. Let us be together.
“But now . . .?
He blew out his breath. “Now he is married. He loves his wife, and I have lost him.”
Reality slammed into me with the weight of a cannon ball. Tears pricked my eyes like tiny bayonets. “H-Him?” I stumbled. Then, the terrible image of Hervey, my love, holding another crystallised in my mind. “A man?”
He hung his head. “Stephen Fox.” Nausea pushed at the back of my throat; a sickness borne of jealousy and profound disappointment. Not mine, after all. Never mine. “You won’t tell, will you?” he asked anxiously.
I thought of my love, pushing through the soil like a green spear in springtime. Without light or heat, it would decay before a single bud showed, tainting the chill soil of my heart. A secret no one must know.
“No,” I whispered. “I will never tell a soul.”