There are few things sadder in life than the death of a young child. For parents in the Georgian period, it was a devastatingly common occurence. Although Queen Charlotte bore fifteen children, she was not considered a “proper mother” by contemporary standards until the death of her ninth son, Prince Alfred, at barely two years old.
Charlotte’s relationship with Alfred didn’t start in the most promising way. Already exhausted from constant dashing between London, Windsor and Kew, Charlotte found her fourteenth pregnancy a trying one. Her body was worn out with more or less constant childbearing over a period of twenty years. Confiding in her brother Charles, she wrote
No prisoner could wish more ardently for liberty than I do to be quit of my burden and to see the end of my condition. If I knew it was for the last time, I should be happy…
And indeed she was extremely happy when, four months after Alfred’s birth, she found the new year was starting without the need to employ another nurse. Once Alfred was out of the womb, he was much more agreeable to Charlotte. She called him her “petit ange” and was very protective of his delicate health.
Conforming with the pattern established by the elder Princes and Princesses, Alfred was inoculated against the smallpox. This was a different procedure to the one we know – Dr Jenner had not yet made his great discovery. Two small holes were made in the arm with the point of a lancet. The smallpox virus was then “inserted” by drawing a thread several times under the skin. This happened in both arms. But little Alfred did not bounce back with the vigour of his siblings. He continued weak and had to be sent to Deal for the benefit of sea air.
Alfred endeared himself to the inhabitants of Deal by waving at them when instructed by his governess. He took baths and went for rides on a pony – the “four-footed doctor”, as his mother would call it. Yet the eruptions from the smallpox did not abate as they should, and clung particularly to his eyelids and face. His chest also seemed weak. He returned to his family no better and the royal doctors were summoned.
Sadly, the pomp and wealth of Alfred’s position couldn’t save him. The doctors shocked his parents by confirming he could only survive a few weeks. After several bouts of fever, he spent a few days free of pain and passed tranquilly into death. As you can imagine, Charlotte “cried a vast deal” and was “very much hurt by her loss”.
With the brave resignation her daughters would show in later life, Charlotte tried to accept what had happened to her son. She took comfort in thinking he had escaped a life of ill-health and pain. She thanked God for the children she had living and attempted to move on.
It must have been doubly hard for Charlotte, since she wasn’t allowed much outlet for her grief. Mourning was not prescribed for the death of children under the age of seven, so she had no dark clothes to suit her mood and no excuses to free her from public engagements. Moreover, her blunt husband offered the most backhanded comfort – his words basically conveyed the sentiment “Oh well, at least it wasn’t Octavius.” This is not to say the King wasn’t upset by Alfred’s death – he certainly was – but one of the first things he could think of to write was that if it had been Octavius that had died, he would have died too.
The King didn’t know it, but his words were to be the kiss of death for young Octavius. There was no reason to suspect the healthy, boisterous little boy would lead anything but a long and robust life. He was a beautiful child, the apple of his father’s eye. Consequently, it came as a tremendous shock when just six months after Alfred’s death, Octavius fell sick. Within just forty-eight hours he changed from a perfectly health child into another small Prince in the winding-sheet. His cause of death may well have been tuberculosis or scrofula, which ran in the family, but the doctors were unsure. It’s worth noting this tail end of the family – Sophia, Octavius, Alfred and Amelia – was not strong. The only one of the four to live past 27 was Sophia, and she suffered a martyrdom to ill-health before dying blind and all but deaf in 1848.
Octavius’ death would have been crippling at any time, but coming as it did, so swift on Alfred’s demise and the loss of the American colonies, it nearly levelled the family. When portraits of the two deceased toddlers went on display at the Royal Academy that summer, the Princesses broke down in tears before the public. Although the King didn’t die as he had predicted, he continued to dwell on his bereavement. I often wonder if Charlotte felt a little indignant on Alfred’s behalf ; the King’s grief for Octavius far outstripped his sorrow for that younger, first child in the grave.
By the time Octavius died, Charlotte was already six months pregnant with her fifteenth and last child, Princess Amelia. What must she have felt at this moment, knowing her last two babies met premature ends? Did she fear for the new child and try not to get attached to it? It is at this time of uncertainty and fear I introduce her in God Save the King. I really wanted to open up the mind of poor Charlotte at this crucial place in her life. So many accounts dwell on the reaction of George to the boys’ death, using the grief they caused to support a theory that he was driven slowly mad by sorrow and stress. But what of the poor mother trying to hold it all together? What of the woman who put aside her own grief to care for her husband in his?
As it happened, Amelia became a balm to the family. She was the only symbol of hope in a very bleak time and quickly took up the role of family pet. For a while, she brought happiness. But I often think about those two little Princes and wonder what they would have turned out like. I can see Octavius as a heart-breaker, every bit as roguish and wild as his brothers. Alfred I imagine a little like his brother Augustus: quiet, sickly, with liberal views and passionate feelings flowing underneath. I can only imagine how many times Charlotte sat and did the same thing: remembering those she had lost and dwelling on what might have been.