I was so sad to hear about the recent deaths of cricketer Philip Hughes and umpire Hillel Oscar in tragic mid-game accidents. With our modern safety equipment we no longer expect these awful occurrences. I guess that these days we think of cricket as rather gentle game compared to heavier contact sports. But back in 1751, the sport was blamed (falsely, in this instance) for another death – one that changed the history of Britain.
Frederick, Prince of Wales, was the cricketer in question. As heir to the British throne, he did all he could to please his future subjects, but having spent the first 21 years of his life in Hanover, he started at a disadvantage. Nonetheless, he soon became the darling of the Londoners by flying in the face of his unpopular father’s rules. He took care to charm the ‘common folk’ by interacting with them – whether he was walking in local parks or playing popular sports. When he became father to a large family, it was only natural that he spent more time playing games like tennis and cricket with his little ones.
However, all this joy and popularity was to be cut short when, at the age of just 44, Frederick died after a short illness. His death left his 12-year-old son, a minor, as heir to the throne. Considering that the present King was 68, an approaching Regency seemed all too likely. Amidst the rumours that swirled – one being that Frederick’s wife, Augusta, poisoned him to boost her own importance – came the report that the cause of death was a burst abscess in the prince’s side. Supposedly, the abscess had been broken by a blow received while playing cricket at Cliveden some years earlier. But if we look at the facts of Frederick’s death, this theory seems unlikely.
Since his birth, Frederick had suffered from indifferent health. As I mentioned in a previous post, he was considered a slow and sickly child. It was his reliance on restoratives such as ass’s milk that led to his mother concluding he would be an impotent man. It is possible he was never destined for a long life. In fact, in 1750, there were signs that he at least suspected his impending doom. He visited fortune tellers but would not reveal what they saw. When reproached for working too hard in his garden at Kew, he replied that he wanted to finish the work as soon as possible, for he was persuaded he would not live long. Most importantly, he wrote out instructions to his eldest son George ‘for his good, that of my family and for that of his people’. This letter, which I have seen with my own eyes (eeek!) was essentially advice on how to be a good king and seems to assume that Frederick would never inherit. One quote is all too poignant, given the circumstances:
Retrieve the glory of the throne. I shall have no regret never to have won the crown, if you but fill it worthily.
No wonder the future George III was to feel continually under pressure! But in spite of, or perhaps because of, these bleak forebodings, Frederick took very little care of his health. His adviser, Bubb Doddington, records in his diary ‘Went to Leicester House where the Prince told me he had catched cold the day before at Kew.’ Rather than nursing his ailment – a course of action that would have been wise considering he had suffered from pleurisy before – Frederick continued life at a hectic pace. He spent a busy day in the House of Lords sweltering under state robes. Ironically, he went there to assess his father’s state of health, for their were rumours the King was on his way out. After this, he changed into thin clothing and worked in his gardens at Kew in a brisk March wind. Then, tired out, he came home and fell asleep for three hours on the couch. The rest would have done him good, except that he left the window open onto the bitter air. (For all readers not resident in the British Isles, it can get very cold here in March. We’ve had snow.)
Unsurprisingly, Frederick’s cold grew much worse and he was confided to bed. There he endured the ever unhelpful eighteenth-century treatments of being bled and blistered. At this time Augusta was about 5 months pregnant with her last child but refused to leave her husband’s side. Moreover, she would not let many people come near him. Of course these actions would fuel the later rumours about poison, but when questioned Augusta revealed that she had an inkling the end was near – Frederick had confided in her about his suspected short life span. Indeed, Frederick’s symptoms must have been prolonged and disturbing, for the King actually sent to inquire after his health. Father and son had long been at daggers drawn. Frederick was so touched by this olive branch that he burst into tears.
After a while, things seemed to be improving. Frederick slept for a solid eight hours and was well enough to desire a little entertainment. For his amusement, the children’s French dancing master Desnoyers took up station in a nearby room and played softly on his fiddle. The family themselves were playing at cards, and in this happy state of affairs the doctors prepared to leave. But just as they were going, Frederick was seized by a coughing fit. He was not able to stop. Dashing to his side, one doctor became alarmed and said ‘Here is something I do not like.’ Frederick clutched his stomach, gasped ‘I feel death,’ and expired.
Much as I like the idea of British history being altered by a ‘cricket ball of doom’, I think it is more likely that Frederick’s abscess burst naturally or through violent coughing. Furthermore, it seems clear there were underlying health problems, particularly pleurisy and lung complaints, that would have caused mischief without cricket balls. Frederick’s descendants were to suffer from tubercular and scrofulous illnesses, and these conditions were blamed for the deaths of his grandsons Octavius and Alfred, and his granddaughter Amelia.
Sad as this taint in the blood would turn out, the immediate aftermath of Frederick’s death was even more tragic. Clearly, his young family were devastated, with little 12 year-old George likening the sensation in his chest to the one he felt watching construction workers falling from the scaffold at Kew. The King received the news somewhat more calmly. He was playing cards with his mistress when the fatal note was passed to him. He exclaimed, ‘Why, they told me he was better!’ before explaining simply to his mistress, ‘Fritz is dead.’ While it is terrible for a father to have such a lack of emotion over own his son, it’s somewhat pleasing to know that the King, who had long despised Frederick, did not have the hypocrisy to put on displays of grief. He was, however, genuinely sorry for the little fatherless family and shed tears when he saw them, telling them they must be ‘brave boys’.
Despite this, the King still managed to bungle Frederick’s funeral. It wasn’t for lack of money – the expense was only £500 less than the King’s own funeral would cost 9 years later. But invitations were sent out only eight hours before the ceremony, with the result that no English lord or bishop was able to attend. In the pouring rain, poor Fred, the king that never was, was laid to rest without even a family member to see him off (it was not customary for women or children to attend funerals). While court mourning was prescribed, there was one glaring omission: coloured ribbon was allowed. This was practically unheard of in the past and I cannot imagine how hurt Augusta would have been. Whatever she felt, she was wise enough to disguise it – she had to stay on good terms with the King to survive. It seems this crotchety old King spoke truly when he later said, ‘I lost my eldest son, but I was glad of it.’