Last week, Kensington Palace announced the Christening date for Prince George Alexander Louis of Cambridge. The ceremony will take place on 23 October 2013 in the Chapel Royal at St. James’s Palace and will no doubt be an occasion of much joy. But when you watch the news and see the pictures, spare a thought for another little Prince George, born nearly 300 years ago, also Christened at St. James’s Palace. This child, second son of George II and Caroline of Ansbach, was less lucky than our third in line to the throne. Innocently, he became the object of a quarrel which rocked the nation.
After the trauma of leaving her eldest son, Frederick, behind in Hanover, Caroline, then Princess of Wales, struggled to get a second boy. In 1716, she gave birth to a stillborn son, which nearly killed her. However, she fell pregnant again very soon and was finally delivered of little George on 20 October 1717 (Old Style calendar, 2 November in the New Style), in her chambers at St. James’s Palace. George’s birth was witnessed by – amongst others – his father, the Archbishop of Canterbury, four Duchesses and five Countesses. I think any woman who has been through childbirth will feel how awful it must have been to labour while all those people watched on! In her last confinement, Caroline had insisted on sticking with the German tradition of having one female midwife attend the birth. It is significant to note that, after the last year’s tragedy, Caroline employed two male midwives for George’s birth: a much more English procedure.
Caroline’s joy in the delivery of a healthy boy was echoed by the public. Cannon salutes and fireworks displays marked the first birth of a Hanoverian prince on British soil. George was also the first royal child to be born in some years, Hanoverian or not. The last one had been James Stuart, commonly known as The Old Pretender and the Warming Pan Baby. The celebrations for James’s birth were marred by his Catholic decent. People believed – or pretended to believe – that he was not a prince at all, but smuggled into the birthing chamber in a warming-pan. There were no such doubts or wild stories about little George. But while the baby himself was not controversial, his Christening was to prove an event that divided the English court.
The King, George I, had been spoiling for a fight with his son, the Prince of Wales, for some time. Only the year before little George’s birth, the King had visited his domains in Hanover and been outraged to find the Prince and Princess of Wales entertaining his political enemies and winning the country over with their lively personalities in his absence. Unwittingly, this new baby was a powder keg who would ignite the family quarrel that had been coming for many years.
At first, the King seemed happy with the little prince’s birth and amenable to his parent’s wishes. He came every day “to watch the baby suck” although it was noted he didn’t speak to his own son on these occasions. He was also agreeable to Caroline’s choice of name for the boy, which was William. However, when English ministers began to get involved, the situation quickly turned ugly. The ministers insisted that, as the King was to be one of the baby’s godfathers, it should be named after him. As a compromise, the King suggested George William. Unfortunately, he didn’t go to the child’s parents himself to explain this change and the reasons behind it. Instead, he sent a man hated by the Prince and Princess of Wales to deliver the message: the Duke of Newcastle.
Tracy Borman describes Newcastle as “a mean-spirited and obnoxious noble man whose eccentricities rendered him a laughing-stock” and Lord Hervey is hardly more complimentary about the man in his memoirs. One can imagine the fuss and importance with which the Duke delivered such wounding news. However, there was worse to come. The King was advised that, although the Prince of Wales wished to appoint his uncle as the second godfather, it was custom for the monarch to choose the second godfather himself from amongst the principal lords at court. In a move that must have been intended to provoke, the King settled on the Duke of Newcastle. In vain did the Prince of Wales protest and beg his father to make another choice. Newcastle was the man, and he must have felt very puffed up about it too.
So when the Christening finally took place on 28 November 1717 (Old Style calendar), tensions were running high. It was the custom at the time for a royal baby to be Christened in its mother’s chambers, rather than the chapel. Caroline lay in a grand state bed to watch the proceedings – and doubtlessly felt frustrated and powerless. She had to watch as her husband tried to suppress his famous temper and everything happened against her wishes. Here is a little excerpt of the Christening scene from my work in progress about Caroline, Mistress of the Court:
“The King, the King!”
On cue, the court dipped into a reverence. Caroline merely bent her neck. She was glad her position in the bed prevented her from curtseying – she couldn’t stomach cringing before the King now. She saw the effort it cost George – the tremors in his calf and his quaking shoulders. He gripped his hat so hard it bent the rim.
The King nodded at Georgie, bawling his little heart out. “Well, he certainly has a voice on him.”
Men came to wrench him from Caroline’s arms. Georgie’s fingers clasped the lace at her neck, but he was too weak to cling on. It was as if he knew they meant to foist a false name and a false godfather on him and fought against them with furious wails. Caroline twisted her lips in a grim smile. He had his father’s temper and he wouldn’t make it easy for them. She was proud of him for that.
The ceremony itself passed smoothly but when the Bishop closed, and the Prince of Wales escorted the King from the room, tempers finally broke. The Prince of Wales flew at the Duke of Newcastle, holding his hand and extended-forefinger in his face in a menacing way. What he said next remains one of history’s great unanswered questions. Newcastle reported that the prince hollered “You are a rascal, but I shall fight you.” The Prince of Wales, on the other hand, maintained he had said “You are a rascal, but I shall find you out” i.e get even with you. Perhaps the confusion arose from the prince’s thick German accent, but either way, Newcastle remained convinced he had been challenged. He flew straight to the King to tittle-tattle.
Angered, the King sent a deputation of ministers to his son to find out the truth. In great indignation, the Prince of Wales expressed his astonishment that the issue had escalated and said the difference in rank between him and Newcastle made the very idea of a duel insulting. However, on the advice of the cabinet, full of ministers who disliked the Prince of Wales, and perhaps to settle old scores, the King chose to believe Newcastle. As a punishment for undutiful behavior, he then ejected the Prince and Princess of Wales from the royal palaces.
This blow would have been bad enough on its own. But to add insult to injury, the King ruled that the Prince and Princess would have to leave their children behind in his care – all three daughters and the newborn George. Emotionally destroyed and still weak from giving birth, poor Caroline had to drag herself across London to a duke’s house without a royal guard, where she and the Prince remained until they purchased Leicester House for themselves.
Hundreds of servants were caught in the turmoil of this family separation. Members of the court had to pick a side to favour, knowing full well that if they visited the Prince and Princess of Wales, the King would never see them again. Many people suffered from this rift, which was never fully healed. Although in later years the royals got back on speaking terms, and the Prince and Princess of Wales were allowed to visit the King’s court, they didn’t stay in the palaces or have full charge of their children again until the King’s death ten years later.
But the real tragedy of this story remains with little George. In February 1718, he fell ill with “an oppression upon his breast, accompanied with a cough, which increased . . . a fever succeeded with convulsions”. The King arranged for him to be moved out of smoky St. James’s Palace to Kensington – which, sadly, was not much better, due to the damp problems it suffered from. He was sufficiently alarmed by this stage to inform the Prince and Princess of Wales that they might visit the baby as often as they pleased. It was as well he did; not long after, George breathed his last tiny breath inside the palace. His mother was present at his death.
A later autopsy found that George had a large amount of water on the brain and a polyp on his heart. He was never destined for a long life, and the King was cleared from blame. However, I imagine many people still felt that separation from his mother had hastened the child’s death. With “a pitiful amount of black crepe” baby George was buried privately at night in Henry VII’s Chapel at Westminster Abbey.
A sad tale if ever there was one. Let us hope and pray our little Prince George’s Christening is a far happier event, and that he lives a long and joyful life as England’s future King.