This Sunday, 4 November, will be my 27th birthday. It’s rather a poignant one for me, as the age is linked in my mind to Princess Amelia, sixth daughter of George III. She died on 2 November aged just 27 years and three months.
When I first started reading about Amelia – never mind how many years ago now! – 27 didn’t sound so bad. She’d had time to do a bit in her life, unlike her brothers Alfred and Octavius who died aged (nearly) two and three. But now I’m almost 27 myself, I appreciate how shockingly young it really is. But at least I have, at this age, a husband, an ‘establishment’ as it were, two jobs (if you count writing) and I could have had children by now if I’d wanted them. I’ve travelled extensively. Amelia had none of this.
From the start, Amelia was labelled the family pet. Her birth, coming so soon upon the loss of America and the death of her brothers, was a much needed tonic to her parents. George III was obsessively fond of her, causing Fanny Burney to dub her the ‘little idol’. She adapted to the role well, holding her infant hand out to be kissed by courtiers and pulling all manner of adorable pranks. The family liked to dress her up and parade her – from the age of three she was strutting up and down the terrace at Windsor in her finery. Her eldest sister and godmother, Princess Royal, thought her the most beautiful child she had ever seen.
It sounds like a wonderful childhood, but it came at a price. Relying on Amelia for their own happiness, her family found it hard to understand, as she grew, that she had wants and needs of her own. More importantly, her elder sisters failed to take her seriously – until it was too late.
Amelia was a passionate young woman who longed for love and romance. But as a daughter of the King, she was guarded closely. Even if a handsome young Prince had come asking for Amelia, it’s doubtful her father would allow it. He had turned down numerous offers for her elder sisters, who were less necessary to his comfort. Not only did he despair at the thought of parting with his darling, but past experience had made him wary. His sisters had married eligible Princes – and been royally miserable. So Amelia found herself torn in several directions. She adored her father and wanted to make him happy – but she wanted her own life too.
Amelia’s romantic experiences remain a topic of hot debate. It’s rumoured that in Worthing, undergoing treatment for a sore knee, she had a sexual relationship with a young doctor. The fact that she was away from her parents lends some possibility to the assertion, yet she could hardly have conducted an affair without some observation. Common sense prompts us to think it was a mere flirtation, but Amelia’s later correspondence with the love of her life, Charles Fitzroy, raises questions. She worries about her ‘spot being out’ and asks him if it will affect her ability to bear children. This seems to imply her hymen was broken – but was the result of sex or her excessive horse-riding? The sexual ignorance screaming behind her questions implies the latter, but we will never know for sure. Whatever the truth, it’s clear that Amelia discussed her past experiences with Fitzroy.
The equerry Fitzroy was a good deal older than Amelia and a favourite of the King. To put it bluntly, Amelia was obsessed with him. She spent days planning their marriage, ordering furniture for their one-day home and cutlery engraved with their initials. Although they arranged to meet secretly and certainly had a few passionate trists, their love was unconsummated. Amelia complained about being unable to enjoy her ‘rights’. Compared to Amelia’s frantic letters, Fitzroy’s side of the correspondence seems a little cool. He was not as fiery as his lover and has even been accused of treating her harshly. But when you consider what he was risking, it’s hardly surprising. An illegal marriage, if discovered, would cost Amelia a wrap on the knuckles, closer imprisonment in the palaces and the distress – or possibly mad episode of her father. Fitzroy would lose everything. His marriage would be annulled, his goods forfeit to the crown, his post in the King’s household dissolved and his reputation torn to shreds. Excuse enough to be cautious, I think.
Despite Fitzroy’s best efforts, Queen Charlotte found out about the affair and urged Amelia to give him up. But a lifetime of spoiling had made Amelia stubborn and intractable. Charlotte must have been beside herself. She was already a little jealous of the attention the King lavished on his younger daughter, and now the ‘idol’ was proving unworthy of her pedestal. She genuinely could not believe Amelia was risking a scandal and the relapse of the King’s madness for an equerry. A coolness arose between mother and daughter that was to turn venomous.
Amelia’s final illness was severe and painful. However, while she was sent away to Weymouth to recover, the Queen and her elder daughters were treating the matter lightly. There are several reasons they may have done this. Firstly, they had to keep cheerful for the King, who fondly hoped Amelia would get well again. Secondly, they may well have thought she was using illness as an excuse to withdraw from family life and meet up with Fitzroy. Another theory I have is that Charlotte was in a state of denial. She knew the death of her daughter would not only cost her emotionally, but it would destroy the King. Amelia saw none of this. She thought her mother cared nothing for her and, in the feverish grip of illness, ranted and raved about what a monster she was. It didn’t help that Charlotte became anxious that Mary would run herself into the ground looking after her sister. Her attempts to get Mary home further embittered the dying Princess.
It is suspected Amelia’s illness was tubercular, the most persistent symptom being a pain in her side. She suffered various agonising treatments – ‘electrifying’, bleeding, blistering, leeching, rides on a boat, bathing and the insertion of ‘setons’. Setons were cords drawn through a layer of skin in an attempt at drainage. At first these were silk but promptly thickened to india rubber. Caustic was applied to the painful skin around these setons and dressing them was a horrific experience both for patient and nurse. Amelia bore everything with astonishing bravery and apologised for being such a burden. But soon spasms began and she erupted in ‘St Antony’s fire’ a painful, red raw skin condition that coated her from head to toe.
Although the King saw her every day after her return from Weymouth, he was too blind to see the way illness had eaten away at her. It was therefore a shock to him when she gave him a ring with a lock of her hair in it and asked him to remember her. Knowing the effect it would have on his mental health, Mary begged her not to give it but she went ahead regardless. After much persuading, she agreed to also give a mourning gift to the Queen and mother and daughter were reconciled at last.
On 2 November 1810, Amelia fell into convulsions. Mary waited until these subsided into a catatonic slumber and the guarded Amelia’s rest. Her vigil was disturbed when she realised she could no longer hear Amelia’s breath. She got the doctor to look. He felt for a pulse – none. He held a candle to her lips – no flutter. He asked Mary to retire but she protested, saying she would never leave her sister while she was dying. ‘Madam, she is dead’, was the awful response. He closed the curtain and went downstairs to tell the Queen.
While Charlotte had to swallow the bitter pill of her own grief and face the realisation her husband would now lose his mind forever, Mary fell to writing. She told Fitzroy, as she had promised, that Amelia died blessing him.