I doubt there’s anyone reading this who hasn’t heard about the hoax call from an Australian radio-station that ended in tragedy this week. I would like to think this terrible incident would cause people to think twice before harassing the royals – at least for the sake of other people caught up in the stories, if not for the royals themselves – but hey, I also thought that when Princess Diana died.
Obviously the main tragedy lies with the nurse and her poor family, but as a historian, I’m also sad for this unborn, future monarch. It’s a horrible shadow to have hanging over your birth and you can tell it will be mentioned in every future history book about him or her. This particular situation reminded me so forcibly of another person whose life was devastated by a royal pregnancy and his part in it that I felt compelled to write a blog post about him. Ladies and gentlemen, spare a thought for the unfortunate Sir Richard Croft.
Croft was an eminent London physician who had worked alongside such names as Dr John Hunter and Dr Matthew Baille. I appreciate these doctors may mean nothing to you, but I can tell you they were highly esteemed. Croft had worked as one of the physicians to the royal family for years, even treating George III himself at times.
As such a respected doctor, he seemed to perfect choice to supervise the pregnancy and labour of George IV’s only daughter, Princess Charlotte. Charlotte had suffered two miscarriages previous to this pregnancy, so they were being extra careful. Alongside Croft, a nurse called Mrs Griffiths, who had 30 years midwifery experience, was in attendance.
Described as a long, thin, fidgety man, Croft was not the most popular person in Charlotte’s home of Claremont. The princess liked her own way and was not prepared for the strict regime he imposed. Firstly, there was the matter of her weight. The princess’ grandmother, Queen Charlotte, felt distinctly uneasy about her size. She was a voice of some experience, having given birth to fifteen children of her own. Croft shared the Queen’s concerns and subjected young Charlotte to a strict diet. She liked to have a mutton chop and a glass of port for her lunch, but this was now exchanged for tea and toast. While this seems a wise measure to modern eyes (can you imagine a pregnant woman drinking port these days?), his other treatments of bleeding and purges leave us feeling horrified. But as I’m sure you are aware, bleeding was considered a healthy thing to do in the period. Only Stockmar, physician to Charlotte’s husband, Leopold, demurred. “This lowering treatment is no longer regarded as sensible in Europe”, he explained. However, he let Croft get on with his job.
One sensible thing Croft did do was persuade Charlotte to stop wearing stays. Such a bodily restriction could hardly have been healthy for the baby’s growth. Unfortunately, he didn’t express himself in the most flattering way. “A cow does not wear stays,” said Croft. “Why should the Princess Charlotte?”
Perhaps unsurprisingly. Charlotte was left feeling depressed by the “lowering treatment” and dwelt on death. She had picked out patterns for the baby’s clothes with glee but didn’t want to see them when they arrived. All the same, when her pains finally began, she climbed into bed with courage, assuring Mrs Griffiths she would neither bawl nor shriek. It was a promise she kept.
It was an extremely difficult labour. The progress was slow, but this didn’t bother Croft at first. He allowed Leopold in the room to hold Charlotte’s hand, lie down beside her on the bed or walk in front of the fire as the hours passed by. One thing he would not tolerate, however, was eating. As fifty excruciating hours rolled by, Charlotte had neither sleep nor food.
Witnesses for the royal birth began to arrive at Claremont and gathered in the breakfast room. They had a long wait ahead of them. Even Charlotte’s parrot, Coco, had had enough and began to sqwark. Croft realised that the baby was lying at a strange angle and, to make matters more troublesome, was an unusually large child. He began to think surgical intervention may be required in the form of forceps. This was no light matter. Forceps were considered extremely dangerous at the time and would only be used in dire emergency. He summoned Dr Sims, an expert in the use of surgical instruments in pregnancy, who, despite being on call in the case of the princess, took hours to arrive. He assured Croft that the labour was moving along gradually and there was no need to intervene.
Poor Charlotte’s labour lasted another day and there were signs the infant was in trouble. The child’s first faeces – which usually appear after birth – oozed out onto the sheets. A further three hours went by before the royal baby finally emerged into the world – large, male and stillborn. Everything was tried to restore the young prince. He was slapped, shaken, plunged into hot water, rubbed with salt and mustard, all to no avail. His little life was over before it began.
Croft, Mrs Griffiths and Leopold were devastated. Charlotte bore it better, seeming unnaturally composed – I expect she was far too exhausted to let her real emotions show, and she had always been a brave woman. While Leopold retired to a sedated sleep, Croft and Sims were disturbed by the fact that Charlotte continued to bleed. They decided to remove her placenta by hand, rather than wait for it to come naturally. After they had done so, the bleeding stopped and Charlotte was finally allowed chicken broth – her first food in two days. She was given camphor julep as a stimulant and seemed relatively cheerful, teasing Mrs Griffiths about her gown before drifting off into a well deserved sleep.
Around midnight, Charlotte awoke to unbearable pain and a singing in her head. She threw up all the broth and, clutching her stomach, cried “Oh, what a pain! It is all here!” The terrified Mrs Griffiths ran out to fetch Croft, who found his patient freezing cold and unable to remain in the same posture for more than a minute, due to her intense pain. Though she struggled to breath, she complained about the cold. In a moment of blind panic, Croft and Griffiths did all they could to warm her up. They forced alcohol down her, stoked up the fire, and put down a deluge of blankets. Had they been calmer, they would have noticed she was bleeding again. They would also have remembered that the medical practice of their time recommended cold compresses in such cases – not the inferno they were creating.
Stockmar, disturbed by the fracas, came in to hear Charlotte’s complaints that the doctors had made her tipsy. He was horrified by the heat in the room but his protests came too late. All he could do was try to wake Leopold so he could say goodbye to his darling wife. Even these efforts were in vain – Leopold’s sedatives had done their trick. Without him, Charlotte turned onto her face, drew her knees up to her chest and breathed her last.
The outpouring of national grief can scarcely be imagined. The death of two heirs to the throne at once left England with only George III’s ageing sons to inherit. They were hardly popular, while the people had adored Charlotte. It is natural, when tragedy strikes, to want someone to blame – whether that person be yourself or another individual. England chose Croft. While the royal family thanked him for his care of Charlotte and showed no signs of hostility, the public were another matter. Even today, Croft seems to be branded as the man who “killed” Princess Charlotte. It was true that he had an over-confident manner and made mistakes, but I was astonished to find historian James Chambers describing him as “not an eminent or even qualified physician. He was merely the most fashionable of the many accoucheurs…and his title was an inherited baronetcy rather than a well-earned knighthood”. Such censure is, I feel, grossly unfair. It was hardly likely that a family as used to needing doctors asthe royals (remember the King’s still ongoing madness? The childhood ailments of fifteen children, let alone their births?) would make a choice on the whim of fashion.
George IV wrote to Croft to assure him of his “confidence in the medical skill and ability which he displayed during the arduous and protracted labour”. It was a confidence that at least some others must have shared, for Croft continued to get work. But the continual morning for Charlotte – the poems, the full churches, the shops draped in black – were an ever-present nettle on his conscience. You can picture him reliving the hours again and again, seeing things he could have done differently, cursing himself for the panic which led him to heat Charlotte up rather than cool her down. He finally broke when attending the wife of a rich clergyman in Harley Street. Her case bore similarities to Charlotte’s, although there was no cause for extreme concern as yet. While awaiting the next contractions, he left husband and wife alone and retired to the study. There, he sat in a wing-chair and opened a volume of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost on a significant quote: “Fair sir, God save you! Where is the Princess?” He then took a pair of pistols and shot himself through the head.
Poor Sir Richard Croft became the third victim of the national tragedy, although few people mourned for his wife and four children as intensely as they did for their princess. There were even wicked people who thought justice had been served on him. I always wonder about the vicar’s wife – what did she do without his help in the birth? Did she survive? And again, what about the unfortunate baby whose birth was preceded by bloody scene downstairs? Perhaps I will never find out. They were just another set of innocents caught up in a national tragedy, more ripples skating across the pool that we fail to see, because we are focusing on where the stone dropped.