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August 2017 Item of the Month

The death of a princess, cherished by the people

A royal marriage in tatters, a princess far more popular than the Prince of Wales, and her tragic death. We remember twenty years ago the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and also the outpouring of public grief and sympathy that followed her death on 31st August 1997.

So for this August’s item of the month, we will look at an earlier royal death, of Princess Charlotte in 1817. The only child of an unhappy marriage (between the Prince of Wales, later George IV, and Princess Caroline of Brunswick), Charlotte was born in January 1796. She resisted her father’s choice of a husband (William, Prince of Orange) and married Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld (later Leopold I of Belgium) in May 1816. On 5th November 1817, she gave birth to a stillborn son, but died of post-natal complications in the early hours of the next day. Her attendant (male midwife) was blamed for his failure to intervene in her labour or to use forceps, and took his own life three months later.

The part of this story that most mirrors that of Diana in 1997 is the public mourning that greeted news of Charlotte’s death. Shops closed and many wore black in mourning. Following this outpouring of grief, the Dean and Chapter at Durham seem to have responded (perhaps a little late) by issuing two formal addresses in January 1818, one to her husband (the “Serene Highness Prince Leopold” of this document), and the other to her father (Prince Regent, later George IV). The latter survives only in a registered copy (ref. DCD/B/BA/88 f.84v), and though its wording differs from the document featured here (“lamenting that awful dispensation which bereaved the Nation of its hopes…”), it reaches similar levels of hyperbole:

“… we have bewailed that awful visitation which has rendered the whole Kingdom a house of Mourning; and we believe that no example of the deep and universal sorrow which succeeded the decease of the Princess Charlotte can be found in the records of any Nation. …”
Ref: DCD/B/BA/88 f.84v.

Sadly, cathedral service records do not survive for this period and the only mention within Chapter minutes is a passing reference ( “sealed … two addresses”) on 17th January 1818, the date of this month’s document. Our only other evidence from the cathedral archives of the Dean and Chapter’s involvement in the “deep and universal sorrow” comes from the audit books (annual accounts), which record for the year 1817/18 a payment of £1 for waites for the funeral (18th November), and of £1 10s for “[advertising] address of condolence to the Prince Regent.” Nor do we know who drafted the language of the address to Prince Leopold, but as we recall the events of August 1997, we can draw comparisons with a 200-year old address of condolence which, while missing the immediacy of Tony Blair’s “People’s Princess” speech, at least matches it for rhetorical grandeur.

“for as the grief, so honourable to the heart of your Serene Highness, evinces the great and amiable qualities which adorned the Princess, and is the most affecting tribute to her Memory, so on the other hand your Serene Highness must be gratified by seeing those qualities appreciated, and that memory cherished, by the whole People of Great Britain.”
Ref: DCD/B/BC/2.

Every month we showcase here an item from our Heritage Collections.