In his film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino transports us back in time to an event that plunged the psyche of a nation into darkness, and then reimagines a better outcome. The stain of the Manson murders still lingers in the American public consciousness even fifty years later. The people of Regency Era Britain experienced a similar moment of collective descent into darkness: the death of Princess Charlotte. Her shocking demise left a mark on the public spirit that lingered for years.
Princess Charlotte’s extended family was the very picture of chaos. Her once-beloved grandfather had disappeared from the public eye as he battled the ravages of mental illness. Her father, the Prince Regent, had become a national joke. He entertained a parade of mistresses, spent a fortune on amusements, drinking, and gambling, and became obese and syphilitic. His marriage to Charlotte’s mother, Caroline, was a sham. The couple expressed mutual disgust for one another and came together only long enough to produce a single pregnancy. Charlotte grew up largely without her mother, who was the subject of one scandal after another (some hearsay, others not).
This dysfunctional family of Caligulan proportions somehow produced Charlotte, a veritable rock of normalcy and stability in that sea of chaos. By all accounts, she was intelligent, witty, vibrant, and warm-hearted. She energized every room she entered. As a child, she was an unabashed tomboy who rode horses recklessly and engaged in fisticuffs with the boys. Once, as crowds gathered to see the young princess, she slipped outside and joined the crowd unnoticed and unrecognized. Lady Charlotte Bury, a lady-in-waiting to Caroline and a diarist whose writings have survived, described the Princess as a “fine piece of flesh and blood” who possessed a candid manner and rarely chose to “put on dignity”. Despite her father’s dismay, this array of characteristics made Charlotte immensely popular with nobleman and commoner alike. Deeply disappointed with their current rulers, the British public began greatly anticipating the day their beloved Charlotte would take the throne. Many referred to her as “Britain’s Hope and Glory”.
When Charlotte reached 18, the Prince Regent tried to push her into a political marriage with William, Hereditary Prince of Orange. Although initially agreeing to the arrangement, Charlotte came to despise William and decided she would rather marry for love. She broke off the engagement and fled Carlton House in a hackney cab (with the help of a passerby, because as royalty, she didn’t know how to hail a cab). Her escape became the talk of London, and everyone sided with her against the Prince Regent. Adoring crowds treated her as if she was already queen. Eventually, she convinced her father to allow her to marry the impoverished Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, who earned his living in the Russian cavalry. It was apparently the love match she had sought. On the day of the wedding, May 2 of 1817, crushing crowds descended on London in perhaps the greatest social spectacle seen in that city before or since. True to her wit, she giggled during the wedding ceremony when the prince promised to endow her with all his earthly goods – of which he had none.
The happy couple soon set about to produce an heir. Charlotte wrote that Leopold was “the perfection of a lover”, and the two were rarely apart. He spoke to her tenderly and wrote of his love for her. After two miscarriages, Charlotte carried a baby to term. As the birth neared, she was attended by Sir Richard Croft, the equivalent of a midwife. When Charlotte’s labor neared the two-day mark, Croft forbade a doctor from intervening to save the life of both mother and child. After 50 hours of labor, Charlotte delivered a stillborn boy “of uncommon beauty”. Hours later, her health declined and she died at the tender age of 21, likely from internal hemorrhaging.
Her shocking death plunged Britain into deep mourning. The general populace felt as if all hope for the future of the kingdom had died with their princess. That sense of malaise would linger for more than a decade. Meanwhile, the Prince Regent’s brother, Edward, saw an opportunity. He abandoned his mistress, married, and produced an heir. That heir would become Queen Victoria, who ruled Britain from 1837 to 1901. Initially, Victoria was not nearly as popular with the public as Charlotte had been. Her isolated and repressed upbringing left her unable to relate to the common people. She evolved over time, and eventually won the kingdom’s loyalty through stubbornness and longevity. More importantly, she became the central icon of the new Victorian morality which established a dichotomy of proper public behavior but repressed private behavior, individual morality but national moral ambiguity.
But, what if?
What if Princess Charlotte had survived? What if she had ruled in Victoria’s stead? What if she had presided over the massive technical and cultural shifts of the 1800s? What if her vibrant personality had illuminated the path of that change? Would Britain have become a different version of herself under the auspices of a beloved queen? Would the wider world have become a different rendition of what it is?
These questions are unanswerable. However, I like to imagine an alternate reality where Charlotte’s labor was handled differently, she gave birth to a healthy boy, and she survived and flourished. A reality where Queen Charlotte ascended the throne and led her adoring subjects with the warmth, energy, intelligence, and passion she possessed in abundance. A reality where the world benefited from her singular leadership.
Alas, we are left with a nothing more than a ‘what if’. For such a reality exists only in a fantasy place – once upon a time in the Regency.