On May 2, 1816, Princess Charlotte of Wales, only child of the future George IV and his detested wife, Caroline of Brunswick, married Leopold of Saxe Coburg at Carlton House in London. Had things gone well, Charlotte would have inherited the throne after her father’s death, and in all likelihood, Queen Victoria never would have existed.
Poor Charlotte was the product of a spectacularly miserable marriage. George only married Caroline because Parliament promised to pay off his debts if he did, and he was so disgusted with his new wife he was barely able to consummate the marriage (and he only made it through the ceremony because he was drunk). But consummate the marriage he did (three times, according to the prince) and the result was little Charlotte. Naturally, she was destined to be an only child. Soon after her birth, her parents separated, and her mother had little say in Charlotte’s upbringing, though they continued to see each other often.
Charlotte grew into an exuberant tomboy, and she was somewhat spoiled, being the only legitimate grandchild of the king and queen. George buckled down and became strict when she entered adolescence, which just made her rebellious. She carried on flirtations with a few men, but when her father decided he wanted her to marry William, Hereditary Prince of Orange, she balked. Her father retaliated by trying to place her under house arrest until she cooperated, and she fled to her mother’s home, creating a scandal. She was eventually reconciled with her father, and Caroline left England for an extended stay on the continent. By 1815, Charlotte decided she wanted to marry Leopold of Saxe Coburg (despite never having met him), and after some arguments, her father agreed. The couple was engaged less than a month after meeting in February 1816. At the ceremony, Charlotte wore a dress rumored to have cost over £10,000.
The couple was enormously popular with the people, who cheered them on the streets and in the theater. Charlotte soon became pregnant but miscarried in the summer of 1816. In April 1817, Leopold informed his father-in-law that 21-year-old Charlotte was pregnant again. There was intense public interest in the pregnancy, with people placing bets on the baby’s sex and economists calculating the effect on the stock market of a male heir (a 6% raise, apparently). Charlotte followed the beliefs of the day, exercising little, eating a lot, and submitting to regular bleedings, which weakened her. A German physician brought in was horrified by this and refused to join her medical team, just in case something went wrong.
Unfortunately, the German doctor was right to be worried. Charlotte went into labor on November 3. The labor dragged on until November 5, with no end in sight. The physicians began to panic and did what they could, but the son Charlotte finally delivered at 9 o’clock in the evening was stillborn. Charlotte took the news well and everyone thought she would be all right, but after midnight she took a turn for the worst, vomiting, bleeding heavily, and complaining of stomach pains. She died before dawn.
The entire country went into mourning for the young princess. Drapers ran out of black cloth, shops and the Royal Exchange closed for two weeks, and even gambling dens shut down the day of her funeral. The Prince of Wales was so affected he couldn’t even attend the funeral, and even the Prince of Orange, Charlotte’s discarded suitor, burst into tears when he heard the news. Prince Leopold was inconsolable. Charlotte’s obstetrician was so guilt stricken he eventually committed suicide.
The loss of the only heir to the throne threw the royal family into a crisis. George III and his wife had had 15 children, but only the Prince of Wales had managed to produce any legitimate, surviving offspring. The still unmarried royal dukes, many of whom were old enough to be grandfathers, were encouraged to marry and produce some heirs quickly, and several of them did. The fourth son, Edward, Duke of Kent, married Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg Saalfield, who gave birth to his daughter, Princess Victoria, in 1819. As she grew up, Princess Victoria relied on the advice of Charlotte’s widower, Leopold, who became King of the Belgians in 1830 (and named his daughter after his first wife). Leopold helped guide the young Victoria to her own happy marriage to his nephew, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.