A Labour in Vain – The Tragic Death of Princess Charlotte Augusta

A Labour in Vain – The Tragic Death of Princess Charlotte Augusta

Princess Charlotte Augusta

Princess Charlotte August was in labour for more than two days before she died on 6th November 1817.

Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales (1796 – 1817) was the only child of George, Prince of Wales (later King George IV) and Caroline of Brunswick. If she had lived Charlotte would have become Queen of the United Kingdom.

Before her marriage, Charlotte was what we might call a ‘wild child’. She was a good horsewoman and a bit of a ‘tomboy.’

Charlotte’s parents loathed the sight of each other and separated soon after she was born. Her father debauched himself with every form of excess except fatherly love and attention. Her mother lived the lonely life of an abandoned woman. As an only child, Charlotte’s welfare was left in the hands of palace staff and her estranged mother whom she visited regularly at her house in Blackheath.

As Charlotte entered her teenage years, members of the Court considered her behaviour undignified. Lady de Clifford complained about her ankle-length underdrawers that showed. Lady Charlotte Bury, a lady-in-waiting to her mother Caroline described the Princess as a “fine piece of flesh and blood” who had a candid manner and rarely chose to “put on dignity”. Her father, however, was proud of her horsemanship and her tolerably good piano playing.

By the time she was age 15, the curvey Charlotte looked and dressed like a woman; she developed a liking for opera and men and soon became infatuated with her first cousin, George FitzClarence, the illegitimate son of the Duke of Clarence.

To put an end to the budding romance FitzClarence was called to Brighton to join his regiment, and Charlotte’s gaze fell on Lieutenant Charles Hesse of the Light Dragoons, reputedly the illegitimate son of Charlotte’s uncle, Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany.

Her mother colluded with Charlotte as far as Hesse was concerned not because she approved of the romance but to peeve her husband who did not. Caroline allowed the pair to meet in her apartments but the liaison was shortlived. Britain was at war with France and Hesse was called to duty in Spain.

Her father’s plan was to marry Charlotte to William Prince of Orange, the Dutch king. Neither her mother nor the British public wanted Charlotte to leave the country to pursue such a match.  Charlotte, therefore, informed the Prince of Orange that if they wed, her mother would have to live with them at their home in the Netherlands. This was a condition sure to be unacceptable to the Prince of Orange and their engagement was broken before it was started.

Charlotte finally settled on the dashing young Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, Leopold had a commission in the Imperial Russian Army and fought against Napoleon after French troops overran Saxe-Coburg until Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo.

The Marriage

The marriage ceremony was set for 2 May 1816. The war with France was over and the people of London were in the mood to celebrate. On the wedding day, huge crowds filled the streets and at nine o’clock in the evening in the Crimson Drawing Room at Carlton House, with Leopold dressing for the first time as a British General (the Prince Regent wore the uniform of a Field Marshal), the couple were married. Charlotte’s wedding dress cost over ₤10,000, an enormous sum of money – the average doctor earned less than £300 per year. The only mishap was during the ceremony happened when Charlotte was heard to giggle when the impoverished Leopold promised to endow her with all his worldly goods.

At the end of April 1817, Leopold informed the Prince Regent that Charlotte was pregnant and that there was every prospect of the Princess carrying the baby to term.

Charlotte’s pregnancy was the subject of the most intense public interest. Betting shops quickly set up a book on what sex the child would be. Economists calculated that the birth of a princess would raise the stock market by 2.5%; the birth of a prince would raise it 6%.

The mum to be Charlotte spent her time quietly, however, spending much time sitting for a portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence. She ate heavily and got little exercise; when her medical team began prenatal care in August 1817, they put her on a strict diet, hoping to reduce the size of the child she was carrying. The diet and occasional bleeding they subjected her to seemed to weaken Charlotte and did little to reduce her weight.

The Pregnancy

Much of Charlotte’s day to daycare was undertaken by Sir Richard Croft. Croft was not a physician, but an accoucheur, or male midwife. Male midwives were much in fashion among the well-to-do. In, ‘The Princess Charlotte of Wales: A triple obstetric tragedy’ Sir Edward Holland (J Obst & Gynaec Brit Emp 58:905-919, 1951) describes Sir Richard Croft as a diffident, sensitive man without much self-confidence despite his skill and experience. “He was not the sort of man to deviate from the rules of practice by doing something unconventional or risky. He played it by the book, but his library was small.”

Charlotte was believed to be due to deliver on 19 October, but as October ended, she had shown no signs of giving birth and drove out as usual with Leopold on Sunday 2 November. On the evening of 3 November, her contractions began. Sir Richard encouraged her to exercise, but would not let her eat: late that evening, he sent for the officials who were to witness the birth of the third in line to the throne.

A Labour in Vain

The first stage of labour lasted 26 hours, which is not uncommon for a first child. With the cervix fully dilated, Croft sent for Dr. Sims, perhaps because the uterus was acting inertly and irregularly, and also because, should a forceps delivery be necessary, Sims had been chosen consultant on that point. Sims was the “odd man out” among the four doctors; his principal work was as a botanist and editor, but he was also physician to the Surrey Dispensary and Charity for Delivering Poor Women in their Homes.

Almost certainly the outcome would have been better had the second stage of labour not lasted as long as the first. The optimal time the second stage is around two hours. Dr. Sims arrived at 2:00 am on November 5 after the second stage had been in progress for about seven hours.

Thirty-three hours after Charlotte’s labour had began Dr. Sims was ready with the forceps, but his assistance was not called for. Croft continued to let nature take its course. After 15 hours of second-stage labour, about noon on November 5, meconium-stained amniotic fluid appeared. Three hours after that, the baby’s head appeared. At nine o’clock in the evening of 5 November, Charlotte finally gave birth to a stillborn boy weighing nine pounds. Efforts to resuscitate the child proved fruitless. Onlookers commented that the dead child was a handsome boy, resembling the Royal Family.

The third stage of labour was no less distressing. Croft informed Sims that he suspected an hourglass contraction of the uterus. This happens when the placenta gets trapped in the upper part of the womb as it contracts  Croft removed the placenta manually with some difficulty, and it seemed to do the trick. Soon after midnight, Charlotte began vomiting violently and complaining of pains in her stomach. Croft returned to Charlotte’s bedside to find her cold to the touch, breathing with difficulty, and bleeding profusely. He placed hot compresses on her, the accepted treatment at the time for postpartum bleeding, but the bleeding did not stop. Charlotte died an hour and a half later.

The Aftermath

Charlotte had been Britain’s hope: George III and Queen Charlotte, had had thirteen children but only Charlotte survived. She was the sole legitimate heir to the throne of Great Britain and Ireland. Her father, with his spendthrift behaviour and penchant for womanising, was already unpopular with the public and his brothers were viewed in much the same light. The Prince of Wales’s girth and reputation for gluttony prompted his critics to dub him the “Prince of Whales.” The people were devasted by Charlotte’s tragic death.

Post-mortems on Charlotte and her stillborn son exonerated the Croft from any wrong-doing. The postmortem results showed Charlotte died because she lost too much blood, her baby because of lack of oxygen. In 1817 there were no blood transfusions for Croft to call on when Charlotte began to lose blood but he could have done things differently and she may not have died. Croft decided not to use forceps, had he Charlotte and her baby might have been saved. Croft was following fashion and the dictum of Dr. Denman an authority of midwifery and childbirth at the time. Since the death of the hugely influential Scottish obstetrician William Smellie’s in 1760, the use of forceps had fallen into disfavour because of the injuries that could be caused by the instrument when used by unskilled accoucheurs. Hundreds of unskilled or partially trained doctors were operating in Britain’s unregulated medical market at the time. The late Dr. Denman had overreacted to these injuries and had advocated a policy of “Let nature do the work. …The use of forceps ought not to be allowed from any motives of eligibility (i.e. of choice, election, or expediency). Consider the possible mistakes and lack of skill in younger practitioners.”

Denman had however hedged his position with a qualification: “Care is also to be taken that we do not, through an aversion to the use of instruments, too long delay that assistance we have the power of affording. In the last edition of his book (1816, posthumously) he wrote: “But if we compare the general good done with instruments, however cautiously used, with the evils arising from the unnecessary and improper use, we might doubt whether it would not have been happier for the world if no instrument of any kind had ever been contrived for, or recommended in the practice of midwifery.”

Croft had relied on Denman’s ultraconservative precepts, his passive obstetrics was just as dangerous as meddlesome obstetrics. The adroit accoucheur steered a middle course, but Croft was not adroit. Three months later, Croft was involved in a similar case, and, when the patient died, he shot himself with a pistol he found in the house. What happened in the wake of Princess Charlotte’s death was too much for Croft to bear.

By today’s standards, the first and second stages of Charlotte’s labour were far too long. Modern obstetricians would use forceps to extract the baby and drugs would be given to speed-up and strengthen the contractions.The most recent CEMD report indicates that in 2009-12, 357 women died during or within 6 weeks of the end of their pregnancy. This represents a decrease in the maternal mortality ratio (MMR) from 11 (2006-8) to 10.12 per 100,000 live births (2010-12), mainly due to a decrease in deaths due to direct obstetric causes. However, there has been no change in the MMR for indirect maternal deaths in the last 10 years; the current ratio (6.87 per 100,000 live births) is almost twice that of direct deaths (3.25 per 100,000 live births).


Obstetrical Events That Shaped Western European History
Bergen County Medical Examiners Office, Paramus, New Jersey
Received March 26, 1991



Princess Sophia Dorothea the Uncrowned Queen of Britain

Princess Sophia Dorothea the Uncrowned Queen of Britain

Jacob Ferdinand Voet (1639-1689) — Portrait of Sophia Dorothea of Celle 2

Princess Sophia Dorothea of Celle

This is the history of the shocking case of a Princess who was married against her will, spurned by her husband, divorced, and then imprisoned for 33 years.

Princess Sophia Dorothea of Brunswick- Lüneburg did not have a good start in life; she was born illegitimately; the daughter of her father’s long-term mistress, Eleonore d’Esmier d’Olbreuse, Countess of Williamsburg (1639–1722) on 15 September 1666.

Her father, Prince George William, Duke of Brunswick Lüneburg, eventually did the right thing and married his mistress which had the effect of legitimising his only child.

Sophia Dorothea was ten years old when she became heir to her father’s kingdom, the Principality of Lüneburg in Lower Saxony and this made her a highly attractive marriage prospect.


Like her mother, Princess Sophia-Dorothea was attractive and lively. At the age of sixteen, she has married her cousin, George Louis of Hanover, the future king of Great Britain and Ireland, in 1705. When she was told of the match Princess Sophia Dorothea shouted, “I will not marry the pig snout!”

George 1

George I of Britain

Twenty-two-year-old George Louis was not keen on the match either; he already had a mistress and was happy with his life as a soldier.

Although he was a prince he was ugly and boring, even his mother didn’t like him.

For his pains, George Louis received a handsome dowry and was granted his father-in-law’s kingdom upon his death; Princess Sophia-Dorothea was left penniless.

The unhappy couple set up home in Leine Palace in Hanover where Princess Sophia Dorothea was under the supervision of her odious aunt, the Duchess Sophia, and spied on by her husband’s spies when he was away on campaign.

Despite their unhappiness, the pair produced two children; George Augustus, born 1683, who later became King George II of Great Britain and a daughter born 1686 when Princess Sophia Dorothea was twenty.

Sophia von Kielmansegg, Countess of Darlington

Sophia Charlotte von Keilmannsegg.



Having produced two children George became increasingly distant from his wife spending more time with his dogs and horses and his nights with his mistress, the married daughter of his father’s mistress, a woman called Sophia Charlotte von Keilmannsegg, who was rumoured to be George Louis’ half-sister.

Aggrieved, lonely, and unhappy Princess Sophia Dorothea found a friend in the Swedish count Philip Christoph von Königsmarck, (1665-1694) who was a soldier in the Hanoverian army. Philip was a year older than Princess Sophia Dorothea and the antithesis of her ugly, boorish husband.

Princess Sophia Dorothea was no saint. She was quick-tempered and rarely discrete. Her choice of Von Königsmarck as a lover was not the best. Königsmarck was a dashing handsome gigolo and the former lover of her father-in-law’s mistress, the Countess of Platen and the Countess had a jealous nature.

Königsmarck and Princess Sophia Dorothea began a love affair of clandestine trysts and physical love facilitated by coded correspondence through a trusted go-between. Their love affair did not stay secret for long. In 1692  the Duchess of Platen presented a collection of their correspondence to Princess Sophia Dorothea’s father-in-law, the Elector of Hanover.

Countess Platen

Countess of Platen

Von Königsmarck was banished from the Hanoverian court but soon found a position in the neighbouring court of Saxony where one night when he was deep in his cups he let slip the state of affairs in the royal bedchamber of the house of Hanover. George Louis got wind of what had been said and on the morning of 2 July 1694, after a meeting with Sophia at Leine Palace, Königsmark was seized and taken away.

Princess Sophia-Dorothea never saw her lover again. George Louis divorced her in December and early the following year she was confined her to Schloss Ahlden a stately home on the Lüneburg Heath in Lower Saxony. She stayed there for the rest of her life. Her children were taken away from her and she was forced to live alone. She was probably one of the most unlucky royal women in history.

In August 2016, a human skeleton was found under the Leineschloss (Leine Palace, Hanover) during a renovation project; the remains are believed to be those of Swedish count, Philip Christoph von Königsmarck, (1665-1694).

Sophia Dorothea in 1686. Philip Christoph von Königsmarck 5

Philip Christoph von Königsmarck (1665-1694)

History shows that when Princess Sophia Dorothea died in 1726 she had spent 33 years in her prison. Before she died she wrote a letter to her husband, cursing him for his treatment of her. A furious George forbade any mourning of her in Hanover and in London. George I died shortly after.

The Countess of Platen and George I were suspected of Von Königsmarck’s murder by both Princess Sophia-Dorothea and her children. The Countess was exonerated from any involvement in Von Königsmark’s death by the deathbed confessions of two of her henchmen so on whose orders Von Königsmarck met his death remains one of history’s mysteries.

What we do know is that his son George II never forgave his father for his treatment of his mother.


Notorious Royal Marriages: A Juicy Journey Through Nine Centuries of Dynasty By Leslie Carroll
The Georgian Princesses By John Van der Kiste

Dancing through the bedrooms of Europe

Dancing through the bedrooms of Europe

Klemens Wenzel Nepomuk Lothar, Fürst von Metternich-Winneburg zu Beilstein otherwise known simply as Metternich was probably the greatest diplomat of the nineteenth century. As well as being a towering intellectual he seems to have been a very physical man, if not on the field of battle then in the bedchamber. In her book, Dorothea Lieven: A Russian Princess in London and Paris, 1785-1857, Judith Lissauer Cromwell describes him as, “witty and charming, above average height, slim and graceful, “the Adonis of the Drawing Room.” A man with, “fair hair, an aquiline nose, a well-shaped mouth, a high forehead, and piercing blue eyes.”

He served as the Austrian Empire’s Foreign Minister from 1809 and Chancellor from 1821 and was responsible for what historians call ‘The Concert of Europe.” This was not a forerunner of the Eurovision Song contest but a concert in the sense of an arrangement of something by mutual agreement or coordination and the thing he was in charge of arranging was the restoration of Europe to its state before the French Revolution after the defeat of Napoleon. He managed what is called ‘The Congress System’ from 1814 until the liberal revolutions of 1848 finally forced his resignation. But it is not his achievements as a statesman or his politics I am interested in today, it is achievements as a husband, lover, and as one of the most prolific love letter writers in history.

Metternich had three wives, obviously not all at the same time although one suspects he might have managed that if he had had the opportunity he rarely had only one bed to go to at a time. With his first wife, Princess Eleonore von Kaunitz (m. 1795–1825) he had 10 children, with his second wife, Baroness Antoinette Leykam (m. 1827–29) he had one child; and with his third wife, Countess Melanie Zichy-Ferraris (m. 1831–54) he had another five. You would think that was more than enough for any man but Metternich did not stop there. He managed to squeeze in another child with his mistress Katharina Bagration. Princess Marie-Clementine, was born on 29 September 1810 in Vienna and to save face was promptly adopted into the Bagration family in Russia.

At the Congress of Vienna in 1815 Metternich had two mistresses in tow. His long-standing mistress the widow Katharina Bagration and his new love interest the Duchess of Sagan.

Both women ran pro-Russian, anti-Napoleonic salons in the city mainly financed by the Tsar and in the case of Bagration by her besotted but estranged husband until he died from his wounds at the battle of Borodino in 1812. Bagration was known as le bel ange nu “the beautiful nude angel” because she wore low cut dresses with bare shoulders, and la chatte blanche “the white cat” for her white Indian muslin dresses that clung seductively to her body and her wily intelligence. Her influence on the politicians and statesmen who frequented her salon was significant and Napoleon is said to have considered her a formidable opponent.

But by 1815 Bagration’s charms were becoming less beguiling to Metternich. The new woman in his life, Katharina Friederike Wilhelmine Benigna, Princess of Courland, Duchess of Sagan (1781-1839) a German noblewoman from what is today part of Latvia was taking over his affections and attention.

There was intense rivalry between the women who were living in separate wings of the Palm Palace in Vienna in 1815, both the paid guests and informers of Tsar Alexander. This state of affairs was a complication even the greatest diplomat in Europe found hard to manage. “What a detestable complication your residence is in Vienna,” he wrote Sagan but he was not going to give up Sagan. He had been infatuated with her since 1813 and besides she was useful. Over the years he had built up a network of female informants or ‘spies’ who had been his lovers like Caroline Bonaparte, now Queen of Naples and Laure Junot the wife of the French General and Bagration and Sagan would be no different in the end.

Sagan had been perusing Metternich since 1804 when the ambitious young widow’s family moved to Berlin so that she inveigle herself into his affections but he did not fall under her spell then so she remarried only to divorce her new husband a year later saying, “I am ruining myself with husbands.” When their affair began it was intense and Sagan demanded that Metternich divorce his wife and marry her if he wanted to continue. Her demands were brushed aside but the affair continued. While he was in her thrall he wrote Sagan over 600 letters. The letters which were read by the Austrian Secret Police who rightly suspected Sagan of being a Russian spy at the time were lost and remained hidden until 1949. Reading the letters more than 100 years later it is easy to see that Sagan mimicked her lover’s prose, they reflected his opinions back to him, confirmed his conceits and his image as peacemaker and conqueror. In short, she pandered to his enormous ego and he loved it and her much to the Tsar’s delight. In the summer of 1814, the pair fell out. She wrote, “Everything has so completely changed between us that it is not at all astonishing that our thoughts and our sentiments agree on anything. I am beginning to believe that we never really known each other. We were both perusing a phantom.” The break up was acrimonious with Metternich saying as he took to the baths at Baden that they were, ” to arm his skin,” against her.”

Three years later, Metternich began another affair with Princess Dorothea von Lieven (1785 – 1857). Dorothea was a Baltic German noblewoman and wife of Prince Khristofor Andreyevich Lieven, Russian ambassador to London from 1812 to 1834. It seems Metternich had a penchant for aristocratic women from the Baltic, she was the third in succession of Baltic lovers. Cromwell describes Dorothea as a “tall and slender woman, distinguished rather than beautiful, with a strikingly proud bearing.

Dorothea was not an instant success in London and was considered cold and snobbish by London Society. She had a long and elegant neck that earned her the nickname, “the swan” and by those who disliked her, “the giraffe. But her reputation did not bother her she was not after friendship she was after power much like her predecessors Sagan and Bagration and she used her intelligence, charisma, and social skills to make herself a leader of London’s politically infused society. She cultivated friendships with the foremost diplomats of the day. Not only did she become Metternich’s lover she was also reputed to have had an affair with Lord Palmerston, although there is no firm proof of this and she was a close friend of Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh, and Lord Grey.

Her hard work paid off and she became a leader of London society; invitations to her home were the most sought after. She was the first foreigner to be elected a patroness of Almack’s, London’s most exclusive social club, where she introduced the scandalous dance, the waltz to England when Tsar Alexander came to London in 1818. It was during that visit the two great lovers first met. They took an instant dislike to one another. She thought he was cold and intimidating and far too self- important. He dismissed her as just a pretty woman travelling in the Tsar’s wake and treated her with complete indifference.

However, at a party hosted by the Dutch Ambassador on 22nd October at Aix-La-Chappelle that year, they found themselves sitting next to each other and she played him for all he was worth drawing him out with questions on his favourite subject; Napoleon; and by indulging his ego and listening to his every word she won him over. The next day she found herself alone in a carriage with the Prince and as they chatted, they found that they had much in common. They were both disappointed in the people they were married to, they hated getting up early in the morning, they liked the same paintings, the same novels, and literature, the same style of furniture – in fact, they were kindred spirits. A few days later, their notorious liaison began with Dorothea concealing her identity by wearing a long cloak and veil in order to enter the Prince’s apartment incognito.

In Metternich Dorothea had found her equal, he was a man she could love wholeheartedly, who could satisfy her physically, emotionally and intellectually. She wrote, “Good God! My love, I know how to rejoice in so few things, do you understand what makes me feel true happiness, it is you, only you! My Clement, if you cease to love me what will become of me?  … My dear friend promise to love me as much as I love you; our lives are pledged in this promise.”

In Dorothea Metternich had met the woman of his dreams, she could match his intellect and his passion. She could speak and write in four languages and her wit and intelligence were as sharp as his. He wrote, “My happiness today is you. Your soul is full of common sense your heart is full of warmth … You are as a woman what I am as a man.” “Why are your letters so like mine? Why do you write to me almost the same words I have written to you, and you have the air of knowing them whilst my letter is still in my room? Will such perfect identity of our beings be so complete that the same thought only finds the same expression in each of us, when a word, a single phrase will succeed in expressing what we feel? …. I could write volumes, I could repeat to you a hundred times in one page that I love you.”

Their heated, clandestine, affair soon succumbed to the requirements state. They continued their liaison mainly in letters continuing their physical relationship whenever their paths crossed. Metternich described writing to Dorothea as like speaking to her, or chatting to her as if she were in the room with him because she was ‘in him.’ “You are my last thought before I go to sleep at night and first thought when I awaken,” he wrote.

The pair were tortured by their affair not only because of their separation but also because they both knew that they were married to others and that they could never be together. Dorothea was well aware of Metternich’s reputation with women and called his fidelity to her into question on occasion. In the early years of the affair he chastised her for such thoughts but of course the inevitable happened and she broke off their relationship in 1826 when she found out that he traded her in for a younger woman.

Towards the end of her life, Dorothea burned Metternich’s letters afraid that their intimacy would shock her family and ruin their reputations but she copied sections of his letters into her notebook. In one letter, that survived because it was copied by the French Secret Service, Dorothea writes about a dream she had when she was staying at Lord and Lady Jersey’s house one summer evening. She wrote; “We spoke a great deal, and for fear we would be heard, you took me on your lap so that you could speak to me more quietly; my dear Clement, I heard your heart beating, I felt it under my hand so strongly that I woke up, and it was my own heart reacting to yours. Mr. God, my love, how it still beats at this moment …. will my dream ever become a reality?”

Metternich occupied her imagination from 1818 to the beginning of 1826. By the end she was disillusioned; references to him in letters written after that date, are cold and spiteful and it seems that time did not heal her broken heart. She had nothing good to say about him or his third wife when she saw him in Brighton in 1849 describing him as “slow and tedious” and his wife as “stout and well-mannered.” By then she was the wife in all but name of the French politician Guizot and living in Paris. It was said that even though she was a widow by then she refused to marry Guizot as she would have to give up her title of ‘Serene Highness’ something the proud and regal woman was never going to do. Like her former lover, she was ancien regime through and through.


Dorothea Lieven died peacefully at her home, 2 rue Saint-Florentin, Paris, aged 71, on 27 January 1857, with Guizot and Paul Lieven, one of her two surviving sons, beside her. She was buried, according to her wish, at the Lieven family estate, Mežotne (near Jelgava) next to her two young sons who had died in St. Petersburg. She is a recurring minor figure in many historical novels about the period, notably those of Georgette Heyer. Heyer generally portrays her as a haughty, formidable, and unapproachable leader of society, but in The Grand Sophy she is described as “clever and amusing”, and there is a passing reference in that book to her role in political intrigues.

Metternich died in Vienna two years later on 11 June 1859, aged 86. He was the last great figure of his generation; almost everyone of note in Vienna came to pay tribute at his funeral but in the foreign press his death went virtually unnoticed. Of course ‘the coachman of Europe’ is the topic of much historical discourse. His reactionary political views held sway in Europe for the best part of 35 years and his love affairs were a source of fascination and intrigue throughout the courts of Europe.



Dorothea Lieven: A Russian Princess in London and Paris, 1785-1857 By Judith Lissauer Cromwell

The Congress of Vienna: Power and Politics After Napoleon By Brian E. Vick

1815: The Roads to Waterloo By Gregor Dallas



Julia Herdman writes historical fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is  Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 Kindle £2.42  Also available on:

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Empress Elizabeth – A woman who wanted to sleep with common people

Empress Elizabeth – A woman who wanted to sleep with common people

This story is about an Empress with a taste for the common man. Just like Jarvis Cocker’s Greek girl in the Pulp classic, ‘She wanted to sleep with the common people’.

Daughter of a Housemaid and an Emperor

Elizabeth Petrovna was born at Kolomenskoye, near Moscow, on 18 December 1709. She was the daughter of Peter the Great, Tsar of Russia, by his second wife, Catherine, a maid in the household. Her parents were said to have married secretly at the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in St. Petersburg at some point of time between 23 October and 1 December 1707 then they married officially 5 years later when Peter legitimised his daughters, Anna and Elizabeth.

Although Catherine bore five sons and seven daughters for Peter only two daughters, Anna (b. 1708) and Elizabeth (b. 1709) survived to adulthood. As a child, Elizabeth was the particular favourite of her father. She resembled him both physically and temperamentally. She was a bright girl, if not brilliant, but received only an imperfect and desultory formal education.

Even though he adored his daughter Peter did not devote time or attention to her education. He had a son and a grandson from his first marriage and did not anticipate that a daughter born to his second wife might one day inherit his throne. Indeed, no woman had ever sat upon the throne of Russia and there was no expectation one ever would.

Empress Elizabeth as a Child

As a child, the young Empress Elizabeth had a French governess and grew fluent in Italian, German and French. She was also an excellent dancer and rider. Like her father, Elizabeth was physically active and loved riding, hunting, sledding, skating, and gardening. The wife of the British ambassador described Elizabeth as “fair, with light brown hair, large sprightly blue eyes, fine teeth, and a pretty mouth. She is inclinable to be fat, but is very genteel and dances better than anyone I ever saw. She speaks German, French and Italian, is extremely gay and talks to everyone…”

In 1724 Peter betrothed his daughters to two young princes, first cousins to each other, from the tiny north German principality of Holstein-Gottorp. Anna Petrovna, aged 16, was to marry Charles Frederick, Duke of Holstein-Gottorp, who was then living in Russia as Peter’s guest after having failed in his attempt to succeed his maternal uncle as King of Sweden. Sometime later the young Empress Elizabeth was betrothed to Charles Frederick’s first cousin, Charles Augustus of Holstein-Gottorp, the eldest son of Christian Augustus, Prince of Eutin. Anna’s wedding took place in 1725 as planned, even though her father had died only a few weeks before the nuptials. In the future Empress Elizabeth’s case, however, the planned marriage never happened as her fiancé died on 31 May 1727 before the wedding could be held. Unfortunately Elizabeth’s mother Empress Catherine I (who had succeeded Peter the Great to the throne) also died on 17 May 1727 just two weeks before Elizabeth’s fiancé.

Empress Elizabeth as a Teenager

Thus, by the end of May 1727, Empress Elizabeth, aged 17, had lost both her parents and her fiancé, and her half-nephew Peter II was on the throne. Her marriage prospects immediately dried up. They did not improve when, three years later, Peter II died and was succeeded by the soon to be Empress Elizabeth’s first cousin, Anna wife of Peter the Great’s elder brother and her infant grandson Ivan. There was little love lost between the cousins and no prospect of either any Russian nobleman or any foreign prince seeking Elizabeth’s hand in marriage with her cousins on the throne. Nor could Elizabeth marry a commoner because it would cost her her title, claim to the throne and royal status.

Empress Elizabeth as a Woman

The Emperor of the Night

The woman who would one day be Empress Elizabeth’s solution was to take refuge in relationships with the lower classes. First, she took Alexis Shubin, a handsome sergeant in the Semyonovsky Guards regiment, as her lover. When Empress Anna found out she had  Shubin’s tongue cut out and he was banished to Siberia. Elizabeth then threw herself into the arms of a handsome coachman and then to a footman. Eventually, she found her long-term companion in Alexis Razumovsky, a young and handsome Ukrainian peasant with a good bass voice. Razumovsky had been brought from his village to St. Petersburg by his master, a nobleman, to sing for a church choir. Elizabeth purchased the talented serf from the nobleman and put him in her own choir. Razumovsky, a good-hearted and simple-minded man, never showed any personal ambition or interest in affairs of state during all the years of his relationship with Elizabeth. In return, Elizabeth was devoted to Razumovsky, and there is reason to believe that she might even have married him in a secret. In 1756 Elizabeth would make him a Prince and a Field Marshal and in 1742 the Holy Roman Emperor made him a Count of the Holy Roman Empire but  at court, he was always known as the “the Emperor of the Night.”

When Empress Anna died her daughter-in-law, another Anna, became regent to her young son Ivan. It was a period of poor government, taxes were high and Anna was unpopular at court. A circle of the disaffected began to gather around Elizabeth and plans for a coup began.

Empress Elizabeth Seizes Power

On 25 November 1741, Elizabeth seized power with the help of the Preobrazhensky Regiment. Arriving at the regimental headquarters wearing a warrior’s metal breastplate over her dress and grasping a silver cross she challenged them: “Whom do you want to serve: me, your natural sovereign, or those who have stolen my inheritance?” Won over, the regiment marched to the Winter Palace and arrested the infant Emperor, his parents, and their own lieutenant-colonel, Count von Munnich. It was a daring coup and, amazingly, succeeded without bloodshed. Elizabeth had vowed that if she became Empress she would not sign a single death sentence, an extraordinary promise for the time but one which she kept throughout her life.

The question of Razumovsky and Elizabeth’s children remains unresolved and subject to many legends. The best-known pretenders were Augusta who became a nun under the name Dosifeya. She died in 1810 and was buried in the Romanov family crypt; another Princess Elizabeth was arrested in Livorno, Tuscany by Aleksei Grigoryevich Orlov and returned to Russia in February 1775, presumably she was trying to escape. She was then imprisoned in the Peter and Paul Fortress, where she died from tuberculosis. The legend of her being drowned during the floods of 1777 was the subject of a painting by artist Konstantin Flavitsky, 1864, which now hangs in the Tretyakov Galler.

Unmarried and Childless

As a supposedly unmarried and childless empress, it was imperative for Elizabeth to find a legitimate heir to secure the Romanov dynasty. She chose her nephew, Peter of Holstein-Gottorp her sister’s son. Elizabeth was only too aware that the deposed Ivan VI, whom she had imprisoned in the Schlusselburg Fortress was a threat to her throne. Elizabeth feared a coup in his favour and set about obliterating him from history with orders that he should only be killed if he tried to escape, which of course he did when he tried to claim the throne after her death. The new queen Catherine gave the order and he was secretly executed and buried within the fortress.

Her nephew Peter was brought to Russia from Holstein and educated in Russian ways. He married Princess Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg; she was nicknamed “Figchen” the daughter of Christian August, Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst of Anhalt. Her two of her first cousins became Kings of Sweden: Gustav III and Charles XIII and eventually, she would become Catherine the Great Empress of Russia.

The marriage took place on 21 August 1745. Nine years later, a son, the future Paul I, was finally born on 20 September 1754. There is considerable speculation as to the actual paternity of Paul I. It is suggested that he was not Peter’s son at all, but that his mother had engaged in an affair—to which Elizabeth had consented—with a young officer named Serge Saltykov, and that he was Paul’s real father. In any case, Peter never gave any indication that he believed Paul to have been fathered by anyone but himself. Elizabeth removed the young Paul and acted as if she were his mother and not Catherine. When the child was born the Empress had ordered the midwife to take the baby and to follow her. Catherine was not to see her child for another month and then on the second time briefly for the churching ceremony. Six months later Elizabeth let Catherine see the child again. The child had become a ward of the state to be brought up by Elizabeth as she believed he should be — as a true heir and great-grandson of her father, Peter the Great.

Empress Elizabeth’s Court

Under Elizabeth, the Russian court was one of the most splendid in all Europe. Foreigners were amazed at the sheer luxury of the sumptuous balls and masquerades and Elizabeth was said to be “the laziest, most extravagant and most amorous of sovereigns. Elizabeth created a world in which aesthetics reigned supreme. Historian Mikhail Shcherbatov wrote that her court was “arrayed in cloth of gold, her nobles satisfied with only the most luxurious garments, the most expensive foods, the rarest drinks, that largest number of servants and they applied this standard of lavishness to their dress as well.”

Clothing soon became the chosen means in Court by which to display wealth and social standing. Elizabeth is reported to have owned 15,000 dresses, several thousand pairs of shoes, and a seemingly unlimited number of stockings. She was known to never wear a dress twice and to change outfits anywhere from two to six times a day. Since the Empress did this her courtiers did as well. It is reported that to ensure no one wore a dress more than once to any ball or notably formal occasion, the Empress had her guards stamp each gown with special ink. Men at court were known to wear diamond buttons, own jewelled snuff boxes, and adorn their servants in uniforms made of gold.

Empress Elizabeth’s Decline and Death

In the late 1750s, Elizabeth’s health started to decline. She began to suffer a series of dizzy spells and refused to take the prescribed medicines. She forbade the word “death” in her presence. She died on 5 January 1762 and was buried in the Peter and Paul Cathedral in Saint Petersburg on 3 February 1762 after six weeks lying in state.

Not surprisingly her life has been dramatised in several films and novels. She appears in the 1934 film Catherine the Great (based on the play The Czarina by Lajos Bíró and Melchior Lengyel) which starred Flora Robson as Elizabeth. 1934 also saw the release of The Scarlet Empress, another filmed version of Catherine the Great’s story, this time with Louise Dresser in the role of Elizabeth. She was played by Olga Chekhova in the 1936 German film The Empress’s Favourite. The 1991 TV miniseries Young Catherine features Vanessa Redgrave in the role. Jeanne Moreau portrayed Elizabeth in the 1995 television movie Catherine the Great. She is also a major character in several episodes of the Japanese animated series, Le Chevalier D’Eon.

Elizabeth appears as a character in the historical fiction novel “The Winter Palace” by Eva Stachniak and as a character in the novel “The Mirrored World” by Debra Dean and in “A Princess at the Court of Russia” by Eva Martens.

Source: Wikipedia.

Julia Herdman writes historical fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is  Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 Kindle £2.42  Also available on:

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Imperial Crushes

Imperial Crushes

Maria Christina or Mimi

Archduchess Maria Christina was born on her mother’s 25th birthday at the Imperial Palace in Vienna, she was her fifth child and fourth daughter of Maria Theresa of Austria and Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor.

Maria Christina Johanna Josepha Antonia was born on 13 May 1742 at Vienna, Austria. The next day she was baptised in the Hofburg under the watchful gaze of her grandmother Elisabeth Christine, the dowager Holy Roman Empress.

Known simply as Mimi she was a capricious and spirited and her mother’s favourite child. Beautiful, highly intelligent and artistically gifted, Mimi mastered Italian and French and spoke good English. She was also talented with the paintbrush; she painted the Imperial family at work and play and copied the paintings of Dutch and French masters.

Mimi was in love with life and in love with love. At 17-years-old she had a romance with Duke Louis Eugene of Württemberg, but a marriage between them was dismissed. The third son of the Duke of Württemberg wasn’t good enough for an Archduchess. Mimi’s broken heart was soon mended with the arrival of the Princes Albert and Clemens of Saxony in at the Imperial Palace in 1760.

Mimi first met Albert at a concert during the Christmas celebrations and the attraction it seems was instant and mutual. However, at the end of January Albert and his brother returned to Saxony.

In the same year Mimi’s brother Archduke Joseph of Austria, heir to the Habsburg Monarchy was married to Isabella of Parma. The marriage took place by proxy and then Isabella was escorted from Italy to Austria. The formal wedding celebrations began on 6 October 1760 and lasted several days. Isabella was 18 homesick and still mourning the death of her mother. Joseph was thrilled with his new bride but Isabella did not feel the same.

Instead, she formed an almost immediate and strong attachment to Mimi which Mimi reciprocated. The pair became very close, some say they were lovers. The played music together and enjoyed each other’s company.  Isabella was beautiful, educated, and very sensitive. She detested court ceremonial and her position as the wife of the Habsburg heir. While her husband loved her very deeply, she was cold towards him and focussed her attention on Mimi. The pair wrote over 200 letters to each other.

In one such letter, Isabella wrote:

I am writing to you again, cruel sister, though I have only just left you. I cannot bear waiting to know my fate, and to learn whether you consider me a person worthy of your love, or whether you would like to throw me into the river…. I can think of nothing but that I am deeply in love. If I only knew why this is so, for you are so without mercy that one should not love you, but I cannot help myself.“.

In a different letter, she wrote: “I am told that the day begins with God. I, however, begin the day by thinking of the object of my love, for I think of her incessantly.“.

Only the letters of Isabella have been preserved; those of Maria Christina were destroyed after her death.

Isabella despite her coolness towards her husband eventually became pregnant. On March 20, 1762, after nine months of mental and physical strain, Isabella gave birth to a daughter they named Maria Theresia. Isabella remained bedridden for 6 weeks after giving birth. In August 1762 and January 1763 Isabella suffered two separate miscarriages then she fell pregnant again that year with a baby girl. Six months pregnant she contracted smallpox. On 22 November 1763 premature labour began. The child survived less than a day and was named after Mimi. Isabella followed her daughter to the grave five days later. Mimi was devastated.

Less than a month later in December 1763, Prince Albert of Saxony returned to Vienna. He comforted Mimi in her desolation. He too had liked Isabella and shared Mimi’s sadness in her passing. The pair met at court through 1764  and gradually Mimi’s affection for Albert grew. Albert was not sure he would be able to marry her as although he was prince he was only a minor one. Nevertheless the pair took their chances especially when Albert was invited to join the Imperial family whilst stationed in Vienna in the Imperial Cavalry. Her mother liked Albert but her father had greater ambitions for Mimi he wanted her to marry her first-cousin Prince Benedetto of Savoy, Duke of Chablais.  The Empress advised her impatient daughter to appear calm and cautious with regard to her liaison with Albert; however Maria Christina found it extremely difficult to conceal her feelings for her Saxon prince.

In July 1765 the Imperial family travelled to Innsbruck for the wedding of Archduke Leopold, Grand Prince of Tuscany to the Infanta Maria Luisa of Spain. Albert was also invited to the wedding and the lovers had to play it cool.  Mimi returned home to Vienna without her love wondering what would happen to her next. She could not have imaged that her path to happiness would be paved with her own father’s sudden death on 18 August.

After a suitable period of mourning, Mimi was married to Albert. She was the only child of Francis I to marry for love. To aid the couple’s happiness Albert was appointed Field Marshal and Statthalter of Hungary; these posts forced him and his future wife to live in Pressburg but provide them with a healthy income. The castle was renovated at a cost of 1.3 million guldens, and the Dowager Empress even personally took care of the furniture and tableware. Finally, Maria Christina received from her mother a rich dowry: the Silesian Duchy of Teschen –whereupon Albert became entitled as Duke of Saxe-Teschen–, the towns of Mannersdorf, Ungarisch Altenburg and other lordships, and the amount of 100,000 guldens. The household of the couple included about 120 people making her brothers and sisters pea-green with envy.

Maria Christina gave birth to a daughter named Maria Christina Theresa on 16 May 1767, but the child lived one day. She survived the puerperal fever that followed the birth but it left her barren. Unable to have any more children she persuaded her brother Leopold, Grand Duke of Tuscany to let her and her husband adopt one of his youngest sons, Archduke Charles, as their heir.

Prince Albert of Saxony












Sources: Wikipedia.


Julia Herdman writes historical fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is  Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 Kindle £2.42  Also available on:

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The Extra-ordinary life of opera singer Gertrude Mara

The Extra-ordinary life of opera singer Gertrude Mara

Gertrude was one of the greatest singers of the Georgian Period. She was born at Kassel, Germany in February 1749. Her mother died soon after the birth. Her father was a poor musician, named Schmeling. Undernourished from birth she always suffered from ill health. Schmeling contrived to increase his income by mending musical instruments. One day little Gertrude got hold of a violin and started to play it. Her father punished her severely for touching other people’s property but the little girl was hooked and played with the violins he was mending whenever her father’s back was turned.

Soon she had mastered a scale and her father was forced to acknowledge her genius and arranged lessons for the child. Although she was five her legs had no strength and her father was forced to carry her everywhere including to small gatherings where she would give performances. After a performance in Frankfort, a public subscription was raised to get gifted little Gertrude some education. By the time she was nine, her health had improved and she was in Vienna giving concerts to the Queen and her friends who petted and admired her and persuaded her to give up the violin because it was an unfeminine instrument and sing instead. Her voice was already resonant and clear, but she had, of course, had no instruction. Schmeling, with the help of benefactors, then placed the young Gertrude under the tuition of the musico Paradisi where she made rapid progress.

Returning to Cassel, Schmeling hoped to get Gertrude a place at Court but the King would only employ Italian singers so they moved to Leipzig and the music school of Joesph Hiller where Gertrude stayed until  1771. She made her début in an opera of Basse’s at Dresden. Her success led her to an audience with the King,  Frederick II, who on hearing her was persuaded to engaged her for life to sing at his Court, despite her not being Italian! At last, she and her father had a secure income.

Whilst at the Court she met and married the violoncellist, Mara despite her friends’ advice. She soon discovered her folly; Mara was a wonton womaniser and the King’s demands were excessive too. On one occasion, she was physically brought from her bed, by his orders and forced to sing at the Opera, even though she was ill. When she had had enough of her unhappy life at Court she tried to escape but was detained by the Prussian ambassador at Frederick’s request.

By 1780 Frederick had lost his interest in music and Gertrude and she was free at last to return to Vienna where she procured at a letter of introduction from the Empress to her daughter Marie-Antoinette. She passed through Munich where Mozart heard her but was not favourably impressed. She reached Paris in 1782 where audiences pitted her talent again the celebrated Todi.

Two years later, in the spring of 1784, Mara made her first appearance in London, where her greatest successes awaited her. She was engaged to sing six nights at the Pantheon. Owing to the general election, she sang to small audiences, and her merits were not recognised until she sang at Westminster Abbey, in the Handel Commemoration, when she was heard with delight by nearly 1000 people. She sang in the repeated Commemoration in 1785, and in 1786 made her first appearance on the London stage in a serious pasticcio, ‘Didone Abbandonata,’ the success of which was due entirely to her singing.

I give Mara a cameo appearance in my novel, Sinclair. The Vicar of St James’ Piccadilly has managed to secure the services of Miss Mara and Mr. Stephen Storace her accompanist and impresario for his fundraising concert in the Christmas of 1787. Reverend Walker says ;

“Now for the highlight of our evening, ladies and gentlemen. I am delighted to invite the celebrated German opera singer Miss Gertrude Mara and her accompanist, the composer and impresario Mr. Stephen Storace, to entertain you this evening.”

The audience gasped, then clapped and roared as the pair made their way to the piano. “Well done, Connie, they loved you,” said John.

“My goodness, I’m on the same bill as Gertrude Mara and Stephen Storace,” Connie exclaimed.

An hour later Connie and Mrs. Peacock were being introduced to the great soprano by a contented Mr. Walker, accompanied by his daughters Hannah and Harriet.

“Mr. Walker, why didn’t you tell me about Miss Mara and Mr. Storace?” demanded Connie when they had gone.

“I didn’t know they would come until the last minute, and I didn’t want to put you off.”

In March 1787 she appeared in Handel’s opera of ‘Giulio Cesare’ where she played Cleopatra.  It was so successful that it was constantly repeated during the season. Mara again took a leading part in the Festival in Westminster Abbey in 1787, and she remained connected with the opera in London till 1791, after which, though she sang occasionally on the stage, and even in English ballad operas, she was more frequently heard in concerts and oratorios.

In 1788 she was singing in the Carnival at Turin and the following year at Venice. She returned to London in 1790 and went to Venice again in 1791. Coming once more to London in the next season, she remained here for ten years. After this time, she found her voice losing strength, and she quitted England in 1802, after enjoying a splendid benefit of over £1000 at her farewell concert.

Her worthless husband, and her numerous lovers,—among whom the last was a flute-player named Florio,—had helped her to spend the immense sums which she had earned, until she found herself without means, and compelled to support herself by teaching. She worked as a singing teacher in Moscow until 1812 when her small school was burned down and was forced to start again at age 64. She then settled in Italy for a while until in 1819 she returned to London where she appeared at the King’s theatre, but like ?? her voice had gone and she never appeared again. She returned to Italy where she died in poverty aged  84.

Sources: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/A_Dictionary_of_Music_and_Musicians/Mara,_Gertrude: A life of Mara, by G. C. Grosheim, published at Cassel in 1823.

Julia Herdman writes historical fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is  Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 Kindle £2.42  Also available on:

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