Death of a Queen: the tragic end of Caroline of Ansbach

In the latest post for the Georgian Lords, Dr Robin Eagles, considers the grisly end of Queen Caroline of Ansbach, the botched efforts of her physicians to assist her and her wider importance to the Hanoverian regime.

On 20 November 1737 Queen Caroline of Ansbach, who reigned alongside George II for just over a decade, died after an agonizing last illness. Caroline’s final days pointed to the important role she had played in knitting together some elements of the Hanoverian regime, while also casting into sharp relief her part in perpetuating some of the divisions. One of those most worried about the prospect of the queen’s demise was Sir Robert Walpole. On coming to the throne George II had been keen to replace Walpole as Prime Minister with the Speaker of the House of Commons, Sir Spencer Compton, but a combination of Compton’s ineptness and Caroline’s careful diplomacy on Walpole’s behalf had resulted in him being continued in office. Now, with the queen likely to be taken out of the equation, Walpole fretted about the destabilizing effect this might have on his hold on power. His administration had survived the political crisis of the Excise four years earlier, but there were plenty of senior courtiers who were only too happy to cabal in secret with the opposition and might be emboldened by the removal of one of his firmest allies.

Kneller, Godfrey; Caroline (1683-1737), Queen Consort of George II; The Queen’s College, University of Oxford;

Caroline’s last illness was cruel and left her in agony for just under a fortnight. First symptoms had become apparent on 9 November after she had been to see the new library at St James’s Palace. It was initially assumed that she was suffering from colic and was prescribed ‘Daffy’s Elixir’, a well-known preparation also known as ‘Elixir Salutis’ formulated by Anthony Daffy, which he insisted was effective against ‘any noxious humor invading the noble parts’ and might be prescribed for conditions as diverse as coughs, gout and rickets. When this offered no relief, she asked Lord Hervey what the strongest remedy was that he could think of. Still thinking that what she had was mere colic, he recommended snake-root mixed with brandy. This was then amended to snake-root taken with Sir Walter Raleigh’s cordial, a remedy invented by Raleigh himself, and which had acquired considerable fame in the mid-17th century. As the specific would take time to prepare at an apothecary’s, in the meantime she was given a shot of whisky, which she promptly vomited back up. She proved no less able to keep down the snake-root when it was eventually brought to her. When these remedies proved ineffective, the physicians fell back on bleeding her to reduce her fever: 12 ounces on the first day and another 12 ounces on the next.

After several more days of agonizing pain, the doctors attending finally diagnosed a strangulated umbilical hernia. Caroline had long known of the condition, which had occurred while giving birth to her last daughter, but chose to conceal it even at the end. Different surgical interventions were proposed, and in the end it was decided to make an incision below the naval in the hopes of releasing the pressure on her bowel. During the procedure Caroline continued to show her extraordinary phlegm. She asked of one of the surgeons, who was separated from his wife, how he would enjoy performing the same operation on her; and was momentarily distracted when the other set fire to his own wig. She begged them to pause so she could laugh. [Hierons]. Such moments of light relief aside, the operation failed spectacularly, and a few days before her death Caroline was emitting excrement through her navel. As Hervey reported: it went ‘all through the quilts of the bed and flowed all over the floor’.

Even as Caroline lay dying, she remained determined on one point: not to see her eldest son, Prince Frederick. She was tortured by the idea that he would take pleasure in watching her breathe her last, and also became obsessed with a concern that on her death he might inherit her retreat at Richmond. This became a matter of such worry that Hervey was despatched to Westminster to consult the lord chancellor. He found Hardwicke mid-case in chancery and pulled him out of court to seek his opinion. Meanwhile, she dealt more kindly with her other children, pointing out that her favourite son, Cumberland, in particular, should be ready to take on his burden.

The end came at last on Sunday 20 November – not a Wednesday as Caroline had been utterly convinced would be the case (everything of significance in her life, she believed, had taken place on a Wednesday). Hearing what they understood to be a death-rattle, her family gathered around her. Caroline asked for a window to be opened and said one final word, ‘pray’. One of her daughters had barely begun to read a prayer when Caroline died.

Preparations for the queen’s funeral began in earnest soon after. Prince Frederick was snubbed once again, having offered to serve as chief mourner at the funeral only for his sister, Amelia, to be chosen instead. The king did not attend – as was entirely normal for the period. Caroline’s body was conveyed from St James’s Palace to the Prince’s Chamber in the House of Lords on the day of her interment in the Henry VII chapel in Westminster Abbey. Publicity had been kept to a minimum as such events were expected to be private. As a result there was not much of a crowd to see her off. Nevertheless, bells rung in several London churches from six in the evening till 10 at night; there was a new anthem by Handel and minute guns were fired at the Tower of London, where the flag flew at half-mast.

(c) Trustees of the British Museum

It is easy to overlook Caroline’s importance in helping to establish the Hanoverian regime. When George I arrived in England he was not accompanied by a queen, as his divorced wife had notoriously been imprisoned for several years before his accession. Caroline thus assumed a dual identity as Princess of Wales, but also as a proxy for the missing queen. She was a helpful foil for her husband, interested in scholarly endeavour in a way he simply was not. Her unwillingness to be reconciled to Prince Frederick at the very end did cause controversy, as the lack of forgiveness spoiled her otherwise eminently suitable Christian death: resigned, uncomplaining and bearing her considerable discomforts with supreme fortitude. Some may have expected Walpole to come unstuck without her; that was not the case, but he no doubt missed her solid support in the difficult years ahead.


Further reading:
Lord Hervey’s Memoirs, ed. Romney Sedgwick (1952)
Raymond Hierons, ‘Concerning the death of Queen Caroline’, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, vii (1952)
Andrew Thompson, George II (2011)

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