An Historic Hernia

Caroline of Ansbach by Jacopo Amigoni

Sufferer from the historic hernia, Caroline of Ansbach by Jacopo Amigoni

My regular readers will know of a certain disagreeable penchant for, well, the disagreeable. Today I’m pleased to welcome guest blogger Catherine Curzon, a royal historian and blogger on all matters 18th century at A Covent Garden Gilflurt’s Guide to Life, who has outdone me in the grim-and-grewsome department with a tragic tale from the Georgian Court.

An Historic Hernia

If Caroline of Ansbach, wife of George II, had departed this life peacefully in her sleep, then she would not have been afforded a place in Life in the Georgian Court, where the deaths were grisly, gruesome or somehow noteworthy! In fact, Caroline’s final days were nightmarish, involving a surgical catastrophe, rivers of bodily fluids and the sort of stench that would wilt flowers.

Since her husband was crowned a decade earlier, the personable Caroline had won many admirers in her adopted country. Determined to do her duty to George and ensure the succession of his line, Caroline became pregnant no fewer than ten times. Although eight of the babies were born alive, the repeated pregnancies took an enormous toll on Caroline’s health. Indeed, it was an untreated umbilical hernia suffered earlier in life that came back to haunt her in grisly style years later.

Whilst pregnancy and labour was a necessary risk for any royal wife, gout was virtually an occupational hazard among Georgian aristocracy and Caroline was just one of many who suffered from the agonising ailment. Weight gain left her fond of a wheelchair in which, during attacks, she would whizz around her home conducting her affairs. Still, Caroline took her ailments in her hobbled stride, until, in early November 1737, she was struck down by a violent pain that tore through her abdomen.

It was with some reluctance that she agreed to retire to her rooms at St James’s Palace and await the royal physicians, led by John Ranby. The learned doctors eventually decided that Caroline’s womb had ruptured and, with time of the essence, they set about bleeding their patient. Once it became apparent that this was going to achieve nothing, the doctors attempted a surgical intervention. The unfathomably stoic queen endured these unanaesthetised procedures without complaint, though she grew weaker with every passing day.

There was, however, one extremely pertinent bit of information that Caroline and George had decided not to share with the physicians in attendance, and that was the matter of the hernia she suffered during her last pregnancy in 1724. Why Caroline chose to conceal the condition must remain a mystery but only when the varied and debilitating treatments ended in failure did she finally mention the hernia and submit to whatever procedure Ranby might deem necessary.

Upon further investigation it became all too obvious that the long-ignored hernia had taken aggressive hold of the queen, causing her bowel to decay. In the gruesome procedure that followed, the physicians made the unimaginable decision to actually slice out the decayed flesh they found around the hernia, apparently not recognising the inevitable outcome of such a procedure. The operation had the effect of completely opening Caroline’s bowels and caused catastrophic, irreversible internal injury, sealing her fate. She suffered violent fits of vomiting and raw excrement oozed into her abdomen, horrifically seeping out through the surgical wounds. Despite her terrible suffering Caroline clung weakly to life, enduring untold agony with every moment.

The palace air grew thick and heavy with the sickening stench of excrement and with each passing day Caroline grew weaker. George was her constant and devoted companion in these final days, never leaving his wife’s side as she drew closer to her grave. Never the most faithful spouse, George was seemingly transformed by the sight of his suffering wife and though she implored him to remarry once she was gone, he refused to even countenance the idea. Instead, he said, he would take mistresses, as no woman could match her as his bride. This may not seem like a particularly romantic sentiment but royal mistresses were a fact of life that Caroline had long been resigned to; for George to swear never to remarry though… well, that was a sign of true devotion.

Attended to and prayed for by her husband and daughter, Amelia, Charlotte’s dreadful suffering finally reached what must have seemed like a merciful end at ten o’clock on the evening of 20th November 1737 when .she reached out for the king’s hand and told him with her final, agonised breath, “I am going.”

The queen died at that moment, finally released from the agonies of her final days. Her death plunged public, court and her own family into deep mourning and George kept his promise, never taking another woman as his bride. Caroline of Ansbach was buried in Westminster Abbey and when her husband joined her in death, their coffins were placed together and the sides removed, so that they might rest together for all eternity.

About the Author:

Catherine Curzon is a royal historian and blogs on all matters 18th century at A Covent Garden Gilflurt’s Guide to Life.

Her work has featured by publications including BBC History ExtraAll About History, History of Royals, Explore History and Jane Austens Regency World. She has also provided additional material for the sell-out theatrical show, An Evening with Jane Austen, will she will introduce at the Royal Pavilion, Brighton, in September (tickets are available here).

Catherine holds a Master’s degree in Film and when not dodging the furies of the guillotine, she lives in Yorkshire atop a ludicrously steep hill.

Her book, Life in the Georgian Court, is available now from Amazon UK, Amazon US, Book Depository and all good bookshops!

Life in the Georgian Court cover

About Life in the Georgian Court

As the glittering Hanoverian court gives birth to the British Georgian era, a golden age of royalty dawns in Europe. Houses rise and fall, births, marriages and scandals change the course of history and in France, Revolution stalks the land.

Peep behind the shutters of the opulent court of the doomed Bourbons, the absolutist powerhouse of Romanov Russia and the epoch-defining family whose kings gave their name to the era, the House of Hanover.

Behind the pomp and ceremony were men and women born into worlds of immense privilege, yet beneath the powdered wigs and robes of state were real people living lives of romance, tragedy, intrigue and eccentricity. Take a journey into the private lives of very public figures and learn of arranged marriages that turned to love or hate and scandals that rocked polite society.

Here the former wife of a king spends three decades in lonely captivity, Prinny makes scandalous eyes at the toast of the London stage and Marie Antoinette begins her last, terrible journey through Paris as her son sits alone in a forgotten prison cell.

Life in the Georgian Court is a privileged peek into the glamorous, tragic and iconic courts of the Georgian world, where even a king could take nothing for granted.

Bibliography

Campbell Orr, Clarissa. Queenship in Europe 1660-1815: The Role of the Consort. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Edwards, Averyl. Frederick Louis, Prince of Wales, 1701-1751.London: Staples Press, 1947.

Hunt, Margaret. Women in Eighteenth-Century Europe. New York: Routledge, 2010.

Kiste, John van der. King George II and Queen Caroline. Stroud: The History Press, 2013.

Marschner, Joanna. Queen Caroline: Cultural Politics at the Early Eighteenth Century Court. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014.

Shawe-Taylor, Desmond and Burchard, Wolf. The First Georgians: Art and Monarchy 1714-1760. London: Royal Collection Trust, 2014.

Worsley, Lucy. Courtiers: The Secret History of the Georgian Court. London: Faber and Faber, 2011.

Many thanks, Catherine!