Death of Frederick, Prince of Wales

Richard Cavendish marks the somewhat mysterious death of a Georgian prince, on March 20th, 1751.

Portrait of Frederick, Prince of WalesHow Frederick Louis, the eldest son of George II and Queen Caroline, came to meet his death, a few weeks after his forty-fourth birthday, is not quite certain. A keen games player, he was struck hard by a ball when playing cricket, or it may have been tennis, and the blow apparently caused an abscess. Subsequently the prince, in his garden at Kew on a cold March day, caught a chill which turned to pleurisy.

He returned to Leicester House in Leicester Square and three doctors were called and bled him. He seemed to be getting better, but then the abscess burst, it seems, and on the evening of the 20th, confined to bed, he began to cough painfully. According to Horace Walpole, he put his hands on his stomach and said, ‘Je sens la mort ’. His German page, who was holding him, felt him tremble and cried out, ‘The prince is going.’ Frederick’s wife at the foot of the bed caught up a candle and ran to him, but he was dead. The post mortem gave the cause of death as suffocation after the ‘imposthume’ or abscess broke, but the general medical opinion was that he died of pneumonia.

Born and brought up in Hanover, Frederick had arrived in England as a young man in 1728 after his father’s accession to the throne. Open-handed, with an easy manner, he had a certain charm and a taste for sport, gambling and women, and though his command of English was uncertain and he looked like a frog, the English on the whole approved of him. The same could not be said of his own family and the hatred between the prince and his parents was a national scandal. What the root of the antipathy really was, no one has ever been able to establish, but Frederick’s father, the king, could seldom bring himself to speak to him and told people that the prince was a changeling and no true child of his.

Frederick’s mother once famously described him as ‘the greatest ass and the greatest liar and the greatest canaille and the greatest beast in the whole world’, adding ‘and I heartily wish he were out of it. ’On another occasion, catching sight of the prince from a window, she said, ‘I wish the ground would open this moment and sink the monster to the lowest hole in hell.’ She and his father both preferred Frederick’s younger brother, the ‘Butcher’ Duke of Cumberland. Courtiers like Lord Hervey diligently stirred the boiling pot and every possible occasion for a flaming row seems to have been eagerly seized by all parties.The prince’s demands for more money and his father’s refusal to give it him reached such a pitch that Frederick appealed against the king to parliament, unsuccessfully, for a larger allowance. He regarded his £50,000 a year (at least £3 million a year in today’s money) as miserably inadequate.

One reason the prince needed plenty of money was that he ran his own rival court. His persistent political manoeuvering against his father’s principal minister, Sir Robert Walpole, was a major cause of offense. When his wife, Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, was about to bear their first child in 1737, Frederick insulted his mother by making sure that she was not present at the birth. The reason she had wanted to be there was to make quite sure that the new arrival actually was Augusta’s child. She doubted very much that it could be Frederick’s and had been telling people that he was impotent.

Frederick had numerous children and was a much better father to them than his own father had been to him. Interested in the arts, he collected pictures, wrote songs and poetry, played the cello well and loved music. He was also an enthusiast for hunting, shooting and fishing, and captained the Surrey cricket team for several seasons. His death left his eldest son, the future George III, as heir to the throne. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, in the Henry VII Chapel, with a minimum of ceremony and without a single member of the royal family present. ‘Here lies Fred,’ as the anonymous contemporary epitaph had it, ‘Who was alive and is dead ... There’s no more to be said.’