Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Alfred and Octavius, the Lost Princes

By Catherine Curzon

George III by Ramsay
There is much to be said for a loving home and a warm hearth, and George III was fond of both. Whatever challenges he faced in Parliament and no matter how much the government niggled and needled, George could always take comfort in his domestic life. As war raged, he took refuge in the gentle comfort of his devoted consort, Queen Charlotte, and their growing brood of children, using Richmond Lodge as a family home and commissioning a sweeping programme of renovation and repair at Windsor Castle. 

George was devoted to his children who were expected to study hard and behave in a manner befitting the offspring of the very pious king. Even so, he loved to spend time in the company of his children, playing with them and sharing with them his own favourite pastimes. They were permitted to attend the theatre and other entertainments and, behind the scenes, all seemed happy.

It would not last.

Real life was set to force its way into his family idyll in the most upsetting way and the household would never quite recover. So far, George and Charlotte had welcomed fourteen children (the last would be born in 1783) and remarkably for an eighteenth century couple, all of the children survived infancy. Tragically, that was about to change and in the space of less than twelve short months, those loving parents would lose not only one child, but two.

In the Georgian era, smallpox was a very real and present threat to the lives of everyone, whether king or pauper. The disease claimed hundreds of thousands and survivors rarely escaped devastating side effects that ranged from scars to blindness. For any parent, the news that their child had been infected would be terrifying and for the royal couple, things were no different.
Queen Charlotte by Ramsay

In 1782, George and Charlotte took the decision to have their youngest children inoculated against smallpox and by June, they no doubt rued that day. Little Alfred, the couple’s youngest son who was a full eighteen years younger than his oldest brother, fell ill not long after receiving the treatment. In order to speed his recovery he was taken to enjoy the sea air at Deal in the care of Lady Charlotte Finch, his devoted nurse.

A cheery little boy with a bright disposition, Alfred was nevertheless laid terribly low by his inoculation and began to experience smallpox-like blemishes on his face, whilst his breathing grew ever more laboured. Only when it appeared that the seaside was not working its magic was he returned to Windsor. Here he was attended by court physicians and their conclusion, when it came, was devastating.

Little Alfred would be dead within weeks.

“Yesterday morning died at the Royal Palace, Windsor, his Royal Highness Prince Alfred, their Majesties youngest son. The Queen is much affected at this domestic calamity, probably more so on account of its being the only one she has experienced after a marriage of 20 years and having been the mother of fourteen children.”1

Alfred by Gainsborough
Prince Alfred of Great Britain passed away on 20 August 1782, just a month shy of his second birthday, and the royal family were rocked by his unexpected death. Protocol did not demand official mourning for one so young but, officially or not, his parents and siblings wept for the cheerful child. He was buried at Westminster Abbey with full honours and though George and Charlotte mourned his loss, they could at least take comfort in their surviving children. The king, in particular, doted on the boy who was now his youngest son, three year old Octavius. In his darkest moments he admitted that, should Octavius have died, then he would wish himself dead too.

These were to be fateful words.

Despite Alfred’s death, it was still reckoned that inoculating the children against smallpox posed less of a risk than leaving them open to the infection so little Octavius and his best friend, five year old Princess Sophia, were given the treatment. Whilst Sophia suffered no ill effects and would live to a ripe old age, things did not go so 

Octavius by Gainsborough
The queen was pregnant with her final child when, just days after receiving the smallpox inoculation, Octavius grew terribly ill. Unlike Alfred, whose sickness progressed over time, Octavius declined with alarming speed and died on 3 May 1783. The king was beyond devastated, tormented to distraction by grief and as the situation in America neared its endgame, George was perhaps lower than he had ever been.

“On Saturday, on the Majesties arriving at Kew, in their way to Windsor, and finding Prince Octavius in a dangerous Way, they determined to stay there all Night and sent an Express to Windsor to acquaint the Attendants of the Reason of their continuing there.

The same Night died at Kew, his Royal Highness Prince Octavius, his Majesty’s youngest Son, in the fifth Year of his Age.”2

The king brooded on the loss of his children, wondering whether their inoculation against smallpox had contributed to their early deaths. Where once there had been the laughter of infants, the gentle distraction offered when Charlotte and George played adoringly with the youngsters, now there was only silence and grief, the royal household plunged into sadness. A little respite came with the birth of Princess Amelia in August of that same year and George showered her with love, filling the void where his sons had been with the cheer of this new daughter. Little Amelia, or Emily, as she was known, lived through childhood but years later it would be her death that was to have a catastrophic effect on the father who adored her.

1. London Chronicle (London, England), August 20, 1782 - August 22, 1782; issue 4014, p.1.
2. Daily Advertiser (London, England), Monday, May 5, 1783; issue 17249, p.1.


Anonymous. George III: His Court and Family, Vol I. London: Henry Colburn and Co, 1821.
Black, Jeremy. George III: America’s Last King. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.
Craig, William Marshall. Memoir of Her Majesty Sophia Charlotte of Mecklenburg Strelitz, Queen of Great Britain. Liverpool: Henry Fisher, 1818.
David, Saul. Prince of Pleasure. New York: Grove Press, 2000.
Hadlow, Janice. The Strangest Family: The Private Lives of George III, Queen Charlotte and the Hanoverians. London: William Collins, 2014.
Hibbert, Christopher. George III: A Personal History. London: Viking, 1998.

Glorious Georgian ginbag, gossip and gadabout Catherine Curzon, aka Madame Gilflurt, is the author of A Covent Garden Gilflurt’s Guide to Life. When not setting quill to paper, she can usually be found gadding about the tea shops and gaming rooms of the capital or hosting intimate gatherings at her tottering abode. In addition to her blog and Facebook, Madame G is also quite the charmer on Twitter. Her first book, Life in the Georgian Court, is available now, and she can be seen performing in An Evening with Jane Austen, starring Adrian Lukis and Caroline Langrishe, at Gloucester Cathedral on 22nd October.


  1. How sad. And then he went crazy too. Charlotte had her hands full.

    1. She really did, and she handled it with such grace.

  2. Marvelous post, thank you. You make these long ago events seem current. The King's grief is palpable.

    1. George III is a character whose life really touched me, and I think these two particular moments were so monumental to him, that I wanted to share the story. Thank you so much for your lovely comment!

  3. There were worse sovereigns than George III, I've always thought he was a much maligned monarch.
    More of a human being than most I suspect.


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