A couple of years ago, I became interested in Leopold, prince of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, who became the first king of Belgium, Leopold I (not to be confused with his son, the infamous colonialist Leopold II). Leopold’s biography appealed to me primarily because of his role in the emergent Belgian national identity, but as I read more about him, I was surprised at his connections to other historical interests of mine. Even given the well-known practice of intermarriage among royal and noble families, Leopold stands out as a particularly transnational figure. He fought in the Russian army against Napoleon. Before assuming the throne of Belgium he was offered that of Greece, which he declined. His daughter became the Empress Carlota of Mexico.
In Britain, however, Leopold was perhaps best known as the husband of Princess Charlotte of Wales, the daughter of the prince regent George IV and heir to the British throne. In 1817, after little more than a year of marriage, Charlotte died while giving birth to a stillborn son. Leopold was heartbroken and never fully recovered. He asked in his will to be buried in Windsor next to Charlotte, but the Belgians decided instead to bury him next to his second wife at the Belgian royal castle of Laeken.
This work from which I quote below is not about Leopold, but it is tangentially about Charlotte. Her death, which set the whole country to mourning, happened to coincide with another event of national proportions: the execution of the leaders of the Pentrich uprising. This was when several hundred men, led by Jeremiah Brandreth, marched on Nottingham, partly, it seems, to protest against the taxes levied on the poor by the government to pay the national war debt. The revolutionaries were dispersed, and Brandreth was hanged and beheaded, along with two of his comrades, on November 7, 1817, exactly 193 years ago. The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, incensed by the relative silence about the executed revolutionaries when compared with the widespread grief displayed for the princess, set down his thoughts in “An Address to the People on The Death of the Princess Charlotte.” Though acknowledging the princess’s beauty and virtue, Shelley comes to the conclusion that the country as a whole should be more concerned with the threat to their liberty symbolized by this triple execution.
I will quote two short passages, although for the full rhetorical effect, I suggest that you read the entire essay linked to above. In the following excerpt, Shelley makes an argument against capital punishment, by comparing natural death and murder:
Nothing is more horrible than that man should for any cause shed the life of man. For all other calamities there is a remedy or a consolation. When that Power through which we live ceases to maintain the life which it has conferred, then is grief and agony, and the burthen which must be borne: such sorrow improves the heart. But when man sheds the blood of man, revenge, and hatred, and a long train of executions, and assassinations, and proscriptions, is perpetuated to remotest time.
The essay ends with a cry of lament, and a replacement of the figure of Princess Charlotte with the image of a murdered spirit of Liberty:
Mourn then People of England. Clothe yourselves in solemn black. Let the bells be tolled. Think of mortality and change. Shroud yourselves in solitude and the gloom of sacred sorrow. Spare no symbol of universal grief. Weep-mourn—lament. Fill the great City—fill the boundless fields, with lamentation and the echo of groans. A beautiful Princess is dead:—she who should have been the Queen of her beloved nation, and whose posterity should have ruled it for ever. She loved the domestic affections, and cherished arts which adorn, and valour which defends. She was amiable and would have become wise, but she was young, and in the flower of youth the despoiler came. LIBERTY is dead. Slave! I charge thee disturb not the depth and solemnity of our grief by any meaner sorrow. If One has died who was like her that should have ruled over this land, like Liberty, young, innocent, and lovely, know that the power through which that one perished was God, and that it was a private grief. But man has murdered Liberty, and whilst the life was ebbing from its wound, there descended on the heads and on the hearts of every human thing, the sympathy of an universal blast and curse. Fetters heavier than iron weigh upon us, because they bind our souls. We move about in a dungeon more pestilential than damp and narrow walls, because the earth is its floor and the heavens are its roof. Let us follow the corpse of British Liberty slowly and reverentially to its tomb: and if some glorious Phantom should appear, and make its throne of broken swords and sceptres and royal crowns trampled in the dust, let us say that the Spirit of Liberty has arisen from its grave and left all that was gross and mortal there, and kneel down and worship it as our Queen.
Percy Bysshe Shelley, “An Address to the People on The Death of the Princess Charlotte,” in The Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley in Verse and Prose, ed. H. Buxton Forman (London: Reeves and Turner, 1880) 6:101–114.