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A monument to a royal child: Princess Elizabeth of Clarence

In the entrance hall of Frogmore House in Windsor Great Park is a sculpture of a royal child, remarkable in the sensitivity of its execution and the fineness of its detail. It may seem on first glance no more than a sentimental monument made to memorialise a beloved child and so immortalise its youth.

The hands and feet of the nine children of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were so commemorated in sculpture by the artist Mary Thornycroft, today to be seen at Osborne House. But this sculpture is different, and it points to the brief story of a royal child whose life could have turned out very differently, with extraordinary consequences for British history, had she lived. She did, however, not survive infancy and has subsequently become something of a footnote in royal terms, probably not provoking historical curiosity, unless through the study of this sculpture. Because no other memorial exists to her.

Princess Elizabeth of Clarence was the second daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Clarence, who became King William IV and Queen Adelaide on the death of George IV in 1830. She was by no means the only child of the Duke of Clarence, who had sired many children by the actress Dora Jordan prior to his marriage with Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen, many of which were born at Bushy House, in Bushy Park, near Hampton Court Palace. The ten children of this relationship, known at birth as Fitzclarences, were treated kindly by Queen Victoria, who retained a genuine affection for her uncle and aunt, an affection fully reciprocated. Dora Jordan died in 1816, a year prior to the death of George IV’s daughter, Princess Charlotte. The Royal Marriages Act of 1772, which prohibited any member of the Royal Family marrying without the prior consent of the King, meant that these children would not have been rendered legitimate had the Duke of Clarence married Dora Jordan; his brother, the Duke of Sussex, had married Lady Augusta Murray without the consent of George III, and his marriage was not recognised under the terms of the Act.

As it happened, the Duke of Clarence’s marriage to Adelaide produced two daughters. The fecundity of the Duchess of Clarence became of paramount historical importance because it was the death of Princess Charlotte which prompted George IV to call upon his remaining bachelor brothers to marry in order to safeguard the British line of succession. This royal race, the aim of which was to turn the dukes into prospective fathers-to-be, led George III’s fourth son, Edward, Duke of Kent, to seek a wife on the continent, who he managed to find in the form of Princess Victoire of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld. Within a year, the Duke of Kent had died, and Queen Adelaide’s second daughter, Princess Elizabeth had been born. However, by 1821, Princess Victoria had indeed emerged as the singular heiress presumptive to the Crown, bearing out the Duke of Kent’s pronouncement during his lifetime: “My brothers are not so strong as I am…. The crown will come to me and my children” (Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria: A Personal History, Pg 10, 2000).

Adelaide’s first child, Princess Charlotte of Clarence, was born prematurely at Hanover on 27 March 1819, whilst she was ill with pleurisy, and died after only a few hours. The future Queen Victoria was born less than two months later, at Kensington Palace on 24 May 1819. In a parallel to the Duke of Kent’s desperate concern for Princess Victoria to be born on British soil, the Duke of Clarence also decided to move with Adelaide during her second pregnancy, in an attempt to ensure the same, but Adelaide miscarried en route at either Calais or Dunkirk on 5 September 1819. Her sister-in-law, the Duchess of Kent, had been more fortunate, having crossed the Channel from Calais, a week prior to the birth, together with the Duke of Kent and their respective retinue. According to William IV’s biographer, Philip Ziegler, (King William IV, 1971) the Duchess of Clarence miscarried of twin boys at Bushy House on 8 April 1822, and there may have been one further, unsuccessful pregnancy.

Princess Elizabeth of Clarence was born on 10 December 1820 at St James’s Palace. The location of the birth is significant because the palace remained the main address of the monarchy in London until the accession of Queen Victoria in 1837 when it became Buckingham Palace instead. At her baptism at St James’s Palace on the same day as her birth, the newly born princess received the names ‘Elizabeth Georgiana Adelaide’, ‘Georgiana’ being in obvious deference to George IV. An opposite parallel of this naming after the King may be seen in the christening of the future Queen Victoria the previous year, when George IV wrote to deny permission to include his name among those given to Princess Victoria because he did not wish his name to come before that one of her godparents – Tsar Alexander I – and he “could not allow it to follow” (Hibbert, Pg 13). Princess Alexandrina Victoria, as the future Queen Victoria was christened, was baptised by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London, William Howley, the latter of whom christened Princess Elizabeth of Clarence in 1820. The Duke and Duchess of Clarence had wed in a double ceremony at Kew Palace (in the presence of the dying Queen Charlotte) together with the Duke and Duchess of Kent (their second ceremony, the first having taken place in Coburg), again underlining the relationships between them as something of a royal quartet.

Princess Elizabeth of Clarence died at the age of twelve weeks at St James’s Palace on 4 March 1821. The news was announced in the London Gazette two days later, under a heading for March 5, Whitehall: “Yesterday morning, soon after one o’clock, died… Her Highness Elizabeth, only daughter of His Royal Highness the Duke of Clarence, to the great grief of His Majesty and all of all the Royal Family”. The body of the Princess was taken from the Clarence apartments at St James’s Palace, accompanied by two of the King’s Gentleman Ushers in a carriage belonging to King George IV, with six horses and a cavalry escort. The Lord Chamberlain’s Office announced this in the London Gazette for March 13 1821, stating that the procession was followed by a “mourning coach and four horses, conveying Sir John Borlase Warren, Bart. and Sir Charles Morice Pole, Bart. Grooms of the Bedchamber to His Royal Highness the Duke of Clarence.” The Princess was placed in the Royal Vault at St George’s Chapel, joining her late grandfather, George III.

The death of Princess Elizabeth prompted a strengthening of the bond between Queen Adelaide and Princess Victoria, a bond which would continue for the rest of Adelaide’s life. Queen Adelaide wrote a letter to the two-year-old Princess Victoria, addressing her as “my dear little Heart” and adored her. The reason for this was all too apparent, as Queen Adelaide admitted in a sad little letter written when Duchess of Clarence to her sister-in-law, the Duchess of Kent, on the death of her second daughter, Princess Elizabeth: “My children are dead but yours lives and She is mine too”.

The private grief of the Duke and Duchess of Clarence finds best expression in the moving sculpture which they commissioned in 1821 from the sculptor William Scoular, showing their daughter asleep on a chaise-longue, wearing a turban, to be kept at Windsor Castle.

The statue of Princess Elizabeth of Clarence at Windsor. By Photo by James Calford published in Popular Royalty 2nd issue by Arthur H. Beaven, 1904 (S. Low, Marston and Co., London), opposite page 10 –, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

It is an interesting question for history – what would have happened had this child lived, given the fact that she – briefly – took the first place in the British line of succession, before Queen Victoria. Such a question though, however fascinating to pose, must remain in the realm of pondering to which it belongs.

There is, however, a touching sequel to all this. The sculpture of Princess Elizabeth of Clarence, an object of profound personal significance, was bequeathed by Queen Adelaide in the will she drew up in 1849 to – Queen Victoria. The wish for it to remain at Windsor was duly honoured – the sculpture remained at Windsor Castle and now may be seen at Frogmore House, in Windsor Great Park.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018

About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian and writer, specializing in Queen Victoria's family, Russian royalty and the Habsburgs. An independent scholar of royal studies, she has studied historic British and European royalty for nearly twenty years, speaking on the subject for both TV and BBC radio.