by Susan Flantzer © Unofficial Royalty 2016
Note: Prince Octavius is “of Great Britain” because it was not until 1801, after his death, that his father’s title changed to “of the United Kingdom.”
Prince Octavius of Great Britain was born on February 23, 1779, at the Queen’s House (now Buckingham Palace) in London. He was the eighth son and the thirteenth of the fifteen children of King George III of the United Kingdom and Charlotte of Mecklenburg- Strelitz. The prince’s name comes from the Latin for the number eight, octavus, as Octavius was his parents’ eighth son. Octavius was christened on March 23, 1779, in the Great Council Chamber at St. James’ Palace in London by Frederick Cornwallis, The Archbishop of Canterbury. His godparents were:
- Karl I, Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel (husband of his father’s first cousin once-removed)
- Friedrich II, Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin (his mother’s first cousin)
- The Duchess of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach (born Princess Luise of Hesse-Darmstadt, wife of a sixth cousin)
Octavius had fourteen siblings:
- King George IV (1762 – 1830), married Caroline of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, had issue: Princess Charlotte of Wales who died in childbirth as did her child
- Prince Frederick, Duke of York (1763 – 1827), married Frederica of Prussia, no issue
- King William IV (1765 – 1837), married Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen, no surviving legitimate issue, has illegitimate descendants
- Charlotte, Princess Royal (1766 – 1828), married King Friedrich I of Württemberg, no surviving issue
- Prince Edward, Duke of Kent (1767 – 1820), married Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, had issue: Queen Victoria, present British Royal Family are his descendants
- Princess Augusta Sophia (1768 – 1840), never married, no issue
- Princess Elizabeth (1770 – 1840), married Friedrich, Landgrave of Hesse-Homburg, no issue
- King Ernest Augustus I of Hanover, Duke of Cumberland (1771 – 1851), married Friederike of Mecklenburg-Strelitz; had issue
- Prince Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex (1773 – 1843), married twice, both in contravention of the Royal Marriages Act of 1772 1) Lady Augusta Murray, had issue, marriage annulled 2) Lady Cecilia Buggin (later 1st Duchess of Inverness), no issue
- Prince Adolphus, Duke of Cambridge (1774 – 1850), married Augusta of Hesse-Kassel, had issue, present British Royal Family are his descendants through his granddaughter Mary of Teck who married King George V of the United Kingdom
- Princess Mary (1776 – 1857), married Prince William Frederick, Duke of Gloucester, no issue
- Princess Sophia (1777 – 1848), never married, possible illegitimate issue
- Prince Alfred (1780 – 1782), died in childhood
- Princess Amelia (1783 – 1810), never married, no issue
Octavius was a beautiful child and a favorite of his father. King George III’s elder sons (Octavius’ oldest brother George was 17 years older than him) were causing trouble, so King George enjoyed spending time with his younger children. He enjoyed giving them presents, attending their birthday parties, and arranging special outings. Sophia, who was two years older than Octavius, was very close to him and called him “my son.”
Smallpox, now eradicated, was a serious contagious disease that killed many and left many survivors scarred. The disease knew no class boundaries and royalty was as likely to suffer from it as the common folk. Smallpox was a leading cause of death in the 18th century. It killed an estimated 400,000 Europeans each year in the 18th century. By having their children inoculated against smallpox, King George III and Queen Charlotte were trying to protect them and starting down the long road that would eventually lead to the eradication of this terrible disease. During the 17th century, the British House of Stuart was greatly affected by smallpox. King William III’s parents William II, Prince of Orange and Mary, Princess Royal (daughter of King Charles I) both died of smallpox as did King William III’s wife and co-ruler Queen Mary II. Other Stuarts who died from smallpox were: Henry, Duke of Gloucester (son of King Charles I), Charles, Duke of Cambridge (son of King James II), and William, Duke of Gloucester (only surviving child of Queen Anne). In addition, King Charles II, Henrietta (daughter of King Charles I), King William III, and Queen Anne all had smallpox and survived.
Before Edward Jenner developed the smallpox vaccine that contained the cowpox virus in 1796 and that ultimately lead to the eradication of smallpox, there was another way to possibly prevent smallpox called variolation and it was first seen in China in the fifteenth century. Live smallpox virus in the liquid taken from a smallpox blister in a mild case of the disease was put into a cut of a healthy person who developed a very mild case of smallpox. However, there was some risk in using a live virus. About 3% of those inoculated developed a severe case of smallpox and died but that was preferable to catching smallpox with its mortality rate of 20–40% and scarred survivors. In 1722, King George I allowed the inoculation of two of his grandchildren, the children of the Prince and Princess of Wales, and they survived. The inoculation gained acceptance and was used until Edward Jenner developed his much safer vaccination using the cowpox virus instead of the smallpox virus.
Two of the 3% who died after receiving the smallpox inoculation were the two youngest sons of King George III, Prince Octavius and Prince Alfred. 19 months younger than Octavius, Prince Alfred was born on September 22, 1780. Alfred was probably a “blue baby” due to a heart defect and was always in delicate health. In 1782, Alfred received the smallpox vaccination. However, after the inoculation, Alfred did not recover as he should have. His face and his eyelids had eruptions from the smallpox inoculation and he had difficulty with breathing. The doctors agreed that he would survive for only a few weeks more which came as a great shock to his family. After suffering from prolonged bouts of fever, Alfred died on August 20, 1782, a month short of his second birthday. King George III said, “I am very sorry for Alfred, but if it had been Octavius, I should have died too.”
Less than a year later, Octavius and his sister Sophia had their smallpox inoculations. Sophia recovered without incident, but four-year-old Octavius became ill and died several days later, on May 3, 1783, at Kew Palace. King George III was heartbroken, “There will be no heaven for me, if Octavius is not there.” Little Octavius was the last member of the British Royal Family to suffer from smallpox. On May 10, 1783, Octavius was buried beside his brother Alfred at Westminster Abbey. Shortly after King George III died in 1820, Octavius and Alfred’s eldest brother, now King George IV, ordered their remains transferred from Westminster Abbey to the Royal Vault at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle so they could rest in peace with their parents.
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