|Queen Caroline of Brunswick|
For most of 1820 the nation, still reeling from the Peterloo Massacre and the Cato Street conspiracy, was transfixed by the saga of George IV's estranged wife, Caroline of Brunswick. The essayist, William Hazlitt, described the affair as
‘the only question I have ever known that excited a thorough popular feeling. It struck its roots into the heart of the nation; it took possession of every house and cottage in the kingdom.’This post gives the background to the affair and explores its repercussions and implications in more detail than I am able to do in class.
The RegencyIn November 1810 a courtier was reporting that ‘the personal popularity of the King [George III] is as great as it can possibly be’. But the death of his daughter Princess Amelia a week later was one of the events that helped to send him over the edge. When he was hit by his final bout of insanity (if that is what it was) in 1811, the public reaction was one of sympathy – only the radicals sneered at his plight. At the end of the year the Prince of Wales was confirmed as Regent. In February 1812 he received full powers, and now had all the prerogatives of a king.
The Regent was already unpopular. The breakdown of his marriage was an open scandal, and on the whole the public sympathised with Caroline. His unpopularity became a party-political matter when on becoming Regent he abandoned his previous Whig allies in 1812, stuck with his Tory ministers, and seemed to be condemning the Whigs to permanent opposition. From this time onwards, the Whigs became Caroline's champions.
Caroline’s travelsIn August 1814 Caroline sailed for the continent with the Regent's permission. After visiting her brother the duke of Brunswick, she went on to Italy and at Milan in 1814 engaged Bartolomeo Pergami as her courtier. He was a startlingly handsome man over 6 feet tall with black hair and a magnificent physique. She raised him to be her equerry, her chamberlain and her constant companion, and took his relatives into her household.
At Geneva the princess bought a black wig, drew in a pair of black eyebrows and rouged her skin. In Rome she visited the pope and told Sir Humphrey Davy,
‘You will see the symptoms of this in nine months’ time’.In Genoa she drove through the streets in a low-necked gauzy gown with a pink bodice. The short white skirt barely reached her knees, leaving on view fat pink legs. By her side sat Willy Austin, the son of a Deptford dockworker, whom she had adopted when he was a baby.
She then cruised round the eastern Mediterranean for 10 months and entered Jerusalem on an ass in 1816 and founded an order called the Knights of St Caroline.
After this she settled down relatively quietly in Pesaro. But her behaviour was now so notorious that secret commissioners were sent from England to investigate her conduct.
The death of Princess CharlotteIn the spring of 1816 a suitor was finally found for the Regent's daughter Princess Charlotte. This was the German Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg. On 2 May the couple were married – an immensely popular event. But on 6 November 1817 Princess Charlotte died from a haemorrhage, aged 21, having given birth to a still-born son. The nation saw it as the death of ‘a favourite child’. Caroline was not even informed.
|Engraving of the Cenotaph|
Charlotte in St George's
After Charlotte’s death, the Regent’s brothers cast off their mistresses and sought wives. In May 1819 the duchess of Kent, Prince Leopold’s sister, Victoria, gave birth to the future Queen Victoria.
The Milan CommissionCaroline remained abroad increasingly under Pergami's influence. Meanwhile the commissioners were questioning all who had been employed by her for evidence. Charlotte's death opened the way for the regent to find evidence that would allow him to divorce (and possibly remarry?). But Caroline had an ally in the Whig lawyer, Henry Brougham.
In July 1819 the Milan Commission reported that there was conclusive evidence of Caroline's adultery. But the government disagreed: the evidence was not strong enough to be irrefutable.
The return to EnglandOn the accession of George IV on 29 January 1820 Caroline’s name was omitted from the prayers for the royal family. She decided to return to England to claim her rights. Before she set sail she received at St Omer a letter on behalf of the king in which it was proposed to allow her £50,000 pa on condition that she lived abroad and never visited England. She at once set out for Calais and set sail on 5 June 1820. At Dover she was received with a royal salute, and the crowd was so immense that she had to take temporary refuge in the York Hotel. At Canterbury a hundred torches were lit for her and 10,000 people awaited her. At Gravesend people drew her carriage through the town. At Shooters Hill Cobbett was awaiting her with a laurel bough. On her arrival in London she went to the house of her friend, the radical MP Alderman Wood, in South Audley Street. Shortly afterwards, she summoned the Solicitor General, Thomas Denman, and gave him to understand that he would conduct her defence. Meanwhile the mob rampaged around her house, householders were forced to light up, and the Home Secretary’s windows were broken.
On the following day the king sent a message to the Lords accompanied by the evidence of the Milan Commission. A committee was appointed and on 5 July Lord Liverpool promised the introduction of
‘a bill entitled an Act to deprive her Majesty Caroline Amelia Elizabeth, of the Title, prerogatives, Rights, Privileges and Exemptions of Queen Consort of this Realm, and to dissolve the Marriage between his Majesty and the said Caroline Amelia Elizabeth’.The Queen was clearly being used. Brougham was advancing his career. Radical MPs were venting their frustrations over the lack of movement for parliamentary reform. The mob were suffering from the trade depression that followed the ending of the Napoleonic wars. As the Radical, William Cobbett, said, they did not care whether the queen was guilty or not - but they were against the king and the government. One commentator said
‘Caroline was an injured wife, although I could not doubt that she was a depraved woman’.
The trialCaroline was tried by her peers in Westminster Hall, amid heavy police precautions. The proceedings began on 17 August 1820. On 19 August the Attorney General began his speech, tracing the queen’s Italian adventures. She was accused of having committed adultery with Pergami in November 1814 - the evidence was the imprints of two bodies on the bed. On the voyage back from the Holy Land, she slept alone with Pergami under a tent on board, and he alone was present when she bathed below decks. All this was reported in the newspapers.
On 21 August the examination began in the Lords. The queen was defended by Brougham, who questioned the Italian witness, Majocchi, so aggressively that he was reduced to ‘Non mi ricordo’, which rapidly became a catch phrase. Another witness claimed that on one of the queen’s Italian journeys he had opened the carriage curtains and found the queen and Pergami asleep with her hand on his private parts.
On 3 October the defence began. Brougham’s argument in essence was that the queen was a defenceless woman who had been forced to flee abroad and had been pursued by malice and slander: it would be monstrous to ruin the honour of an English queen on the basis of mere tittle-tattle. In his final speech he in effect attacked the king through a quotation from Paradise Lost, which was taken up in Cruikshank’s caricature
On 6 November the Lords divided on the second reading of the bill: contents 123, non-contents 95; a majority for the bill of only 28. On the third reading the majority was only 9 (108/99). The evenness of the vote convinced the government that the nation was too divided for them to able to proceed. On 10 November Liverpool suddenly announced that further consideration of the bill should be adjourned for six months. The queen’s friends claimed that this was a triumphal acquittal, and Brougham’s defence of the queen raised him to the summit of his profession. As the queen left the Lords, she was greeted by tumultuous crowds. For five nights the chief cities in Britain were illuminated.
Caroline then demanded full rights as a monarch. On 30 November she went in state to St Paul’s Hammersmith to return public thanks for her acquittal. One banner had ‘The Queen’s Guards are the People’. Civic authorities accompanied her in procession. Addresses continued to pour in.
The coronation and Caroline’s deathThe king was crowned at Westminster Abbey on 19 July 1821, by which time a great deal of public opinion had swing behind the king. One mission people celebrated in London. The queen presented herself for admission but she was firmly repulsed and was mocked by the crowd. Sir Walter Scott declared that the queen’s cause was
‘a fire of straw which has not burned to the very embers’.She was taken ill at Drury Lane theatre on the night of 30 Jul and died on the night of 7 August, possibly from a gastro-intestinal tumour. Her funeral was as disorderly as her life, and in the skirmishes two men were killed. She was buried in her native Brunswick and was quickly forgotten. The demonstrations at her funeral were the last manifestation of mass radical political action until 1830
SignificanceThe Queen Caroline affair came at a pivotal moment.
Politically it occurred when memories of the Peterloo massacre and the Cato Street conspiracy were fresh in the public mind. Both radicals and conservatives agreed that the ‘affair’ was pivotal.
- Loyalists rallied to the king and condemned the queen in the strongest terms, galvanizing ‘perhaps the most significant loyal reaction in terms of the press and organization since the end of the Napoleonic Wars’. Their mouthpiece was the newspaper, John Bull. In 1820 new and more aggressive loyalist groups sprang up. Orange lodges were believed to be on the increase in England and the Constitutional Association was instituted to prosecute radicals.
- The queen’s cause was taken up by the radicals. William Cobbett: ‘the fact is that the Queen’s cause naturally aligns itself with that of the Radicals. They are complainants, and so is the Queen’. The radicals ‘created a spectre of an alternative political nation populated by the queen’s supporters’.
- The affair brought sexual relations into political life to an unprecedented degree. Radicals focused much on their propaganda on the plight of Caroline as a wronged wife denied her rights. It coincided with a new emphasis on domesticity and family values.