Monday, 13 March 2017

Caroline: unruly queen

Caroline of Brunswick (1804)
by Sir Thomas Lawrence
Public Domain

The essayist William Hazlitt described the Queen Caroline 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.’

Caroline Amelia of Brunswick-Wolfenb├╝ttel was born on 17 May 1768, the second daughter of Duke Charles William Ferdinand of Brunswick-Wolfenb├╝ttel, a small vassal state of Prussia in north Germany, and his wife, Princess Augusta, daughter of Frederick Prince of Wales and elder sister of George III.  The marriage was unhappy. Caroline’s father said,  
‘Only private persons can live happily married because they choose their mates. Royalty must make marriages of convenience, which seldom result in happiness.’ 
Caroline had a restricted education, her only skill being playing the harpsichord. At the age of fifteen, she was unable to spell or punctuate. By her twenties she had a reputation as a flirt and was notorious for her unbridled, often indecent conversation. Yet her mother was desperate for her to make a good marriage into her brother’s family.

In the summer of 1794 arrangements were made for Caroline to marry her cousin, George, Prince of Wales.  There were many reasons for the marriage: 

  1. There was the need for an heir – the Duke of York’s marriage was childless. 
  2. Caroline was a close relative and thought to be safe. She was also the requisite Protestant princess. 
  3. The prince needed to settle his debts, which were over £½ million. Parliament decreed that if he married, his income was to be raised from £60,000 to £125,000, plus £26,000 for the completion of Carlton House.

On the other hand, the Prince had a skeleton in his cupboard, his secret marriage to Maria Fitzherbert, which had taken place in December 1785. Though valid in canon law, the marriage was illegal on two counts. In marrying without his father’s permission, the Prince had violated the Royal Marriages Act of 1772; and in marrying a Roman Catholic he had given up his right to the throne. For this reason, though an open secret, the marriage was never made public.   

Monday, 6 March 2017

Radicalism and the French Revolution

Thomas Muir
Radical Scottish lawyer
Public Domain

A threat of revolution?

From 1 February 1793 Britain and France were at war. The threat from France was obviously real, but Pitt’s government was equally fearful of home-grown revolutionary insurrection. In the mid-1790s there was what Boyd Hilton has described as ‘a significant increase in the coercive powers of the state’. (A Mad, Bad and Dangerous People? Oxford, 2007) But were the fears justified? The Home Office files for the last months of 1792 show that alarmist reports were being received of Frenchmen armed with daggers on the road from Harwich to London, and of a disturbance in Dundee where the liberty tree was planted. Did the government manipulate the information for its own purposes? (Hilton). Or did it show a reasonable reaction to what it thought was a genuine threat? (See Edward Royle, Revolutionary Britannia? Manchester, 2000) 

The reforming societies

The winter of 1791/2 had witnessed a new development in extra-parliamentary politics with the foundation of a series of radical reform clubs organised by working men. The membership of these clubs consisted mainly of artisans, journeymen, mechanics, small shopkeepers and tradesmen. The subscription rate was low - a penny a week. One of the first of these societies the Sheffield Society for Constitutional Information, established late in 1791, soon had more than two thousand members.