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.   

In 1794 the Prince and Mrs Fitzherbert parted over his affair with Frances, Countess of Jersey. Later the Duke of Wellington was to declare, 
‘Lady Jersey made the marriage simply because she wished to put Mrs Fitzherbert on the same footing as herself and deprive her of the claim to the title of lawful wife.’
At the end of November James Harris, Lord Malmesbury, arrived in Brunswick and the marriage treaty was signed, though war and bad weather delayed Caroline’s journey to England.  This delay gave Malmesbury the opportunity to give Caroline some frank instructions about her washing habits and the need to change her clothes more frequently.


Caroline landed at Greenwich in April 1795.  She soon found that Lady Jersey was made her lady of the bedchamber. The first meeting of the bride and groom on 5 April was a disaster. The Prince said, ‘Harris, I am not well; pray get me a glass of brandy.’ The marriage took place privately on 8 April in the Chapel Royal, St James. Caroline later complained that the Prince 'passed the greatest part of his bridal night under the grate where he fell and where I left him'. She was warned by anonymous letters of his attachment to Lady Jersey and naturally objected when she was appointed the only female attendant on their honeymoon.

On 7 January 1796 their only child Princess Charlotte Augusta was born. Within a few days the Prince wrote, 
'The mother of this child ... should in no way either be concerned in the education and care of her child, or have possession of her person'. 
After further quarrels and humiliations, Caroline confronted her husband at Carlton House in December 1797 and declared she would no longer obey him. She left Carlton House and went to live at Shrewsbury House, near Shooter's Hill. In 1798 she moved to Montague House in Greenwich Park.

The 'Delicate Investigation'

At Montague House, Caroline entertained her friends, Sir John and Lady Douglas, Sir Sidney Smith, George Canning, and the painter Sir Thomas Lawrence. She had a passionate relationship with Canning and possibly an affair with Smith. In the autumn of 1802 she adopted a three-month-old baby from Deptford, William Austin, the son of an unemployed dockyard worker. The rumour spread that he was Caroline's. 

By 1804 Caroline had quarrelled with the Douglases, and she compounded the quarrel when she sent indecent drawings to Sir John, alleging that Lady Douglas was having an affair with Sir Sidney Smith. At the end of 1805 Lady Douglas stated before witnesses that Willy Austin was the child of the Princess, and that she had had affairs with Canning, Smith, and others.

In May 1806 the King reluctantly agreed to the setting up of a commission, 'the Delicate Investigation', consisting prominent cabinet members.  Their report concluded that the princess had been indiscreet but that nothing was proved against her. The King remained on friendly terms with her, though he wrote rebuking her for indiscreet behaviour.

Caroline was also threatening to bring counter-charges of adultery against her husband, which would obviously raise deeply embarrassing questions, especially about his relationship with Mrs Fitzherbert.

Caroline and Charlotte

Following the Delicate Investigation, Caroline was once more allowed to see Charlotte, but only once a week. The meetings took place either at Blackheath, or in Caroline’s apartment in Kensington Palace.

Charlotte aged ten
Public Domain

With George III’s final descent into madness, Caroline lost her most powerful protector. In February 1811 the Prince became Regent, though Caroline did not share his dignity. She was pointedly excluded from a dinner at Carlton House for the exiled French royal family in June.  In October 1812 she went to Windsor to visit her daughter but was denied access.  There may have been a good reason for this. Charlotte later reported that on one occasion Caroline had locked her and a suitor in a bedroom, saying, ‘I leave you to amuse yourselves’.

By this time the estrangement between the Prince and Princess had developed political overtones, and Caroline’s case was taken up by the ambitious Whig lawyer and politician, Henry Brougham. On 12 January 1813 he wrote a letter of remonstrance for her to send to the Regent, which he refused to open. The letter, popularly known as ‘The Regent’s Valentine’, was published in the Whig paper, the Morning Chronicle on 10 February, and the result was a wave of sympathy for Caroline.  The matter was debated by the Privy Council, who concluded that the Regent was the best judge of how his daughter should be educated and whom she should meet.  In an attempt to enhance her case, Caroline ordered the details of the Delicate Investigation to be published. The scandalous details of her indiscreet behaviour should have lost her public sympathy, but they did not.

In December 1813, pressed by her father, Princess Charlotte became engaged to William, Prince of Orange, but encouraged by Brougham she became increasingly reluctant to live abroad. In June 1814, without consulting her father, she broke off the engagement and the Prince left the country. In July she fled from Carlton House to her mother’s house at Connaught Place, London, only to find the Princess had gone to Blackheath. On the advice of Brougham, Charlotte returned to her father's. In a few days she was transferred to Cranbourne Lodge at Windsor. Here, surrounded by a new set of attendants, she was kept in the strictest retirement.

Caroline's travels

In 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.

Caroline and Pergami in the bath
Public Domain

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 Charlotte

In 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
commemorating Princess
St George's chapel, Windsor

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 Commission

Caroline 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 England

On 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’.

Caroline with Pergami
Victoria and Albert Museum
Museum number: S.51-2008

The trial

Caroline 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. Many salacious details emerged. 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. 

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 death

The 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


The 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.
  1. Loyalists rallied to the king and condemned the queen in the strongest terms, galvanising. 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.
  2. 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’. 
  3. 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.

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