The Queen Caroline in question was Caroline of Brunswick, wife of king George IV of Great Britain; the crisis was occasioned by George's attempt to divorce her after succeeding his father George III on the throne in 1820.

George and Caroline

George had married Caroline in 1795 when he was only the Prince of Wales, and it has to be said that the marriage did not prove to be a success. George disliked her on sight; on first being introduced to her his only comment was "Harris I am not well; pray, get me a glass of brandy"1, leaving his intended bride somewhat nonplussed and muttering "the Prince of Wales, is he always like this?". The problem was that despite being George's cousin, Caroline's upbringing lacked 'refinement', at least in the terms of how the Georgian Court understood refinement. It also didn't help, if we are to believe Horace Walpole, that she didn't wash frequently and was thus regarded as suffering from body odor. Their wedding night was a non-event as George became dead drunk, but the next morning he "obliged her to remain in bed with him". Sometime during their first fortnight together the Princess Charlotte was conceived, but that was the last time they spent together as man and wife and they lived entirely separate lives after Charlotte's birth.

Caroline set up her own separate household at Blackheath where she amused herself as best she could, after which various rumours began circulating regarding how exactly she did amuse herself. Her tastes certainly ran to a little cross dressing on the side and she is recorded as having once danced with Sydney Smith, "he wearing her chemise and bedgown, she dressed in his clothes". Sir Sydney was also believed by some to have been her lover as was the politician George Canning. She also took it upon herself to adopt a boy, who was officially said to be the son of a docker, unofficially said to be an illegitimate son of Louis-Ferdinand of Prussia, and whispered to be her own2. In 1806 the Coalition government launched what they termed the 'Delicate Investigation' into the various allegations. Their investigation confirmed that the child was not the queen's but concluded that her behaviour was open to "very unfavourable interpretations".

All of which only served to intensify George's dislike of his wife and his resolve to get rid of her. Unfortunately for young George there was no way he could get rid of his wife without his father's help, and since the two George's father and son positively hated each other, the elder was not motivated to indulge the younger in this regard. This left a frustrated George going around exclaiming "how am I to get rid of this damned Princess of Wales" and also explains how it all became a political issue.

Since king George III had lately taken to prefer Tory ministers, their opponents the Whigs naturally flattered the Prince of Wales and denigrated his wife in the hope of coming to power when the elder George was either dead or incapacitated. (The latter option appearing very likely given the progress of the king's perceived insanity at the time.) However once George did became Prince Regent in 1811, the Whigs were disappointed to find that he had little inclination to change anything and simply continued to support the Tory administration 3. Thus the roles became reversed and the Whigs now espoused the cause of the Princess of Wales whilst the Tories found themselves defending the almost indefensible Prince Regent.

There was some relief all round when it appeared that the problem might have gone away when in August 1814 Caroline left England somewhat annoyed that she had been ignored during the victory celebrations of that year. She took up residence in Italy where she began living the high life, free from the restrictions of life in Britain and living well beyond her means 4. She engaged a servant by the name of Bartolomeo Bergami, and it soon became apparent that the relationship between Caroline and Bartolomeo had passed beyond that of mere employer and employee. As James Brougham was to remark "They are to all appearances man and wife, never was anything so obvious ... The whole thing is apparent to everyone."

However her husband George did not forget her was busy accumulating evidence against her, particularly after the death of their daughter Charlotte in 1817 removed the last obstacle that might have lain in the way of any public action. The Prince was also fortunate in that the British envoy to the Vatican, the Baron Ompteda had wormed his way into Caroline's confidence and was making regular reports on her activities. It would only be a matter of time before George felt he had sufficient evidence to proceed against her.

The onset of the crisis

The crisis began with the death of George III at 8.30pm on the 29th January 1820, when George, the Prince Regent now became George IV. Now that he was king George now wanted the divorce so long denied him, but the problem was that since Henry VIII, no English or British monarch had felt it necessary to take such a step and no one was quite sure of how to proceed.5

There was always of course the Treason Act 1351 which rendered both Caroline and any of her lovers guilty of treason and thus subject to the prescribed penalty of death, but that seemed a little extreme. Indeed to be perfectly honest the Prime Minister, Robert Bankes Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool would have preferred to do nothing, but was obliged to humour the new king, and so set up the Milan Commission to investigate Caroline's activities in Italy and to ponder what might be done.

On the 12th February 1820 the government accepted George's demand that any references to the queen be removed from the Anglican liturgy and having done so, they were obliged to justify it. They offered Caroline £50,000 a year to stay abroad and renounce the title of queen, but she refused and announced her intention to return to Britain and claim her rights. Caroline duly returned to Britain on the 6th June 1820 whereupon the Whigs and Radicals took up her cause with gusto and there were even reports of army officers drinking the Queen's health.

The Bill of Pain and Penalties

The government soon came to the conclusion that they could not proceed with a 'normal' divorce by Act of Parliament, because any such bill would be open to debate on the floor of both houses and subject to what was known as the 'right of recrimination'. Which is to say that Caroline could successfully defend the accusation of adultery against herself by pointing out George's own more numerous and frequent adulteries. Therefore they decided to proceeding by means of a Bill of Pains and Penalties6 , against which Caroline would be able to defend herself without being able to countercharge the king. The first reading of the bill was launched in the House of Lords on the 5th July, with the evidence first being heard on the 19th August.

One of the problems that the government had to face was that most of the witnesses were Italian, and the British largely subscribed to Nelson's view that Italy was "A country of fiddlers and poets, whores and scoundrels". Hence there was much hilarity when one Italian witness named Teodoro Majochi was reduced by the pressures cross examination to repeat the phrase "No mi recordo" (I don't remember) on no less than 87 occasions. The defence attorney Henry Brougham thus had great fun undermining the creditability of many of the witnesses, even if he couldn't quite shake off the sheer weight of evidence.

The second problem that they had was that for the first time in history public opinion became a factor in the equation. It would be no exaggeration to say that the country became completely obsessed with the Queen Caroline Affair. As Charles Greville remarked "I never remember any question which so exclusively occupied everybody's attention, and so completely absorbed men's thoughts and engrossed conversation." Sentiments echoed by William Hazlitt who wrote that "It was the only question I have ever known that excited a thorough popular feeling. It struck roots into the heart of the nation; it took possession of every house and cottage in the kingdom". Much of this was fuelled by the growing newspaper industry and by the usual deluge of pamphlets; Caroline's own Answer to the King is said by William Cobbett to have sold a million copies and the British Museum currently has 500 boxes full of various material that appeared in 1820. The government found itself reminded daily of the level of public interest in the case by the mobs who gathered outside Parliament to hiss and boo the various participants in the drama as they arrived.

In the end public opinion favoured Caroline; the prevailing view being a belief that she was not so much innocent, but that rather that she was wronged. As bad as Caroline might be she wasn't as bad as George, and to the extent that she was bad, they blamed George for making her so. In this the public were only echoing the opinion expressed by the Princess Charlotte herself who said that "My mother was bad but she would not have become so bad as she was if my father had not been infinitely worse". The fact that the proceedings in the House of Lords proved fairly conclusively that Caroline had indeed committed adultery was neither here nor there and there was a general desire to see her acquitted.

On the second reading of the bill the government majority fell to twenty-eight, at which point Brougham began threatening to re-open the question of George's marriage to Maria Fitzherbert, whilst the Whigs talked openly of deposing George and putting his brother the Duke of York on the throne. When on the 10th of November the government's majority fell to nine on the third reading of the bill, they took this as an excuse to quietly drop the measure. Even George was apparently "delighted" at this decision, having now become fed up with the whole thing.

The Whigs naturally tried to make political capital out of the Tory governments discomfort only to find that the public attitude had now become one of indifference. Most people were happy that Caroline would escape punishment and were ready to leave it at that and there was no hostility shown to George at the formal opening of parliament 23rd January 1821. When Theodore Hook began publishing a series of character assassinations of prominent Whig ladies in his weekly journal John Bull and unfavourably comparing their characters with that of Caroline. Uxorial pressure soon persuaded the Whigs to drop the matter altogether.

The end of the affair

Despite his failure to divorce her, George refused to allow Caroline to attend his coronation on the 19th July 1821. Caroline however ignored him and turned up anyway only to be refused admission, and found herself cheered on her way to Westminster Abbey and jeered on the way home. The resulting humiliation may have been partly the cause of her death soon afterwards on the 7th August. There was one final brief flurry of excitement when the London mob later turned out to escort her body, en route to Harwich for burial back in Brunswick. The mob hijacked the procession and diverted it through the West End; there was clash with the Life Guards which resulted in two deaths. But otherwise Queen Caroline was soon forgotten.


NOTES

1 The Harris in question was James Harris, 1st Earl of Malmesbury, before he got his peerage title.
2 Caroline was likely compensating for the fact that her daughter Charlotte had been taken from her and was being brought up by her father and mother-in-law.
3 George was acting under the influence of his latest mistress, the Marchioness of Hertford who was a confirmed Tory.
4 A number of the cheques she drew on Coutts & Co were returned unpaid.
5 Of course George I had earlier divorced his wife, but that divorce had been under Hanoverian law and thus had not involved Parliament in any way.
6 Bill of Pains and Penalties was simply a method by which Parliament, acting as a court, could inflict punishment on an individual for crimes real or imagined. It differed from a bill of attainder only in the respect that the latter included the penalty of death.


SOURCES

  • T.H. White The Age of Scandal (Folio, 1993)
  • Paul Johnson The Birth of the Modern (Phoenix, 1996)
  • Charles Arnold Baker The Companion to British History (Longcross Press, 1996) The Age of George III, http://www.historyhome.co.uk
  • The 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica entry for Caroline of Brunswick

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