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The Queen Caroline Affair, 1820

George, Prince of Wales, was prevailed upon to marry his cousin Caroline of Brunswick as his part of a deal; in return, parliament promised to pay off his enormous debts.  George had already married Maria Fitzherbert, a Roman Catholic widow; however, the marriage was void in accordance with the terms of the Royal Marriages Act of 1772.  The Prince of Wales also had a number of mistresses; one of them, Lady Jersey, went to meet Caroline when she arrived from Brunswick on 5 April 1795.

Caroline was twenty-six years old, of stocky build and had little to her credit apart from a fine head of hair.  She spoke too much and very coarsely, dressed dowdily, had little moral reticence or good sense.  She seems to have had an aversion to washing either her person or her clothes.  Consequently she smelled.  When Princess Caroline arrived at St James' Palace the Prince of Wales came to visit her.  After greeting her, he turned to the Earl of Malmesbury saying, "Harris, I am not well.  Pray get me a glass of brandy".  He then left the room.  Caroline's comment to Malmesbury was , "I find him very stout and by no means as handsome as his portrait".  The ill-matched pair were married on 8 April 1795 and it soon became clear that the Prince of Wales would not tolerate his wife's company unless he was drunk.  The marriage was consummated and on 7 January 1796 a daughter, Charlotte, was born to the couple.  By March, the proud parents were living separately and rarely spoke to each other.

By May, Caroline was living in a separate establishment; after 1798 she lived in Montague House, Blackheath.  Among her visitors were Spencer Perceval and George Canning.  The Princess of Wales soon gathered an embryo court around her; its pursuits were rowdy, boisterous and frequently they were indiscreet.  Her flirtatious manner worried some ministers but public opinion remained indulgent.  People were sympathetic to the princess who had been left lonely and neglected by her selfish husband who maintained his relationship with Maria Fitzherbert and at least one mistress. One couple who were Caroline's neighbours in Blackheath were Major-General Sir John Douglas and his wife Charlotte. Lady Charlotte Douglas was a good-looking, socially ambitious woman of 'low birth'; she became Caroline's constant companion and for a time she lived at Montague House.

However, rumours about scandalous events at Montague House began to circulate.  Lady Douglas alleged that Caroline had admitted to having had an illegitimate child who was known as William Austin.  A Royal Commission was established to examine the allegations and completed its work in the summer of 1805.  Caroline was cleared of the gravest charge of adultery but her behaviour in other respects was open to 'very unfavourable interpretations'.  It was found that she had "romped familiarly" with a number of naval officers: a servant had once fainted on seeing her immodest dallying with Admiral Sir Sidney Smith; there was evidence that her conversation was littered with sexual innuendo. George III was principally offended by the numbers of men who had enjoyed Caroline's favours: he could never condone profligacy on such a scale. A royal reprimand was drafted, and it was intimated to the Princess of Wales that the King had no intention of receiving her at Court. Yet she did not entirely fall from grace. Within a year Spencer Perceval became Chancellor of the Exchequer and insisted on an outward reconciliation between the King and the Princess and apartments were assigned to Caroline in Kensington Palace. For some years Caroline's behaviour showed greater restraint.

The "Delicate Investigation" did not provide the Prince of Wales with such damning evidence of his wife's immorality that he could rid himself of her. The whole episode lowered him still further in public regard. To many it seemed monstrous that his wife should be arraigned for lapses which appeared less grave than his own. The Prince was mocked and lampooned, and he resented the attacks upon him.  As his popularity waned, so Caroline's increased. In 1814 the Whigs demanded that her allowance should be increased; on 30 June she was accorded an annual grant of £50,000  Her response was that she would be happy to accept £35,000 so as to ease the taxpayers' burden.  Then she she left for a period of residence abroad on the grounds that since the English Court would not give her the honours due to a Princess of Wales, she was content to be 'Caroline, a happy merry soul'.

Soon after her arrival in Europe, Caroline had appointed Bartolomeo Pergami as her secretary.  He was an obscure Italian veteran of Napoleon's Russian campaign; he encouraged her to buy a villa on the shores of Lake Como and became her constant companion.  The pair travelled widely: Italy, the German lands, the Greek islands, Constantinople, Jericho and Jerusalem.  There were reports of Caroline's scandalous behaviour: sleeping under a tent on the deck of a polacca; posing for a portrait with 'her person much exposed'; driving through Genoa in a gown that had a low-cut bodice and short white skirt, with a pink hat covered in pink feathers (she was fat and 50 by this time); her adulterous relationship with Pergami.

In August 1818 the Prince of Wales appointed a three-man commission to investigate his wife's activities.  Lord Liverpool's government was reluctant to advise the Prince to begin proceedings for a divorce for a number of reasons:

The only people who overtly supported Caroline were Henry Brougham and his brother James.  James went to Milan while the Commission was at work and Caroline said that she was prepared to remain abroad and not claim her rank as Queen Consort when Prince George succeeded to the throne, provided

On 29 January 1820, George III died and his son became King George IV.  This meant that Caroline was now Queen Consort and that posed immediate questions

The King said that both Church and State should ignore the existence of a Queen Consort while the government found a speedy method of divorce; the Cabinet insisted that they could not introduce a Bill of Divorce without evidence being heard by judges in an ecclesiastical court and that if the Queen decided to fight for her rights it was likely that 'recriminations of every kind' would be made.  It was left unsaid that George's  subjects would be treated to unedifying details of his relations with Maria Fitzherbert, Lady Jersey, Lady Hertford and the remainder of his long line of mistresses. Eventually he was persuaded to agree to Liverpool's suggestion that Caroline be granted an annuity payable only so long as she remained abroad and on the understanding that her name would be omitted from the prayer-book and that she would not expect to be crowned.

Caroline chose to return to England to claim her rights, requesting that the Royal Yacht be made ready at Calais to receive her on 3 June.  The request was refused; Caroline arrived in England on 5 June to a great welcome.  On 7 June  Alderman Wood - who twice had been the Lord Mayor of London - greeted Caroline outside the city; she was cheered over Westminster Bridge and, as her carriage passed Carlton House, the sentries presented arms.  Caroline shouted, "Long live the King".

At the end of June 1820 the government prepared a Bill of Pains and Penalties - a method of using the machinery of Parliament to establish wrongs without resort to the formal proofs essential in a court of law.  If the Bill had passed through parliament and received the royal assent, it would have deprived "Her Majesty Caroline Amelia Elizabeth ... of the title of Queen" and declared her marriage to George IV "for ever wholly dissolved, annulled and made void".  The proceedings lasted for eleven weeks.  They were strictly limited to the alleged relationship between Caroline and Pergami in the hope that there would be no opportunity for Henry Brougham (the Queen's attorney-general) to discredit the King or raise questions concerning Maria Fitzherbert.  

Virtually every Peer, bishop and judge was required to attend the trial held in an annex to the House of Lords.  Caroline was allowed to be there, but not to give evidence.  Her daily journeys to the court were turned into Royal Progresses, the crowds hailing her as she passed.  The evidence against the Queen was circumstantial and, although few people thought her to be innocent, many of those at the trial disliked the whole procedure.  This dislike became clear when the hearing ended and the Bill was put to parliament. On 6 November a vote was taken in the Lords on the second reading of the Bill; the government majority was 28 votes; on 10 November the majority fell to nine votes on the third reading.  Liverpool knew that this was a defeat and withdrew the Bill rather than risk a full debate in the House of Commons.  Parliament was prorogued for two weeks until the political situation was clarified.

There was rejoicing in London and the Queen was popular for two weeks.  On 29 November she attended a service at St Paul's Cathedral to give thanks for her deliverance from her enemies.  The cathedral was half empty and the incumbent refused to insert any special intention in the General Thanksgiving; Caroline was not mentioned once during the service and when she left the cathedral the organist played a series of variations on the National Anthem as the recessional.

The coronation of George IV had been rescheduled for 19 July 1821; the king applied all his skills of  showmanship to planning the event.  His only worry was that the Queen might make a scene.  Early in May she had written to Liverpool to ask what 'ladies of high rank' would carry her train and 'what dresses his Majesty would desire her to wear'.  She had taken her husband's refusal to give her any place in the ceremony very badly.  On coronation day she drove to the Abbey and tried to gain admittance at every door but was turned away because she did not have a ticket.  Her activities provoked hostility from the crowd; she was hooted and hissed until she left.

On 30 July Caroline began to suffer from severe abdominal pains while attending a performance at Drury Lane theatre.  She was taken home but by the end of the week it was clear that she would not survive.  She died on the evening of 7 August but there were immediate problems with her funeral because she had expressed a wish to be buried in Germany and to have engraved on her coffin the simple inscription, "Caroline of Brunswick, the injured Queen of England".  George IV proposed that her body should be taken down river to the Nore on a state barge and put onto a warship to be taken to Germany.  The Admiralty had no suitable ship so the Queen's body was taken to Harwich where a ship was waiting.  The funeral procession was to avoid central London and the City: the whole affair was bungled; a mob of demonstrators forced the procession to turn down Tottenham Court Road and follow a route to Temple Bar where the Lord Mayor "paid honour to the Queen's remains".  During the disturbances and rioting, one man was killed.  Finally, Queen Caroline left England for the last time.

Contemporary sources about Queen Caroline may be found here

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Last modified 29 January, 2016

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