by Rachel Campbell
In June 1820 Caroline of Brunswick stepped off a boat onto Dover as Queen of Great Britain to a cheering crowd. Caroline had spent 5 years travelling the European continent as the estranged wife of George IV, then Prince Regent.
The couple had married in 1795, but it was a disaster. George only agreed to the match so he could claim money from Parliament to settle his enormous debts. But upon meeting, the two were left very unimpressed by each other. In fact, they resented one another. Luckily for the couple, they conceived their only daughter, Princess Charlotte (1796-1817), on their wedding night, before separating that same year. In 1806 Caroline was prevented from seeing Charlotte after she was accused of mothering an illegitimate child. Humiliated and denied access to her only child, Caroline left Britain in 1815.
Upon her dramatic return in 1820, George refused to give Caroline the title of Queen and wanted to divorce his wife. Under divorce laws of the time, however, this could only be possible if it could be proven that adultery had taken place. The Earl of Liverpool brought forward the Bill of Pain and Penalties to the House of Lords, claiming that Caroline had engaged in a sexual relationship with an Italian servant whilst she was on the Continent. The debate became a very public trial known as the Queen Caroline Affair. The trial occurred during a period when relations between the Crown and the public were particularly turbulent. The very public divorce trial became the battleground of Loyalists versus Radicals.
Radical groups had a strong commitment to undermining corrupt aristocratic power. They used the Queen Caroline Affair to discredit George IV who was frequently ridiculed for being over-indulgent and greedy. In 1819, Parliament had passed laws to ban the publication of work critical of the state, and mass demonstrations were outlawed after 700 people were injured, and some killed, at a rally in Manchester, later referred to as the Peterloo Massacre. Thousands of anti-government protestors took advantage of the crowds of people who had taken to the streets of London in support of Caroline. They gathered under Caroline’s balcony and cheered when she appeared in the streets going back and forth from Parliament. They published pamphlets against government greed, and pushed for universal voting rights for men. For the political radicals, their rallying in favour of the queen was less to do with their genuine love for Caroline, and more to do with their vehemently anti-George attitude.
Those loyal to the crown, however, took a different view. Loyalists feared a revolution and believed Caroline and her supporters were a direct threat to monarchical power in Britain. She was frequently referred to as ‘Mother Red Cap’ in the loyalist press directly linking her to the Revolutionaries in France. With the memory of the failure of the French Revolution still fresh in people’s minds, it was hoped that this comparison would make people doubt both the Radical movement and Caroline as their figurehead. To discredit Caroline further, the loyalist press attacked her modesty. An anonymous pamphlet, which circulated the London press at the time said, “Females, remember that to be modest is of all gems the richest and proudest.” With the focus of the trial on her sexual affairs, some print artists depicted Caroline as scantily clothed and exposed alongside her alleged lover. As far as they were concerned, Caroline’s sexual appetite was a threat to tradition and to the British values of dignity and decorum. This was despite the rather public affairs of the Prince Regent himself, who had been secretly married to a Catholic lady, Maria Fitzherbert, in 1785 against the laws of the British Crown.
In a period when women are often perceived as having no political voice, women up and down the country rallied behind Queen Caroline. They saw George’s attempts at divorce as a collapse of the social contract: Caroline had been denied fulfilling her duty as a mother and a wife, and had been abandoned by her husband. Women who wished to pledge their support signed petitions for the Lords to drop the charges against her. Over 20,000 signed one such petition in Manchester, whilst as many as 7,000 signed in Nottingham. Another, published in The Times, had as many as 39,000 signatories. Large public addresses took place in the streets. In Edinburgh, it was reported that the women began to wave their handkerchiefs and cheered, “God Save the Queen.” They viewed Caroline as a ‘wronged wife’, and because of a lack of legal agency, many women in this period feared desertion from their husbands. The Caroline Affair was, for some, a rally to defend women’s rights to security.
On the 10th November 1820, the House of Lords voted on the Bill of Pain and Penalties. It was passed by a majority of only 9. However, the Lords decided that, because the majority had been so small and tensions on the streets of the country so high, the Bill should be dropped. For Caroline and her supporters, this was a great victory. There were celebrations in the streets of London. Anne Cobbett, sister of orator William Cobbett, wrote that it was the “greatest triumph gained by the people of England.” But, it was not to last.
Shortly after winning her victory in the Lords, Caroline was offered a hefty pension of £50,000 should she agree to divorce George. Caroline accepted, and many of her supporters were left feeling betrayed. By the time the coronation of George IV came around in July 1821, the public attitude had largely swung to support him. Caroline, on the other hand, was unceremoniously turned away from the doors of Westminster Abbey after demanding entry to receive her crown. After a tumultuous year, Caroline was forced to retreat from public life. She died only weeks later after contracting a short illness.
Jane Robbins, Rebel Queen: How the trial of Caroline brought England to the brink of Revolution
Flora Fraser, The Unruly Queen: The Life of Queen Caroline
Queen Caroline: The Unlikely Rebel Leader, Royal History’s Biggest Fibs with Lucy Worsley, BBC https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p08y4stx
About the Author:
Rachel is an aspiring curator, with a particular interest in women’s histories and spaces in Museums. She is currently working with Space Invaders to set up a sister branch in Scotland & volunteering with the National Trust for Scotland’s taskforce Confronting Our Past. Rachel also runs the blog Rachel’s Fact Files and can be found on Instagram and Twitter.