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Caroline of Brunswick: England's "Injured Queen"


1804 portrait of Caroline, Princess of Wales


August can be an unlucky month for European royalty, and that was especially true during the Regency. Napoleon was exiled to St. Helena in August of 1815. And in August of 1821 Caroline of Brunswick, the unacknowledged Queen of England, died a lonely death in London just three weeks after her estranged husband, the erstwhile “Prinny” or Prince Regent, was crowned King George lV.

1795 portrait of Caroline

An arranged marriage 

Caroline was unlucky throughout her life. Growing up in the German province of Brunswick, she was kept secluded by her family. They were especially determined to keep her away from the opposite sex. 

Her companions were mostly elderly females and governesses. She was sent to her room when guests came over and usually couldn't go to court functions or balls. And when she was permitted to attend a ball, she wasn't allowed to dance. 

She had even less luck in her married life.

Caroline’s husband, chosen for her, was the Prince of Wales, the future Prince Regent and King George IV of England.

She was by no means his one and only. By the time Prinny was considering marriage, he’d already had several mistresses and had even entered into an illegal marriage with a Catholic woman, Maria Fitzherbert. Though the marriage was never valid, Prinny referred to Maria as his wife for years after his marriage to Caroline.   

The only reason Prinny agreed to legally wed Caroline, or any woman at all, was because he was deeply in debt - millions of dollars in today's money. He regularly exceeded his generous annual allowance, and his lavish spending was taking its toll on the government coffers. 

King George III refused to settle his son's debts unless Prinny married an eligible princess. Prinny reluctantly agreed, on the condition that his allowance was to be doubled in addition to his debts being paid. 

And that’s how Caroline of Brunswick came into the picture. She was the daughter of the Duke of Brunswick and Princess Augusta. Her illustrious mother was the sister of King George III, which made her Prinny’s aunt. Not only was Caroline an eligible, Protestant princess, but the Prince's marriage to her would further strengthen the alliance between England and Brunswick. 

Meeting her prince

Even though Caroline and George were first cousins they’d never met. There were no photographs in those days, so the young couple relied on carefully crafted painted portraits to “see” each other – sort of like the 18th-century version of Tinder. 

1792 miniature of Prinny
But painted portraits, designed to flatter their subjects, can lie. When Caroline and George finally saw each other, right before their wedding, both were disappointed in their future mates. 

When Prinny first met his future bride he was taken aback. Caroline at 27 wasn't bad-looking, and some sources even describe her as pretty at this stage in her life, with golden curls. But she was short and rather heavy, graceless, and loud. She was also careless about her personal hygiene and had to be reminded to bathe more often and change her underclothes. 

You could see why someone as fussy and fastidious as the Prince would be appalled. After meeting Caroline, Prinny reportedly asked for a glass of brandy and retreated to the far corner of the room.

And Caroline later commented that her intended was “very fat and he's nothing like as handsome as his portrait." 

She was also unhappy with the Prince's obvious preference for the company of Lady Jersey, who was his mistress at the time. Prinny had sent Lady Jersey to meet his future bride when Caroline landed in England, and he also made his mistress his future wife's Lady of the Bedchamber. 

But despite these red flags, the royal pair went through with the wedding anyway, on April 8, 1795.

Off to a bad start

However, these bad first impressions congealed into real antipathy on the Prince’s side. He insisted later he only had sexual relations with his wife three times – twice after the wedding and once a week later. In any event, it was enough to conceive their only child, Princess Charlotte. Though they shared a residence (Carlton House) the couple unoffically separated within weeks of their marriage. After Charlotte was born, Caroline moved out, establishing herself in a rented place close to Blackheath.

His dynastic duty done, Prinny proceeded to publicly ignore his wife. As much as he could arrange it, she wasn't part of his life. She wasn't invited to his parties or court functions. He severely restricted her access to her child, insisting that a nurse or governess had to be with her when she visited the baby.

As far as the Prince of Wales was concerned, his legal wife didn't exist. He continued to exceed his allowance, overspending money on his palaces, clothes, mistresses, and entertainment.

And in the years that followed, stories began to circulate that the neglected Caroline had taken lovers – rumors that led to a "delicate invesitgation" into her conduct in 1806. During the investigation Caroline was not allowed to see her daughter at all, and even after the charges of infidelity were proved groundless Caroline's vists with Charlotte were further restricted to once a week, and only in the presence of her mother, the Dowager Duchess of Brunswick. 

Is it any wonder that Caroline fled England and into a self-imposed exile? In 1814 she went to Italy, but soon tales of her eccentric and scandalous behavior on the Continent reached England. One persistent rumor, which may very well have been true, claimed she was having an affair with her married Italian secretary, Bartolomeo Pergami. There were also unsubstantiated rumors of an illegitimate child. 

1792 caricature of Prinny 
Meanwhile, the Prince continued his extravagant lifestyle. He kept his wife ignorant of what was going on with their daughter, who got married in 1817. 

Even when Charlotte died in childbirth in 1819, Caroline wasn't informed of the tragic news directly by her husband. She had to find out from a stranger.  

Charlotte's death and the death of her stillborn son made Caroline's position in the royal family even more tenuous. As Prinny's estranged wife, she had much less clout than she would have had as the mother and grandmother of heirs to the throne.

So when mad old King George III died in 1820 and it was Prinny’s turn to become King, Caroline decided it was time to return to England. She was determined to claim her rightful role as Queen Consort. 

The new King, however, was equally determined that she would never sit beside him on the throne. 

A determined divorce attempt

1821 cartoon of Pergami and Caroline in Genoa
In August of 1820 Prinny tried to divorce Caroline through the mechanism of a special “Bill of Pains and Penalties" in Parliament. If passed, the bill would have denied Caroline her title as well as nullify her marriage to the King. 

With great solemnity Caroline was put on trial, accused of infidelity and grossly improper conduct while she was living in Italy. 

Italian servants who had witnessed her interactions with Pergami were called to testify against her, while character witnesses spoke in favor of the queen. 

That autumn the trial was the topic of gossip and conversation in every London drawing room and country cottage. For three months it consumed the public's attention, eclipsing any other news.

But in the end, Prinny's scheme failed. Caroline was simply too popular with the people of Great Britain. Despite her wayward behavior, the general public sympathized with her. 

The British people detested their prince for his years of immoral living and lavish spending while they endured economic hardships due to the expensive wars waged against Napoleon. They also blamed him for his harsh treatment of the woman he was joined to by the sanctity of marriage. 

So the new king's subjects rallied to the defense of their queen with petitions and a million signatures. In November the bill was withdrawn. 

Prinny was frustrated. The elaborate July 19, 1821, coronation he'd planned for himself was fast approaching, and he was adamant that he wasn't going to share his special day with his unwanted wife. 

An uncrowned queen

When coronation day came, Prinny not only didn't invite Caroline, he gave orders that she was not to be admitted to Westminster Abbey for the ceremony. She showed up anyway and banged on the doors, demanding to be let in. She was turned away.

Defeated, the unacknowledged Queen went back to her lodgings at Brandenburg House in Hammersmith. On July 30 she fell ill, and she died about a week later at the age of 53. The date was August 7, 1821- coincidentally six years to the day that Napoleon was forced to leave English shores for exile on St. Helena.  

Prinny may have been able to command his guards to bar Caroline from his coronation, but he couldn’t command his people to forsake their uncrowned Queen. Caroline’s funeral cortège was mobbed as it made its way through London to the port at Harwich. 

Initially, officials decided to have the procession avoid the city on its way to the coast, but throngs of mourners blocked the intended route and forced a rerouting through London and Westminster. Guards who tried to control the unruly crowd with drawn sabers had rocks and bricks thrown at them. 

At Harwich, Caroline's remains were put on a ship destined for Germany. At her request, Caroline was buried in Brunswick Cathedral. She’d left instructions for her casket plate to read "Here lies Caroline, the Injured Queen of England." 

Jane Austen weighs in 

Like most of the British public, Jane Austen had an opinion on the squabbles between the royal couple. She was firmly on what today we’d call “Team Caroline.”  

Here’s what she wrote in a letter to a friend in 1813 about Caroline, who was then the Princess of Wales:

“Poor woman, I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a Woman, & because I hate her Husband  . . . but if I must give up the Princess, I am resolved at least always to think that she would have been respectable, if the Prince had behaved only tolerably by her at first.”



Charles and Diana at their wedding on July 19, 1981


A modern parallel

In our time there was another Prince and Princess of Wales who had an unhappy marriage, and that marriage has often been compared to Prinny and Caroline’s unfortunate union. Like Caroline, Diana was much more popular than her husband, and Diana had to endure the humiliation of her husband’s very public extramarital affair. And like Caroline, Diana also died in August, although Diana died violently in a horrific car crash as she was being chased through the streets and tunnels of Paris by camera-wielding paparazzi. 

But I don’t think the comparison between the two royal marriages holds up. Charles is no George IV, a man who was silly, vain, and frequently cruel to his wife and daughter. 

And the problems in Charles and Diana’s troubled marriage were intensified by the relentless pursuit of shocking headlines by an insatiable media. George and Caroline may have been lampooned by the press of their day, but their experience was nothing like their 20th-century counterparts had to endure.

In the end, the factors and personalities involved in the breakdown of these two royal marriages are unique to each case. As Tolstoy observed in his novel Anna Karenina, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." 

Caroline of Brunswick undoubtedly felt unloved and unwanted by her husband. And that’s an injury no royal title can’t heal.   




Sources include:

  • The Prince of Pleasure and his Regency 1811-20, by J.B. Priestley, Harper & Row Publishers, New York, 1969.
  • Our Tempestuous Day, by Carolly Erickson, William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York, 1986.
  • An Elegant Madness, High Society in Regency England, by Venetia Murray, Viking (Penguin Putnam, Inc.) New York, 1999.
  • The Regency Companion, by Sharon Laudermilk and Teresa L. Hamlin, Garland Publishing Inc., New York and London, 1989.


Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Comments

  1. So sad! I can’t imagine living a life like that.

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    Replies
    1. I agree - it sounds like a lonely life. Thanks for your comment!

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