Jenner's Legacy: Part 3 of Edward Jenner and the First Vaccine

Jenner advising a farmer to vaccinate his family

Jenner’s development of a vaccine in the 1790s was only the beginning, not the end of the story of the fight against smallpox. It took the work of many other scientists to test and create a smallpox vaccine that was uncontaminated, stable and could be safely transported to countries around the world.

In 1853 Parliament made smallpox vaccinations mandatory for infants in Great Britain. By the 1860s two-thirds of all British babies had been vaccinated and there was a resulting drop in the number of infant deaths caused by the disease.  

However, vaccination remained controversial and anti-vaccination leagues formed in Britain and the United States. Fortunately, vaccinations continued and the disease’s grip on mankind weakened.

Success at last

Following a series of global vaccination campaigns in the 19th and 20th centuries, success came at last. In 1979, the World Health Organization declared smallpox officially eradicated. 

Smallpox is still the only human disease that has been exterminated by vaccination.

It took 180 years, but Jenner’s dream of wiping smallpox off the face of the earth finally became a reality.

Jenner’s Legacy

Edward Jenner died in 1823. A humble man, he was considered a hero in his lifetime and still is today.

While he may not have been the first to realize that cowpox could lead to immunity against smallpox, his work made smallpox inoculations popular. 

Jenner's efforts also laid the groundwork for the widespread vaccinations that eventually defeated the disease.

In addition, his scientific inquiries became the basis of the modern science of immunology. 

Jenner’s work put him ahead of his time – so much so that it took almost another century before French chemist Louis Pasteur developed the next vaccines, for rabies and anthrax, in the 1880s.

Vaccines today

But why is that we call all inoculations “vaccines”? Jenner’s name for his discovery came from the Latin word for cow, “vacca.” So, technically, it should apply only to his cowpox vaccine. 

But Pasteur wanted to pay homage to Jenner’s creation of the first vaccine by naming all inoculations, including the ones he developed, “vaccinations” even though cows had nothing to do with them.

Pasteur’s tribute to Jenner caught on and that’s why now we have “vaccines” for influenza, tetanus, shingles, pneumonia and many other potentially deadly diseases.

And now we can add COVID-19 to the list of diseases that can be prevented by vaccination. The vaccines, whether manufactured by Pfizer, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson, can be traced to Jenner’s pioneering work over 200 years ago.

Additional information

For more information on this topic see this article, “Edward Jenner and the history of smallpox and vaccination,” available from the National Institutes of Health.

Also, read this article on smallpox vaccines by the World Health Organization. (It’s a relief to know that despite the disappearance of smallpox there are still stockpiles of vaccine in existence.)

The Genius of Jenner: Part 2 of Edward Jenner and the First Vaccine


Jenner performing his first vaccination, in 1796,on James Phipps

The solution to safer smallpox inoculations came from English physician Edward Jenner. And surprisingly, he got help from a cow.

Jenner’s early life

Edward Jenner was born into a big family (he was one of nine children) in 1749 in Berkeley, Gloucestershire. Because his father was a clergyman, young Edward and his siblings got a good basic education. But getting variolated as a teenager had an even greater impact on his life.

Jenner was grateful that he avoided smallpox by his variolation at a young age. But he was also aware of the risks of the procedure. Variolation carried potentially dire consequences. The patient could die from the procedure, or contract a mild form of the disease which could then spread and cause an epidemic. 

Prince Octavius in 1783
Victims of variolation could be found at all levels of society. Even King George III endured a loss due to the procedure; one of his sons, Octavius, died of smallpox at age 4 in 1783 after being inoculated with the virus. His sister Sophia, just a few years older, was variolated at the same time as her brother and recovered fully with no problems.

As it turned out, little Prince Octavius was the last British royal to die of smallpox.


As he grew older, Jenner studied both zoology and human biology. That’s how he learned of a possible link between an animal disease and the dreaded smallpox that could be the key to safer inoculations.

The disease was cowpox. And it’s no wonder it attracted attention. Cowpox was a much milder disease than smallpox, and it didn’t cause as much scarring and death in the humans who contracted it. In fact, cowpox fatalities were less than one percent.


By the time Jenner began his career in the 1770s, there was growing evidence through observations by other doctors and even farmers that getting cowpox could be a way to avoid getting smallpox.  

But these observations lacked solid proof. So when Jenner noted that dairymaids who worked with infected cows rarely got smallpox, he began to study the phenomenon in a disciplined and scientific way. He hypothesized that not only did contracting cowpox result in immunity to the disease, but also that a method could be developed to transmit this immunity. 

To test his hypothesis, he found a cowpox-stricken dairymaid and used her infected blisters to inoculate 8-year-old James Phipps. Phipps fell briefly ill but recovered. And when Jenner then exposed Phipps to smallpox and the boy didn’t contract the disease, Jenner concluded his experiment worked. 

The Inquiry

Jenner tested his newly developed vaccine on many people, including his own son, before publishing his findings. When he did self-publish his Inquiry in 1798 (its full title is An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae, a Disease Discovered in Some of the Western Counties of England, Particularly Gloucestershire, and Known by the name of the Cow Pox) it was an immediate hit and he quickly became famous. Other scientists validated his observations, and by 1799 more than a thousand people had been vaccinated.

Jane Austen
Such was his fame that even Jane Austen knew about Jenner. In a letter to her sister Cassandra, she describes a dinner party where guests took turns reading from “Dr. Jenner’s pamphlet.”

Napoleon was another fan. Despite waging war against the British, Napoleon had Jenner vaccinate his troops and awarded him a medal, calling him one of the “greatest benefactors of mankind.” 

And in 1821 Jenner was named “physician extraordinary” to the newly crowned King George IV, the monarch formerly known as the Prince Regent or Prinny.

Regency Anti-Vaxxers

So, at last there was an effective way to prevent the deadly disease of smallpox. But not everyone was enthusiastic about Jenner's new vaccine. Just as there are anti-vaxxers today, there were those in Jenner’s time who strongly opposed vaccination. 

 Religious leaders objected both because the vaccine was derived from an animal and was therefore "unchristian," and also on the grounds that by preventing the disease and its death toll the vaccine thwarted God’s will. 

Then there were those who didn't trust the science behind the vaccine. They were afraid of side effects, didn't believe the vaccine would work, and feared it was too risky. Others protested that vaccination was an attack on their freedom of choice. (That argument intensified in subsequent years when vaccinations, especially for children and infants, became mandatory.)

Anti-vaccine sentiment wasn't confined to Jenner's time and place. In Colonial America, Puritan minister Cotton Mather became a target of outrage in the 1720s for his outspoken support of smallpox inoculation via variolation. One protestor even lobbed a bomb through a window of the minister's Boston home in an effort to stop Mather publicizing his pro-inoculation arguments.

With this much resistance, the battle against smallpox was far from over.

1802 James Gillray caricature illustrating fears concerning Jenner's
cowpox vaccine. Note the cow-like appendages erupting
all over the bodies of those receiving the shot! 

What happened to this dreaded disease? See Jenner’s Legacy, Part 3 of Edward Jenner and the First Vaccine, for the answer.


Sources for this post include:

  •  "The History of Anti-Vaccination Movements," The History of Vaccines an Educational Resource by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, updated January 10, 2018
  • "History Shows Americans Have Always Been Wary of Vaccines," by Alicia Ault, The Smithsonian Magazine, January 26, 2021
  • "Smallpox: A Great and Terrible Scourge," U.S. National Library of Medicine,, article last updated July 30, 2013

Images courtesy of Pixabay and Wikimedia Commons

Edward Jenner and the First Vaccine - Part 1

Edward Jenner

As I write this, much of the world is beginning to emerge from the quarantines and restrictions caused by the COVID-19 global pandemic. And that's because for the past several months vaccines have been available and distributed widely.  As a result, COVID-19 cases and deaths are sharply declining.

But this isn’t the first vaccine success story. During the Regency era, an English scientist and physician named Edward Jenner pioneered the development of the world's first vaccine, the smallpox vaccine. 

This three-part series tells Jenner's story, which is still inspiring and relevant today.

The Scourge of Smallpox

Jenner's tale begins with the disease itself. It's impossible to overestimate the horrors of smallpox. For over a millennium it was rightly feared for the way it killed, disabled and disfigured people on a massive scale. 

Ploughing in Ancient Egypt, circa 1200 BC
No one knows exactly when smallpox first appeared to plague mankind, but there's evidence it was around as early as 10,000 B.C., in African agricultural settlements. 

It wasn't long before the disease showed up in Egypt, India and China. Throughout the Middle Ages there were intermittent, and devastating, smallpox epidemics.

By 18th century Europe, smallpox killed about 400,000 people every year, and blinded one-third of its survivors. The number of infected people who died from smallpox (case fatality rate) ranged from 20 to 60 percent. 

The disease was especially brutal to children. According to data collected in Glasgow, a city famed for its careful record-keeping, from about 1783 to 1800 approximately half of all children who were born died before they reached the age of 10, and smallpox was responsible for 40 percent of those deaths.

Other statistics show that during the same time period the mortality rate among infants who contracted smallpox was nearly 80 percent in London and 98 percent in Berlin.

Imagine those figures – absolutely heart-breaking!

The disease did other damage, too. Survivors were usually left with disfiguring facial scars. Plus, before the vaccination era, smallpox was the chief cause of blindness throughout Europe.

The First Inoculations

Also by the 18th century it was common knowledge that if you could survive smallpox you’d be immune to it. In fact, we know that as early as 436 B.C. smallpox survivors were the ones who took care of those suffering from the disease.

Armed with this knowledge, some people decided to tackle smallpox head-on by deliberately exposing themselves to it. They developed a process called variolation, from the Latin word variola that was used at the time for smallpox.

Variolation was done by piercing the skin of an arm or leg, usually with a sharp lancet dripping with fluid from an active smallpox blister. Another method involved rubbing a piece of fluid-soaked cloth over a scratch on the skin.

This practice was used widely in Asia and the Middle East, and while it sounded barbaric to Western ears it often worked – the rate and the severity of smallpox infections dropped significantly when variolation was performed.

Lady Mary in Turkish dress, 1756

Variolation Goes West

Variolation came to England in the early 18th century. It happened soon after Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, wife of the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, saw the procedure performed in Istanbul.

If anyone had a reason to hate smallpox, it was Lady Mary. Not only had her brother died from it, but a bout with smallpox in 1715 left her, once a celebrated beauty, with a badly scarred face.

 While living In Turkey, Lady Mary had her 5-year-old son variolated by embassy surgeon Charles Maitland. But when she got back home, she discovered English doctors opposed this foreign practice.

That didn’t stop her. When a smallpox epidemic loomed in 1721, she insisted her 4-year-old daughter be variolated. Once again Dr. Maitland performed the procedure, but this time Lady Mary made sure royal physicians saw him do it. When Maitland also successfully variolated two daughters of the Princess of Wales in 1722, variolation became acceptable in English society. 

But variolation had its downsides. The biggest drawback was the risk of the procedure going spectacularly wrong. If that happened, variolation could give someone smallpox or make them a carrier of the disease.

The concept of inoculating someone against smallpox by introducing a small amount of it into their bodies seemed to work. But how could this procedure be made not only be safer, but easier to administer to lots of people?

The answer to that question is in my next post, The Genius of Jenner, Part 2 of Edward Jenner and the First Vaccine


Sources for this post include:

"Edward Jenner and the history of smallpox and vaccination," by Stefan Riedel, MD, PhD, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, January 2005

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Regency Fashion on Film: How Does Bridgerton Rate?

Last Christmas Bridgerton, the Netflix series based on the best-selling Regency romances of Julia Quinn, took the viewing public by storm. It’s quickly become the most popular show ever streamed on Netflix with a record-breaking 82 million households watching it. Season 2 is now in production, and the streaming service has renewed the series for Seasons 3 and 4. 

Like many who love the Regency Era, I have mixed feelings about the show’s success. This is no gentle comedy of manners. The steamy sex scenes go far beyond anything Jane Austen ever wrote about in her novels. What's even more problematic, the show contains many anachronisms.

Fashion anachronisms

Ever since Bridgerton's debut, there's been debate about the costumes, focusing on how accurately they do or do not reflect the period. 

From what I can tell, fashion historians can forgive most of the show's anachronisms, such as women going about town without proper headgear, or wearing clothes dyed in vivid colors that simply weren’t available during the early 19th century (think Penelope Featherington’s vibrant yellow gowns). 

However, corsets as shown in the series are another matter. 


To begin with, Bridgerton's actors don't wear chemises under their corsets to protect their skin, like corset-wearing women in the past have always done.

But a real sticking point for many fashion historians is how these Regency women are portrayed wearing tightly laced corsets - corsets that look suspiciously Victorian.

That's a problem, because Regency fashions mostly didn't require boned undergarments.

During the this period, especially the years Bridgerton is set, fashionable women wore loosely fitted gowns, tied under the bust. 

This Neoclassical style was inspired by a revival of interest in ancient Greco-Roman art, and prompted by statues depicting women wearing unstructured, draped tunics. Empress Josephine, a big fashion influencer of her time, made this style all the rage. 

Interestingly, the urge to dress like the ancient Greeks didn’t affect men – you don’t see fashionable Regency bucks wearing togas! 


It's not just the appearance of corsets that seems wrong in Bridgerton. What raises the hackles of fashion historians are corsets shown being laced tightly to create small waists.

Regency gowns in 1813 didn’t show the waist, so despite what we see in the series there was no need for a tight, waist-cinching corset. 

The scene where Prudence Featherington is laced to the point of pain into her corset prior to being presented at court makes no sense as soon as Prudence dons her elegant high-waisted gown. 

Proper court attire 

That scene makes even less sense given the dress code women at court had to follow in 1813. Queen Charlotte required all the ladies to wear hoop skirts -- the fashion of the Queen's youth in the 18th century. 

Though willing to obey the Queen's dictates, these affluent aristocratic women were also eager to wear the latest fashions. 

So, they just put hoops under their empire-style gowns. The result was often an unflattering mish-mash of styles. The court gowns totally obliterated the natural waist line, making their wearers look, in my opinion, like they were in the late stages of pregnancy. 

If you think I'm exaggerating, just look at the print of the Princess of Wales in 1807 wearing her court dress.  

Imagine sylph-like Daphne Bridgerton or any of the Featherington sisters wearing such ridiculous gowns. No wonder the Bridgerton costume designers took liberties with history when it came to the scenes at Queen Charlotte's court.


Corsets the way we know them today weren’t even worn during the Regency. If a woman wanted or needed support or smoothing under her gown, she wore an undergarment called stays, which were a precursor to the corset. 

Regency stays were longer than a corset, covering more of a woman's body. See the image in this post depicting a woman being laced into her stays by her maid circa 1810, and note the garment's long line.

In the centuries before the Regency period, stays were sometimes laced tightly to give a woman a small waist. Padding the hips with wide side hoops called panniers also made a women’s waist look comparatively tiny. 

Many women, especially the younger ones, dispensed with padding or constrictive undergarments altogether in the early 19th century. Others, though, kept wearing stays to help them achieve the fashionable slendar silhouette under their columnar gowns. 


With those loose gowns, tight-lacing was more or less unnecessary during most of the Regency Era. However, that doesn’t mean the practice was unheard of. 

Here’s a contemporary account (1810) describing the use of stays. First, the writer observes that stays were no longer made with whalebone or hardened leather, but instead contained iron or steel bars that were 3 or 4-inches wide and 18-inches long iron. 

That sounds like a torture device. But there’s more. 

The writer adds that it was by “no means uncommon to see a mother lay her daughter down upon the carpet, and placing her foot on her back, break half-a-dozen laces in tightening her stays.” 

What a vivid image! Perhaps poor Prudence’s corset-lacing scene in Bridgerton isn’t so far-fetched after all. 

Tight-lacing makes a come-back

By the end of the Regency period defined waistlines were creeping back into fashion. It didn’t take long for small waists to become a fashion obsession once again and tight-lacing a concern, as this satiric cartoon, titled "A cutting wind," from the 1820s demonstrates:

Creative vision behind the series

Fashion historians have a valid point about the anachronisms on display in Bridgerton. However, the series was never meant to be a painstakingly accurate view of Regency styles and manners, so I think it’s unfair to hold its costume designers to a rigid standard.  

If you want to see the Regency dress portrayed on film more accurately, look no further than the 1995 BBC adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice

Bridgerton is an entertaining Regency-set fantasy, taking place in an parallel universe where racial diversity exists at the highest levels of British society. Its resounding success with the public is due to the bold and creative way producers Shonda Rimes and Betsy Beers interpreted Quinn’s novels, on several levels, for Netflix. 

The genius of Rimes and Beers collaboration has been recognized in their industry. Just last April they were awarded the 2021 Distinguished Collaborator Award by the Costume Designer’s Guild. 

For a more detailed historical analysis of Bridgerton's costumes here’s fashion historian Raissa Bretaña for Glamour:

So, you won't find period-appropriate bonnets or underwear in Bridgerton. It's the alternative world view and passionate  relationships, not historically accurate costuming, that's made the show so popular with viewers.

In fact, when it comes to proper Regency attire, some of the characters doff their clothes so often it’s hard to remember what they're wearing in some scenes.

But even Bridgerton's severest costume critics have to agree that despite any anachronisms, the series  has introduced a host of new fans to our favorite time period. 

After all, never has the Regency Era been so much fun to watch!


Sources for this post include: 

  • Corsets and Crinolines, by Norah Waugh, Theatre Arts Books/Methuen, New York, copyright 1954.
  • Bras: A Thousand Years of Style, Support and Seduction, by Stephanie Pedersen, a David and Charles Book, published in the United Kingdom, 2004. 

Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, the University of Washington Libraries Digital Collection, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)

Regency thrills and chills: Jane Austen's "horrid novels"

Do you think that the popularity of dark, scary thrillers is a recent phenomenon? If you do, I’d like to introduce you to the “horrid novels” of the Regency era – just in time to add to your Halloween reading list.

If you read Austen’s Northanger Abbey you’ll find a discussion of seven "horrid" novels that the worldly Isabella Thorpe insists that Catherine Morland, the naïve young heroine, read straight away. Not only were these stories familiar to Jane Austen, she satirizes them in Northanger Abbey. 

In Austen's story, 17-year-old Catherine is heavily influenced by the Gothic novels she reads. As a result  she believes she sees evidence of sinister deeds,  including murder, when she visits her friend's home, Northanger Abbey. Before we can get to a happy ending, Catherine must mature, rein in her imagination and appreciate the difference between fiction and real life. 

The Horrid Novels

Here are the seven Gothic novels (with their actual publication dates) that Isabella Thorpe recommends to Catherine Morland in Austen's sprightly tale. For over a century scholars thought that Austen made up some of these book titles, but further research proved that all of these books actually did exist. 

  1. The Castle of Wolfenbach, by Eliza Parsons (1793)
  2. Clermont, by Regina Maria Roche (1798)
  3. The Mysterious Warning, by Eliza Parsons (1796)
  4. The Necromancer, or The Tale of the Black Forest, by Ludwig Flammenberg (1794)
  5. The Midnight Bell, by Francis Lathom (1798)
  6. The Orphan of the Rhine, by Eleanor Sleath (1798)
  7. The Horrid Mysteries, by Carl Grosse (1796) - translated from German by Peter Will

Austen also has her heroine discuss two other books that were wildly popular at the time: The Italian (1797) and Catherine's favorite, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), both by Ann Radcliffe. Radcliffe, an English author whose lifetime encompassed the Regency, is considered a pioneering Gothic novelist, and her five bestsellers made her the highest-paid professional writer of the 1790s. 

Some Characteristics of 18th-19th Century Gothic Novels

Though the storylines and the settings varied somewhat, Gothic fiction during Jane Austen's time had several common characteristics. 

An atmosphere of mystery was a given, along with plenty of drama, fear and suspense. Here are few other important elements that crop up often in these tales:

  • A crumbling, gloomy manor house or castle, preferably haunted, with a mysterious and dark history
  • Paranormal events and/or supernatural manifestations- i.e. ghosts
  • A dastardly villain (dark and brooding, but somehow compelling)
  • A brave hero (who may also be dark and brooding) 
  • A beautiful, persecuted heroine who is also virtuous and brave
  • And, of course, Romance (with a capital R)

Later Gothic fiction also featured monsters, such as Frankenstein, written by Mary Shelley in 1818, and the titular vampire in Bram Stoker's Dracula, written in 1897. 

Gothic Fiction and Film Today

Gothic fiction, and especially its sub-genre Gothic horror fiction, is every bit as popular today as it was during the Regency era. Vampires are espeically well-received by the reading public. Notable examples include the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer, Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire, and Charlaine Harris's  The Southern Vampire Mysteries, which was adapted for television as the HBO series True Blood

Gothic-inspired novels, like many of those written by Stephen King, translate especially well into film and also appeal to modern-day horror fans. So do the marvelously weird and creative films of Tim Burton, including Beetlejuice, Dark ShadowsThe Nightmare Before Christmas, Corpse Bride, and his version of Alice in Wonderland.

I guess it all comes down to whether, or how, you like to be scared, especially on Halloween. As for me, I like humor with my frights. So, on that note I'll leave you with a funny scene from the modern  Gothic film classic Beetlejuice, when a dinner party in a haunted house goes horridly astray. 

Happy Halloween!

Images courtesy of Pixabay

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

Napoleon's last cruise


On deck looking towards St. Helena (photo by Andrew Neaum, CC BY-SA 3.0)

In this strange pandemic year, most summer cruises have been canceled. But during another summer 205 years ago it was a different story for at least one man. 

That August the former Emperor of France, Napoleon Bonaparte, set out unwillingly on a special cruise, designed just for him. His ship was no luxury liner; it was more like a prison transport, taking him to his final place of exile.  

Consequences of Waterloo

I doubt Napoleon knew he’d wind up in St. Helena after the British coalition of armies led by the Duke of Wellington and the Prussian army commanded by Field Marshal von Blücher decisively defeated the French forces at the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815. But Napoleon probably suspected that his glorious career as a general and an emperor had run its course.

St. Helena, circled in red, on a map

Napoleon’s first stop after his defeat was Paris. There he methodically prepared for the next phase of his life. After all, it wasn’t the first time he’d lost a battle and been forced into exile. 

However, Napoleon’s exile to Elba in 1814 following the Treaty of Fontainebleau was upended when the emperor managed to escape to France and assemble another army. 

Napoleon must have realized that the British were determined not to let history repeat itself. This time, the consequences of defeat would have to mean permanent exile. However, Napoleon wanted to exert some control over where he would spend the rest of his life. 

But first, he had business to attend to. In Paris, he abdicated his throne in favor of his son. Which incidentally didn’t work – the French throne went to Louis XVIII, brother of Louis XVI, the unfortunate monarch who was guillotined during the French Revolution.

The next step in Napoleon’s retirement plan was to escape France and go to the United States. He was even promised a passport to the U.S. by the French provisional government.

But the promised passport never materialized. So Napoleon decided to take matters into his own hands. He went to Rochefort, a port on the southwestern coast of France. Still determined to go to the U.S., he hoped to slip past the Royal Navy blockade.  

On the Bellerophon in Plymouth, 1815

A thwarted escape 

But Napoleon’s dreams of escape evaporated when he saw the tall ships of the Royal Navy blocking every conceivable exit. So, on July 15, 1815, Napoleon accepted the inevitable and surrendered to Captain Frederick Maitland aboard the HMS Bellerophon, a British man-of-war anchored off the small island of Aix near Rochefort. 

“I have come to put myself under the protection of your prince [that would be the Prince Regent] and your laws,” said the man who was once a feared British foe.

Next, the Bellerophon carried the former Emperor of the French (now known simply as General Bonaparte) to Plymouth and Torquay Harbour on the north shore of Tor Bay. At Torquay Napoleon stayed on the ship, becoming a tourist attraction for the curious who clustered onto small boats and rowed out into the English Channel hoping to catch a glimpse of the defeated emperor. 

If Napoleon thought he’d ever get off a Royal Navy ship while in England he was sadly mistaken. British officials vowed they wouldn’t make the same blunder they’d made in 1814. So they decided to exile their old enemy to a remote location far away from Europe and any chance of a comeback. On July 31 Napoleon was told that he was headed for St. Helena, an island off the coast of Africa.

Concerned that the aging Bellerophon couldn’t make the voyage, the Navy transferred Napoleon to another ship, the HMS Northumberland, which set sail for St. Helena on August 7, finally leaving British waters on August 9. 

Napoleon left the British Isles without ever having set foot on British soil. 

St. Helena in 1815

Napoleon on board the Northumberland

The trip down the African coast took about two months, and the ship didn’t reach St. Helena until October 15. According to contemporary accounts, Napoleon grew silent on the deck of the Northumberland when he first spotted his future home.

I don’t think he was struck dumb with admiration. I imagine his heart sank when he saw the island’s forbidding cliffs rising out of the ocean.

On the globe St. Helena looks like an isolated speck in the middle of the vast South Atlantic Ocean. It’s basically a rock, 1,200 miles west of Angola on the African continent, and 2,500 miles east of Rio de Janeiro. 

It is a volcanic island, 47 square miles in area, attached to the ocean floor with only the tip visible above sea level. St. Helena’s nearest neighbor is Ascension Island, another volcanic island and British possession, about 800 miles northwest of St. Helena. 

And on the uninhabited Ascension Island, as yet another precaution, a garrison of British soldiers under the command of Sir Edward Nicolls of the Royal Marines was stationed. 

During his stay on St. Helena, Napoleon was guarded by 3,000 troops, and four ships constantly patrolled the coastline to prevent any escape attempts. The man in charge of the famous prisoner, Sir Hudson Lowe, was a harsh and ruthless jailor. Napoleon was not going to escape on his watch. 

Longwood House (photo by David Stanley, CC BY 2.0)

Death of the emperor

Napoleon only lasted less than six years in exile. He spent most of his time in Longwood House, built especially for him. But the house and general location were described by Napoleon and his fellow exiles as humid, damp, and unhealthy - conditions which may have contributed to his death.  

Napoleon had many health complaints, including liver problems, towards the end of his life, and he died May 5, 1821, at the age of 51. His doctor listed his cause of death as stomach cancer, but for years there was speculation that he was poisoned by arsenic, either deliberately or accidentally. Lately, though, the death-by-poison theory has been discredited. 

The former emperor was buried on St. Helena, but in 1840 the French King Louis-Philippe arranged for Napoleon’s remains to be returned to Paris, where they were buried in splendor under the Dome of Les Invalides. 

Napoleon spent much of his time on St. Helena dictating his memoirs. Of his contribution to France during the French Revolution, he said: “I have unscrambled Chaos. I have cleansed the Revolution, ennobled the common people, and restored the authority of kings.”  

Following Napoleon's death, the last of his 20 companions in exile left St. Helena. They departed at the end of May in 1821 and arrived back in Europe on August 2 – another summer cruise courtesy of the Royal Navy.  

St. Helena today

Although it’s still remote (the internet didn’t reach the island until 2015) today St. Helena is becoming a tourist magnet for history buffs, hardy hikers, rock climbers, bird watchers, and anyone who enjoys an adventure.

The “Saints,” as the residents are called, encourage the tourist trade with charming restaurants and hotels. I’m sure the cuisine and the accommodations are a decided improvement over what Napoleon experienced 200 years ago. 

There is also much natural beauty on the island to enjoy, as well as boat tours that showcase the large pods of frolicking dolphins and scores of whale sharks in the surrounding sea. You can even visit a resident group of tortoises, one of which is almost 200 years old. And of course, there are many memorials to the island's famous former resident. 

St. Helena airport (photo by Paul Tyson, CC BY 3.0)

The once-arduous trip has been made a little easier with the construction of an airport, although you may want to think twice about taking that route. Flights to the island are notoriously rough due to high winds and the dangerous effects of wind shear. 

Before the airport began to offer regular flights in 2017, to get to the island a traveler had to fly to Cape Town, usually by way of Johannesburg, and then be prepared to embark on a 5-6 day boat trip aboard the cargo liner RMS St. Helena. Bad weather or other complications could make the trip even longer.   

That puts Napoleon’s 2-month voyage from England to St. Helena into perspective.

Traces of Napoleon 

Napoleon’s exile on St. Helena seems an inglorious end for someone who had a spectacular career, especially considering his meteoric rise from the lowly ranks of an artillery officer to Emperor of France. But even in 1802, over a decade before his final exile, Napoleon seemed aware of the risk that was inherent in an ambition like his, and he accepted it.

As he put it, “It would be better never to have lived at all than to leave behind no trace of one’s existence.”

Napoleon would no doubt be relieved to know that in St. Helena, Europe, and across the world, there are plenty of traces that attest to the existence of Monsieur Bonaparte. 

"Napoleon on St. Helena," Franz Josef Sandmann, 1820


“From Waterloo to the island of St. Helena,” by Joanna Benazet and Irène Delage,  October 2015 (translation Rebecca Young);, the history website of the Fondation Napoleon 

The Wars of Napoleon: The History of the Strategies, Tactics, and Leadership of the Napoleonic Era, by Albert Sidney Britt III, The West Point Military History Series, Thomas E. Greiss, Series Editor, Department of History, United States Military Academy, West Point, New York, Avery Publishing Group Inc., Wayne, New Jersey, 1985. 

"Why You Should Visit St. Helena, home to the ‘worlds’ most useless airport’," by Julia Buckley,, Thursday, 28 December 2017 

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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