Tragedy in Tights

Rosemary Hill

  • Rebel Queen: The Trial of Caroline by Jane Robins
    Simon and Schuster, 370 pp, £20.00, June 2006, ISBN 0 7432 4862 7

As marriages of convenience go, few can have turned out less conveniently than that of George IV and Caroline of Brunswick. The couple brought out the worst in each other, and there was a great deal to bring out, for among the few things they had in common were obstinacy, irresponsibility and an almost total lack of self-control. From the moment they met until what Walter Scott called the ‘brutal insanity’ of the queen’s trial for adultery in 1820, the relationship was a catastrophe acted out in public with little regard for decency, let alone dignity. Ever since, this riveting spectacle of royals behaving badly has offered ample scope for political and moral critics as well as a vast amount of more or less innocent amusement to the population at large. It is a story that bears retelling, and though Jane Robins makes no claims to have discovered anything new, she has enough insights and emphases of her own to make her deftly written account of the trial and its consequences worthwhile.

It was not until 1794, when he was 32, that George, still Prince of Wales, decided marriage was the only way out of his chronic financial difficulties. By then every German Protestant princess had been practising her English strenuously for some years in the hope of catching his attention, all except, as her mother noted, the high-spirited, somewhat hoydenish Princess Caroline. Caroline, who was 26, was George’s first cousin, but exactly how the prince came to choose her is unclear. His father, George III, approved of the decision; his mother, Queen Charlotte, who like many people had heard a certain amount about Caroline and her behaviour, did not. It seems that George’s current mistress, Lady Jersey, had some say in the matter, and the news that the prospective bride was neither especially good-looking nor refined did not apparently displease her at all. From the beginning there were at least three people in this marriage, and at times as many as five or six.

Caroline’s journey from Brunswick, delayed by war and bad weather, took nearly three months. At last her party arrived at Greenwich aboard the royal yacht Augusta. Lady Jersey, who was supposed to meet her, was late. When she did arrive she produced a particularly unflattering white satin dress, which she made Caroline change into, and then applied liberal quantities of rouge to the princess’s face. It was either this unfortunate first appearance (for Caroline, if no beauty, had her points), or the fact that she regarded washing ‘all over’ as an extreme measure for which she hardly ever had time, that gave the Prince of Wales such a shock when he saw her that he called for brandy and left the room. It required more brandy to get him through the marriage service, and according to his bride he spent the wedding night drunk in the fireplace. That Caroline was garrulous, coarse, sexually loose by the standards of the day and not especially clean was undoubtedly the case. Yet she was also good-natured, lively, unselfpitying and affectionate. Matters might have been worse. Nobody could have deserved the treatment the Princess of Wales received from her husband, and nothing but such blatant unfairness and spite as he showed her could have turned such a morally dubious, personally ramshackle woman into the symbol of suffering feminine virtue she eventually became for many of George’s people. The prince himself was not a wholly bad man. He too was capable of affection and great generosity. He had intelligence, wit and charm when he chose to display it, but even his most sympathetic biographers have found it difficult to account for his behaviour towards his wife and impossible to justify it. The trouble was, perhaps, that Caroline, partly by accident and partly by design, managed to catch her husband on all his most sensitive points.

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