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.

One of her first remarks about her groom was that he was fat. George, a man of refined taste and a martyr to fashion, was horribly aware that this was so, but he was used to an army of courtiers, corsetières and portrait-painters all dedicated to disguising the fact. She despised everything he most cared for, thought nothing about art or dress, and suggested that he would have been happier as a hairdresser than a prince. On top of all that she was popular, and George was jealous. Like many Hanoverian sons he had a difficult relationship with his father. His own extravagant metropolitan way of life was in part a sustained protest against the studiously dull and proper domestic regime of his parents. Yet George III was much more admired by his people than the Prince of Wales, and now Caroline was a success with both the king and the newspapers. Her husband could not bear it. When she addressed the crowd from a window he came and closed it, explaining that she was tired. He removed the furniture from her dining-room so that she could not entertain. The rest of the court, ably led by Lady Jersey, bullied, mocked or ignored her until the Princess of Wales’s predicament became a cause of comment in the press and the subject of general gossip.

The birth of their only child, Princess Charlotte, did nothing to bring them together, and in 1797 an official separation was effected. Caroline withdrew to Montague House in Blackheath, where she settled into an agreeable routine of rumbustious entertaining in her own particular style, involving much heavy flirting and the consumption of many raw onions. According to Mary Berry, who considered herself a supporter of the princess, ‘such an over-dressed, bare-bosomed, painted-eyebrowed figure, one never saw.’ Her detractors could scarcely say more. In time Caroline withdrew to the Continent, where she continued to career about, in feathers and pink top boots, making unsuitable friendships and embarrassing the ex-pats. Her language was such that when she dined with Lord Exmouth, admiral of the English fleet at Tunis, he sent his midshipman out of the room. As time went by she acquired a ‘family’ of adopted children and several relatives of her handsome Italian manservant, Pergami, who was widely assumed to be her lover. Despite the best efforts of her husband’s spies, however, it was impossible to catch Caroline out in anything actually criminal or treasonous. George, meanwhile, in the company of a succession of mistresses and confidantes, continued to feed his reputation for high taste and low morals, commissioning important works of decorative art and architecture, giving elaborate entertainments and appearing at them so drunk that he was occasionally sick over the guests.

In 1811 George became Prince Regent and by 1819 it was clear that his father had not long to live. The moment of his accession was approaching, the moment when Caroline might return to England as his queen. This, above all things, George was determined to prevent. The government favoured an act of separation; Caroline was to be paid off, to renounce her right to the throne and accept some lesser title, such as Duchess of Cornwall. George, however, was set on divorce, which could be granted only on grounds of adultery – which Caroline, understandably, refused to admit. With extraordinary pig-headedness her husband set out along the course that would open the Pandora’s box of his unsavoury marriage by putting his wife on trial for adultery in the House of Lords. The ‘trial’ was in fact the first reading of a bill to dissolve the marriage on the basis of Caroline’s adultery, for which evidence was heard over nine weeks. George III died in January 1820, and on 17 August the new queen’s trial began. ‘So now we are in for it, Mr Denman,’ her counsel, the brilliant, ambitious, unstable Henry Brougham, remarked to his colleague when proceedings got underway, and indeed it was a momentous affair for all concerned. No king had been less popular than George IV. He was personally disliked, and high taxes, bad harvests and increasing agitation for electoral reform all heightened antipathy to the monarchy, which was now about to expose itself as never before, destroying what little was left of the magic. The entire country was on tenterhooks, taking sides according to political affiliation and sex. The Radicals and women were for the queen, as was the bulk of popular opinion. The king’s advisers and supporters meanwhile were largely exasperated with him in private while they suffered for him in public. ‘Here we go,’ Lord Sidmouth remarked drily to Castlereagh as the London crowds hissed at them yet again in the street, ‘the two most popular men in England.’

Max Beerbohm later said of Caroline that ‘fate wrote her a most tremendous tragedy, and she played it in tights,’ a remark which says as much about the ethos of the Regency as it does about the queen herself. This was an age when ‘taste’ at both extremes was the governing standard not only for George himself, but for most of the literate part of his people. A malleable concept which can be applied as well to personal relations as to furniture, it suited an age of sceptical elegance. In early 19th-century England it was, apparently, difficult to design an ugly tea cup. Builders, silversmiths, upholsterers and even the painters of fans had, for a decade or so, an unerring touch, and they catered to a public both larger and more discriminating than ever before. Perhaps only an age so sure in its sense of proportion could have taken such pleasure in disproportion, in life and in art, producing great portraitists and great cartoonists in equal numbers. George was painted by Gainsborough, Hoppner and Lawrence as ‘the first gentleman of Europe’ and caricatured brilliantly by Rowlandson, Gillray and Cruickshank as a fat, farting philanderer. The ‘convex glass’ of satire was everywhere held up to counterpoint the flattering glass of fashion in the years that saw the birth of pantomime and the invention, by Grimaldi, of the modern white-face clown. In themselves and in their conduct George and Caroline, king and queen, buffoon and pantomime dame, embodied the dubious spirit of their age.

Their marriage had been from the first an opportunistic exercise, and its collapse spawned many other unlikely and cynical pairings. Brougham and Caroline disliked one another, but she saw his usefulness and he saw a way of advancing his political career. The Radicals, as Francis Place wrote, ‘cared nothing for the queen as the queen’, but they rallied to her cause as a means of galvanising public opinion and focusing the discontent of the country at large. In this they were immensely successful. Soon William Cobbett was writing Caroline’s propaganda and she was receiving numerous ‘addresses’ or petitions of support from the ‘loyal voices of Suffolk’, the people of Sunderland and many more. To Sunderland she – or rather Cobbett – replied that ‘general tyranny usually begins with individual oppression,’ and ‘if the highest subject in the realm can be deprived of her rank and title . . . the constitutional liberty of the kingdom will be shaken to its very base; the rights of the nation will be only a scattered wreck; and this once free people, like the meanest of slaves, must submit to the lash of an insolent domination.’ Cobbett’s rhetoric played such a trick of political perspective that the working classes were largely persuaded that their own best interests lay in supporting the privileges of a queen. The queen herself meanwhile cared little for Radical politics but was grateful for good publicity. Perhaps her only disinterested support came from women. Robins has a particularly good chapter on the way in which the trial elicited female and, to some extent, feminist sympathy. The Married Females of the Parish of Marylebone marched to Caroline’s home in Hammersmith ‘covered with feathers and white cockades’ to present their petition, while at Market Rasen there was a party at which the queen’s maid, one of the hostile witnesses, was burned in effigy while tea and cakes were served. Jane Austen, Mary Shelley and the young Elizabeth Barrett were among those who felt that as women they must support the queen. That a woman, a wife and a mother could be subjected to such public humiliation seemed to undermine both ancient ideas of chivalry and modern ones of emancipation. There were discussions of the way in which the king’s behaviour perverted the natural relations of the sexes, and comparisons with the other greatly wronged queen in living memory, Marie Antoinette.

For the most part, however, the trial was an orgy of exploitation and sensation. The Times, pained as it was at having to print ‘filth of this kind’, elicited sordid details from sordid witnesses about comings and goings in corridors, the queen’s state of dress or undress at various moments and the state of her bed-sheets. It was the Times’s support of Caroline – and its detailed and salacious coverage of the trial – that gained it the reputation as the principal paper of record, which it maintained for the next hundred and fifty years. While some people not unreasonably feared a revolution (and Robins gives particular weight to their views), most were just horribly fascinated, like the friend of Lady Granville who suggested that in future all of the royal family should be tried, one every August, to relieve the tedium of the dog days. Eventually the spectacle drew to a close. Caroline’s counsel summed up not only the matter but the manner of the trial. At the end of ten hours addressing the peers, Denman appealed to them in ambiguous terms to exonerate the queen, both on the grounds that her innocence was ‘manifest’ and on the basis that even if it were not it would be un-Christian to cast the first stone. To invoke the story of the woman taken in adultery might have seemed to give a particularly valuable hostage to fortune, but it was quite in keeping with the proceedings. It was not innocence or guilt that mattered – few people thought the queen innocent in any significant sense – but public opinion versus the king, Radicals against Tories, women against male brutality. When the Lords voted on the bill that would decide Caroline’s fate, the majority on the second reading was too narrow to guarantee its passage through the Commons. The prime minister, Lord Liverpool, after a stormy night arguing with the Cabinet that ended with him collapsing in tears, announced that it would be withdrawn.

The scale of public rejoicing that greeted the news of the queen’s victory was matched only by the speed with which her support evaporated. She and the Radicals deserted one another almost at once, and soon loyal addresses were pouring in for the king. George had amused himself during the trial by planning the most lavish and expensive coronation in British history. His own costume, into which he was eventually squeezed with the help of an especially tightly laced corset, cost nearly £25,000, and the banquet as much again. The spectacle, however, was generally agreed to be magnificent, and in trying to gatecrash the event, by driving from one door to another at Westminster Abbey, Caroline overplayed her hand. The crowd were largely bored with her now. The whole business had taken a toll on her health, and less than a month later she was dead. She faced her last illness with the pragmatic courage that even her enemies conceded had never failed her in life, but just a year after she had been the people’s heroine she was not extravagantly mourned. There were tributes, including a lament for ‘Caroline, Rose of England’, but on the whole the feeling, Brougham recalled, was muted, ‘a kind of national remorse . . . for all that had passed’.

The trial marked a turning-point. It was one of the last great shows of Georgian England, and the reaction to all that it represented was beginning to set in. As his reign wore on, the king, increasingly self-conscious about his ballooning figure, became almost a recluse. He too was largely unlamented when he died in 1830. The new age that was coming in was one of morality rather than taste, of serious endeavour and much heavier furniture. Thackeray, perhaps, did most to damn George IV, ‘the king in the pantomime with his pantomime wife’, and to consign his world to Vanity Fair. The coronation robes, he noted, went to Madame Tussaud’s. Taste has since gone through several revolutions. The 1920s, another age of stylish hedonism, saw an enthusiastic Regency Revival. Today we still prefer the Georgians to the Victorians, but we are a little queasier than they were. It is impossible to read Caroline’s story now without thinking of more recent royal marriages, of bad behaviour at the palace and among the press and of the other troublesome Princess of Wales, ultimately more sinned against than sinning. Robins’s book is both enjoyable and somewhat sobering, for it holds up once more ‘the convex glass’ of criticism in which the present age, like George IV, may see a reflection less than wholly flattering.