Scandal in London – King Takes Queen to Court?

The Trial at large of Her Majesty, Caroline Amelia Elizabeth, Queen of Great Britain; in the House of Lords, on charges of adulterous intercourse.

London, 1821, published by T. Kelly.

So much for prince charmings and dream weddings! You don’t have to be a distinguished historian to know that dynastic marriages within the high nobility weren’t formed for love. A decent family tree, the political interests of the parents or the reputation of coming from a very fertile family – those were the reasons to consider when it came to marry someone. It was a lucky coincidence when bride and groom found each other somewhat likeable and eventually got used to each other within the context of their functional lifelong union. Today we will talk about a couple named George and Caroline, for whom, unfortunately, things were quite different.

 

A Tragedy

Three days before their wedding in 1795, the engaged couple met for the first time – he, the aging crown prince who was keen to finally become George IV, King of England, and she, Caroline of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, his cousin. Even the descriptions of their first encounter and their wedding seem to be a tragicomedy. They cordially disliked each other from the second they met. After a few sentences, he went away without a comment, apparently because she smelled so bad; and she announced that her future husband was significantly fatter than in the portraits she had seen before. On the wedding day, the groom was completely drunk and spent the night in the fireplace instead of with his wife. It quickly became evident that this was not to be a dream marriage. However, they had to fulfil their dynastic duties. After one year of marriage and supposedly after only one “consummation” of it, they succeeded to do so: a daughter was born. Since the expectation had been met, the couple was finally able to live happily ever after for the next 25 years – separately, that is.

In an allusion to the opera Don Giovanni, this caricature shows the King being scared by his wife’s return to England. On the left, the servant Leporello from the opera holds the king’s long list of mistresses in his hands.

Finally King… And Queen?

In 1820, the time had finally come for George. His mentally deranged father George III died, crown prince George became King George IV at age 58. There was just one problem he had to face: this troublesome lady from 25 years before, who had spent the last years abroad and was now coming back to become queen at his side. George wanted to prevent this at all costs. However, 1820 wasn’t 1536. An execution on grounds of flimsy charges as in the time of Henry VIII was no longer possible. There had to be a good reason for a divorce – adultery. For years, the crown prince had had his “wife” followed by spies while she was travelling throughout Europe in order to find evidence of her adultery. However, a conventional writ of divorce was out of the question because – as was well known – the crown prince himself had a very active love life. If it had officially become known that he had illegally married a Catholic(!) woman in his youth, with whom he still lived together(!), he could even have lost the throne in such a trial. Thus, George and his followers made use of a trick: the writ of divorce was submitted in the form of a bill in the House of Lords. There, a lengthy and sensational debate soon came up as to whether Caroline was guilty of adulterous intercourse. Legally, the King had nothing to fear from this. He could be sure that his partisans in the House of Lords would decide in his favour. For Caroline, it must have felt like a humiliating show trial in which she could not expect a fair hearing.

Everything about the Trial

And that is where our book comes in. “The Trial at large of Her Majesty, Caroline Amelia Elizabeth, Queen of Great Britain in the House of Lords, on charges of adulterous intercourse” is a detailed report of the entire trial – based on, the author states, the authenticated journals of the House of Peers. The two-volume book published in the year after the trial contains verbatim testimonies of the witnesses, presented documents, pleadings, statements of evidence and much more. The trial we read about was not a pretty one. Scrupulous accounts were given of Caroline’s most intimate private affairs. Servants’ testimonies about an affair between her and her Italian valet were bad enough; the fact that many witnesses had been bribed hardly made it better. The undignified nature of the process was considered unprecedented.

The book has numerous beautiful illustrations of pieces of evidence, witnesses and members of the House of Lords who were involved in the trial. This shows that the book was not meant for lawyers but for citizens interested in the case, and there were many of them. The British people followed every detail of the trial.

Crisis

The reason for this was not (only) that people were amused and excited by an intimate scandal in the highest ranks of society and by an equally scandalous trial. Reformers had long criticised the corruption, amorality and wastefulness of the heads of state and demanded reforms of parliament. George’s unfair trial against Caroline seemed to confirm everything they criticised. The double standard was obvious given that George’s sexual conquests were common knowledge. The British public was outraged and clearly sympathised with Caroline, who was perceived as a humiliated woman brought to misfortune. At every session, a huge noisy crowd gathered in front of the Parliament. A flood of caricatures was published. Rallies and demonstrations took place in London, just as like those that had been bloodily put down in Manchester a few years earlier. In addition, unrest also gripped the army and the navy. The case became one of the greatest British political crises of the 19th century. The initial majority in the House of Lords in favour of convicting Caroline shrank. Eventually, the public pressure was too great – it became clear that the House of Commons would not approve the “Bill”, which was necessary to adopt it. Thus, they had to drop the trial.

This unflattering caricature shows Caroline and her valet Pergami. Alluding to the high English order of knights the Order of the Bath, the caricature speaks of the Knight Companion of the Bath.

Happy Ending?

So when the editor of this work states in the preface that it was “thanks to the efforts of an independent press and the sense of justice of an enlightened nation” that the case had to be dropped, he is quite right. Caroline did not have much of this triumph. She died the following year believing (probably mistakenly) that she had been poisoned. Three weeks earlier, she had suffered yet another humiliation: at the king’s festive coronation on 19 July 1821, she was denied access to Westminster Abbey. George IV did not attend her funeral. He too could not really enjoy his time as king: his extravagant lifestyle with far too much alcohol, opium and food had serious consequences. His health declined rapidly until he died in 1830. Well, “and they lived happily ever after” is usually something you can only find in royal fairy tales, not in reality.

 

Other Things You Might Be Interested in:

You can find a digitised version of the book on the website of the Bavarian State Library.

If you are interested in the case, you can read several extensive articles on the trial on the website of the British Parliament.

A brief glance at the next rulers: Since Caroline and George’s daughter had died several years before the trial, George IV’s younger brother became the next King William IV. He was then followed by the famous Queen Victoria in 1837.