Recently Marilyn and I went in to the center of London, initially to attend a lunchtime free concert at St Martins in The Fields. We heard Emma Stannard, a Mezzo Soprano, singing Grieg, Schumann, De Falla and Copeland accompanied by Keval Shah on the piano. They were superb displaying so much personality. The lunchtime concerts begin a 1pm and last for about one hour. When we came out onto a sunny Trafalgar Square we thought we would like to have a look in the National Portrait Gallery and see if any exhibitions were on.
There is a photographic portrait exhibition on at the moment. We first looked at pictures created by the Bloomsbury group and portraits of artists,writers and the famous from the 20th century. We looked at the Tudor and Stuart galleries populated by portraits of the ,”God ordained”, and eventually wandered into the Georgian period galleries sauntering past that little sketch of Jane Austen created by her sister Cassandra and portraits of the great writers and poets of the late 18th and early 19th century, Sir Walter Scott, Shelley, Byron and so forth. There are very few women represented in the older periods. Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots appears in the Tudor period. Some of Charles II’s mistresses are hung in the Stuart galleries but the Georgian period is when women start to become ,”really serious.”
The great majority of paintings in the Georgian Galleries are still of men but there are a substantial number of women, Jane Austen, Mary Wollstonecraft, Hannah More, Fanny Burney, Hester Lynch (Mrs Thrale) and Dorothy Jordan, writers, artists, actors, philosophers, playwrights, society hosts and emancipationists. These women began to push the boundaries of society showing what women could do in the world and they were brave and often revolutionary. They were intellectuals and thinkers of the highest order.They all suffered one way or the other for their causes in a very strongly male orientated world. They were courageous pioneers.
The Trial of Queen Caroline 1820 by Sir George Hayter oil on canvas, 1820-1823 (National Portrait gallery)
But there is one painting, with a woman in it, which could be described as even more inspirational and in some ways is more powerful than the rest and gets to the heart of what it was to be a woman in the early 19th century. This woman had courage, determination and a will to live her life the way she wanted. She was prepared to break the law, courted approbation from everybody, even her friends and supporters, those who might be on her side were often repulsed regarding her morals and choices in life. In acting in such a liberating way, she was perhaps even stronger than all the rest. “The trial of Queen Caroline in 1820,” is vast. It consists of hundreds of miniature portraits of men. The great men of the early 19th century. There is William Adams, lawyer and diplomat, Shute Barrington,the Bishop of Durham, William Cavendish the Lord Chancellor, William Wyndham Greville the Prime Minister, the Duke of York, George IV’s brother, William Howley, The Archbishop of Canterbury, William Nelson, 1st Earl Nelson, Lord Nelson’s brother, Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington. There are lawyers, landowners, statesmen, the Governor General of India and various other governor generals. There are Field Marshalls, bishops and archbishops. Thomas Barnes, the editor of The Times newspaper is there, politicians of every hue, agriculturalists, bankers, sportsmen, Lords, Earls and Dukes. The world was run by these men and women were second class citizens and had to do what they were told. Almost unnoticed, in the midst of this mass of manhood, sitting calmly and still and unmoved is Queen Caroline of Brunswick, the estranged wife of George IV. The painting portrays the trial brought about when George wanted to divorce her. Things did not go his way. The public disliked him intensely.
Caroline of Brunswick.by Sir Thomas Lawrence oil on canvas, 1804. (National Portrait Gallery)
Caroline was born on the 17th May 1768, a Princess of Brunswick. Her father was Charles William, Duke of Brunswick and her mother was Princess Augusta of Great Britain and eldest sister of George III. Her father and mother had a difficult relationship. Her father had a mistress, who lived with them, called Louise Hertefeld. Caroline was put in a difficult situation. If she was civil to one the other reprimanded her. She was also unable to lead the life she would have liked to live while she was within the same household as her parents. She was forbidden to attend grand balls except on very rare occasions. She strictly chaperoned everywhere by her governess and some elderly ladies of the court. She was refused any contact with the opposite sex. She was even forbidden to dine with her own brother. This caused her great anguish and torment. Caroline was not averse to trying some extreme tricks. She feigned being pregnant on one occasion to challenge her parents. There were rumours about her from an early age that she had given birth at the age of fifteen. She often visited the cottages of the peasantry and it was claimed that on one of these occasions she had got pregnant.
Her mother and father considered many suitors for her from1782 onwards. Prince of Orange, Prince George of Hesse and Charles Duke of Mecklenberg were all suggested but nothing came of this. Her mother had always hope for a marriage to one of her English cousins. In 1794 Caroline became engaged to the Prince of Wales, her cousin. The reason for this were mostly political. Britain was at war with France and an Alliance with Brunswick would help Britain’s cause. Also George was heavily in debt and if he married an eligible princess, parliament would increase his allowance. So Caroline was a political pawn, something the daughters of the aristocracy and monarchies had always been.
John Stanley saw Caroline in 1781 and thought she was an attractive girl. In 1784 she was described as a beauty and she was also described as amiable, lively witty and handsome by others. On the.20th November 1794 Lord Malmesbury arrived in Brunswick to escort her to Britain. He wrote in his diary that, she lacked judgement, decorum and tact, spoke her mind, acted indiscreetly and often neglected to wash or change her dirty clothes. She appeared to have no innate notions of morality or the need for it. Malmesbury gives a damning account of her. It appears to be a subjective account. Caroline would not have been past, not washing, on purpose to deliberately repel Malmesbury. She was noted. for taking baths at other times, notoriously with her lover Bergami
It was a strange arrangement from the start. When Caroline arrived in Greenwich with Malmesbury on Easter Sunday 5th April 1795 she was met by Frances Villiers, Countess of Jersey and Georges mistress. Frances Villiers had been appointed as Caroline’s Lady of the Bedchamber. Caroline and George were married in the chapel Royal in St James’s Palace on the 8th April 1795. George was drunk and had to be assisted throughout the ceremony. He thought Caroline unattractive and unhygienic. He himself had already married Maria Fitzherbert. It was an illegal marriage because Maria Fitzherbert was a Roman Catholic and through the Marriages act of 1772 was not legally valid. George, in a letter to a friend claimed that he had sexual intercourse with his new wife only three times, twice the first night and once on the second night. He said that he had to make a great effort to overcome his aversion to her. Caroline later claimed that on their wedding night George was so drunk he spent the night in the fireplace where he fell. They must have had sexual intercourse on at least one occasion because they had a daughter together, Princess Charlotte, George’s only legitimate child, born at Carlton House on the 7th January 1796.
George’s abuse of Caroline began almost immediately. Three days after Charlotte’s birth George made out a new will in which he left all his property to “Maria Fitzherbert, my wife.” But Caroline could give as good as she got. Caroline was feisty and fought for her rights from the start. Caroline told Malmesbury that she was disappointed with George because he was,”very fat and he’s nothing like as handsome as his portrait.” George, didn’t like Caroline’s jibes and jokes about Lady Jersey. But of course, as well as expressing his dislike and aversion to Caroline, George was having an affair with Lady Jersey. The relationship with Caroline was becoming a disaster. George also had to contend with public opinion. The press vilified him for his extravagant tastes especially at a time of war. The public also took sides with Caroline and portrayed her as the wronged wife and public opinion only grew in support of her. People liked her because of her ,”winning familiartity and easy open nature.” We begin to draw parallels with the marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diane. The similarities of the two relationships are evident. George became dismayed at her popularity and his own unpopularity.
In April 1796, George wrote to Caroline, “ We have unfortunately been obliged to acknowledge to each other that we cannot find happiness in our union. Let me therefore beg you to make the best of a situation unfortunate for us both.”
In August 1797 Caroline moved to the Vicarage in Charlton, London. She then moved to Montagu House in Blackheath. Caroline felt free from the constraints of her marriage. She had liaisons with Admiral Sir Sidney Smith and Captain George Manby. She may also have had a fling with the politician George Canning. Her daughter was put into the care of a governess and lived in a mansion near Montague House. IT appears that Caroline had strong maternal instincts and she adopted a number of poor children who had been fostered out in the Blackheath area. In 1802 she adopted a three month old boy, William Austin. Caroline fell out with her neighbours Sir John and Lady Douglas. They claimed that Caroline had sent them obscene letters. Lady Douglas accused Caroline of infidelity and said that William Austen was Carolines illegitimate son. In 1806 a secret commission was set up to investigate the accusations. Lady Douglas testified to the commission that Caroline had admitted to her that William Austin was her son.She also told the commission that Caroline had been rude about the Royal Family and she alleged that Caroline had also touched her in an inappropriate sexual manner. The accounts of Caroline’s behaviour could not have been more lurid and frank. More lovers were added to the list, Sir Thomas Lawrence , the artist who had painted Carolines portrait and also Henry Hood the son of Lord Hood were implicated. Carolines own servants, it’s always the servants who know everything, could not or would not confirm any of these allegations. As for William Austin, his real mother, Sophia Austin came forward to testify that she had given birth to William. The evidence that was being stacked up against Caroline appeared more and more fictional and fabricated.The commission set up to investigate the initial claims by Lady Dougals announced that there was no foundation for them.
By the end of 1811, George III was declared permanently insane and the Prince of Wales was made Regent. George restricted Caroline’s access to Charlotte further. Caroline became more socially isolated. She moved to Connaught House in Bayswater. In league with Henry Broughton, an ambitious Whig politician who wanted reform she began a propaganda campaign against George. George leeked the testimony of Lady Douglas to the Commission that had investigated Caroline but Broughton counteracted these allegations by releasing the testimony of the servants and Mrs Austin. Their daughter sided with her mother as did the public.
Jane Austen, who was an avid reader of news journals, wrote of Caroline, “ Poor woman, I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a woman and because I hate her husband.” After the defeat of Napoleon in 1814 George tried to restrict his daughter’s visits to her mother even more. Charlotte ran away to be with her mother. She was eventually persuaded to return to her father. There was a risk of public disorder which would make it more difficult for Charlotte in the long run.
Caroline now negotiated a deal with the Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh. She agreed to leave the country for an annual allowance of £35,000. On 8th August 1814 Caroline left Britain. She travelled to Brunswick and then to Italy through Switzerland. Probably in Milan she hired Bartolomeo Pergami as a servant. He soon became the head of Caroline’s household.. In 1815 Caroline bought a house on the shores of Lake Como. From early 1816, she and Pergami cruised the Mediterranean. Their relationship became closer and closer. By now gossip about Caroline was rife and even Lord Byron wrote to his publisher that Caroline and Pergami were lovers. By 1817, Carolines debts were growing and she moved from the Villa d’Este to the smaller Villa Caprile near Pesaro. Meanwhile Carolines daughter, Princess Charlotte had married Prince Leopold of Saxe Coburg. In November 1817 Charlotte gave birth to a stillborn son and then unfortunately died soon after. George refused to inform Caroline of her daughter’s death. Caroline heard the devastating news from an official sent by George to inform the Pope. This was a cruel way to discover the news.
A salacious cartoon depicting Caroline bathing with her lover Bartolomeo Pergami.
The Vice Chancellor John Leach was asked to set up a commission to gather evidence of Carolines adultery. This was the only way George could obtain a divorce from Caroline. Leach sent three commissioners to Milan to interview Caroline’s servants.. He sent his own brother James to the Villa Caprile. He reported back that Pergami and Caroline were living as husband and wife. The Milan commission was gathering more and more evidence. Caroline informed James Broughton that she would agree to a divorce in exchange for money. Divorce by mutual consent was illegal however. On the 29th January 1820 King George III died. George became King and as such she was the Queen. George demanded that his ministers get rid of her. George now was determined to divorce Caroline. The best and least painful way to divorce Caroline was through an act of Parliament which would make their marriage annulled. Her name was removed from the liturgy of the Church. but he had to be very careful. His own infidelities and excesses did not deem him an innocent party in the affair. He could only divorce Caroline if it was proved she had been unfaithful and he certainly was not an innocent party in this respect. He had mistresses and an illegal wife after all.Divorce proceedings would only bring to light his own misdemeanors. Rather than run the risk Caroline was offered an increase in her annuity to £50,000 if she stayed abroad. Caroline rejected the governemenst offer. She returned to England on the 5th June. Riots broke out in support of her. She became the figurehead of a growing radical reform group who demanded change. The new King still wanted a divorce and submitted the evidence collected by his commission to Parliamnet in two green bags. They were opend on the 27th June. Fifteen peers examined the contents and regarded the contents as scandalous. The government introduced a bill in Parliament, the Pains and Penalties Bill 1820 intended to take the title of Queen away from Caroline and to dissolve the marriage. It claimed that Caroline had committed adultery with a low born man, Bartolomeo Pergami. Various witnesses, including Theodore Majocchi,one of Caroline’s servants were brought to be questioned.All sorts of salacious details were revealed. Caroline came to the reading of the Bill which although not a trail was virtually a trial and sat there in the middle of this maelstrom. This is the scene portrayed Sir George Hayters painting, “The Trial of Queen Caroline.” There she sits, calmly, impassively while Broughton, arm outstretched, gesturing, argues vehemently her case , lawyers discuss and Carolines detractors thump their fists on oaken tables. They seem to be dissecting what womanhood is all from a male point of view of course.
As an addenda, All the witnesses for the prsecution were countered and their evidence shown to be untrue in many cases and eventually there was little prospect that the bill could be passed. During the trial Caroline remained immensely popular.
“All classes will ever find in me a sincere friend to their liberties, and a zealous advocate of their rights.”
She tried to attend the coronation on the 19th July 1821 but was barred from entering Westminster Abbey. Caroline became ill soon after. She died three weeks later on the 7th August 1821 at the age of 53. She may have had cancer.
Caroline of Brunswick broke ordinary moral standards, she challenged the laws of the land, she broke through the barriers between different social strata. She lived the way she wanted and not the way society or the church or the monarchy would want her to. She was a true radical, almost not taking any side but just being herself, come what may. She has an element of Elizabeth Bennet in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice,
“ 'There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me.'
She was her own person and did what she wanted.
She also connects with Mary Wollstonecraft’s ideas about women.
“I do not wish them [women] to have power over men; but over themselves.”
“It is vain to expect virtue from women till they are in some degree independent of men.”
A lot of what she was charged with was hearsay. A lot of what she was charged with was highly emotive, salacious and at the extremes of what could be imagined by her contemporaries and truly shocking to many. Her attackers were out to destroy her and stop her breaking social codes and beliefs. She was very much a woman alone. In her private life she seemed to be highly sexual, full of fun and a very warm motherly type who showed her emotions. They make her a real person. Recalling her upbringing where she was restrained from interacting with people in any meaningful way and seeing how vivacious and social she obviously was she must have had a lot of pent up feelings and emotions ready to come out. She did let them out and challenged the world. I think she was a very brave person. She challenged society to the utmost.
“There is only one happiness in this life, to love and be loved,” George Sand.
I hope Caroline found this.