Posted on: July 20, 2014

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On 19 July 1821 a most extraordinary scene took place at Westminster Abbey, London, when Queen Caroline, King George IV’s official queen consort, dressed up full white satin and ostrich feathers, tried to gatecrash his coronation, only to have the doors literally slammed in her face.

The marriage of George and Caroline had been pretty notorious even by the usual example of royal marriages. They had had mutual contempt for each other right from the start, and Caroline had since led a rackety life all around Europe, causing scandal and consternation wherever she went.

Caroline was a wild child from the very beginning. At the age of 16 her parents, the Duke and Duchess of Brunswick, had forbidden her from attending a ball. Caroline had retaliated by taking to her bed and screaming that she was pregnant, plunging the household into chaos. Eventually she confessed it was all a fib, and said to her mother “now Madam, will you forbid me to go to a ball again?” Caroline was a bit of a handful.

Meanwhile, over in England, King George III was desperate to find a bride for his feckless son, also called George. The Prince of Wales had been involved in copious affairs, and had secretly married a Catholic widow, Mrs Maria Fitzherbert in private. He had also run up staggering sums in gambling debts. In the film ‘The Madness Of King George’ the King says he will find a nice, sensible German princess to calm the boy down, and that seemed to be the plan. The Prince of Wales reluctantly agreed to it, on condition his gambling debts were paid off. If it was hoped that Caroline of Brunswick really would be a stabilising influence on their loose cannon of a son though, then King George and Queen Charlotte couldn’t have made a worse choice.

When Caroline was first presented to the Prince, he took one look at this plump, German lass with heavy features, body odour, and appalling dress sense, and retreated to the far end of the room. He was heard remarking to the Earl of Malmesbury: “Harris, I am not well, pray get me a glass of brandy”. Caroline wasn’t going to take this snub lying down. Ever the gobby one, she shouted “Mon Dieu! Is the Prince always like that? I find him very fat and nothing like as handsome as his portraits”. Which ranks somewhat on a par with Beau Brummell’s infamous “whose your fat friend?” as a surefire way to get into George’s bad books.

Well of course the marriage might still have been saved if George and Caroline could at least find some mutual attraction in the bedchamber, but their wedding night was to be an absolute disaster. George turned up drunk. God knows how, but he managed to stay in bed just long enough to consummate the marriage. After having done his royal duty, he staggered over to the fireplace and passed out. “Where he fell, I left him”, Caroline told everyone afterwards.

It was to be their one and only attempt at conjugal bliss, but by some miracle Caroline had managed to conceive a child. Caroline gave birth to a girl, Charlotte, the following January. George barely bothered to conceal his disappointment that the baby wasn’t a boy. George grew so depressed by this that he believed he was dying, and made a Will stipulating that the child’s upbringing was to be taken out of Caroline’s hands.

Parenthood didn’t exactly bring the unhappy couple closer together. The fastidious George was utterly repelled by Caroline’s careless attention to bodily hygiene, and her lack of class generally, and insisted on living on the opposite side of the huge Carlton House to her. Caroline meanwhile had made herself fairly popular with the British people. Mostly I suspect this was due to contempt for George and his arrogant, extravagant ways, but she was also good-natured at heart, and she had done a lot to help poor, orphaned children, plus there was a lot of sympathy due to her enforced separation from her daughter.

High society was far less enamoured of her. To put it in a nutshell, Caroline was a bit of an embarrassment. She appeared at parties with her bosom almost completely exposed, and took to flashing her garters. She paraded affairs left, right and centre, and once carried out a practical joke that she was pregnant. Unfortunately, she was all too convincing, and to this day there is some mystery as to whether Caroline had really given birth to an illegitimate son.

When George took over the Regency from his mentally ill father in 1811, he ordered an official inquiry into Caroline’s naughty behaviour. This public inquiry only served to make Caroline more popular with the public than ever, but Caroline had had enough of England. Now in her mid-40s, she decided to travel. George, no doubt relieved to see the back of her, arranged for her to be given an official frigate to accompany her across the Channel. Caroline was said to have fainted with relief when she saw the coastline of England retreating into the distance.

Caroline continued her wild adventures on mainland Europe. She turned up at society balls in an unflattering black wig, fat, red-faced, and with her bosom out on display. In Italy she took up with an ex-soldier called Bartolomeo Pergami, and their relationship became the scandal of the Season. They set up home together, and Pergami’s family were said to be gleefully swindling her.

In 1821 Caroline, on her way to Rome, heard that King George III had died, and her estranged husband was now King. Caroline promptly changed direction and headed back to England. The new King George IV though was determined to be rid of his embarrassing wife, no matter what it took. He ordered another public inquiry into her behaviour, which went on for 40 days, and became the talk of the country. No detail, no matter how trivial or sordid, was spared the public gaze. Everyone lapped it up. It would have seemed that Caroline was guilty of adultery, and not fit to become Queen Consort. But the result of the inquiry was far from being a foregone conclusion. Caroline’s defence argued that she couldn’t have committed adultery with Pergami, as the poor man was impotent, having been shot in his private parts whilst serving in Napoleon’s army. Incredibly, Caroline was exonerated. George must have been chewing the furniture.

But, ever the Leo, George consoled himself by arranging the most elaborate and sumptuous Coronation ceremony he could get away with. On 19 July 1821, Prinny must have been arranging himself in his costly robes when he heard the news that his hated wife was bearing down on Westminster Abbey. What followed was one of the most astonishing scenes ever to take place at a British Coronation. Caroline found all the doors of the Abbey literally locked and barred to her. Finally, she found one that was open, but was told that she couldn’t come in without a ticket.

Her friend, Lord Hood, gallantly insisted that Caroline should automatically be given admittance. “This is your Queen!” he exclaimed. When this didn’t butter any parsnips, he offered to give Caroline his own ticket, but by this time Caroline had admitted defeat. She wasn’t wanted on George’s big day. Even the crowd, who had become sick of her during the public inquiry, and now just wanted her to go away, turned on her. She was jeered and ordered to “go back to Italy!”

Forlornly, poor old Caroline headed back to her house in Audley Street. There, not feeling well,, she took a dose of milk of magnesia and laudanum. Over the next 3 weeks her condition got steadily worse. She knew the end was coming, and put all her official papers in order. Caroline died on 7 August 1821, at the age of 53. Her last words were supposed to have been “I am dying, but it does not signify” [it does not matter]. Rumours as to the true nature of Caroline’s death have remained a mystery ever since. Some have speculated that it was cancer, or a blocked intestine. But darker rumours abounded that Caroline may have been poisoned. Certainly the timing of her death was very convenient for George, but that doesn’t point to anything on it’s own.

Even in death, Caroline was controversial. Fearing public unrest, her funeral cortege was stopped from travelling through the City. This caused the crowd, who wanted to follow it, to grow nasty. Caroline was eventually put on board ship and returned to her native Brunswick. One of our most colourful Queen Consorts, but ultimately a sad, rejected figure, deprived of true happiness.

George wasn’t to know much in the way of contentment either. He reigned for a few short years, but he was now a pathetic, albeit somewhat gargantuan figure. He spent most of his reign in bed, slowly eating and drinking himself to death. When he died, even that arch-defender of the Establishment, ‘The Times’ couldn’t bring itself to weep any tears over his bloated corpse.



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