This blog article was written by Dr Katie Carpenter from the University of the Highlands and Islands.
The summer of 2020 marks 200 years since ‘The Queen Caroline Affair’. This unprecedented episode in British history saw Queen Caroline, the estranged wife and consort of George IV, put on trial for adultery in the House of Lords. As well as marking a milestone in parliamentary and royal history, it was also an important chapter in the nineteenth-century radical movement.
A Royal Marriage
On 8th April 1795, Prince George of Wales, first son of King George III, had reluctantly married his first cousin, Princess Caroline of Brunswick. The marriage between Caroline and George was strained from the very beginning. George was already married, having wed Maria Fitzherbert ten years earlier. Whilst this marriage was legitimate, George had not obtained the permission of his father, as required by the Royal Marriages Act of 1772, and it was thus unlawful. Caroline and George reportedly only spent two nights together before separating, but in this time, they conceived a child. Princess Charlotte of Wales was born almost exactly nine months after their wedding, on 7th January 1796.
On 30 April 1796, George wrote to Caroline to agree the terms of their separation. In this letter, George stated that ‘Our inclinations are not in our power; nor should either of us be held answerable for the other, because nature has not made us suitable to each other’. At her express request, he assured her that in the event of the death of Princess Charlotte, Caroline would not be obliged to engage in a ‘connection of a more particular nature’ to conceive another legitimate heir to the throne. He closed the letter in the hope that ‘as we have completely explained ourselves to each other, the rest of our lives will be passed in uninterrupted tranquillity’.
By the turn of the century, Caroline was living at Montagu House, a private residence in Greenwich Park. Whilst living here, rumours began to circulate of Caroline’s alleged immoral and immodest behaviour. These rumours largely originated from her close neighbour Lady Douglas, who claimed that Caroline had given birth to an illegitimate son, as well as partaking in lewd and inappropriate behaviour, including sending anonymous letters to their residence with obscene drawings. In 1806, a commission was set up to investigate the claims, known as the ‘Delicate Investigation’. Ultimately, this investigation found no evidence to prove the claims of Lady Douglas.
Nevertheless, the arrangement between Caroline and George continued to sour, particularly after 1811, when Prince George was declared Prince Regent. His reign was, from the beginning, marked by an extravagance that proved unpopular with the public. Caroline’s access to Princess Charlotte was restricted and she was socially isolated as it became known that any friend of hers would be unwelcome at the Regency Court.
In 1814, Caroline left Britain indefinitely to travel Europe. Rumours reached Britain of her indiscreet and promiscuous behaviour. In particular, Caroline was rumoured to be in an intimate relationship with Bartolomeo Pergami, an Italian man she had employed in Milan.
Tragically, Princess Charlotte died suddenly in childbirth aged 21 in November 1817. The common bond of parentage between the couple was broken, and Caroline’s hopes of regaining her status in Britain following the accession of her daughter were now obsolete.
George was reportedly desperate for a divorce, which was only legally possible if adultery by Caroline could be proven. Lord Liverpool sent a deputation of investigators to Milan. They set up the ‘Milan Commission’ in September 1818, with the intention of seeking out any potential witnesses who would testify to Caroline’s inappropriate conduct. Testimonies that condemned Caroline were collected from numerous witnesses, including her former servants. However, the Government was still keen to prevent a mass scandal, and rather than using these testimonies to pursue a divorce, they sought to negotiate between George and Caroline. Before a long-term separation agreement was reached, King George III died on 29th January 1820. George and Caroline were now King and Queen.
George’s efforts to exclude Caroline from the monarchy were undiminished. In February 1820, Caroline was excluded from the liturgy. In other words, clergymen across the country were instructed not to mention the Queen in Sunday prayers for the Royal Family. This obvious slight to the Queen was unpopular with the public, who were still reeling from the Peterloo Massacre and the oppressive clampdown with the Six Acts. The government and the monarch’s popularity were unstably low.
When Caroline returned to Britain on 5 June 1820, George’s quest to obtain a divorce continued. A day later, a message from the King was delivered to both Houses of Parliament, with bags of evidence from the Milan Commission, sealed in green bags.
‘The King thinks it necessary, in consequence of the arrival of the Queen, to communicate to the House of Lords, certain papers respecting the Conduct of her majesty since her departure from this kingdom, which he recommends to the immediate and serious attention of this house.’
Amongst these Green Bags was the evidence of the Milan Commission. The House of Lords appointed a secret committee to examine the evidence and a month later, delivered its report. Without divulging specific details, the Committee concluded that the Milan documents contained allegations that ‘deeply affect the honour of the queen, charging her majesty with an adulterous connection with a foreigner’. The ‘foreigner’ in question was Pergami. The Committee recommended ‘a solemn enquiry’.
The next day a ‘Bill of Pains and Penalties for an Act to deprive Caroline of the rights and title Queen Consort and to dissolve her marriage to George’ had its first reading in the House of Lords. While the Bill began its passage through the Houses of Parliament as normal, at its second reading in the House of Lords the proceedings took the form of a trial with witnesses called and cross-examined. The trial, which began on 17th August 1820, was centred around establishing if the preamble of the Bill was accurate- that ‘a most unbecoming and degrading Intimacy commenced between Bartolomeo Pergami and Her said Royal Highness’.
Caroline was allowed to attend, but not to speak. She had a defence team, headed by Henry Brougham, but was not afforded the same rights she would have had at a criminal court. For instance, the defence was not provided with a list of witnesses in advance. All Peers were required to attend the proceedings, and additional galleries had to be built in the Chamber to accommodate the additional persons.
For the prosecution, witnesses described Caroline and Pergami in exceptionally close circumstances, including bathing together, kissing and holding hands. For the defence, witnesses described being offered bribes to speak against Caroline. Brougham used the ‘separation letter’ of April 1796 to suggest that George had given his blessing for Caroline to live her life as she wished. Ultimately, the Bill passed its second reading, by 119 to 94 on 6th November, marking the end of the trial. However, at the third reading, the majority shrank to nine. Knowing there was little chance of the Bill making it through the Commons, Lord Liverpool announced ‘He could not be ignorant of the state of public feeling with regard to this measure’ and the bill would no longer be pursued.
The Court of Popular Opinion
‘The state of public feeling’ was as important as the parliamentary proceedings. Caroline had always been popular with the public, whereas George and Lord Liverpool’s government was increasingly unpopular. Political tensions had been simmering since the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the passing of the deeply divisive Corn Laws.
Caroline became a symbol of the oppressed- a victim of a corrupt government and monarchy. According to historian E. P. Thompson, ‘No British monarch has ever been portrayed in more ridiculous postures nor in more odious terms than George IV during the Queen Caroline agitation’. During the course of the trial, and in the months that followed, hundreds of petitions in favour of Caroline were addressed to both Houses of Parliament with the radical press lampooning proceedings in satirical prints and pamphlets.
The proceedings against the Queen also highlighted the double standard in divorce law. In order to obtain a divorce by the usual route, the ecclesiastical courts would first issue a decree of separation, if the wife had committed adultery. Adultery on the part of the husband was not considered grounds for divorce. This was highlighted by Brougham in his speech of the first day of the trial, in which he asked ‘whether adultery is to be considered only a crime in woman’. The next day, Robert Gifford, for the prosecution insisted it was:
‘The counsel for the Queen seemed to think that there was no difference between adultery committed by a man and by a woman. This was a most extraordinary proposition, whether considered legally or with reference to its effects upon society.’ In Anna Clark’s words, the affair provided a public arena for criticising the double standard, ‘bringing not only women but women’s concerns into the center of the political stage’. For example, radical women bought ceremonial deputations to the Queen in her support.
Despite the ultimate victory in the Bill being abandoned, Caroline’s status as Queen of Britain was not fully restored. She was refused entry to George’s coronation in Westminster Abbey on 19 July 1821. She fell ill shortly afterwards and died less than three weeks later of a suspected bowel obstruction. In her will, she specified that her coffin plate should read ‘to the memory of Caroline, of Brunswick, the injured Queen of Britain’ but this was denied.
The Queen Caroline affair stimulated questions and controversy over the rightful role of parliament, the monarchy and the people. It highlighted the inequalities suffered by women and captured the spirit of radicalism that had been afloat in Britain since 1815. In William Hazlitt’s words, ‘It struck its roots into the heart of the nation’.
To learn more about #QueenCaroline200 read our next blog, 'Divorcing a Queen', https://archives.blog.parliament.uk/2020/06/25/divorcing-a-queen-a-bill-of-pain-and-penalties/
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Jane Robins, Rebel Queen: How the Trial of Caroline Brought England to the Brink of Revolution (2006) 14.
 Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/8/512.
 Robins, Rebel Queen, 28-29.
 Flora Fraser, The Unruly Queen: The Life of Queen Caroline (Basingstoke: Papermac, 1997), 221
 Robins, Rebel Queen, 76
 Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/8/512, no. 218
 Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/8/517
 Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/8/517
 HL Hansard, 10 November 1820.
 E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class. Rprnt (Middlesex: Penguin, 1968), 794.
 HL Hansard, 17 August 1820.
 HL Hansard, 18 August 1820.
 Anna Clark, ‘Queen Caroline and the Sexual Politics of Popular Culture in London, 1820’, Representations 31(1990): 58.
 The Literary Examiner (London: L. Hunt, 1823), 318.