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Protest and Petitions Part 1: During the Trial

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This blog post is the third in a series on the Queen Caroline Affair to mark its bicentenary. For an outline of the full story of the Affair, see this introductory blog post and this video. In this blog post, Dr Katie Carpenter examines three petitions presented to the House of Lords in the summer of 1820.

The Queen Caroline Affair of 1820 was a major event in the modern history of monarchy and parliament. However, arguably the most interesting dimension of the affair was the way in which it incited public feeling. The decision to pursue a Bill of Pains and Penalties, to strip Caroline of her rights as Queen Consort and secure a divorce for George IV, inflamed a politically tense public, hungry for reform of the electorate.

Caroline was a tremendously popular figure. Her husband, in contrast, was decidedly not. His lifestyle was extravagant and needlessly excessive, at a time where the working classes were disenfranchised, and, from 1815, subject to the intensely divisive Corn Laws which raised the cost of living. In E. P. Thompson’s words, ‘No British monarch has ever been portrayed in more ridiculous postures nor in more odious terms than George IV during the Queen Caroline agitation’.[1] Support for Caroline flooded society and culture in 1820 as she became a symbol of the plight of the disenfranchised, subjected to the cruel and unjust mechanisms of Old Corruption. This support took the form of satirical pamphlets, prints and deputations to the Queen. Caroline’s face was emblazoned across countless commemorative jugs, plates and coins.

Queen Caroline standing on a cloud above George IV
End of the Eclipse
Image Courtesy of the House of Lords Library

An important aspect of political participation was the right to petition parliament. As Richard Huzzey and Henry Miller have recently shown, since the medieval and early modern periods, the right to petition was tied to other forms of political participation, such as demonstrations and meetings, print culture, and connecting local activities with broader national campaigns. Across the long nineteenth century there was a massive growth in the number of public petitions.[2] Curiously, however, there is no evidence that a major petitioning campaign to Parliament took place during Caroline’s trial. Data collected by Richard Huzzey and Henry Miller’s recent Leverhulme research project ‘Rethinking Petitions, Parliament, and People in the Long Nineteenth Century’ has shown only three petitions were sent to the Commons regarding Queen Caroline in 1820.[3] This is not to say however, that petitions did not go to other authorities, and in this case, we might expect the majority of petitions to have been sent to the monarchy. In addition, there was a flurry of petitions in support of Caroline to the Commons after the trial was over, in early 1821. Such petitions accounted for approximately 20% of all Commons petitions in 1821.[4] However, few original petitions to the Commons survive, aside from a few hidden gems.

Records of the House of Lords have fared better than that of their Commons’ counterparts. Three original manuscript petitions survive, in the collections of the Parliamentary Archives. Each was presented to the Lords in the summer of 1820, and each was in support of Caroline, opposing the use of a Bill of Pains and Penalties.

White man in robes holding a scroll
'Bar eloquence' by James Gillray        Published by Hannah Humphrey  
              Published 6 January 1795                      
NPG D12510                                                 
© National Portrait Gallery, London

The first of these petitions was presented by Lord Erskine on 19 July 1820, from the City of London. The petitioners specific objections to the Bill of Pains and Penalties were the means by which it came about, which were deemed unconstitutional and unjust. For example, the petitioners described: ‘That this bill appears to have originated in the report of the secret committee of your right honorable house to whom were referred a variety of papers and documents collected by a commission sent several years since to a foreign country’. They were referring to the documents within the sealed green bags, presented to parliament on 6th June 1810 with a message from the king. These documents were believed to have originated in the Milan Commission of 1818 and were examined by a secret committee. As the petitioners continued, the proceedings of secret committees were ‘in the absence of the accused upon written testimony without the due sanction of an oath or the opportunity of cross-examination are unknown to the true principles of British jurisprudence’. The Bill of Pains and Penalties itself did not afford Caroline some of the same rights as she would have had in a criminal trial. The accusations were vague, alleged to have been ‘committed during a period of six whole years without a specification of time or place’ and Caroline was denied a list of witnesses. And finally, considering the clear public support for Caroline, the petitioners noted their concern for ‘the peace the security and welfare of the realm’.[5]

This petition, however, was not well-received by the Lords. Although Lord Erskine wished it to ‘lie on the table’, or, in other words, to be made an issue for debate, it was rejected by the Lords. This was owing to a disagreement about the wording of the petition. According to the Earl of Lauderdale, who sat on the secret committee, ‘the bill of Pains and Penalties did not originate in the secret committee, that committee having no knowledge whatever of it, but was brought forward by his majesty's ministers upon their own responsibility’. In other words, although the Bill of Pains and Penalties had its first reading the day after the Secret Committee delivered its report, the Committee did not specifically recommend a bill of this nature. Lord Holland objected to the suggestion ‘that the whole of the evidence referred to the secret committee, consisted of the depositions taken before the Milan commission’, which was never confirmed to the house. [6]  Whilst it is widely believed that much of the contents of ‘the green bag’ originated from the Milan commission, the precise content was and is unknown to those who did not sit on the secret committee and examine the evidence themselves.

Handwritten document
Petition to the Lords in favour of Caroline, 17 August 1820, Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/8/525, no. 479

Lord Erskine presented a second petition to the Lords from the same group, on the 17th August- the same day the Bill had its second reading, marking the beginning of the ‘trial’. In this second petition, the City of London re-asserted its objection to Bills of Pains and Penalties and ‘entreat your Lordships to afford her majesty those means of defence which are indispensable to the proof of innocence and to reject the proposed Bill of Pains and Penalties as wholly inapplicable to the present times and as totally unfit to attain the ends of justice’.[7] They purposefully avoided the ‘certain passages which were deemed improper for their Lordships to receive’, and the petition was subsequently ordered to lie on the table.[8]

On the same day, the Duke of Leinster presented a petition from the freeholders of Middlesex, signed on their behalf by Mr Sheriff Parkins. This petition has somewhat of a different tone to the two from the City. These petitioners insisted that the Queen should have the same rights as any other person in Britain: ‘If the Queen Consort of these Realms be a subject her Majesty ought to have the same advantages as other subjects’, such as the protection of ecclesiastical and civil laws which would have prevented an ordinary divorce.

Handwritten document
Petition to the Lords in favour of Caroline, 17 August 1820, Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/8/525, no. 480

Whilst the City petitions pointed out the legal injustices of a secret committee and a bill of pains and penalties, the petition from Middlesex took one step closer to directly criticising the king. The petitioners stated: ‘We request your most honourable house to remember that the government of these realms is administered by a King whose power is limited but that a regal power so limited if combined with an arbitrary legislation is incompatible with liberty’.[9] Here, the petitioners rejected the notion that the king could weaponize government to create laws to suit himself.

These three petitions represent only a minute portion of the outpourings of public protest during the course of the trial. Nevertheless, they each illuminate how the legal and parliamentary processes mechanised against Caroline, to secure George his prized divorce, came to represent the corruption of the old regime. Monarchy and Parliament were being held to account for their actions by a largely disenfranchised public, who were demanded a fairer system for all.

[1] E. P. Thomspon, The Making of the English Working Class. Rprnt (Middlesex: Penguin, 1968), 794.

[2] Richard Huzzey and Henry Miller, ‘Petitions, Parliament and Political Culture: Petitioning the House of Commons, 1780-1919’, Past and Present (2020)

[3] Richard Huzzey and Henry Miller, Leverhulme Research Project on 'Rethinking Petitions, Parliament, and People in the Long Nineteenth Century' (RPG-2016-097). My thanks to Richard and Henry for sharing their data with me.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Petition from the City of London, 19 July 1820, Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/8/521, no 432.

[6] House of Lords Hansard, 19 July 1820.

[7] Petition from the City of London, 17 August 1820, Parliamentary Archives,  HL/PO/JO/10/8/525, no. 479.

[8] A Full Report of the Trial of Her Majesty Caroline Ameila Elizabeth, Queen of England (London: T. Tolby, 1820), 797.

[9] Petition from the freeholders of Middlesex, 17 August 1820, Parliamentary Archives,  HL/PO/JO/10/8/525, no. 480.

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