This blog was written by Sileas Wood, Assistant Curator.
In the collections at the Palace of Westminster the role of the monarch in Parliament is well documented through portraiture, sculpture and allegorical works largely on display in the highly decorated state apartments of the House of Lords, however elsewhere in the collections numerous satirical works reflect a different view of the monarch in politics and Parliament.
The Trial of Queen Caroline represented an opportunity for satirists, reformers and political commentators to address the political and constitutional debate through art, resulting in a range of novel representations of George IV and his consort Caroline of Brunswick which form part of the Parliamentary Art Collection today.
The Trial of Queen Caroline stemmed from the determination of George IV to block his estranged wife from taking her place beside him as Queen. The couple had been separated since 1796, and Caroline had been living in Italy from 1814 while the Prince Regent remained in England, however following the death of George III in January 1820, Caroline indicated her intention to return to Britain to claim her status as Queen. Vehemently opposed to her return the King pressed Lord Liverpool’s Tory Government to bring a Bill of Pains and Penalties to the House of Lords. The Bill was entered on 5th July and proceedings opened on 17th August. As well as generating huge public interest, the controversy emerged as a key issue for political radicals and reformers to rally around and oppose Liverpool’s Government following the punitive legislation enacted after the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 which restricted political meetings and opposition movements.
The intention behind the Bill was to prove allegations of Caroline’s alleged infidelity while living abroad, thus annulling their marriage and barring Caroline from being crowned Queen. The Bill, which essentially placed Caroline on trial for adultery, captured the fascination of the British public with many defending Caroline as a wronged woman and casting George IV as the villain of the piece. The Trial saw the counsels for the King and Queen come from the House of Commons, with Members of the House of Lords attending as both judges and jury. Witnesses were called from Caroline’s household on the continent and huge public interest was generated in the accounts and examination of key witnesses.
The Bill took up the proceedings of the House for 49 days and concluded on 10th November with the House of Lords narrowly voting in favour of the Government and the King. Despite the nominal victory, it was clear to Lord Liverpool that there was not sufficient support for the Bill and that they would face a humiliating defeat in the Commons, and so withdrew the Bill. This was hailed as a victory for Caroline and her defenders. Despite this, Caroline was still barred from attending the coronation of her husband in 1821, and she died shortly after.
Public perception of the two royal subjects of the scandal are reflected in many of the satires relating to the Trial. The prints in the Parliamentary Art Collection reflect the majority of public feeling towards Caroline and George IV. Caroline, cast as the wronged woman and defender of British decency, is shown in a positive and dignified light contrasted with the figure of the King, pilloried for his actions and his well-known history of infidelity and lavish spending.1
Paintings, drawings and engravings of the Trial show Caroline seated in the House of Lords, a lone woman surrounded by men.2 During the proceedings Caroline herself remained silent, however the political satires published around proceedings readdress this dynamic, and Caroline is shown as an active participant in her defence, interrupting various proceedings or confronting the King and government.
In Caroline's Wood-en Broom to Sweep the Filthy Committee Room3 she confronts her accusers directly, supported by Wood and Brougham (whose names form the basis of the pun in the title), but it is Caroline who fronts the charge grasping papers marked ‘Public Trial’ and pointing accusatorially at figures from Liverpool’s Government who start from their seats in fear: ‘Begone you vile Conspirators against my peace, my Honour and my Life!!’. In contrast to the cowering oppositionary male figures, Caroline is shown as a resolute defender of her rights.
Representations of Caroline during the Trial also draw on popular and mythic figures, highlighting her role as a public figurehead for resistance. Fairburn’s print Boadicea, Queen of Britain, overthrowing her enemies4 shows Caroline as Boadicea, victoriously riding her chariot over the trampled bodies of her opponents including George IV, Liverpool, Eldon and notable witnesses from the Trial. In the background her supporters, which include barristers and figures in peasant dress representing the common people, are pictured routing their opponents represented by bewigged peers and bishops.
Caroline reprises her role as a victorious avenger in another print by Fairburn titled The Queen and the Dragon, a Model for a New Sovereign, for 18215 which shows Caroline as the figure of Britannia riding on horseback with a crowned and plumed helmet, vanquishing a many headed dragon with the heads of George IV, Sidmouth and Liverpool. In each of these prints Caroline’s cause is presented as the victory of British liberties over the figures of corruption, allying her cause with contemporary reformist narratives and opposition to Liverpool’s Government.
Where she is not shown as an active or avenging figure, Caroline is cast as a wronged woman who bears the ordeal with dignity. In Fairburn’s All a Bottle of Smoke!! or John Bull and the Secret Committee6 Caroline is silent, but stands supported by the three figures of her defence team bearing a sealed document marked ‘protest’. Caroline is represented as dignified, and notable as the lone woman present in an overpopulated room crowded with Peers and Ministers. This print highlights the contrasting perceptions of Caroline and her estranged husband George IV; while Caroline is shown in court dress complete with a coronet, George IV appears in the print represented by a crowned serpent, emerging from the ‘Green Bag’ and slithering across the floor of the House of Lords.
As shown in All a Bottle of Smoke!! and The Queen and the Dragon, satires of George IV during the Trial often represent the King as a villainous figure, one deserving of the (often violent) retribution of Caroline and her supporters as shown in Boadicea, Queen of Britain in which the King appears to be about to fall victim to Caroline’s scythed chariot. Alongside these stark representations of the forces of justice and corruption, the representations of George IV in political satires often highlight the public perception of the contrasting qualities of the King and his wife.
Caroline is often shown as restrained, dignified and steadfast in contrast to her indecorous husband. In The Knave and the Queen or Twelfth Night, 7 the two feature as opposing card players with Caroline proudly holding up the Queen of Hearts, alluding to her popular public support, while George IV draws the Knave of Clubs. Here, George IV is cast as the fool as Lord Castlereagh stands behind the King holding a conveniently placed cake which provides a mitred head with asses ears to crown the head of the monarch. George IV appears in his familiar guise as a comic corpulent figure, surrounded by the evidence of numerous excesses in the form of empty and discarded bottles.
These satires often draw on the public opposition to George IV’s well-known infidelities and publicly derided excessive spending. In The Modern Belshazzer’s Feast, 8 George IV and his cronies are interrupted at dinner by the figure of Alderman Wood bearing a letter from Caroline, while as in the Book of Daniel, the writing appears on the wall 'Tho art weighed in the Ballance, and found wanting'. In shock, George IV is shown starting from his seat, knocking over one of the two richly dressed women who accompany him at the head of the table who falls backwards with her legs exposed beneath her billowing skirt. The presence of the female figures clearly refer to George IV’s adulterous affairs with numerous women during his marriage to Caroline. The biblical allusion and the presence of these figures highlight the perception of George IV’s hypocrisy and mistreatment of his wife, and draw a line between these misdeeds and his qualities as a monarch.
The Prince Regent’s excessive spending and extravagant lifestyle was another area in which critics questioned his qualities as a ruler. In Coronation Arrangements aukwardly interupted, or Injured Innocence demanding her rights, 9 Caroline disrupts a comic scene at the Principal Royal Goldsmiths and Jewellers Rundell, Bridge and Co., where George IV is pictured proposing farcical alterations to the coronation crown including the addition of ‘Chinese Dragons and Cockatoos’. His suggestions, despite causing consternation amongst some of the attending advisors, are accepted by the goldsmith ‘It shall be furnished according to your instructions to any shape whether Royal Imperial Mural celestial or Infernal by your most obedient subjects’.
Ranging from villainous to witless, these representations of the King cast aspersions on his character and therefore on his fitness to rule. These critiques are further underlined by multiple instances of satirists highlighting historic associations with other monarchs, most notably representing George IV as Henry VIII. George IV’s actions in bringing forward the Bill are likened to the Tudor king’s infamous attempts to secure divorces and separations from his various wives. In Fairburn’s print Harry the Eighth’s Address to his Parliament on the Subject of being Divorced,10 the King is flanked by figures including a group of beheaded ministers, while Marks’ print KING HENRY VIII. Act II, Scene IV the divorce of Queen Caroline,11 draws from Shakespeare’s history play and shows Caroline confronting a caricatured corpulent King as she pleads her case through an abridged version of Katherine of Aragon’s monologue ‘Sir, I desire you do me right and justice; And to bestow your pity on me’, which the arrogant monarch dismisses. Both these representations cast George IV in the role of the cruel husband and cast aspersions on his fitness to rule by undermining his relationship with ministers and advisors who are left with their heads quite literally in their hands.
These contrasting representations of Caroline and George IV highlight the different public perceptions of their behaviour during the scandal, and how these different perceptions could be used to explore the political dimensions of the scandal. The contrasting roles of the two royal subjects, whether as a wronged wife versus cruel husband, or defender of liberties against perpetrator of injustice, are used to reflect the wider political debate surrounding issues of reform and corruption. These representations provide a fascinating commentary on the Trial of Queen Caroline within a parliamentary context.