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Protest and Petitions Part 2: After the Trial

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This blog post is the sixth 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 a blog post earlier this year, Dr Katie Carpenter examined three petitions, in support of Caroline, sent to the House of Lords in 1820. In this blog post, Katie discusses a set of over 200 petitions in support of Caroline sent to the House of Lords in 1821.

Public protest was an essential dimension to the Queen Caroline Affair. Whilst the King and government were relentlessly pursuing a divorce, the majority of support was centred on Caroline. During the trial, protest against the proceedings and support for Caroline came in the form of mass crowds,  public addresses and satirical prints and pamphlets. However, during the trial, there was little petitioning activity. 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 about Queen Caroline in 1820.[1] At least three were also sent to the House of Lords. Given the immense public support for Caroline during the trial- and the importance in this period of petitioning as a form of protest[2]- the lack of petitions in support of Caroline seems surprising. However, the Commons suspended much of its usual business over the course of the trial, and petitions may have been sent to other authorities, such as the monarchy.

Despite the lack of petitions for Caroline in 1820, after the trial ended and the Bill of Pains and Penalties was abandoned, the early months of 1821 saw a mass petitioning campaign. In total, 204 petitions were sent to Parliament in the early months of 1821, accounting for 20% of all Commons’ petitions in 1821.[3] 159 of these petitions, or 78%, originated from within England. A sizeable chunk of 41 petitions (20%) came from Scotland. The remaining 4 were from Wales. Although the original petitions have not survived, verbatim copies of the prayer were preserved in the Votes and Proceedings for 1821.[4] Votes and Proceedings are the official printed record of votes, and include an appendix of petitions and other papers presented to the House that year that were deemed important enough to preserve. The number of signatures attached to each petition was not recorded. However, analysis of the prayers of these petitions give a fascinating insight into precisely how Caroline’s plight mobilised such intense support from the public.

Page from book with printed text
Votes & Proceedings                               1821                                                           Parliamentary Archives                         HC/CL/JO/6/148

These petitions came at a convenient time for Caroline. Towards the end of the trial, and afterwards, some believe her support from the public was beginning to wane.  But on the Bill being abandoned, Caroline considered herself entirely vindicated, and wasted no time in starting the political machinations to establish herself with all the rights and privileges to which she was entitled as Queen Consort. This included making preparations for her attendance at her husband’s coronation, making requests to be appointed an official royal residence and household, and seeking to be added back into the liturgy. Whereas the petitions presented during the trial naturally ask to abandon the proceedings of the Bill of Pains and Penalties, the 1821 petitions largely focus on restoring to Caroline these rights and privileges.

The rhetoric of ‘public feeling’ was omnipresent during the trial, and when the Prime Minster Lord Liverpool announced the Bill was no longer to be pursued, he alluded to the pressure from the public: ‘He could not be ignorant of the state of public feeling with regard to this measure’.[5] The mass petitioning campaign was likely to some extent instigated by Brougham, who sought to mobilize the people to support the Queen in regaining her status. In December 1820, Brougham had sent out a circular letter advising his political allies to orchestrate petitions to be sent to the Commons. He wrote of ‘the great benefit [that] would be derived to the Queen’s cause, if the persons in your town who signed the address to H.M. or a considerable proportion of them were to present a H. of Coms praying for the restoration of H. M. to the Liturgy and all her other rights and dignities’.[6] It is impossible to say how many of the petitions originate specifically because of this prompt from Brougham. Given so many were sent in the months preceding the trial with a similar request, it seems likely that there was some driving impetus behind them.

In line with the melodramatic nature of the trial, some petitioners depicted Caroline as an innocent woman, caught in the evil conspiracy of corrupt government ministers. Petitioners from Bridgewater, Somerset wrote of ‘an extended and deep-laid conspiracy appears to the Petitioners to have been for years actively employed in forming horrid plans against the honour, if not the life, of Her Majesty The Queen’, seeking an investigation and punishment for the conspirators.[7]  Other petitions emphasised the gendered nature of the trial, such as petitioners from Nottingham, who described the trial as  ‘cruel and disgraceful proceedings against an innocent female’[8], and from Bedford, who described ‘the various misfortunes of Her Majesty, as a Wife, a Mother, and a Queen’.[9] A petition from Annan, Scotland, stated that ‘the conduct of Her Majesty the Queen has undergone such a scrutiny as that of no female before Her perhaps was ever exposed to’.[10] Interestingly, in the wake of the Queen’s trial, contemporary authors compared Caroline and George to Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, who by the nineteenth century was remembered as a ‘blood-stained tyrant’.[11]

Just as Brougham intended, many of the petitioners were specifically asking for Caroline’s rights and privileges to be restored. The removal of Caroline from the Liturgy in March 1820 had been deeply controversial, since it treated her as if she were guilty, before any sort of trial. After the trial, Caroline and her supporters sought to see this wrong rectified. Petitioners from Hinkley, Leicester, lamented Caroline’s removal from the nation’s prayers: ‘in erasing her Majesty’s name from the Liturgy, by which they attempted to deprive her Majesty of the greatest blessing enjoyed by royalty, the prayers of an affectionate and loyal People’.[12] As the general public paid taxation- and notably for most, without representation- it seemed fitting that they would have a say over how this money was spent. According to a petition from Chorley, Lancaster, ‘the Petitioners would not have their money saved at the expense of their loyalty’. And thus, they hoped that the House would ‘make such amble pecuniary provision for her Majesty, as will enable to maintain that splendour in which the Royal Family of this great Empire ought to be supported’. This was to include a ‘princely palace which the munificence of the People of England has provided for the use of that Family’.[13]

Colour etchings showing Queen Cariline riding in a chariot being pulled by white horses
Boadicea, Queen of Britain, overthrowing her enemies                                                               Published November 1820 by John Fairburn, Broadway, Ludgate Hill, London.,           
etching with hand-colouring                                                                                                       
Parliamentary Art Collection WOA 474.

Collectively the petitions aggrieved for a much broader range of issues than Caroline’s. At a time of economic difficulty, where the disenfranchised were suffering the most, protest against Caroline’s trial was not about Caroline herself. It was representative of the Old Corruption which prioritised the interests of the wealthy (and in this case, the King), over the nation. Petitioners from Godalming, Surrey, summarised this view in their petition

in these times of distress and calamity, when all talent and wisdom of the Legislature can be scarce sufficient to avert ruin which is impending over us, caused for months, in despite of the National voice and the unequivocal declaration of the House, an entire suspension of all other Parliamentary business, by the institution of an inquiry into the conduct of her Majesty, useless in itself, and uncalled for by public exigency.

The trial was, in the petitioners’ belief, the culmination of ‘a long-practised system of corruption given to Ministers of the day influence and power almost despotic’.[14] Thus whilst the petitions were categorised in 1821 as ‘relative to the Queen’, in practice, the prayers address a range of concerns regarding the economic, political and social state of Britain. Petitioners from Reading asked the House to ‘turn their undivided attention to relieve the wants, diminish the burthens, and redress the grievances of the people’.[15] Petitioners from Cockermouth, Cumberland, described themselves as ‘dutiful and loyal Subjects’ of the King, and pointedly added ‘but without any voice in the choice of its Representation’.[16] Others took a more direct approach in addressing the want of parliamentary reform. For instance, petitioners from Dumfries described ‘that His Majesty’s Ministers have on every occasion resisted proposals for enacting measures for substantial Parliamentary Reform’.[17] A petition from Lichfield was classified by parliamentary clerks as ‘relative to the Queen’ because the trial was mentioned, but its prayer was actually directed at parliamentary reform. It ended by seeking ‘an effectual Reform of the Representation of the People in Parliament’.[18]

The prayers of the petitions ‘relative to The Queen’ demonstrate how the public conflated the Queen’s cause with a range of other issues. Whilst the ‘trial’ of Queen Caroline refers to a specific set of parliamentary proceedings that took place between August and November 1820, the ‘affair’ is a much broader concept. It encompassed the people’s reaction to a series of economic, political and social tensions that were plaguing Britain in the early nineteenth-century.



[1] 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.

[2] Richard Huzzey and Henry Miller, ‘Petitions, Parliament and Political Culture: Petitioning the House of Commons, 1780-1919’, Past and Present, 248, 1 (2020): 123-164.

[3] Huzzey and Miller, Leverhulme Research Project on 'Rethinking Petitions, Parliament, and People in the Long Nineteenth Century’.

[4] Votes and Proceedings (1821), HC/CL/JO/6/148, Parliamentary Archives.

[5] HL Hansard, 10 November 1820, vol. 3, col. 1746.

[6] A. Aspinall, The Letters of King George IV 1812-1830, vol. II (Cambridge: At the University Press, 1938), 400.

[7] Petition from Bridgwater, No. 2, p. 4, HC/CL/JO/6/148, Parliamentary Archives.

[8] Petition from Nottingham, No. 56, p. 35, HC/CL/JO/6/148, Parliamentary Archives.

[9] Petition from Bedford, No. 5, p. 5, HC/CL/JO/6/148, Parliamentary Archives.

[10] Petition from Annan, Scotland, No. 20, p. 13, HC/CL/JO/6/148, Parliamentary Archives.

[11] Thomas Harral, Henry the Eighth and George the Fourth; or the Case Fairly Stated, Second (London: C. & H. Baldwyn, 1820), 212.

[12] Petition from Hinckley, Leicester, No. 58, p. 36, HC/CL/JO/6/148, Parliamentary Archives.

[13] Petition from Chorley, Lancaster, No. 68, p. 42, HC/CL/JO/6/148, Parliamentary Archives.

[14] Petition from Godalming, Surrey, No. 42, p. 28, HC/CL/JO/6/148, Parliamentary Archives.

[15] Petition from Reading, Berks, No. 40, p. 47, HC/CL/JO/6/148, Parliamentary Archives.

[16] Petition from Cockermouth, Cumberland, no. 8, p. 7, HC/CL/JO/6/148, Parliamentary Archives.

[17] Petition from Dumfries, no. 103, p. 62, HC/CL/JO/6/148, Parliamentary Archives.

[18] Petition from Lichfield, no. 122, p. 72., HC/CL/JO/6/148, Parliamentary Archives.


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