The Queen Caroline Affair, 1820

George IV’s determination, following his succession to the throne in 1820, to finally obtain a divorce from his estranged wife, Caroline of Brunswick, sparked an opposition campaign, both in Parliament and in the country, which threatened the survival of Lord Liverpool’s Tory administration. It also led to extensive proceedings in the House of Lords, which took on the appearance of a state trial. The famous painting of the ‘Trial of Queen Caroline’ by Sir George Hayter is in the National Portrait Gallery.

On 5 June 1820 Caroline, who had been living abroad for the past six years, arrived unexpectedly in England to claim her right to be crowned queen. The government, under intense pressure from the king, reluctantly agreed to introduce a bill of pains and penalties into the House of Lords, which would have annulled the royal marriage and deprived Caroline of her title. She thereupon became the unlikely beneficiary of a wave of indignant public sympathy, being perceived as a ‘wronged woman’ who was bravely struggling to uphold her rights against a callous political establishment. During the summer and autumn increasing numbers of Whig politicians gave Caroline their backing, overcoming in many cases the personal distaste that they felt for her. Prominent Radicals such as Sir Francis Burdett and John Cam Hobhouse were also keen to capitalise on the situation, and addresses of support were forwarded to the queen from numerous meetings held all over the country.

Beneath the varied expressions of devotion to Caroline there undoubtedly lay considerable personal antipathy towards the king, who was widely regarded as extravagant, selfish and dissolute. At a time of economic distress in the country, the king’s ministers were also condemned for their alleged corruption and resort to oppressive measures, as well as for their servile harassment of the queen. By standing up for Caroline’s constitutional rights, it was thus possible for critics to attack the regime without being openly subversive, or anti-monarchical.

The Whig lawyers, Henry Brougham and Thomas Denman, skilfully defended Caroline during the proceedings on the bill of pains and penalties in the Lords. Ministers found that increasing numbers of usually reliable peers were deserting them and, in the division on the bill’s third reading, 9 November, their majority shrank to just nine. Liverpool, recognising that there was no possibility of carrying the measure through the Commons, decided to abandon it, to the king’s undisguised fury. The government was further weakened by the resignation of an ambitious senior minister, George Canning, in protest at the way the queen had been treated.

Jubilant scenes in the country greeted the news of the bill’s demise, and, at subsequent public gatherings, including several county meetings, the government’s enemies became increasingly daring in their demands. Attempts were made to link the queen’s cause with the popular clamour for retrenchment in government expenditure, and in some cases the question of parliamentary reform was also raised, to the discomfiture of the more moderate Whigs.

In fact, the agitation on behalf of the queen abated with surprising suddenness. There were signs, early in 1821, of something of a loyalist reaction in the country, sustained by the lurid evidence presented during the Lords’ trial of Caroline’s immoral behaviour. Backbench Tory MPs were also fearful of the possible consequences if Liverpool’s ministry collapsed, and they rallied to its defence when the Whigs brought forward motions condemning the omission of Caroline’s name from the Church of England’s liturgy. This effectively marked the end of the Queen Caroline affair as a parliamentary issue. In the months that followed Caroline became an increasingly isolated figure and, when she tried to attend the king’s coronation in July, she was famously shut out of Westminster Abbey. Within a month she was dead, but her political importance had already greatly diminished.

Author: Terry Jenkins