On 8th April 1795, Princess Caroline of Brunswick and George, Prince of Wales, met in the Chapel Royal of St James’s Palace to be joined in matrimony. The couple could not have been further from the idyll of young lovers starting on a new life, with a groom who was already a decade into an illegal marriage and a bride who was an unwitting pawn of financial politics thrust together in one of the 18th century’s most disastrous royal matches.
George consented to marry simply because he had no choice. Buried in a mountain of debt, the prince looked to Parliament and George III for a bailout and found himself facing an ultimatum. If he wished to receive another penny he must curb his womanising ways, set aside his lover and secret wife, Maria Fitzherbert, and marry his cousin, Caroline of Brunswick.
From the first meeting, the outlook was bleak. George proclaimed himself disgusted by his bride-to-be whilst Caroline lamented that her fiancé was not at all like his flattering portraits. Still, she was determined to make the best of it and arrived at the wedding ceremony resplendent in silver and ermine to find her groom dead drunk. Propped up by his groomsmen, George staggered through the ceremony and when the newlyweds retired to their chamber, collapsed in a dead faint on the floor.
Although the couple did manage to have one child, Princess Charlotte of Wales, within two years they had separated. Free of her husband, Caroline suddenly started to live and society gossips whispered in scandalised delight of the procession of men who beat a path to her door, leaving the furious prince determined to shame his errant wife.
Caroline had a passion for adopting orphans and in 1802 added infant, William Austin, to her household. When a mutual friend confided to George that the boy was actually the illegitimate offspring of Caroline and a footman, he used this bit of gossip to convene the Delicate Investigation, a secret government enquiry intended to prove Caroline’s adultery.
The investigation began on 1st June 1806 with prime minister, William Grenville, charged with determining the truth. Prosecution testimony painted a picture of a woman with a voracious sexual appetite but the defence countered with a couple of star witnesses, Sophia and Samuel Austin, who just so happened to be William’s real parents.
Faced with their evidence, the investigation concluded that William was not Caroline’s child but stopped short of exonerating her on charges of adultery. It was a slight victory for George but the public relations fallout was immense. Far from sharing the prince’s disgust at Caroline’s behaviour, the English press and people saw only a wife who had been wronged by her spiteful, vindictive husband.
Punished by having her access to her daughter severely restricted, Caroline left for Italy. Here she was once again in a partying mood and soon met former soldier, Bartolomeo Pergami, whom she installed as her chamberlain and a whole lot more besides. Watching from England, George was incandescent with fury and embarrassment and set out for revenge.
When Princess Charlotte died in 1817, George didn’t send word to her mother but left the heartbroken Caroline to find out by chance from a messenger passing through Italy. That cruel decision was only the start of his fightback and in 1819 he convened the Milan Commission, with the intention of proving his wife’s adultery. Although her romance with Pergami was an open secret Caroline informed her advisor, Henry Brougham, that she would not admit adultery, suggesting George was just as guilty of that charge as she was. It left the unhappy couple in deadlock, with the divorce unable to proceed.
Everything changed on 29th January 1820 with the death of George III. Suddenly the new queen’s domestic life was of national importance and Parliament examined the findings of the Milan Commission. Their answer was the Pains and Penalties Bill, an audacious attempt to place Caroline on trial and strip of her title.
Public rejoicing greeted Caroline’s return to England and at the trial, things did not go her husband’s way. Caroline and Pergami’s idyllic household was a welcome contrast to George’s wildly public love affairs and Brougham tore the prosecution and the bill to shreds. The public was delighted and the king incensed, but there was one final twist in the tale of Caroline of Brunswick and George IV.
Caroline was determined to be crowned alongside her husband at Westminster Abbey but when she arrived for the coronation on 19th July 1821, she found the doors barred to her. Her efforts to gain admittance saw her jeered at by the doorkeepers and public alike and it was clear that she had vastly underestimated the patriotic mood that the coronation celebrations had brought to England.
Caroline returned to Brandenburg House in humiliation and died within three weeks, finally giving her husband the freedom he had so desperately wished for. It was an inauspicious end to a dramatic life and a marriage that had, from that first meeting, been doomed.
- Hadlow, Janice. The Strangest Family: The Private Lives of George III, Queen Charlotte and the Hanoverians. London: William Collins, 2014.
- Hetherington Fitzgerald, Percy. The Life of George the Fourth. London: Tinsley Brothers, 1881.
- Plowden, Alison. Caroline and Charlotte. Stroud: The History Press, 2011.
- Robins, Jane. The Trial of Queen Caroline. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006.
- Smith, EA. George IV. Bury St Edmunds: St Edmundsbury Press, 1999.