Britain’s funniest, cleverest and fattest queen ever: Queen Caroline
Hello! I’ve been a bit quiet for a fortnight because I have busy hurling myself round the globe: in last two weeks I have laid my head in Istanbul, Northern Ireland, Ludlow and Oxford. While I’ve been away, though I gather that trailers have been spotted for the BBC’s eighteenth century season, including my own series which will be on BBC Four in late April, ‘The First Georgians’.
Part two of our series is all about MY FAVOURITE QUEEN ever, Queen Caroline, and my colleague Joanna has just published a really excellent new book about her. In honour, then, our our favourite queen, here’s a little article I wrote about her a while back for The Georgian magazine….
‘I often find myself quizzing people on their favourite king or queen. Usually it’s Henry VIII or George III, Victoria or Elizabeth. For me, though, there’s only one satisfactory answer, the almost-forgotten Queen Caroline (1683–1737), the fat, funny, German immigrant who would become the unlikeliest but the cleverest queen ever crowned in this country.
Let me run through her excellent qualitites. First, she had a warm, friendly, un-princessy personality: endlessly teasing her servants, laughing, crying, complaining about bores, hobnobbing with intellectuals whenever she could escape from drawing room duties. (She had to meditate in the epic row between her two pet philosophers, Isaac Newton and Gottfried Liebniz about which of them had discovered calculus. Imagine Queen Victoria bothering about such things.)
English was Caroline’s third language after German and French. She was born in Anspach, a tiny German state. She was orphaned early and shunted by her relations from court to minor court round Germany. Blonde, sweet smile, pretty hands, if rather plump: she eventually caught the eye of George Augustus, the son of the Elector of Hanover. He met her in romantic disguise as a private gentleman – incognito – before suffering a coup de foudre and passionately declaring his hand.
Now this minor ruling family of Hanover of course turned out to offer Caroline a rather major opportunity. In 1714, following the Hanoverian Succession, Caroline became Princess of Wales, daughter-in-law of King George I of Great Britain.
But poor Caroline had married into a truly dysfunctional family. Her father-in-law the king had imprisoned his adulterous wife in a remote German castle, and arrived in London accompanied by his skinny mistress, The Maypole. (Everyone thought that The Maypole’s fat friend, The Elephant, was a second royal mistress, but she wasn’t, she was the king’s half-sister.) And George I had a violent hatred for Caroline and his son, whom he rightly thought were plotting against him. Students studying this period get all tied up with Parliamentary politics and Sir Robert Walpole and the South Sea Bubble, but miss out on the fabulously bizarre shenanigans of the royal family.
So old king George I inflicted a terrible punishment upon Caroline: he snatched her five beloved children. First, her eldest son Frederick was made to stay behind in Hanover as the family’s representative there. Second, her next son was seized, after Caroline’s husband refused to apologise after a stupid court quarrel. (The Hanoverian habit of mangling the English language was to blame: George Augustus snarled angrily that he would ‘find’ the Duke of Newcastle to give him a piece of his mind, the Duke misheard it as ‘fight’, and thought he’d been challenged to a duel.) Unfortunately this second son died in the king’s care after just a few months: Caroline saw him just once before the end. And the king also took her three girls as hostages to keep George Augustus in order, and Caroline was only allowed to see them on Sundays.
So Caroline had a second, junior family: two more girls and a boy. To these younger three she was a wonderful mother. She was also interested in radical religion, and art, and science, and was one of the first westerners to have her children inoculated against smallpox. The art of injecting a child with a tiny bit of pus to bring on a mild bout was brought back to England from Constantinople by the outspoken traveller Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. When Caroline had her own children treated, there was uproar: how could something so counter-intuitive possibly work, associated as it was with women and Turks? But work it did, and by supporting inoculation Caroline struck a huge blow for science. Her predecessors the Stuart kings and queens had claimed to possess the power to heal in their very hands: their sick subjects queued for hours for the royal ‘touch’. But Caroline placed her faith in medicine, not magic.
In 1727 Caroline’s husband became king, and she and he moved into Kensington Palace. Her husband was in many ways a wash-out, although historians give him credit for acting as a constitutional rather than an absolute monarch. With his limited brainpower, George II was really under Caroline’s much smarter thumb. One particularly rude political cartoon of the day shows her injecting a powerful sedative potion into his anus in order to control him. Behind the scenes Caroline stitched up much political business. The rest of the time the king roamed through the court in search of female victims, and chief among them was the unhappily-married Henrietta Howard, his long-suffering mistress. She was far too clever and sensitive for him, but was forced to put up with the king because of the protection he offered against her violent alcoholic husband. Caroline didn’t much mind Henrietta, because she was meek and mild, but Henrietta bolted from king and court as soon as her husband died and his harassment ended.
Yet George II sought to replace Henrietta with younger models, and in the last decade of her life Caroline found herself sidelined, stout and worn out by gout (she was rolled round the palace in the wheeled chair originally made to carry a ‘Sea Goddess’ in a court masque). People called her the king’s ‘great fat-arsed wife’, and some visitors to court were actually disappointed by the reality of her famously enormous bosom. She consoled herself with her 3,000 books: we hear her laughing at Gulliver’s Travels; being read aloud to each day to pass the tedious hours at the toilette; sending out a lady-in-waiting to get her ‘all my Lord Bacon’s works’.
Perversely, despite Caroline’s pioneering role in public health, the inadequacies of eighteenth-century medicine were eventually to kill her. Documents in the Royal Archives record Caroline’s prodigious shopping sprees: red-heeled slippers, twenty fans a quarter, four silver girdles in a single month, two sets of whalebone hoops for skirts annually. But she purchased curiously few sets of stays (forerunners of the corset). This was with good reason. Since her last pregnancy, Caroline had suffered from an umbilical hernia, or a hole in her belly, and couldn’t bear to have anything tight around her middle.
Nor could she bear to have anyone know about such an embarrassing disorder, and she always kept on her shift when being undressed by her ladies. Finally, in 1737, a bit of her bowel popped out through that hole, and she could not disguise the fact that she was seriously ill. (The sketch here, by Lady Burlington, shows Caroline on her sick bed.)
Her doctors should have pushed that loop of bowel back inside and hoped that the hole would heal, but instead they made a terrible error. They cut it off. Now Caroline’s digestive system was destroyed, and she took ten days to die.
During these last days, Caroline more than ever proved her steadiness of spirit. Although she was in agony, unable to swallow morphine, she kept up her courage, and was more concerned for her family than herself. During daily operations she teased her surgeon Dr Ranby, telling him to imagine instead that he was cutting up his cross old wife whom he hated, and once, when an assistant’s wig caught fire from a candle burning in darkened bedchamber, the operation had to stop while the queen laughed. And in those ten horrible days, with all her children and all the court watching and waiting, her husband came back to Caroline. After years of neglect, casual cruelties, slights and infidelities, the king realised he still loved his queen.
At eleven o’clock on the night of Sunday 20 November 1737, she said goodbye to her children, asked for the light to be put out, and died with her husband’s hand in hers. He promised never to marry again, and planned for their dust to mingle in a joint coffin.
So while Victoria and Elizabeth may get all the attention, Caroline gives us much to admire. She was a very human ray of Enlightenment in the otherwise murky and rather nasty world of the Georgian court. I walk through her rooms at Kensington Palace and wish I could have met her.’