The trials of Queen Caroline
Caroline of Brunswick’s histrionics are well-documented. Here, in this article from 'The Georgian', Lucy Worsley sheds light on her lesser-known but equally long-suffering namesake, Caroline of Anspach.
Queen Caroline (1683-1737), a very human ray of Enlightenment in the otherwise murky world of the early Georgian court, had many excellent qualities, enough to make this clever, funny but almost forgotten queen consort my favourite of all.
A warm, friendly personality, she was endlessly laughing, crying, complaining about bores, teasing her servants, 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.) She was also interested in radical religion, art, and science and was one of the first to have her children inoculated against smallpox. The art of injecting a child with a little pus to bring on a mild bout was brought back to England from Constantinople by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and 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 very publicly placed her faith in medicine and struck a powerful blow for science.
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.
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.
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.
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 steadfastness 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.
Dr Lucy Worsley is Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces. Her next book, Courtiers, The Secret History of Kensington Palace is published in the UK by Faber & Faber on 6 May 2010 and in the UK by Walker Books/Bloomsbury USA as The Courtiers: Intrigue and Splendour in the Georgian Court at Kensington Palace on 10 August 2010. It tells the stories of the royal servants depicted in William Kent’s paintings on the King’s Grand Staircase at the palace.
Lucy Worsley will be lecturing at The Georgian Group on Queen Caroline on 3 June 2010. See page 66 for details.
Reproduced from The Georgian, the magazine of The Georgian Group, Issue 2, 2009, pp. 20-22
© 2013 Lucy Worsley