One theory abounds that the Royal Family is at its most effective when it’s considered dull. If that’s the case then George IV was pretty much a disaster from start to finish, a fact that was solidified by his marriage to his cousin, Princess Caroline of Brunswick at the end of the 18th century. Their union was so scandalous, petty and embarrassing that, honestly, they make the domestic wars of the 1990s seems downright quaint.
On this day in 1795 George and Caroline were married in the Chapel Royal at St. James’s Palace in London. They were first cousins, Caroline being the daughter of Princess Augusta, elder sister of George III and the eldest child of Frederick, Prince of Wales and Augusta of Saxe-Gotha. She was raised in Brunswick, Germany, the product of her parents’ own unhappy marriage, and offered a limited education with an emphasis on music alone and complete seclusion from other children and men. She was good-natured and well-meaning, but also uncouth, plainspoken, tactless and fond of jokes at others’ expense. In short, her temperament was completely at odds with what was expected of a Princess of Wales and queen consort.
George, meanwhile, had been heir to the throne since birth, had champagne tastes and a near obsession with finery, luxury and good taste. He had also, for the last decade, been in love with his Catholic mistress, Mrs. Maria Fitzherbert. So in love, in fact, that he had illegally married her in December 1785 without asking for or receiving royal assent from his father, George III. He had only parted ways with her 10 months before his wedding to Caroline because he was, essentially, being forced to marry a suitable Protestant princess, one that could finally shore up the succession now that the Prince was past 30.
If this is starting to sound like the current Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall before their marriage, then fair, but Caroline was no Diana. The couple officially met three days before their wedding once the bride had arrived in England. Famously, after being presented to his cousin, who obediently knelt before him and accepted a kiss on the cheek, he broke away from the party to the other side of the room, calling out, “Harris, I am not well; pray get me a glass of brandy.”
Caroline was unmoved, saying publicly, “Mon dieu! Is the Prince always like that? I find him very fat and nothing like as handsome as his picture.”
It didn’t improve from there. The wedding went forward, but the couple were such a mismatch – and seemed to have taken such an instant dislike to the other – that it would have been worth the humiliation to have sent the girl back home or found some way to duck out of it. George drank himself into a stupor during the wedding reception; as Caroline recalled years later:
“Judge what it was to have a drunken husband on one’s wedding day, and one who passed the greatest part of his bridal-night under the grate, where he fell, and where I left him.”
Whatever happened that night, it’s likely that Caroline conceived that evening – fulfilling her sole purpose on British soil – and equally as likely that it was the only occasion the couple ever slept together. When told she was pregnant, Caroline expressed disbelief, apparently premised on her belief George was “incapable” of it – an insult to which her husband didn’t easily forgive. Their daughter, Charlotte, was born on January 7, 1796 at Carlton House in London precisely nine months, almost to the day, after her parents’ wedding.
His duty done, George wrote up a will that left everything to the infant princess and the woman he referred to as his wife and “second self,” Maria Fitzherbert.
Whatever hope that parenthood might forge a bond between the two were misguided. There’s one poignant anecdote from a few months later of George holding a dinner party and inviting his two friends, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and her sister, Lady Bessborough, as well as his wife. Georgiana was one of the most famous figures of her day, renowned for her sense of style, lofty marriage, wealth and political activism. Born a Spencer, married to a Cavendish and beautiful, Georgiana was her own scandal-maker, giving birth to an illegitimate daughter with Charles Grey, the future Prime Minister. She was also a fixture in the London social scene, if not its leader, a role that arguably should or could have belonged to Caroline. Instead, upon meeting the famous Duchess, Caroline was reduced to near grovelling, going above and beyond to curry favor with the sort of woman her husband no doubt wished she was.
Three months after Charlotte’s birth, George wrote to Caroline:
“We have unfortunately been oblig’d to acknowledge to each other that we cannot find happiness in our union. … Let me therefore beg you to make the best of a situation unfortunate for us both.”
They informally separated; by August 1797, Caroline moved to her own residence and the couple never lived together again.
There was one brief light about 18 months later when George surprisingly extended his wife an invitation to spend the winter with him at Carlton House, but Caroline, her pride wounded, refused. The overture had been all George could muster, her refusal offended him, and there would be no further forthcoming. The marriage was effectively over.
Unfortunately for the couple, they were legally tied to one another whether they liked it or not, and the possibility of divorce – the respite finally sought by the modern Prince and Princess of Wales 200 years later – was unthinkable.
Nineteen years after arriving in England, during which time she had caused scandal after scandal living alone (including a Parliament-led “delicate investigation” into her personal life), Caroline finally left. She traveled around Europe before finally landing in Italy where she took up semi-permanent residence. She missed the wedding of her daughter, Charlotte, to Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha in 1816, as she missed her pregnancy and death in childbirth in November 1817, which upended the monarchy’s succession. It also, notably, removed Caroline’s final link to the British Royal Family, beyond the legal status of her marriage to George, which remained intact.
Through 1818 and 1819 George unsuccessfully lobbied for a divorce and, at one point, there was discussion of Caroline being known by the lesser title of Duchess of Cornwall instead of Princess or, later, Queen – yet another interesting situation in light of today’s Duchess of Cornwall. But all that changed on January 29, 1820 when George III died and George finally ascended the throne as King George IV. Caroline, against all odds, was Queen of the United Kingdom and Hanover.
Eager to keep Caroline out of England and to nix the public trial of a divorce, Parliament negotiated her allowance to help persuade her to stay abroad. Caroline effectively gave her husband and his government the finger, arriving back in England that June to rapturous crowds who believed her to be the victim of the philandering, unfeeling king. The monarchy’s popularity at a notable low point, George wasn’t fighting from a place of strength and he was in no position to win the war of public opinion.
Even so, George’s hatred for his wife far outstripped his desire to be loved. He pressed forward with a divorce and a bill calling for Caroline to be stripped of her title and accusing her of adultery passed the House of Lords. It was never submitted to the Commons, however, as it wasn’t expected to pass. For her part, Caroline’s response to the charges was that of course she had committed adultery – with Maria Fitzherbert’s husband. Touché.
On July 19, 1821 George was crowned king at Westminster Abbey and Caroline attempted to join the ceremony as queen only to find herself barred from entering – a bit of high drama for the 19th century. Her behavior in the episode even lost her a bit of the public’s respect, who believed it had been a bit beyond the pale – keeping in mind that a coronation is, first and foremost, a religious ceremony.
Two weeks later she was dead. Her body was quietly transported back to Brunswick and she was laid to rest in Brunswick Cathedral on August 25th.
George would go on to reign for another nine years, his reign best known for his investments into art and architecture than for any actual governance. He was succeeded by his younger brother, William IV, in 1830, who was in turn succeeded by their niece, Queen Victoria. It would be Victoria’s reign, mirroring that of her grandfather, George III, which solidified the concept of a royal “family,” one that held up social and domestic ideals. However unfashionable and impractical, the move did much to rebuild the monarchy’s popularity, a response, in part, to George and Caroline’s unholy alliance.