On August 8, 1814, the Princess of Wales left England and didn’t return until June 5, 1820 as the queen of the United Kingdom and Hanover. It was an extraordinary set of circumstances that made it both tenable and palatable for the heir to the throne’s wife to live abroad. Indeed, it was a set up so appealing to her husband that he took measures to block her from ever returning.
As laid out in more detail here, the marriage of George IV and Caroline of Brunswick was a disaster through and through. Sometimes comical, other times tragic, it remains a particularly damning example of arranged marriages gone wrong and an indictment of the bumper lanes put on royal unions per the Royal Marriages Act of 1772. Today, however, we’re going to zoom in on this nearly six-year period of Caroline’s exile the best we can because it was an unprecedented set of circumstances and one that has never been repeated.
In the tradition of “scandalous” royal marriages, the one between George and Caroline comes up, but generally isn’t top of mind. Perhaps this is because at the time of Caroline’s death the two were still legally married and had managed to produce a child, but it’s worth considering how different royal history would be if George had gotten his way and managed to divorce his wife. I’m thinking particularly about the House of Windsor and the future Edward VIII and Princess Margaret, two 20th century figures famous for having been forced to choose between public duty and love because of divorce. Had a monarch – outside the messy examples of Henry VIII and George I – successfully divorced his or her spouse and continued on, would there have been more wiggle room for subsequent royals?
It’s hard to say, but I do think the matters would have been treated differently even if the outcomes didn’t change.
By 1814, George and Caroline had been married for 19 unhappy years, their only saving grace being their 18-year-old daughter, Charlotte, who was expected to someday succeed her father and grandfather to the British throne and rule as queen regnant. Charlotte had spent her childhood ferrying back and forth between her parents, a predicament no doubt familiar to any child of divorce. She managed to maintain positive relationships with them both, but her greatest act of defiance may have been insisting on looking out for her mother, on whom the rest of the Royal Family had turned their back.
Eighteen, Charlotte was now also facing a looming marriage of her own, however the question remained with whom. Her father was a staunch supporter of her marrying Prince William of Orange, a distant cousin since both were descended from George II, however Caroline vehemently opposed it. Without much emotion either way, Charlotte signed the marriage contract with William on June 10th, but quickly saw that the match was viewed by the public as choice between her parents. When she went out into society, people stopped her to urge her not to desert her mother by marrying William. Finally, she wrote to William that not only would she never reside outside of England, but that she expected her mother to always be received in their home.
Knowing full well that the Prince of Wales – then the Prince Regent – would never condone it, William refused. Charlotte promptly broke the engagement, her decision further solidified by news that William had been seen publicly drunk on multiple occasions.
George was livid and in the midst of the news Caroline announced that she intended to leave the country. The government became concerned that George would have an easier time arguing for a divorce if his wife had effectively fled the country – a concern that stemmed less for Caroline and more for the reputation of Charlotte, their future queen. Days later George summoned his daughter to Carlton House, his London home, but she plead ill-health. Eventually he went to her, at which point the two had a one-on-one conversation for 15 minutes. For her insubordination, George had decreed that all of her servants should be dismissed and she be kept at Cranbourne Lodge on the grounds of Windsor, not allowed to see anyone except her grandmother, Queen Charlotte.
Charlotte responded by grabbing a bonnet and escaping by the back stairs, running directly to Caroline’s house at Connaught Place. Unfortunately Caroline wasn’t there, so Charlotte sent an appeal to her favorite uncle, Augustus, Duke of Sussex, and her mother’s legal adviser, Henry Brougham. Together, the two men told her that resisting her father would only make matters worse. Caroline, who had rushed home to comfort her daughter, was less than pleased. Charlotte returned to Carlton House and was reconciled with George.
It was in the aftermath of these events that Caroline asked for formal permission to move to Italy on the grounds that her parents were dead and her daughter clearly didn’t care for her, having chosen George. When George brought the news to Charlotte at Cranbourne Lodge, she was shattered, believing that her mother was effectively abandoning her. In reality, she was – it’s difficult to wrap one’s head around a mother that would leave her only child in the precarious state she was in so soon after that same child had gone to bat for her reputation in the Orange affair. Reportedly, Charlotte also predicted that once her mother left the country they would never see one another again.
Caroline left England on August 8th and traveled to her childhood home in Brunswick where she remained for two weeks. She then made a slow journey to Italy by way of Switzerland. When she reached Milan she hired a man named Bartolomeo Pergami to join her household as a servant – the two soon became the subject of rampant and ugly gossip.
That Christmas, Charlotte spent the holiday with George at Windsor. Without motive, Charlotte told her father and her aunt, Princess Mary, Duchess of Gloucester, that her mother had once left her alone with a man named Captain Hesse, believed to be the bastard son of Prince Frederick, Duke of York and one of her mother’s lovers, and locked the door behind them. Charlotte shared her theory that Caroline had done so in the hopes of drawing Charlotte into the entire dynamic, altering the succession so that her adopted son, William Austin, was forcibly named heir. If true, it was a hair-brained idea and would never have worked, but whatever benefit of the doubt George had ever entertained giving Caroline (not much), her apparent mistreatment of their daughter was enough to harden his resolve to be rid of her for good.
Caroline, meanwhile, was determined to live her best life and put her husband and daughter behind her. She bought Villa d’Este on Lake Como in mid-1815 and spent her time entertaining the Italians with her outrageous behavior. She enjoyed balls, masques, theatre, gambling and throwing elaborate parties with musicians who kept her guests occupied until the morning. As detailed by John Van Der Kriste:
“Descriptions of her in the strangest attire rapidly became common knowledge. In Geneva she appeared at a ball ‘dress en Venus, or rather not dressed, further than the waist,’ while at Athens she had ‘dressed almost naked danced with her servants.’ At Genoa she rode in phaeton which had been build for her to look like a sea-shell, covered with mother-of-pearl and gilding, lined with blue velvet with silver fringes, drawn by two piebald ponies. Her own appearance was even more colourful than that of the vehicle. Above her bright red face was a pink hat with seven or eight feathers; she wore a pink bodice, cut very low, and a short white skirt barely covering her knees, revealing two stout legs in pink top-boots. Beside her sat ‘Willikin,’ a vacuous-faced young man. In front of them was an outrider on another piebald pony, and two more piebald ponies trotted behind the carriage, driven by grooms in English livery. Spectators could have been excused for thinking that they were watching a circus, rather than the entourage of the woman whose husband was heir to the English throne. It was widely rumoured that her sanity, or lack of it, was in question just as much as that of her father-in-law.”
While all of this was going on on on the continent, Charlotte decided on a husband – Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld. The two had met in 1814 and hit it off, but it wasn’t until 1815 that he was seriously considered as a potential husband. Charlotte formally requested her father’s permission to marry him in July 1815, but George put her off. She tried again in January 1816 and by the next month Leopold arrived in England to be interviewed by his potential father-in-law. By March an engagement was announced and the couple married on May 2nd.
Caroline didn’t attend the wedding (nor, for that matter, was she invited). Early in 1816 she took off on a cruise of the Mediterranean with Pergami, with whom she was dining openly. If they weren’t actually lovers, then certainly it was the allusion that Caroline meant to create. Even the poet, Lord Byron, described them as such after coming across them during his travels. Her party made its way through the Greek islands and even made a stop in Jerusalem, which Caroline entered riding a donkey, surrounded by camels. It was a far cry from the BRF holed up at Windsor Castle.
Back in England, Charlotte settled into married life with aplomb, but had the misfortune to suffer two miscarriages back-to-back within months of her wedding. By the spring of 1817 she was pregnant a third time and this one stuck. She wrote to Caroline to tell her the news and her mother responded by stating, “Then all cabals about me will be at an end. I am then a well-established old lady and no more scandals can be created about poor me.”
That right there should give a good sense of Caroline’s level of self-awareness.
Tragically, however, on the night of November 5, 1817 Charlotte gave birth to a stillborn son and died the following day. Britain plunged into mourning and the succession of the crown was thrown up in the air. Charlotte’s uncles (and George’s younger brothers) responded by scurrying into rushed marriages with German princesses and Caroline learned the news three weeks later, responding with, “This is not only my last hope gone, but what has England lost?”
Quite a bit, at least by their judgment of it. George III was mentally ill and a figure of pity, his sons were unpopular and considered (fairly) to be rather useless, while the young Princess Charlotte was the great hope for the sustainability of the monarchy.
For Caroline the rub was that Charlotte’s death deepened her husband’s desire to divorce her, and while personally she loathed him as much as he did her, she had no interest in losing out on the great “pay out” of having married him. In the summer of 1818 George sent a three-man envoy to Italy to investigate Caroline’s behavior, and while the evidence was certainly there to find her guilty of infidelity, the government was loath to publicly open proceedings that would cause yet another royal scandal.
That said, Caroline repeatedly told her friends and supporters that she had little interest in being queen. Prior to Charlotte’s death, she had no intention of ever returning to England so long as her annuity was paid and her advisers swore to the government that she would agree to a legal separation once George ascended the throne, accepting the title, “Duchess of Cornwall.” That last bit, of course, calls to mind how today’s Royal Family handled the marriage of the current Prince of Wales and Camilla Parker-Bowles.
And here is where George really shot himself in the foot, because a mutual agreement of separation wasn’t initially enough for him. He wanted a divorce and he wanted a divorce in which Caroline was found to be the guilty party. George III finally passed away on January 29, 1820, news of which reached Caroline as she was making her way to Rome. She immediately planned her return to England to protect her rights, while George began investigating how he could exclude Caroline from every aspect of his reign.
Eventually, under the advice of his government, who pointed out his own infidelity and his illegal first marriage to Maria Fitzherbert, George offered his wife £50,000 so long as she remained abroad and gave up the title of queen. Instead, Caroline landed at Dover on June 5th, ending her six-year exile.
She made her way to London, the English public cheering her on as she did. Crowds surrounded her where she stationed herself at Alderman Wood with cries of “No Queen, No King” and “Queen Caroline!” really setting the scene for the newly-made George IV and the rest of his family.
A full-blown trial was carried out that summer and while legislation was on the table that autumn to find Caroline guilty of treason, Brougham brought forth a copy of George’s will which named Fitzherbert his “dear wife,” serving as evidence that he might have forfeited his right to the crown by marrying a Catholic. The bill was abandoned, George and Caroline remained married, and their battle royale was only truly brought to a halt by Caroline’s death on August 7, 1821 in London.
This rather ignoble period for the Royal Family served as the cornerstone for the perceived excess of the Regency period, Charlotte’s death calling more attention to the disreputable ways of her uncles, particularly the future William IV and Edward, Duke of Kent. It was also the very reputation and culture that Queen Victoria and Prince Albert would work to set right, establishing a stricter moral compass that the upper class and royalty should adhere to – publicy at least. Arguably the desire for the Royal Family to reflect the social mores of the public has remained, not withstanding the private lives of Edward VII and Edward VIII.
Even so, Caroline’s foray abroad remains a curious and slightly unbelievable anecdote of the House of Hanover.