England’s “Injured Queen”

Caroline, the Princess of Wales, in 1804. Portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence.

August can be an unlucky month for European royalty, and that was especially true during the Regency. Napoleon was exiled to St. Helena in August of 1815. And in August of 1821, Caroline of Brunswick, the Princess of Wales, died a lonely death in London just three weeks after her estranged husband, the former Prince Regent, was crowned King George IV.

But let’s go back to the beginning of this tale of an unhappy royal marriage. Caroline’s sad story began in Germany long before she caught the attention of the Court of St. James.

 An Arranged Marriage 

Caroline was unlucky throughout her life. Born a German princess in 1768, she nonetheless had a lonely childhood.  Her family kept her isolated and secluded, especially from the opposite sex.

Her companions were elderly females and governesses. She was sent to her room when guests came over and usually couldn’t go to court functions or balls. And when she was permitted to attend a ball, she wasn’t allowed to dance.

She had even less luck in her married life.

Caroline’s husband, chosen for her, was the Prince of Wales, the future Prince Regent and King George IV of England.

The Prince’s Money Problems

Caroline was by no means the Prince’s one and only. By the time he was considering marriage, the Prince already had kept several mistresses and had even entered into an illegal marriage with a Catholic woman, Maria Fitzherbert. Though the marriage was never valid, the Prince referred to Maria as his wife for years after his marriage to Caroline.

The only reason the Prince agreed to legally wed Caroline, or any woman at all, was because he was deeply in debt – millions of dollars in today’s money. He regularly exceeded his generous annual allowance, and his lavish spending was taking its toll on the government coffers.

King George III refused to settle his son’s debts unless his heir married an eligible princess. So Prince George reluctantly agreed to enter into matrimony on the condition that his allowance was to be doubled in addition to his debts being paid.

Enter Caroline

Caroline in 1795, painted by Gainsborough Dupont.

And that’s how Caroline of Brunswick came into the picture. She was the daughter of  the British Princess Augusta and the Duke of Brunswick. Princess Augusta was the sister of King George III, which made Caroline’s mother the Prince’s aunt.

Not only was Caroline an eligible Protestant princess, but the Prince’s marriage to her would further strengthen the alliance between England and Brunswick.

For King George III and his royal advisors, Caroline was the perfect choice to wed the Prince of Wales.

Meeting Her Prince

Even though Caroline and George were first cousins, they had never met in person. There were no photographs in those days, so the young couple relied on carefully crafted painted portraits to “see” each other – sort of like the 18th-century version of Tinder.

But painted portraits, designed to flatter their subjects, can lie. When Caroline and George finally saw each other right before their wedding, both were disappointed in their future mates.

When the Prince of Whales first laid eyes on his future bride he was taken aback. Caroline at age 27 wasn’t bad-looking, and some sources even describe her as pretty at this stage in her life, with golden curls. But she was short and rather heavy, graceless, and loud. She was also careless about her personal hygiene and by some accounts had to be reminded to bathe more often and change her underclothes.

You could see why someone as fussy and fastidious as the Prince would be appalled. After meeting Caroline, the Prince reportedly asked for a glass of brandy and retreated to the far corner of the room.

As for Caroline, she later commented that her intended was “very fat and he’s nothing like as handsome as his portrait.”

Caroline may have been naïve going into her marriage, but she was no fool. She noticed, and was unhappy about, the Prince’s obvious preference for the company of Lady Jersey, who was his mistress at the time. Prince George had sent Lady Jersey to meet his future bride when Caroline landed in England, and he also made his mistress his future wife’s Lady of the Bedchamber. But despite their mutual misgivings, the royal pair went through with their wedding anyway, on April 8, 1795.

Off to a Bad Start

Another Sir Thomas Lawrence portrait of Caroline, painted in 1798.

However, the Prince’s bad first impressions of Caroline soon congealed into real antipathy. He insisted later he only had sexual relations with his wife three times – twice after the wedding and once a week later. In any event, it was just enough to conceive their only child, Princess Charlotte, who was born in 1796.

Though they shared a residence (Carlton House) the couple unofficially separated within weeks of their marriage. After Charlotte was born, Caroline moved out, establishing herself in a rented place close to Blackheath.

His dynastic duty done, the Prince proceeded to publicly ignore his wife. As much as he could arrange it, she wasn’t part of his life. She wasn’t invited to his parties or court functions. He severely restricted her access to her child, insisting that a nurse or governess had to be with her when she visited the baby.

As far as he was concerned, his legal wife didn’t exist. He continued to exceed his allowance, lavishing money on his palaces, clothes, mistresses, and entertainment.

A Neglected Wife

In the years that followed, stories began to circulate that Caroline had taken lovers – rumors that led to a “delicate investigation” into her conduct in 1806. During the investigation Caroline was not allowed to see her daughter at all, and even after the charges of infidelity were proved groundless, Caroline’s visits with Charlotte were further restricted to once a week, and only in the presence of her mother, the Dowager Duchess of Brunswick.

Jane Austen Weighs In 

Like most of the British public, Jane Austen had an opinion on the squabbles between the royal couple. She was firmly on what today we’d call “Team Caroline.”

Here’s what she wrote in a letter to a friend in 1813 about the Princess of Wales: “Poor woman, I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a Woman, & because I hate her Husband  . . . but if I must give up the Princess, I am resolved at least always to think that she would have been respectable, if the Prince had behaved only tolerably by her at first.”

The Princess Goes on Holiday

Caroline and Pergami together in a caricature by George Cruikshank, 1821

In August of 1814 Princess Caroline left England and her husband, who was now the Prince Regent, for a self-imposed exile on the Continent. After a visit to her native Brunswick, she moved to Italy. Back in England, the Prince Regent continued his extravagant lifestyle.

Freed from the restrictions she’d known in England, Caroline went a little wild, and word of her behavior soon reached London. One scandal in particular was her liaison with a handsome Italian hunk who was many years her junior. He was a servant she hired in Milan, and his name was Bartolomeo Bergami. He later changed his surname to Pergami because he thought it sounded more aristocratic.

According to gossip, Caroline spent much of her time cavorting with Pergami and dressing and acting in ways inappropriate to her age, much less her station in life. But perhaps she was reacting to years of being stuck in England with a husband who made no secret of his disgust of her.

Caroline Returns to England

After leaving England in 1814 Caroline stayed in Europe for six years. While she was away her daughter Charlotte married Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, and the happy couple soon became pregnant.

In 1817, with Caroline still living abroad, tragedy struck when Charlotte died giving birth to a stillborn son. Caroline heard the news of her daughter’s death from a passing courier, showing how far she had been cast out of the royal circle.

Charlotte’s death and the death of the baby made Caroline’s position in the royal family even more tenuous. As the Prince Regent’s estranged wife, she had much less clout than she would have had as the mother and grandmother of his heirs to the throne.

So when mad old King George III died in 1820 and it was the Prince’s turn to become king, Caroline decided it was time to return to England. She was determined to claim her rightful role as queen consort.

The new king, however, was equally determined that she would never sit beside him on the throne.

Next time: England’s “Injured Queen,” Part 2.


Sources for this post include:

  • The Prince of Pleasure and his Regency 1811-20, by J.B. Priestley, Harper & Row Publishers, New York, 1969.
  • Our Tempestuous Day, by Carolly Erickson, William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York, 1986.
  • An Elegant Madness, High Society in Regency England, by Venetia Murray, Viking (Penguin Putnam, Inc.) New York, 1999.
  • The Regency Companion, by Sharon Laudermilk and Teresa L. Hamlin, Garland Publishing Inc., New York and London, 1989.

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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