Caroline, Princess of Wales, was not a highly visible presence during the Regency. She had long since separated from her husband, the Prince of Wales by the time he became Regent. In the late summer of 1814, Caroline left England and did not return until her husband had become king. In today’s article, award-winning Regency author, Cheryl Bolen, reviews Flora Fraser’s biography of the Prince Regent’s estranged wife.
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The Unruly Queen: The Life of Queen Caroline
By Flora Fraser
Alfred A. Knopf, 1996
All of us who are acquainted with the Regency have heard of how — to settle his enormous debts — the prince regent agreed to marry his first cousin, Caroline of Brunswick, a woman he had never met. We have all read of the regent’s shocked quip at being presented to the less-than-clean woman who would become his wife: "Harris, I am not well; pray get me a glass of brandy." We have been told that the regent had to get himself thoroughly foxed in order to bed this German-born woman on their wedding night. Others have even suggested that the "act" may have been performed only once (not accurate), with the happy result that Princess Caroline immediately became pregnant with Princess Charlotte. We are also well acquainted with Caroline’s trial for adultery in the House of Lords in 1820 (a proceeding which failed to censure her).
I must confess that before reading Flora Frasier’s biography, I was sympathetic to the aesthete known as the prince regent. I even took a kind of perverse pleasure in his shunning of the stinking, buxom German woman. A womanizing sot he may have been, but his sensory sensitivity was something with which I could identify.
After reading Frasier’s work on Caroline, I believe the regent most cruel to his innocent bride. This change in my mindset was not brought about because Frazier glossed over Caroline’s faults. She did not.
While Caroline never expected to fall in love with the man she married, she did work hard to please him in the first two to three years of their marriage. To no avail. There was nothing she could have done to have curried his favor. From the moment he set eyes on her, he was thoroughly revolted. His dislike of her bordered on the obsessive. He would not sit down to table with her. He disliked her living under the same roof. He would not even directly communicate with her. In point of fact, he fancied himself in love with Mrs. Fitzherbert, a woman he illegally married a decade earlier, and from whom he had separated the previous year because of one of his affairs.
Going back to original diaries and viewing many portraits of the wronged Caroline, Frazier said that as a young woman, Caroline was not unattractive. Her grooming, however, was another matter, but even that, Frazier thinks, improved once she got to England and had the opportunity to observe upper-born English women. Frazier may have been a little biased after the eight years she spent researching this biography. Pointed references to Caroline’s uncleanliness (and one in which the regent spoke of his wife’s uncleanliness in a most intimate area) are absent from this work. There is no record, Frazier said, of any other man who had been intimate with princess ever remarking on the offensiveness of her personal hygiene.
The royal newlyweds had sex for no more than a couple of weeks, when their sexual relations ceased altogether. Nine months after the wedding, Caroline gave birth to Charlotte and was close to her daughter. Until the regent demanded they separate. He had no desire for such an uncouth woman to influence the future queen.
Another wrong for Caroline, who adored children.
King George III was not happy with his son’s treatment of Caroline, who was his sister’s daughter, nor was he happy when the two began living separately.
Because having sex with the regent’s wife would have constituted high treason (a hanging offense), no men ever committed to writing their affairs with Caroline. But there were many. Living for many years in Blackheath, adjacent to Greenwich, Caroline had the opportunity to entertain officers in the Royal Navy, at least two of whom became her lovers. But she also had affairs with well-connected men who thought well of her.
Ever desirous of divorcing her, the regent launched a "delicate investigation" against her twelve years after their 1895 marriage, but no concrete evidence of her adulteries was forthcoming.
Because she was so fond of children and because she was denied the opportunity to raise her own child, Caroline adopted a low-born infant boy named Willy Austin whose mother and unemployed father already had too many mouths to feed. She also employed the senior Austin as a mangle operator. The adoption and the boy’s low origins drew criticism and contributed to the Delicate Investigation. Upon Caroline’s death four years after her natural daughter’s, Willy was her residuary legatee.
After her annual income increased when her husband became regent in 1811, she went abroad, living most of the time in Italy, where she elevated a low-born Italian (Pergami) to a baron after he became her lover. She did not return to England until her husband became king in 1820, but she was banned from being crowned queen, the timber doors of Westminster Abby slamming in her face when she attempted to participate in the coronation.
Weeks after her trial in 1821, she died. She requested to be buried in Brunswick with this on her tomb: Caroline of Brunswick, the injured Queen of England.
Frasier, the daughter of the distinguished biographer Antonia Frasier and an English MP, has done a sterling job of research in this excellent work, which contains 50 pages of biographical notes.
© 2005 – 2014 Cheryl Bolen
This article was first published in The Quizzing Glass, December 2005.
Posted at The Beau Monde by permission of the author.