On 5 June 1820 Caroline of Brunswick returned to England to take her place as Queen Consort to George IV. But the breakdown in the couple’s relationship would become a matter of parliamentary and national importance. This blog from Dr Philip Salmon, editor of our Commons 1832-68 project, explores the impact of the Queen Caroline Affair on British politics.
Two hundred years ago the Prince Regent succeeded to the throne as George IV. His wife Caroline had been living abroad since their separation in 1814 and the new king wanted the Tory government to pass legislation giving him a divorce. Caroline’s unexpected return to England on 5 June to claim her place as Queen Consort, and the government’s failed attempt to prosecute her for adultery in the House of Lords, triggered one of the most significant political crises of the early 19th century. The unprecedented nationwide popular movement that emerged in her support, and the government’s inability to prevent public protests, had important consequences for the development of British politics.
Only the previous year a large public rally in Manchester calling for parliamentary reform had been violently suppressed by the military. The Peterloo massacre resulted in at least 18 deaths. Fearing similar mass protests the government had imposed one of the biggest clamp-downs in British political history. The Six Acts of 1819 banned all ‘unofficial’ large public meetings and outdoor processions or demonstrations. It became illegal to criticise the state in print and punitive taxes were imposed on newspapers. The public execution in May 1820 of the Cato Street conspirators, for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government, reinforced this hard-line message. To preserve Britain from the threat of revolution and radically-inspired insurrection, the Tory Prime Minister Lord Liverpool and his Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth would take whatever action was necessary.
Within a few months, however, this hard-line policy seemed to be in tatters. Large public meetings and processions in support of the Queen had begun to sweep the nation. The issue ‘took possession of every house or cottage in the kingdom’, recalled one observer. ‘Every man, woman and child took part in it …nothing was thought of but the fate of the Queen’s trial’. Lord Sidmouth, along with many others who failed to display pro-Caroline ‘illuminations’ at their properties, had all his windows smashed. By September 50,000 protesters carrying anti-government banners were parading on a weekly basis through central London. By October the numbers meeting at Piccadilly had reached 100,000. The Times took the lead in fuelling press outrage at the Queen’s treatment, running brazen attacks on a ‘debauched’ king. The popular petitioning campaign in her support eventually attracted over a million signatures. The satirists and cartoonists had a field day.
All this public protest attracted remarkably little reaction from the authorities. The lack of a response was extraordinary. The Whig diarist Thomas Creevey MP noted with astonishment how ‘every Wednesday the same scene which caused so much alarm at Manchester is repeated under the very nose of Parliament and all the constituted authorities’. Part of the problem for the government was that the military were often involved. On one occasion 5,000 sailors marched to pay their own respects to the Queen, who was then staying with her main supporter in the Commons, the radical MP and former lord mayor of London, Matthew Wood.
Another difficulty was the constitutional and moral context. Although the Queen had separated from the king and was known to have had sexual affairs whilst living abroad, her constitutional status had not changed. Loyalty to the Queen, and demands for her name to be included in the Church of England’s official prayers, for example, could hardly be deemed ‘seditious’ or ‘libellous’. Obtaining ‘official’ sanction from a sympathetic magistrate for a meeting in her support, in these circumstances, was not difficult. George IV’s own notorious promiscuity added a moral dimension too. Fuelled by sympathy for the Queen and indignation about double standards, women marched, spoke and signed addresses in unprecedented numbers. With religious leaders and some members of the Cabinet, including the key minister George Canning, also deeply divided over her claims and treatment, the political and legal situation was far from straight forward.
Perhaps the most significant factor inhibiting the government’s response, however, was the constitutional language and respect for historic institutions widely adopted by so many of the Queen’s supporters, especially in their formal addresses and petitions. When the City of London Corporation petitioned the Commons, for instance, they denounced the Queen’s trial as ‘repugnant to the constitution’ and ‘dangerous’ to the ‘honour and dignity of the Crown’. Many leading reformers and radicals who rallied behind the Queen’s cause used similar language, distancing themselves from the sort of demagoguery and association with the mob that had helped to trigger the government’s repressive measures. The ‘loyal’ and ‘respectable’ nature of their assemblies, and an emerging alliance between non-violent radicals, middle-class reformers and local Whig leaders in support of the Queen, was widely remarked on.
The History of Parliament volumes on constituency politics in this period suggest that in many towns and cities those who took the lead in organising support for the Queen went on to play an important role in local campaigns for municipal and parliamentary reform. In Taunton, for example, the same people responsible for the meetings and petitions of 1820 helped to establish a growing local reform movement. They eventually founded the ‘Loyal Political Union’ a decade later, with its declared aim of furthering ‘by every constitutional means the great measure of parliamentary reform’ while using ‘every exertion for the maintenance of order’. Put simply, at the local level the Queen Caroline affair seems to have taught reformers and radicals important lessons about how to organise and manage political agitation in ways that were considered legitimate and constitutional. As Thomas Creevey remarked:
The people have learned a great lesson from this wicked proceeding: they have learnt how to marshal and organise themselves … The arrangements made in every parish … are perfectly miraculous – quite new in their nature – and … will be of eternal application in all our public affairs.
Leading Whig politicians, whose campaigns for parliamentary reform had always been hampered by the outdoor activities of the more extreme radicals, also welcomed the shift in politics resulting from the Queen Caroline affair. ‘The Queen’s business’, observed Lord John Russell MP, ‘has done a great deal in renewing the old and natural alliance between the Whigs and the people, and weakening the influence of the violent radicals’.
When the government abandoned the Queen’s trial in November 1820, realising they would never secure the parliamentary votes they needed, the whole nation celebrated. Church bells were rung and ‘illuminations’ were held everywhere. The government’s highly controversial decision to prorogue Parliament to prevent any further discussion was one of the first political prorogations of the 19th century. Whigs and radicals hoped the beleaguered Tory government would collapse, but popular support for the Queen quickly evaporated. By February 1821 the political climate had cooled enough for the government to successfully see off radical and Whig calls in the Commons for a public inquiry. The affair, to all intents and purposes, seemed over. Lord Liverpool’s ministry had weathered the storm and survived. On the surface little had changed. At the local level, however, politics would never be quite the same.
For more on the proceedings in the House of Lords, check out our video: