The tale of George IV and Caroline of Brunswick, surely the worst-matched royal couple in history, is one of secret wives, scheming mistresses, spying courtiers – and scandal galore
By 6am on 19 July 1821, Westminster Hall was packed with peers and privy counsellors, waiting to process to the Abbey for the coronation of their obese, ageing and extravagant new King, George IV. Suddenly, there came ‘a thundering knock’ at the door, and someone shouted, “The Queen – open!” All eyes turned towards the entrance, where the King’s estranged wife Caroline could be seen, standing on the threshold, ‘the crossed bayonets of the sentry’ blocking her path. “Let me pass; I am your Queen, I am Queen of Britain,” she cried, her increasingly angry commands echoing around the hall, before the heavy door was slammed in her face.
It was the same at every entrance. By order of the King, Caroline was denied admission to the ceremony at which she should, by rights, have been crowned Queen consort. It was to be the last public humiliation she would suffer at the hands of her husband – the last in a long line of insults that stretched back to the moment she first stepped foot on British soil.
When he chose his German cousin for his bride in late summer 1794, George, then Prince of Wales, had been motivated not by love, but money. In debt to the tune of £500,000 – a colossal sum lavished on women, wine and expensive refits of his London home – he was banking on Parliament raising his annual allowance if he married. Indeed, so pressing was his financial need that he was prepared to forget that he already had a wife: Maria Fitzherbert, a pretty widow he had wed in secret in 1785.
Luckily for George, their clandestine union contravened the Royal Marriages Act: carried out without the King’s consent and the bride a Catholic, it was null and void so Maria could be conveniently cast aside. In fact, she had already been ousted in his affections by a new mistress, alluring mother of nine, Lady Jersey. It was she, thought the Duke of Wellington, who masterminded George’s marriage, and she who suggested Princess Caroline of Brunswick for his spouse, purposely choosing a lady with ‘indelicate manners, indifferent character, and not very inviting appearance, from the hope that disgust for the wife would secure constancy to the mistress.’
If so, Lady Jersey could not have been more pleased with George’s reaction to his bride. On her arrival at St James’s Palace in April 1795, he took one look at her, called for a glass of brandy and stalked out of the room. Caroline was not unattractive; admirers complimented her expressive eyes, fair complexion and cheerful disposition. But the courtier who escorted her to Britain had worried about her undignified manners and haphazard approach to personal hygiene, which possibly accounted for George’s extreme reaction. Caroline
was stunned. “I think he’s very fat,” she retaliated, “and he’s nothing like as handsome as his portrait.”