Sunday, 10 January 2010

The Trials of Queen Caroline

Caroline of Brunswick’s histrionics are well-documented. Here, Lucy Worsley sheds light on her lesser-known but equally long-suffering namesake, Caroline of Anspach

Queen Caroline (1683–1737), a very human ray of Enlightenment in the otherwise murky and rather nasty world of the early Georgian court, had many excellent qualities, enough to make this clever, funny but almost forgotten queen my favourite of all. A warm, friendly, personality, she was endlessly laughing, crying, complaining about bores, teasing her servants, hobnobbing with intellectuals whenever she could escape drawing room duties.  (She had to mediate in the epic row between her two pet philosophers, Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz, about which of them had discovered calculus). She was also interested in radical religion, art and science and was one of the first to have her children inoculated against smallpox.  The art of injecting a child with a little pus to bring on a mild bout was brought back to England from Constantinople by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and when Caroline had her own children treated, there was uproar: how could something so counterintuitive possibly work, associated as it was with women and Turks?  But work it did, and by supporting inoculation Caroline very publicly placed her faith in medicine and struck a blow for science. 

She was born in Anspach, a tiny German state; orphaned early, she was shunted by her relations from court to minor court round Germany.  Blonde with a sweet smile and pretty hands, if rather plump, she eventually caught the eye of George Augustus, the son of the Elector of Hanover. He met her in romantic disguise as a private gentleman – incognito – before suffering a coup de foudre and passionately declaring his hand. In 1714, following the Hanoverian Succession, Caroline became Princess of Wales, daughter-in-law of George I. But George I had a violent hatred of Caroline and his son, who he rightly thought were plotting against him, and restricted access to their children. The eldest son, Frederick, was made to stay behind in Hanover as the family’s representative there. Her next son was seized, after Caroline’s husband refused to apologise after a stupid court quarrel.  (The Hanoverian habit of mangling the English language was to blame: George Augustus snarled angrily that he would ‘find’ the Duke of Newcastle to give him a piece of his mind but the Duke misheard it as ‘fight’ and thought he had been challenged to a duel.)  Unfortunately this second son died in the king’s care after just a few months: Caroline saw him just once before the end.  And Caroline was allowed to see her three girls only on Sundays. So she had a second, junior family: two more girls and a boy, to whom she was an excellent mother.  

In 1727 Caroline’s husband became king and they moved together into Kensington Palace. Historians give him credit for acting as a constitutional rather than an absolute monarch, but behind the scenes Caroline controlled much political business. One particularly rude political cartoon of the day shows her injecting a powerful sedative into his posterior in order to make him compliant.  The King occupied himself with mistresses, notably the unhappily-married Henrietta Howard, and especially in the last decade of her life Caroline found herself sidelined, stout and worn out by gout (she was rolled round the palace in the wheeled chair originally designed to carry a ‘Sea Goddess’ in a court masque). 

She consoled herself with her 3,000 books: we hear her laughing at Gulliver’s Travels; being read aloud to each day to pass the tedious hours at the toilette; sending out a lady-in-waiting to get her ‘all my Lord Bacon’s works’. Perversely, despite Caroline’s pioneering role in public health, the inadequacies of eighteenth-century medicine were eventually to kill her.  Documents in the Royal Archives record Caroline’s prodigious shopping sprees: red-heeled slippers, twenty fans a quarter, four silver girdles in a single month, two sets of whalebone hoops for skirts annually.  But she purchased curiously few sets of stays (forerunners of the corset).  This was with good reason.  Since her final pregnancy, Caroline had suffered from an umbilical hernia and could not bear to have anything tight around her middle. Nor could she bear to have anyone know about such an embarrassing disorder, and she always kept on her shift when being undressed by her ladies.  

Finally, in 1737, part of her bowel appeared through the hernia and she could not disguise the fact that she was seriously ill. Her doctors should have pushed the loop of bowel back inside and left the hole to heal, but instead they cut it off. Now Caroline’s digestive system was destroyed and she took ten days to die. During these last days, Caroline more than ever proved her steadfastness of spirit.  Although she was in agony, unable to swallow morphine, she kept up her courage. During daily operations she teased her surgeon Dr Ranby, telling him to imagine instead that he was cutting up his cross old wife whom he hated, and once, when an assistant’s wig caught fire from a candle burning in the darkened bedchamber, the operation had to stop while the queen laughed.  And in those ten horrible days, with all her children and all the court watching and waiting, her husband came back to Caroline. At eleven o’clock on the night of Sunday 20 November 1737, she said goodbye to her children, asked for the light to be put out, and died with her husband’s hand in hers.  He promised never to marry again and planned for their dust to mingle in a joint coffin. 

Reprinted from the latest issue of The Georgian, the magazine of the Georgian Group. Lucy Worsley is Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces. Her next book, Courtiers, The Secret History of Kensington Palace, is  published by Faber & Faber on 6 May 2010. It tells the stories of the royal servants depicted in William Kent’s paintings on the King’s Grand Staircase at the palace. Hear Lucy Worsley at the Georgian Group on 3 June 2010

No comments:

Post a Comment