Caroline Amelia Elizabeth of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel was born on 17 May 1768 as the daughter of Charles William Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel and Princess Augusta of Great Britain. She was raised in Brunswick and was known to be a bold young woman. As she grew up, her boldness became to be appreciated a lot less. Once, Caroline had pretended to be in labour, screaming loud enough for everyone to hear. She had been angry that she had not been allowed to go to a ball.
In 1794, Caroline had begun to fear that she would be a spinster, so she must have been quite surprised to receive the news that her first cousin, George, Prince of Wales wished to marry her. He had vast debts, and they would only be paid by Parliament if he married. He simply needed a bride as a soon as possible.
Already on the journey to England, the Earl of Malmesbury spoke to her twice on the subject of personal hygiene. Although she briefly appeared to be “well washed”, she soon returned to her old habits.
I had two conversations with the Princess Caroline. One on the toilette, on cleanliness, and on delicacy of speaking. On these pointsI endeavoured, as far as was possible for a man, to inculcate the necessity of great and nice attention to every part of dress, as well as to what was hid, as to what was seen. (I knew she wore coarse petticoats, coarse shifts, and thread stockings, and these never well washed, or changed often enough). I observed that a long toilette was necessary and gave her no credit for boasting that hers was a ‘short’ one.
The first meeting between Caroline and George was a disaster.
I, according to the established etiquette, introduced (no one else being in the room) the Princess Caroline to him. She very properly, in consequence of my saying to her it was the right mode of proceeding, attempted to kneel to him. He raised her (gracefully enough), and embraced her, said barely one word, turned round, retired to a distant part of the apartment, and calling me to him, said ‘Harris, I am not well; pray get me a glass of brandy’. I said, ‘Sir, had you not better have a glass of water?’ – upon which he, much out of humour, said, with an oath, ‘No; I will go directly to the queen’, and way he went.
Both were disappointed in the other. That evening at dinner, Caroline was rude to Lady Jersey, George’s mistress, and George disliked her even more. The wedding had to go ahead, and so it did on 8 April 1795. George had drunk so much that he could barely stand up straight. George later stated that the marriage was consummated on three occasions and that it was quite lucky that Caroline had fallen pregnant. She gave birth to the couple’s only child, Princess Charlotte, on 7 January 1796. The couple lived together at Carlton House for about a year but rarely saw each other. Dislike had grown to hate.
On 30 April 1796, George wrote to Caroline.
Our inclinations are not in our power, nor should either of us be held answerable to the other, because nature has not made us suitable to each other. Tranquillity and comfortable society are, however, in our power: let our intercourse, therefore, be restricted to that, and I will distinctly subscribe to the condition which you required, through Lady Cholmondelay, that even in the event of any accident happening to my daughter, which I trust Providence in its mercy will avert, I shall not infringe the terms of the restriction by proposing, at any period, a connexion of a more particular nature. I shall now finally close this disagreeable correspondence, trusting that, as we have completely explained ourselves to each other, the rest of our lives will be passed in uninterrupted tranquillity.
Caroline was not about to go quietly.
The avowal of your conversation with Lord Cholmondeley neither surprises nor offends me: it merely confirmed what you have tacitly insinuated for this twelvemonth. But after this, it would be a want of delicacy, or rather an unworthy meanness in me, were I to complain of those conditions which you impose upon yourself. I should have retuned no answer to your letter, if it had not been conceived in terms to make it doubtful whether this arrangement proceeds from you or from me; and you are aware that the honour
of it belongs to you alone. The letter which you announce to me as the last, obliges me to communicate to the king [George III], as to my sovereign and my father, both your avowal and my answer. You will find enclosed a copy of my letter to the king. I apprize you of it, that I may not incur the slightest reproach of duplicity from you. As I have at this moment no protector but his majesty, I refer myself solely to him upon this subject: and if my conduct meets his approbation, I shall be in some degree at least consoled I retain every sentiment of gratitude for the situation in which I find myself, as Princess of Wales, enabled by your means to indulge in the free exercise of a virtue dear to my heart – I mean charity. It will be my duty, likewise to act upon another motive – that of giving an example of patience and resignation under every trial.
Caroline moved out of Carlton House, leaving Charlotte with George. Charlotte was to spend one day a week with her mother. Caroline took in poor children, but this would get her into even more trouble. She once more repeated her childhood trick of acting like she was pregnant and had given birth. One of the children she had taken in, William Austin, was thought to be Caroline’s. The Prince of Wales was told that Sir Sidney Smith was the father of this child. George’s father ordered a secret commission to examine the evidence; this was called “the Delicate Investigation.” It soon became clear that William was not Carolina’s child, but the damage had been done. Caroline was now completely ostracised by the royal family.
In 1814, she could no longer stand her treatment and sailed for the continent. She began to wander aimlessly and made a laughing stock of herself wherever she went. Her English servants began to abandon her. Caroline was in Italy when the news of a great tragedy reached her. Her daughter Charlotte had died shortly after giving birth to a stillborn son. Caroline now had very little reason to return to England at all, but when King George III died in 1820, she was now Queen, and she wanted to assert her rights.
She landed at Dover on 5 June and received a gun salute from the castle. She progressed towards London and was greeted by cheering crowds on the route. George was furious when he learned that she had returned to England. He began an investigation into her conduct, hoping to secure a divorce. She had been followed by spies around Europe, and her behaviour had not gone unnoticed. Caroline wanted to defend herself against the accusations and published an open letter to George in a newspaper.
On 19 July 1821, George was crowned King and Caroline attempted to enter Westminster Abbey to be crowned beside him. The door was literally slammed in her face, and she returned home in humiliation. After this, her health began to decline rapidly. She died on 7 August 1821 with William Austin sitting weeping by the bedroom door.
Shortly before Caroline’s death, Lady Charlotte Bury wrote of her, ‘for certainly, however much she may have been in the wrong, the Prince is fully as much to blame as she is; and however greatly the Princess of Wales deserves censure, she deserves fully as much pity.’ 1
- Elizabeth Norton – England’s Queen’s from Catherine of Aragon to Elizabeth II ↩