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Caroline of Brunswick: the ‘injured queen’ in Blackheath and Greenwich

Updated: Jun 19, 2022

(Main Monarchs: George III and George IV)

Caroline of Brunswick by James Lonsdale 1829
Caroline of Brunswick by James Lonsdale 1829
She was at best, a strange woman and a very sorry and uninteresting heroine. She had, they say, some talent, some pleasantry, some good humour, and great spirit and courage. But she was utterly destitute of all female delicacy ... In short, to speak plainly, if not mad, she was a very worthless woman.

Lord Holland’s Memoirs of the Whig Party. The Dover Telegraph, Saturday, March 7

The year was 1795. King George III was on the throne with a reputation for being the ‘mad King who lost America’[1]. Today, we wouldn’t use such a term and would be far more understanding, and George would receive far better treatment for his episodes than having arsenic rubbed into his skin to create blisters that purged the body of toxins or eating substances that would make him vomit – another toxin purge. I have digressed already…

So, George III was on the throne, and his son, the Prince of Wales (also a George), had racked up a debt so great that parliament had to discuss it.

In an effort to sort the situation out, the House of Commons voted that the sum of £161,000 could be paid to his creditors and an additional £60,000 for the completion of Carlton House. In return, the prince had to promise that he would never incur debts in the future.

Characteristically, his promise proved worthless. By 1795 his debts had accumulated again to the £636,000.[2]

That’s around £80 million today – what on earth was he doing! Parliament also stated that George Junior needed to marry an ‘eligible’ princess.

Cue Caroline of Brunswick (Germany). She was eligible, and a protestant of royal lineage who would supposedly unite Brunswick with Britain – much needed considering Britain was still at loggerheads with France and Napoleon.

Caroline of Brunswick / Credit: Unknown
Caroline of Brunswick / Credit: Unknown

Caroline was the daughter of the Duke of Brunswick and Princess Augusta. FYI – Brunswick is the English pronunciation of the German word Braunschweig. So, one might think that Caroline of Brunswick was of German descent, but this is only half right (kind of, considering the House of Hanover was of German origin).

Princess Augusta was a British princess. Not only British but also sister to King George III. Caroline was, therefore, George III’s niece, making her cousin to the Prince of Wales. So yes, the future George IV married his first cousin. This was not unusual within the royal family and, just like in Game of Thrones, was often done to keep the bloodline pure.

The thing is, George didn’t see his cousin before their marriage, and when he did, he is claimed to have said:

Earl of Malmesbury – Diaries of James Harris
Earl of Malmesbury – Diaries of James Harris

Now, this could have been an overreaction from someone that didn’t want to get married and was used to having his choice of women, but Harris (aka the Earl of Malmesbury), had travelled to Brunswick himself to bring Caroline to England. In his diary, he writes:

Earl of Malmesbury – Diaries of James Harris
Earl of Malmesbury – Diaries of James Harris

It appears that Caroline had a bit of an aversion to washing her body and her clothes, which is rather odd considering royalty had subordinates to do even the most unpleasant of deeds. Accordingly, Caroline was 'offensive' from such neglect.[3]

‘In fact, she frequently stank. She seldom washed her hair or feet. This was a marriage made in hell, obviously: George was fastidious in his clothes, his manners and his life. He did not want a wife who smelt.’[4]

Caroline of Brunswick / Credit to
Caroline of Brunswick / Credit:

Despite all these slurs, there is much to tell about Caroline of Brunswick and her marriage to George – or ‘not marriage’ as the story will unravel. It wasn’t just George who was disappointed. Caroline told Harris that George ‘was very fat’ and ‘nothing like as handsome as his portrait.’[5]

Caroline arrived in the UK (Greenwich) in March 1795 and was given the Countess of Jersey (Frances Villiers) as her Lady of the Bedchamber. Caroline didn’t know at the time that the countess was one of George’s mistresses.

Their first dinner together that night didn’t go particularly well either. Both Harris and George were rather put out by Caroline’s unladylike behaviour (specifically aimed at the countess, whom Caroline quickly realised was in the prince’s favour).

Earl of Malmesbury – Diaries of James Harris
Earl of Malmesbury – Diaries of James Harris

As to her mental equipment and temperament, she was a rattle — fond of company, — talkative to excess, and apt to be indiscreet. She spoke first and thought afterwards. But withal she was cheerful, gay and good-tempered.[6]

The wedding night

Prince George and Caroline’s Wedding / Credit: Royal Central
Prince George and Caroline’s Wedding / Credit: Royal Central

George, distraught and petulant over his prospective 'until death us do part’ vows, spent three days getting drunk before his marriage to Caroline. On his wedding night, he was slumped the entire time in a chair in front of the fire, inebriated — sloshed — and unable or unwilling to consummate the royal occasion.

According to George, the couple only had sexual intercourse three times: twice the first night of the marriage and once the second night.[7]

In a letter to Harris, George wrote, ‘It required no small [effort] to conquer my aversion and overcome the disgust of her person.’ On the other hand, Caroline claimed George was so drunk that he ‘passed the greatest part of his bridal night under the grate, where he fell, and where I left him.’[8]

Whatever the truth, nine months later, Princess Charlotte was born.

Princess Charlotte / Credit: The Royal Collection by Thomas Lawrence 1860 for The Art Journal
Princess Charlotte / Credit: The Royal Collection by Thomas Lawrence 1860 for The Art Journal

In a shocking twist, George wrote a new will just three days after Charlotte’s birth. In it, he left all his possessions and property to Maria Fitzherbert, his wife. First wife. The woman he had secretly married in 1785. The problem for Maria (and George) was that English law considered their marriage invalid. Maria was a Roman Catholic (oh the shame), and therefore, King George III wasn’t even consulted by his wayward son, which meant the marriage didn’t exist.

Maria Anne Fitzherbert / Credit Joshua Reynolds c.1788 from the National Portrait Gallery, London, UK
Maria Anne Fitzherbert / Credit Joshua Reynolds c.1788 from the National Portrait Gallery, London, UK

The biggest and grandest, most childish of insults was that George left just one shilling in his new will to his official and royal wife, Caroline.

The marriage

Well, it didn’t get any better. In fact, it got much, much worse. Just four months after the birth of their daughter, the couple separated to different residences. George made the request, and Caroline agreed.

Letter from George to Caroline, 1796 / Credit: Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/8/512
Letter from George to Caroline, 1796 / Credit: Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/8/512

Part of the letter reads:

Our inclinations are not in our power; nor should either of us be held answerable for the other, because nature has not made us suitable to each other.

Caroline perceived this short paragraph as her pass to freedom — a big mistake.

Prince George and Caroline Married but Not Married / Credit: J L Marks 1820 – London Metropolitan Archive
Prince George and Caroline Married but Not Married / Credit: J L Marks 1820 – London Metropolitan Archive
The prince told his mother that Caroline was ’a very monster of iniquity.’ For her part, Caroline stuck pins into wax models of her husband, then burned them.[9]

So, Princess Caroline moved to Blackheath and took up residence in Montagu (or Montague) House.

Montagu House

Montagu House – Blackheath / Credit: Ideal Homes
Montagu House – Blackheath / Credit: Ideal Homes

Montagu House was built in the early eighteenth century. Named after the first Duke of Montagu, the then owner; it was the amalgamation of two late seventeenth-century houses, plus the distinctive addition known as Park Corner House, built in 1729.

If you are wondering where it would be today, take a look near the Ranger’s House. We know it's here because Queen Caroline’s bath (the irony) was discovered near the Chesterfield Gate in the Southwest corner of Greenwich Park and is still there near the park side wall of the Ranger’s House.

Queen Caroline’s Bath / Credit: The Royal Parks
Queen Caroline’s Bath / Credit: The Royal Parks

In 1799, Montagu House was leased by the Crown to HRH Caroline of Brunswick. But the new location, close to her daughter, didn’t quite offer Caroline what she was looking for – or maybe it did.

Princess Caroline, the much-injured but foolish and frivolous Consort of George IV., was living here at Montagu House. This was after the birth of her child, the Princess Charlotte, whom she saw once every week at the house of the Duchess of Brunswick close by. ‘The princess’s villa at Blackheath,’ wrote Miss Aikin, ‘is an incongruous piece of patchwork; it may dazzle for a moment when lighted up at night, but it is all glitter and glare, and trick; everything is tinsel and trumpery about it; it is altogether like a bad dream.’[10]

Yet, Caroline lived at Montagu House for around fifteen years, despite being the target of some rather wild and outrageous gossip and wild rumour.

Town and Country: Country Life – October 1979
Town and Country: Country Life – October 1979

Scandal (more scandal)

Caroline was a confident woman. She may have been considered brash, rude, lacking in the feminine grace that women were (are) required to possess, but she knew how to have fun – how to throw parties – and she did.

The rejection she'd received from her husband gave Caroline a chance to live a life more of her choosing, but it wasn’t a life everyone in her society approved of.

Blackheath became quite outrageous and outraged!

Stanhope, H., Meryon, C. Lewis. (1846). Memoirs of the Lady Hester Stanhope. 2d ed. London: H. Colburn.
Stanhope, H., Meryon, C. Lewis. (1846). Memoirs of the Lady Hester Stanhope. 2d ed. London: H. Colburn.

Apparently, she also was prone to dancing around in front of her guests in a manner that was most ‘indelicate, exposing most of her body.’ But not everyone seemed to dislike Caroline for Thomas Noble, who wrote the Blackheath Poem in Five Cantos, dedicated his book to her – not just as a matter of formality, but with the great loving gusto of someone who admired her vitality.

It seems that the princess had a wild and riotous time and found herself a partner in crime, Lady Douglas. Rumour has it in many of the sources that Caroline and Lady Douglas were having an affair. However, these rumours also suggest that Lady Douglas was an outright lush, sleeping with anyone she wanted to, despite being married to Sir John Douglas, a British officer in the Royal Marines. We don't know the exact truth but something did go amiss after a few years of closeness and parties.

Lady Charlotte Douglas / Credit: Unknown Artist – Middlemist / National Galleries Scotland
Lady Charlotte Douglas / Credit: Unknown – National Galleries Scotland

All good things must come to an end, and in 1806 the two ladies fell out (about what is unclear). Caroline supposedly sent Sir Douglas an obscene drawing of his wife being intimate with one of his colleagues. After this, rumours circulated that Caroline had given birth four years earlier to a young lad called William Austin. The father was allegedly a footman … or Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia (two vastly different rumours).

However, one thing was true, William Austin did exist, and he did live with Caroline in Blackheath.

Cue more outrage and more scandal.

William Austin / Credit: W Nicholls 1807 – National Portrait Gallery
William Austin / Credit: W Nicholls 1807 – National Portrait Gallery

The 'Delicate Investigation'

While still in Blackheath, Caroline was secretly investigated. Well, it started as a secret.

A Royal Commission was set up called the Delicate Investigation, which tried to ascertain whether William Austin was her biological child, but nothing could be proved against her. Despite Lady Douglas and many others providing a wealth of evidence against Princess Caroline, the Commission failed in their attempts to assist George in his constant desire for a divorce.

Lady Douglas’s evidence is outrageously detailed and false — so false she was accused of perjury. She even went into detail about Caroline’s pregnancy. The thing is(as history now writes), William Austin was adopted by Caroline — albeit not legally — but Caroline had a reputation for taking in the less advantaged children in the area, and William was one of them. He was the child of Deptford labourers, and Caroline took him into her home along with several other children and named him her residuary legatee (a beneficiary of the residue of an estate) at her death.[11]

Satirical Depiction of Lady Douglas in the Stocks / Credit: Charles Williams 1813 – The British Museum
Satirical Depiction of Lady Douglas in the Stocks / Credit: Charles Williams 1813 – The British Museum

Caroline, however, lived within a society that was far from forgiving and despite being found innocent of adultery and producing a child out of wedlock, her reputation had been blighted. Before the Investigation, Caroline had been supported in the press as a victim of the awful Prince of Wales — a fat debauched cad who treated his cousin (and wife) diabolically — but after the investigation, her popularity declined.

She was abandoned by her Blackheath society and, in 1814, decided to leave England to travel around Europe.

What happened next?

Well, Caroline had the time of her life. She proceeded to shock the people of Europe by dancing at a ball in Geneva naked to the waist, and in Naples, she became the mistress of King Joachim, Napoleon’s brother-in-law.

Sadly, in 1817, her treasured daughter, Princess Charlotte, died during childbirth. George didn’t tell Caroline, she found out via gossip — such was the hatred and disrespect between them.

George was still so very desperate for a divorce, which he could only legally get if there was evidence of adultery by Caroline (it made no difference that George was a philandering rogue). So, the Milan Commission was set up to gather evidence and seek out potential witnesses. The Commission collected a plethora of evidence against the princess, but the British government was hesitant in using it — they didn’t want another massive scandal, especially as popularity for the indulgent coquetting prince was at its lowest point.

Just as the government was trying to negotiate between the couple, George III died in 1820. George and Caroline were now the King and Queen. George IV’s efforts to get shot of Caroline continued. He didn’t want her anywhere near him or his country. So, the government offered Caroline £50,000 to stay away (around £5 million in today’s money) — but she didn’t. Caroline returned and set up home in Hammersmith.

George’s efforts continued, and he sent a massive bag of evidence from the Milan Commission to the Houses of Parliament.

The King’s Message, 6 June 1820, Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/8/512
The King’s Message, 6 June 1820, Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/8/512

The letter above states:

‘The King thinks it necessary, in consequence of the arrival of the Queen, to communicate to the House of Lords, certain papers respecting the Conduct of her Majesty since her departure from this kingdom, which he recommends to the immediate and serious attention of this house.’

The day after this delivery of evidence, a ‘Bill of Pains and Penalties for an Act to deprive Caroline of the rights and title Queen Consort and to dissolve her marriage to George’ (snappy title) had its first reading in the House of Lords.

Bill of Pains and Penalties, presented on 5 July 1820, with amendments dated 8 November 1820, Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/8/517
Bill of Pains and Penalties, July 1820, with amendments November 1820, Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/8/517

Amongst the evidence were documents of the queen’s alleged affair with Pergami, one of her servants. Inevitably, the media chaos began.

Caroline and Bartolomeo Pergami – her head servant – share a bath / Credit: Theodore Lane 1820
Caroline and Bartolomeo Pergami – her head servant – share a bath / Credit: Theodore Lane 1820

The Bill began its journey through the Houses of Parliament, and on its second reading, it took the form of a trial with witnesses called and cross-examined. The trial centred around establishing whether there had truly been intimacy between Pergami and Her Royal Highness.

Caroline was able to attend but was denied the right to speak. It was such an event that all Peers were three-line whipped, and a new gallery was built to accommodate them (they obviously had never considered anything else quite as important to all attend at the same time).

The trial was a mess. Witnesses gave evidence of Caroline and Pergami bathing together while others spoke of being bribed to say such things. The Bill passed its second reading, but by the time it got to the third and final reading, the majority of peers supporting it had declined. Why, well, public opinion was in Caroline’s favour once again.

Lord Liverpool announced, ‘He could not be ignorant of the state of public feeling with regard to this measure,’ and the Bill would no longer be pursued.’[12]

Public opinion

George IV’s subjects didn’t particularly like him. Britain had just endured the Napoleonic wars and, despite being victorious, had suffered immensely. While George debauched and indulged, his subjects had been press-ganged into service and were living in a swell of poverty. In addition, the Corn Laws had been introduced, creating even more ill-feeling between the Crown and its people.

If that wasn’t enough, there was the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester, where eighteen people died when the cavalry charged into a crowd who were demonstrating to demand parliamentary reform. No, George and his government were far from popular.

Caroline was a symbol — rightly or wrongly — of the oppressed victim of both government and monarchy.

‘During the course of the trial, and in the months that followed, hundreds of petitions in favour of Caroline were addressed to both Houses of Parliament with the radical press lampooning proceedings in satirical prints and pamphlets.’[13]

She is the only queen to ever be tried for adultery.

The final insult

The trial and parliamentary Bill were squashed, but that didn’t mean Caroline was victorious. George had one last spiteful card up his sleeve — he refused her entry to his Coronation as King.

On the day of the big occasion, Caroline went to Westminster Abbey and attempted to enter. George was prepared. He was more than prepared ... and had ordered an extra contingent of guards who refused her entry.[14] Apparently, she tried numerous doors but was blocked at every attempt. Her next step was to try her luck at Westminster Hall, where a few guests were gathered. But yet again, the doors were shut in her face. Caroline may have given up that day, but her hopes to be coronated remained, and she wrote to her husband:

The Queen must trust that after the public insult her Majesty has received this morning, the King will grant her just right to be crowned next Monday, and that his Majesty will command the Archbishop of Canterbury to fulfil the Queen’s particular desire to confer upon her that sacred and August ceremony. [15]

The final controversy

Weeks after the Coronation insult, Caroline, the uncrowned Queen of England, died. Many at the time wrote that it was because of a broken heart and stress, but medical evidence suggests it was a bowel obstruction.

Caroline had requested the words on her coffin, ‘Here lies Caroline of Brunswick, the injured Queen of England.’[16]

There was obviously no way this would be allowed, and despite the inscribed silver coffin plate being made, it was never attached as Caroline wished.

Yet Caroline had the last laugh with George because, despite Lord Liverpool arranging the funeral possession in such a way as to avoid any areas where Caroline was popular, the crowds came and blocked the procession route. In the chaos, two men were killed (not quite so funny). The funeral cortege was forced into an unplanned route through the city, and Caroline’s popularity over King George’s became even more evident.

Returned to Brunswick in Germany, Caroline was laid to rest, next to her father and brother in Brunswick Cathedral.

What happened to…

Lady Charlotte Douglas died in 1847. She outlived both George and Caroline.

William Austin was a great cause of trouble for Caroline, even if he wasn’t aware of it at the time. Yet, she took him on and cared for him with great love, according to contemporary sources. William travelled around Europe with her — a constant companion — a surrogate royal child.

He continued to communicate by letter to his birth mother, telling her of his travels and experiences. Finally, in 1820, he returned to London with Caroline as an eighteen-year-old young man, and when she died, William was her primary beneficiary.

But William’s story turned from one of privilege to one where his life became punctuated by regular intervals of unsettling reports, disputes, and finally problems with his mental health.

First, he spent time in what was then termed a ‘madhouse’ in Milan. His guardians managed to return him to London where he was committed Blackland House (an asylum) in Chelsea. Legal proceedings were undertaken to declare him insane and unable to manage his affairs.

William died in Blackland House in 1857 – a sad end to such a promising start in life.

William Austin / Credit: The National Portrait Gallery
William Austin / Credit: The National Portrait Gallery

Maria Fitzherbert had an on-off relationship with George until around 1809. He claimed to love her so much that he built the Royal Pavilion for her. For much of their relationship, they lived in Brighton together, her favourite place, but in 1809, Maria chose to end the relationship for good after George’s wandering eye started again. When George became King, he tried to slander Maria, but she was having none of it and took their marriage certificate straight to the Pope. Their back-and-forth battle resulted in a tidy pension being paid to Maria so she could comfortably live out her days in Brighton until she died in 1837.

George IV became rather fat(er). He was a heavy drinker and indulger. This didn’t just happen when he became King — he was known for his indulgent lifestyle as Prince of Wales and remember, even Caroline thought he was fat back in 1795. By 1824, his corset was made for a 50 inch waist.

In the last years of his life, he withdrew from public occasions and deteriorated quite rapidly. Just like his father, he started to go blind with cataracts and suffered from severe gout.

George IV / Credit: James Gillray 1792
George IV / Credit: James Gillray 1792

‘A more contemptible, cowardly, selfish, unfeeling dog does not exist ... There have been good and wise kings but not many of them ... and this I believe to be one of the worst.’[17]

And he became so obese that he ‘looked like a great sausage stuffed into its covering.’[18]

Not only was George rather rotund, but he also became an embellisher of truth, claiming that he had been at the Battle of Waterloo.

In The Times Diary 2015, the anniversary of Waterloo, it was written: