The Most Miserable Royal Marriage of All
The weddings of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle and Princess Eugenie to Jack Brooksbank make it clear that marriages in the English royal family are made for love.
It wasn’t always this way.
For centuries, the monarchs of England married to forge alliances with other European countries, with the side benefit of dowries fat enough to fill depleted royal treasuries. For example, in 1662, Charles II’s bride, Catherine of Braganza, was said to have brought with her a dowry of 2 million Portuguese crowns, plus the port of Tangiers.
Many of these marriages evolved into working partnerships within which some affection, and perhaps even love, developed.
But there were very unhappy ones too.
Three of Queen Elizabeth’s four children divorced their first spouses, but this wasn’t easily done in the past. Unhappy kings could imprison their queens, as Henry II did with Eleanor of Aquitaine, or execute them, as Henry VIII did with Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard (he managed to annul marriages to two other queens too).
In the annals of royal matrimony, however, there is nothing quite like the marriage of George IV to Princess Caroline of Brunswick. It kept going from bad to worse, until reaching the nadir of George’s coronation on July 9, 1821, when at the age of 57 he finally succeeded George III.
Estranged from her husband and living abroad, Caroline returned to England to be crowned as Queen. She was told not to attempt entering Westminster Abbey for the ceremony but ignored that advice. Caroline arrived and attempted entry, but the Deputy Lord Chamberlain slammed the door in her face.
After banging on the door and shouting that she belonged inside, Caroline stumbled back to her carriage. Later that night she fell ill, and she died three weeks later.
This tragedy began years earlier, in the 1790s, when Prince George realized he had no choice but to marry a princess. The heir to the throne had wracked up massive debts as an extravagant pleasure seeker.
George IV served as Prince Regent (meaning he carried out the duties of the monarch due to his George III’s unstable mental state) for ten years, but was not able to be crowned king in his own right until his father’s death in 1820.
During this period, George III was still in possession of some of his wits — and he seriously disapproved of his oldest son’s lifestyle. The king sent letters “void of every expression of parental kindness or affection,” said a contemporary.
To make matters even more difficult, George had entered into an illegal marriage at age 23. He wed a woman he was desperately in love with, Mrs. Maria Fitzherbert, a commoner, a widow, and a Catholic. It was against the law for a royal to marry without the monarch’s consent and the spouse of a Catholic could not succeed, but he lived with her fairly openly for a number of years.
The prince’s debts mounted, and his father remained intractable. Why should he pay for the lifestyle of a son without a family? Finally, George IV, who was tired of Maria in any case, informed his father he was ready to marry a fellow royal and start a family. His debt of £650,000 was cleared — and his bride was secured.
Caroline, then 27, came from the minor royal German house of Brunswick. Many of the British monarchs of the 18th and 19th centuries married Germans, who were reliably Protestant.
Caroline was George’s first cousin, since her mother was one of George III’s sisters. The king, her father-in-law, always liked her — much more than he liked his son.
But there were warning signs that she was not the best match for the heir to the throne. George, for all of his faults (“gluttony, drunkenness, and gambling,” observed a courtier), was acknowledged as a man of great taste. He patronized artists and was himself a talented singer; he pushed for innovative architecture, and he was on the forefront of fashion.
Caroline was not very well educated, excitable, garrulous, and badly dressed. One biographer of George III wrote that she was “rumored to be dirty and extremely indiscreet and was undeniably no beauty.”
Other observers at the time thought that she was well meaning and friendly, and would have calmed down and made a good wife if the man in question were a kind one. That’s not, sadly, what Caroline got.
The couple met for the first time three days before the wedding date. George embraced her, then withdrew to a corner and called for brandy. Caroline, for her part, was taken aback by his appearance and behavior and said, “My God! Does the Prince always act like this? I think he’s very fat and he’s nothing like his portrait.”
Having no choice, the two of them married on April 8, 1795. George drank so much that he spent most of his wedding night unconscious on the floor. It is said that in the first week of the marriage, the two of them had sex three times. And then…never again.
However, she had become pregnant, and Princess Charlotte was born nine months after the wedding (tragically, Charlotte would die at the age of 21 from complications during childbirth).
Just a few months after his marriage, George informed his father he wished to separate from his wife. King George III wrote to him, “You seem to look on your disunion with the Princess as merely of a private nature and totally put out of sight as Heir Apparent of the Crown your marriage is a public act.”
But Caroline wanted out of the marriage as much as he did. She departed for the Continent in 1814. There she reportedly had affairs and perhaps even an illegitimate child. George of course had many affairs too, while trying to divorce his wife who he once called “the vilest wretch this world ever was cursed with.”
The public, however, took up Princess Caroline’s cause, sympathizing with her plight. English writer and chronicler William Hazlitt said, “It was the only question I have ever known that excited a thorough popular feeling. It struck its roots into the heart of the nation; it took possession of every house or cottage in the kingdom.”
Even after he became king, George IV could not manage to get a divorce. Caroline had decided to return to England and take her place as Queen of England. A desperate George offered her a large bribe to stay on the Continent, which she refused.
The spectacle of her being turned away from Westminster Abbey while pounding on the door and shouting, “I am your Queen!” was an enormous scandal of the time.
Caroline died at the age of 53. Her funeral was a scene of general chaos, with an outraged public throwing bricks at soldiers who tried to keep order.
At her request, she was buried in her native Brunswick in a tomb bearing the inscription “Here lies Caroline, the Injured Queen of England.”
Nancy Bilyeau’s new historical novel, The Blue, is set in 18th century England. To learn more, go to www.nancybilyeau.com