Public popularity is a fickle, fickle thing. In fact, one of the things that will turn the public against you is becoming “too” popular. Worse, there was nothing so loathed in Regency England (and to some extent, today) as an underdog that seemed to be winning; support was on your side only as long as it looked like you were going to lose or you were being hopelessly bullied by stronger opponents.
Caroline Of Brunswick, wife of the Prince Regent, found that out the hard way in December of 1820.
The Prince Regent became King George IV on 29 January 1820, and being as petty as he was libertine, he was determined to prevent the wife he hated from becoming queen by divorcing her.
This went over like a lead balloon with the public. They loved Caroline, regardless of her peccadilloes, because she loathed George as much as they did. The king had made her life a misery, kept her from their only child as much as possible, and hadn’t even bothered to tell her that their daughter, Princess Charlotte of Wales, had died in childbirth. George accusing her of adultery also struck the public as a bit rich, considering his morganatic marriages and multiple mistresses.
When Caroline, after years of living abroad, returned to England on 5 June 1820:
“riots broke out in support of her.Caroline was a figurehead for the growing Radical movement that demanded political reform and opposed the unpopular king. Nevertheless, the King still adamantly desired a divorce, and the following day, he submitted the evidence gathered by the Milan commission to Parliament in two green bags. On 15 June, the Guards in the King’s Mews mutinied. The mutiny was contained, but the government was fearful of further unrest. Examination of the bags of evidence was delayed as Parliament debated the form of the investigation, but eventually, on 27 June, they were opened and examined in secret by 15 peers.“
Much public mockery was made of this, inasmuch as George’s “green bags” would be greater by far than his wife’s.
“The peers considered the contents scandalous, and a week later, after their report to the House, the government introduced a bill in Parliament, the Pains and Penalties Bill 1820, to strip Caroline of the title of queen consort and dissolve her marriage. It was claimed that Caroline had committed adultery with a low-born man: Bartolomeo Pergami. Various witnesses, such as Theodore Majocchi, were called during the reading of the bill, which was effectively a public trial of the Queen. The trial caused a sensation, as details of Caroline’s familiarity with Pergami were revealed. Witnesses said the couple had slept in the same room, kissed, and been seen together in a state of undress.
The people of Britain were not happy to have the queen’s conduct dragged through the muck by Italian commoners. Deeply xenophobic at the best of times, the English populace became profoundly anti-Italian during the trial. “The witnesses had to be protected from angry mobs, and were depicted in popular prints and pamphlets as venal, corrupt and criminal. Street-sellers sold prints alleging that the Italians had accepted bribes to commit perjury.” Anti-Italian feelings became particularly strong after testimony by Majocchi. The queen’s former servant testified, “about a male exotic dancer employed by Caroline, after which Majocchi demonstrated a dance by pulling up his trousers, extending his arms, clicking his fingers, and shouting “vima dima!”, while moving his body up and down in a suggestive fashion. The Times newspaper was disgusted and informed its readers that it regretted being “obliged” to report “filth of this kind”. During Brougham’s cross-examination, Majocchi replied “Non mi ricordo (I don’t recall)” more than two hundred times. The phrase was repeated so often, it became a national joke, and featured in cartoons and parodies. Majocchi’s credibility as a witness was destroyed.”
It was obvious Caroline had been physically intimate with Pergami, but the public did not care. The women of England, in particular, were livid about the divorce-trial-by-Parliament. They knew this was just an attempt by George to deny her the crown after years of cruelty towards her that she was nearly powerless to stop. They found it repellent that all of George’s sins could not compel a divorce, but one lover on Caroline’s part could destroy her. Even in the Regency period, the double standard made women choke when they were forced to swallow it. Jane Austen summed up public feelings for Caroline when she wrote, “Poor woman, I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a Woman and because I hate her Husband.”
The bill, after intense wrangling and much public displeasure, passed the House of Lords on 10 November 1820. Shortly after the narrow victory, Prime Minister Lord Liverpool declared that since the vote was so close, and public tensions so high, the government was withdrawing the bill. In short, faced with an almost certain defeat in the was House of Commons, the Tory government was giving up any attempt to help George divorce Caroline.
Caroline had won.
At first, all was well. The people rejoiced that she was found innocent and her detractors found their windows broken and newpapers that had sided against her were burned by angry mobs. In private, Caroline celebrated more quietly, joking with her friends that she had actually committed adultery … with the husband of Maria Fitzherbert. There was nothing, surely, to stop her from being crowned queen now.
Regardless of the popularity that had carried her, within days the British had turned on her. She had won; she was no longer a victim. Now, the slurs and ostracization of a former favorite could begin.
First there was the mean little rhyme that appeared nearly everywhere:
Most Gracious Queen, we thee implore/ to go away and sin no more/ But, if that effort be too great/ to go away, at any rate.
By New Year’s day of 1821 her popularity was only as a target for jeers and ugly pictures in print media. There were caricatures of her as a foolish wanton for years, and the cartoons made it clear that she was the worst of all possible strumpets– a fat, old one, but their numbers increased after she was proven innocent of adultery.
Her popularity continued to wane until it reached a nadir when she attempted to attend George’s coronation on 19 July. Not only was she turned away from every door by armed guards, she was booed and hissed at as her carriage rode away from the scene of her humiliation. Despondent, she became ill that night and grew progressively worse until she died a few weeks later, on 7 August 1821.
With death, her popularity surged once again, and passions once more turned against the king – who was rumored to have poisoned her.
Afraid that a procession of the funeral bier through London could spark public unrest, Lord Liverpool decided the Queen’s cortège would avoid the city, passing to the north … The crowd accompanying the procession was incensed and blocked the intended route with barricades to force a new route … The scene soon descended into chaos; the soldiers forming the honour guard opened fire and rode through the crowd with drawn sabres. People in the crowd threw cobblestones and bricks at the soldiers … Eventually, the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate, Sir Robert Baker, ordered that the official route be abandoned, and the cortège passed through the city. As a result, Baker was dismissed from office.”
Caroline’s body eventually made it to the seaport of Harwich, and reached her native country of Brunswick on 24 August. Caroline was buried in Brunswick Cathedral the next day, with a headstone bearing the inscription, “Here lies Caroline, the Injured Queen of England”.