The Queen Who Stormed the Coronation 

The Queen Who Stormed the Coronation 

Everyone was talking about it. Throughout England, there was endless speculation about whether a certain royal family member would attend the upcoming coronation of the new king. “The town is in a state of general lunacy,” Parliamentarian Henry Brougham wrote, “beginning most certainly with the illustrious person on the throne.”

Sound familiar? Royal watchers are eagerly awaiting to see if Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, attend King Charles’s coronation in May. Even bigger questions loom—how will they be received? Will Prince Harry go alone? But while the chatter surrounding the royal family seems to be reaching a fever pitch, it’s nothing compared to the drama that surrounded the coronation of King George IV in the summer of 1821. 

Like King Charles, 58-year-old King George had spent a lifetime waiting to take the throne. An extravagant, artistic type with a penchant for peacocking, George spent months planning the most elaborate coronation Europe had ever seen, which he hoped would outshine that of Napoleon. According to Fergus Kelly of The Express on Sunday, his outfit alone cost £2.7 million in today’s money, with the total cost of the coronation coming in at more than £240,000—that’s roughly £27 million today or $32.8 million. 

However, the carefully planned extravaganza was threatened by the one person King George did not want to bask in his reflected glory: his wife and rightful consort, Queen Caroline. 

From the start, their relationship was a match made in hell. Born in 1762, George, Prince of Wales, was the eldest child of “mad” King George III and Queen Charlotte. The prince, derisively nicknamed “Prinny,” was known as a debauched, spoilt dandy, perpetually in debt and at one time secretly (and illegally) married to a Catholic beauty named Maria Fitzherbert. Although he could be charming, the hard-drinking, womanizing prince was despised by the press and much of the public, leading to countless caricatures and the infamous poem “The Triumph of the Whale” by Charles Lamb:

By his bulk and by his size,  

By his oily qualities,  

This (or else my eyesight fails),  

This should be the Prince of Whales.

In 1795, he agreed to marry his cousin—the purportedly unsophisticated, guileless, somewhat sloppy Caroline of Brunswick—partly to persuade Parliament to pay off his debts. In the deliciously detailed The Unruly Queen: The Life of Queen Caroline, historical biographer Flora Fraser describes the cousins’ first meeting. “She very properly … attempted to kneel to him,” eyewitness Earl of Malmesbury wrote. “He raised her (gracefully enough) and embraced her, said barely one word, turned around, retired to a distant part of the apartment, calling me to him said ‘Harris, I am not well, pray get me a glass of brandy.’” 

After the prince dramatically rushed from the room, Caroline gave as good as she got, remarking that her future husband was “very fat and nothing like as handsome as his portrait.” 

Their wedding on April 8, 1795, continued on the same disastrous course. “Judge what it was to have a drunken husband on one’s wedding day, and one who passed the greatest part of his bridal night under the grate, where he fell, and where I left him,” Caroline later recounted. 

Although the couple welcomed a daughter, Princess Charlotte, in 1796, they soon lived entirely separate lives, with King George reportedly claiming he’d rather “see toads and vipers crawling over my victuals than sit at the same table with her.”

While she was initially bewildered, hurt, and horribly treated by her vindictive husband and most of the royal family, Caroline eventually fought back through the media, leading politicians and newspapers to publicly take sides in this version of “War of the Waleses.” According to Martin Linton of The Guardian, in 1806, the Prince of Wales—a serial philanderer—had the audacity to set up a commission known as “the delicate investigation” to look into Caroline’s alleged infidelities. 

That same year, a defense of Caroline—called simply *The Book—*was written by the future prime minister, Spencer Perceval. According to Linton, King George III took his son’s side, insisting that the book not be sold and paying off the publisher.

The animus only increased in 1811, when King George III’s final descent into mental illness led to his son becoming regent. In the fascinating George IV: The Rebel Who Would be King by Christopher Hibbert, he recounts an event at Covent Garden attended by both the regent and his estranged wife: 

The Regent turned pale when he saw the artfully timed entrance of the Princess, who contrived to arrive in a black wig and many diamonds just as the applause for the Regent’s royal guests was subsiding. A friend of Thomas Moore had never seen “anything so pointed as the manner in which the entire audience turned to her and cheered her.”

Across the country, many took the side of the battered princess. “Poor woman,” Jane Austen wrote. “I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a woman and because I hate her Husband.” 

But the blowsy, indiscreet, brave, and talkative Caroline was also the source of much gossip and the victim of many a brutal cartoon. In 1814, she took off, making a spectacle of herself everywhere she went—riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, and taking an Italian lover named Signor Bartolomeo Bergami. According to Hibbert, Lady Bessborough declared herself to be “ashamed … as an Englishwoman” when she saw the Princess of Wales dancing at a ball in Italy. 

“In the room, was a short, very fat elderly woman, with an extremely red face … in a girl’s white frock … quite low (disgustingly so) … very black hair and eyebrows, which gave her a fierce look, and a wreath of light pink roses on her head,” Bessborough told a friend, per Hibbert. “I was staring at her from the oddity of her appearance, when suddenly she nodded and smiled at me, and not recollecting her, I was convinced she was mad, till William Bentinck pushed me and said, ‘Do you not see the Princess of Wales nodding to you?’”

In retaliation, the furious regent sent spies to collect information on his wife’s European exploits. After their daughter Princess Charlotte died during childbirth in 1817, it seemed all ties between the two were severed.

But when the regent’s long-suffering father finally died in 1820, Caroline decided to return to England and claim what was rightfully hers. Her furious estranged husband and his political cronies mounted a “Bill of Pains and Penalties” in the House of Lords, accusing her of infidelity with Bergami and seeking to “deprive her Majesty Caroline Amelia Elizabeth of the title, prerogatives, rights, privileges, and exemptions of queen consort of this realm, and to dissolve the marriage between his majesty and the said (Queen).”

The spectacular and embarrassing three-week “trial,” recounted meticulously in Jane Robins’s The Trial of Queen Caroline: The Scandalous Affair that Nearly Ended a Monarchy, enthralled the nation. “It was the only question I have ever known that excited a thorough popular feeling,” essayist William Hazlitt wrote. “It struck its roots into the heart of the nation; it took possession of every house or cottage in the kingdom: man, woman, and child took part in it … Business was laid aside for it, people forgot their pleasures, even their meals were neglected, nothing was thought of but the fate of the Queen’s trial.”

This farce ended with the House of Lords narrowly passing the bill. However, the public was overwhelming on the uncrowned queen’s side, and so, it was dropped before being sent to the House of Commons. 

The king was in a panic that the emboldened Caroline, nicknamed the “Bedlam Bitch of a Queen” by Sir Walter Scott, now had nothing to stop her from storming his coronation. According to The Washington Post, when Napoleon died on May 5, 1821, a courtier announced to the king, “Sire, Your greatest enemy is dead.”

“Is she, by God?” he replied.

Some in royal circles believed that, instead of risking a scene, the coronation should be postponed. “The mob are rather too cross, and too fond of the Queen to (permit) a ceremony in which she is not to take part,” Lady Sarah Lyttelton told a friend. “We are all in a fright about it … Every day there is a gathering on some account or other. And her Gracious Majesty takes care to keep it up, by showing herself all about London in a shabby post – chaise and pair of post – horses and living in the scruffiest house she could think of, to shew she is kept out of the palace.”

Instead, Queen Caroline was told that she would not be crowned, nor was she invited to the coronation. A defiant Caroline wrote to the prime minister, asserting that she would absolutely be at the coronation, “as one of her rights and privileges which her Majesty (was) resolved ever to maintain.”

An apparently “excessively exasperated” king had a plan, taking extraordinary measures to assure his estranged wife would not get into either Westminster Abbey or Westminster Hall, where the coronation festivities would be taking place. “Rumors circulated that … a boat was waiting to take the Queen to the Tower (of London), if she made good on her boast,” Fraser writes. “The Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth had instructed the doorkeepers at the Hall to allow no one without a valid ticket, while Jackson, the famous pugilist, was commander in chief to other practitioners of his art standing in readiness at various doors to the Palace of Westminster.”

Coronation Day, Thursday, July 19, 1821, began before dawn for Queen Caroline. According to Fraser, at 5 a.m., the queen, wearing a silver petticoat, purple scarf, and a diamond bandeau tiara, made her way to Westminster accompanied by her entourage. Hundreds of supporters rallied around her carriage. “The soldiers everywhere presented arms with the utmost promptitude and respect,” one paper reported, “and a thousand voices kept up a constant cry of ‘The Queen! The Queen forever!’”

The queen made her way to the first official entry to the coronation, where a boxer hired as a bodyguard turned her away. Surprisingly, Caroline seemed shocked, and “flinched–I verily believe–for the first time in her life,” her lawyer, Brougham recalled. 

However, she persevered. In Westminster Hall, coronation guest Elizabeth Robertson was restlessly waiting for the ceremonies to begin when the defiant queen appeared. Robertson recalled: 

Queen Caroline did her best to amuse us … We were electrified by a thundering knock at the Hall door, and a voice from without loudly said “The Queen—open!” A hundred red pages ran to the door, which the porter opened a little, and from where I sat I got a glimpse of her … She was raging and vociferating “Let me pass, I am your Queen, I am Queen of Britain.” The Lord High Chamberlin was with the King, but he seen his deputy who with a voice that made all the Hall ring, cried, “Do your duty, shut the Hall door,” and immediately the red pages slapped it in her face! 

After repeated refusals, at last, the queen made her way to the entrance at Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, causing Sir Robert Harry Inglis to sprint to the doorway to rebuff her. “I said to her, respectfully, I hope, ‘Madam, it is my duty to inform your Majesty that there is no place for your Majesty in the royal box, or with the royal family,’” he remembered. “The Queen replied, ‘I am sorry for it.’”

A defeated Caroline, her bluster noticeably gone, got into her carriage and returned home. The fickle public now turned against her, catcalling her with taunts of “Go back to (B)ergami.” 

While Caroline skulked away in shame, her husband, pale and sweating profusely, entered Westminster Hall at 10 in the morning. During the five-hour ceremonies, he behaved just as poorly as expected, his large frame smothered by his heavy coronation robe. Hibbert writes: 

“Several times he was at the last gasp,” Lady Cowper noticed, “he looked more like the victim than the hero of the fěte. I really pitied him from my heart.” But, revived by sal volatile, he behaved on occasions in the most improper fashion, according to the Duke of Wellington, “even in the most important and solemn” parts of the ceremony – “soft eyes, kisses given on rings which everyone observed.”

However, according to Hibbert, the king appeared to sober up when the Archbishop of York, seemingly fed up with the farce unfolding before him, “spoke of a Sovereign’s duty to ‘encourage morality and religion’, to preserve the morals of the people from the ‘contagion of vice’, and from a ‘general depravity’ which was ‘the last calamity’ that could befall a state.”

After almost six decades of waiting, King George IV was now the fully-anointed ruler of Great Britain. But for his unanointed queen, the coronation was the beginning of the end. Her last public appearance was at a pageant of the coronation at Drury Lane. She died—many felt of a broken heart—on August 7, 1821, less than a month after her brave, foolhardy last stand. (King George IV died in 1830, a corpulent, allegedly laudanum-addicted mess.) But Caroline became a folk hero, her attempted storming of her rightful coronation immortalized in a verse published by James Catnach:  

At length the day came when the heads of the nation

Assembled to see George the Fourth’s Coronation,

When the Queen and her suite to the Abbey repair’d

For surely in justice she should have been there. 

But, how shall I tell it, a footlicker base

Did there shut the door in his mistress’s face.  

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