Queen Caroline in Caricature -November 1820

Ian Haywood
University of Roehampton

Figure 1: Boadicea, Queen of Britain, Overthrowing Her Enemies (John Fairburn, November 1820). British Museum.

On 6 November 1820, the House of Lords finally delivered its verdict on Queen Caroline’s alleged crime of adultery. It came as no surprise that she was found guilty, but the margin of victory was slender: a mere 28 votes. The Times was openly contemptuous of the Lords, declaring that ‘the country laughs at their disappointment’ and ‘sympathizes’ with Caroline’s ‘imperfect triumph’ (7 November). Within days the government of Lord Liverpool dropped its case, fearful that it would be defeated in the House of Commons, and perhaps mindful that the king could be impeached for his illegal first marriage. The country erupted into a frenzy of celebrations at ‘the death of the Bill’ (Examiner, 12 November). November was Caroline’s mensis mirabilis: across the land the people expressed their joy, organising festivities, processions, marches, bell ringings, fireworks, gun salutes and occasional outbreaks of intimidation and disorder.[1] London was transformed into a spectacle of people power and triumphal public opinion.

Amidst the carnival atmosphere, two days in particular merit special attention for their grandeur and visual prowess. On 11 November, central London was illuminated, and on 29 November Caroline attended a service of thanksgiving at St Paul’s cathedral. Both events were intentionally provocative and carefully orchestrated imitations of a coronation. The Times underscored the revolutionary symbolism: ‘It is the people who bestow and take away crowns’ (11 November). In a similar vein, the Examiner threw down the radical gauntlet: ‘Let the Reformers now reiterate their demand of a real Representation…and they will carry that point – or bring on a crisis’ (12 November). With a weak government at home and republican uprisings in continental Europe and the Spanish territories, the mood was certainly ripe for decisive, extra-parliamentary political action – but would Caroline and her supporters press home their advantage?[2] In this post, we will look at how caricatures represented and interrogated this precarious and crucial climax of the Caroline affair.

Unsurprisingly, numerous caricatures reconfigured Caroline’s ‘imperfect triumph’ as a full-blown rout of the king and his lackeys. The martial imagery deployed throughout the satirical campaign reached new heights in prints such as John Fairburn’s Boadicea, Queen of Britain, Overthrowing Her Enemies (Figure 1). Boadicea was an inspired choice of historical precedent as she embodied rebellion and conquest rather than victimhood. Fairburn’s highly entertaining fantasy casts Caroline in the role of leader and defender of the British people, as if the spirit of the Iceni queen has returned to vanquish the ‘enemy’ of aristocratic government. Caroline is quite literally at the apex of her power, mowing down the king and his cabinet from her elevated position in the iconic chariot which now sports the updated iconography of the British lion. For the viewer in 1820, it would be impossible not to read the scene as vengeance for Peterloo: the tables are now turned and it is the ruling class whose protesting bodies fall under the merciless hooves of overwhelming military might. Unlike the Peterloo caricatures,[3] however, this conqueror is neither bloodthirsty nor out of control. Caroline’s unruffled, statuesque pose and raised spear are reminiscent of classic depictions of St Michael vanquishing Satan. Her calmness and dignity signify righteousness, innocence, and inviolable Justice (the latter concept is tagged onto the wheel of her chariot and appears to garrotte the de-crowned George). This equipoise and absence of self-interest is a consistent feature of even the most extreme satirical celebrations of Caroline’s victory, and it is clearly a precondition for her imaginary coronation.

The satirical agency of Fairburn’s Boadicea is enhanced by other inter-visual allusions. The charioteer motif recalls Gillray’s Light Expelling Darkness (1795) in which William Pitt scatters his political opponents into ‘Stygian’ darkness.[4] In Boadicea the roles are reversed and Gillray’s ‘sun of the constitution’ (King, Lords and Commons) now shines for the people and their heroic leader. The print also interacts productively with the culture of Romantic illustration. The figure of Boadicea was familiar to Romantic readers and viewers from illustrated editions of Richard Glover’s Boadicea: A Tragedy (1753) and from her inclusion in Robert Bowyer’s Historic Gallery (1793-1806).[5] The various images of Boadicea in circulation provide some intriguing perspectives on Caroline’s story. The frontispiece to John Bell’s affordable British Theatre edition of Glover’s play (1791) shows a stern, militant Boadicea standing on the steps of an altar in a pose that implies she is ready for action (Figure 2). The lines from the play chosen for the caption uncannily anticipate the dramatic opening of Caroline’s campaign at St Omer: ‘Not the wealth,/ Which loads the palaces of sumptuous Rome/ Shall bribe my fury’. In a more prestigious Historic Gallery print, based on an original painting by John Opie (Figure 3), Boadicea is ‘Haranguing the Britons’, as if in anticipation of Caroline’s oratorical performances when she replied to her supporters’ Addresses. The presence of Boadicea’s violated daughter could even foreshadow the tragic loss of Caroline’s daughter Charlotte.[6] Finally, in Thomas Stothard’s The City of London Burnt by Troops of Boadicea (1803), we see a dramatic and devastating precursor of Caroline’s satirically reimagined victory (Figure 4). Evoking both the Gordon riots and the storming of the Bastille, Stothard’s much-reproduced illustration was an alarmingly realistic depiction of popular political violence. In the context of November 1820, it was uncertain whether Caroline’s incendiary Boadicean role would shift from allegorical fantasy to actuality, and many caricatures danced on this thin line with mischievous gusto.[7]

Figure 2. Portrait of Jane Powell in the role of Boadicea. Frontispiece to Richard Glover, Boadicea: A Tragedy (London: John Bell, 1791). Engraved by John Thornthwaite after Samuel De Wilde. Proof copy. British Museum.

Figure 3. Boadicea Haranguing the Britons. From Robert Bowyer’s Historic Gallery (1795). Engraved by William Sharp after John Opie. British Museum.
Figure 4. Thomas Stothard, The City of London Burnt by Troops of Boadicea (1803). British Museum.

A good example of this seditious revelry is Samuel Fores’ Triumph of Innocence over Perjury, Persecution and Ministerial Oppression (Figure 5). The print shows a serene Caroline seated on the throne, flanked by her favourite personifications Truth and Justice who form an all-female triumvirate. As the new constitutional sun rises behind Truth, Caroline’s enemies are not only vanquished but suffer the additional humiliation of being metamorphosed into bat-like, decollated imps. Their abject position, strewn under her footstool, evokes a conventional visual motif of royal power, though in caricatures it often represented tyranny, as in numerous depictions of the Spanish ruler Ferdinand VII.[8]

But the punishment must fit the crime: as Caroline declared in a speech to her supporters, they had triumphed over ‘malignity, in its most revolting aspect and hideous form’ (Examiner, 26 November). The most significant action is the Faustian vignette in the top left corner: unnoticed or ignored by the queen, two grotesque demons are transporting the ruddy-cheeked king to Hanover, his ancestral seat.[9] This banishment was actually predicted in an earlier caricature with the same title published by John Fairburn (Figure 6), so Fores’ version functions like a sequel or upgrade. In the more crudely executed precursor print the king, who has his back to the viewer, pleads for help as the light emitted from Caroline’s Boadicean torch exposes his ‘False, Hypocritical, Faithless’ accusations: ‘Ministers of Disgrace and Bacchus, defend me!!! Pray send me to Hanover, the Cape of Good Hope, or any other place, for her Virtue and Innocence shines too strong for me!!’ The ‘malign’ misquotation from Hamlet (1.4.42) is a neat touch: Caroline is the feminized challenge to the patriarchal order, and as she brings a ‘spirit of health’ and ‘airs from heaven’ to a beleaguered nation, the ‘goblin damned’ and ‘questionable shape’ of Old Corruption suffers ‘blasts from hell’ (1.4.43-45).

Figure 5. The Triumph of Innocence over Perjury, Persecution and Ministerial Oppression (S. W. Fores, 6 November 1820). Lewis Walpole Library.
Figure 6. The Triumph of Innocence! – or The British Amazon Vanquishing her Enemies (John Fairburn, 1 July 1820). British Museum

For republican radicals like William Hazlitt, Caroline’s radiant apotheosis may have been both hard to stomach and less important than the demonization of the reigning monarch.[10] The litmus text of her success, as the Examiner made clear, would be measured by ‘real’ gains in political reform. But in the jubilant and optimistic mood of November 1820, her destiny seemed fused with that of the British people.

The satirical idealizations of her luminosity overlapped with the co-ordinated illumination of homes and buildings. This custom was usually reserved for events of national importance such as military victories, peace celebrations and coronations (Figures 7-8), but on this occasion, it represented the triumph of public opinion. The Times waxed lyrical about the ideological significance of the four-day illumination of London: compared to the ‘sumptuous, though tawdry’ celebration of the defeat of Napoleon in 1814 (Figure 8), the ‘defeat of domestic tyranny and flagitious persecution’ had ‘ten times the glow of honest exultation than even the ruin of a thousand foreign tyrants’. This was a new type of spectacle:

Few persons can have an idea of what an illumination really is in this metropolis, when the feelings of the people, called into action by the spontaneous expression of public opinion, vent themselves in one general and unbounded, but orderly and decorous manifestation of generous exultation; no affected display, no hireling finery, but one vast irresistible sentiment, evinced by the affectionate and unbought homage of an intellectual, rich, and substantial population… In the poorest streets, such is the unanimous feeling which pervades all classes, illuminations are visible. (11 November)

Figure 7. Augustus Charles Pugin, The House in Portman Square of His Excellency L. G. Otto, Minister Plenipotentiary from the French Republic to the Court of Great Britain as it appeared on the night of the General Illumination for Peace (1803). British Museum.
Figure 8. The Revolving Temple of Concord Illuminated (1814). British Museum.

This quasi-millenarian rebirth of the ‘unbought’ nation was a symbolic event in which political and artistic rituals coalesced into a sublime statement of popular enlightenment. One of the ways to illuminate a dwelling was to mount a transparency of an image on a window and position a light source behind it to create a luminous effect.[11] Press reports picked out several examples of prominent transparencies from the London illumination. One was a ‘full-length’ image of Caroline holding a scroll with the words ‘God and the People’ beneath the caption ‘They have done their utmost to destroy me’.

Another was William Hone’s ‘splendid illumination’ on display at his shop on Ludgate Hill (Times 11 November; Examiner 12 November). Like all such festival ephemera, the original of this design has not survived, but fortunately Hone reproduced it as a print and included it in his pamphlet The Political Showman – At Home! (Figure 9). The caricature was another example of the remarkably successful collaboration between Hone and George Cruikshank, and it can be regarded as their ultimate tribute to Caroline’s democratic agency. According to the emphatic text beneath the image, the transparency was displayed for the whole four days ‘in celebration of the VICTORY obtained by the THE PRESS for the LIBERTIES OF THE PEOPLE, which had been assailed in the Person of The Queen’. The actual transparency must indeed have been a ‘splendid illumination’ as the motto ‘THE TRIUMPH OF THE PRESS’ was ‘displayed in variegated lamps’ above the design.[12] The wood-engraved reproduction uses cross-hatching to capture some of the radiance of the original. Like Fores’ Triumph of Innocence, Caroline’s scintillating corona of divine light scatters the diabolical government imps to the margins, but there are also significant differences. Hone and Cruikshank’s victorious triumvirate gives equal force to Liberty and the sacred printing press, reducing Caroline to a trophy-like roundel portrait in a laurel wreath.[13] In this radical version of Caroline’s narrative, she is as much the product as the producer of ‘the liberties of the people’.

Figure 9. William Hone, copy of a transparency of Queen Caroline included in The Political Showman – At Home! (1821). Wilhelm Busch Museum. Author’s photograph.

Hone was never one to shy away from self-promotion, and it is more than possible that he was claiming some personal credit for Caroline’s success. It was his printing press, after all, which had done so much to promote her cause, and Hone’s resourcefulness, commercial acumen and boundless creativity never ceased to deliver innovative and entertaining propaganda. As he stated in the text beneath the image, the transparency had a second outing when Caroline went to her triumphal thanksgiving service at St Paul’s cathedral, this time adorned with the ‘immortal words’ of Francis Bacon, ‘KNOWLEDGE IS POWER’.[14]

What he did not reveal is that he recycled this iconography for the cover design of his characteristically radical contribution to the solemn church service, an alternative Book of Prayer (Figure 10). It is worth a reminder that it was Caroline’s exclusion from the Church of England’s liturgy that sparked a wave of public sympathy for her plight, so Hone plugged that gap with his usual flair.[15] Although the service was a stage-managed, anti-government spectacle ‘without one emblem of military control’ (Times, 30 November), there was no attempt to break the law and include Caroline’s name in the litany, so Hone’s prayer book functioned like an unofficial supplement to the proceedings. Even though the service’s choreographed rituals featured women prominently, Hone’s cover added Hercules to the triumvirate, perhaps to maximise his sales, and he also deleted Caroline’s portrait from the laurel wreath, as if her image could be summoned up with each prayer. The text was classic Hone, a parade of satirically repurposed biblical quotations and updated prayers that evoked his trials for blasphemy in 1817.[16] The political relevance of the excerpts derives from extensive scriptural knowledge and keen wit: ‘But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, Saving for the cause of fornication, Causeth her to commit adultery. Matt. v. 31, 32.’ The prayers tread a fine line between parodic humour and puritanical zeal:

O ALMIGHTY God, who art a strong tower of defence unto thy servants against the face of their enemies; We yield thee praise and thanksgiving for the wonderful deliverance of these kingdoms from the GREAT CONSPIRACY, and all the Miseries and Oppressions consequent thereupon.

We have no way of knowing how Hone’s prayer book was used. It clearly sold well, even though its standard price of sixpence would have restricted its circulation to the middle classes. But in some ways it remains his most subversive publication of the Caroline affair as it invested her crowning moment with the spirit of his celebrated defence of the free press and his own defiance of state prosecution. It also showed that the British constitution could only be restored to its true glory through the irreverent intervention of the satirical imagination.

Figure 10. Cover design of William Hone’s Queen Caroline prayer book (November 1820). Project Gutenberg.

On the ground, meanwhile, the political future was still in the balance. According to the Examiner (3 December), when Caroline left St Paul’s, accompanied by a large ‘delegation’ of women ‘all splendidly dressed in white’ to symbolise the victory of innocence and virtue, she entered her carriage and ‘seemed cheerful’. With hindsight, this hint of a mood change speaks volumes. With her greatest moment of popular acclaim now over, would she press home her advantage and demand political reform? The fevered expectation of radical change amongst her supporters can be gauged by an adjacent report on the same page of the Examiner. This describes a meeting of the alderman of the City of London at which it was agreed to ask the king to dismiss the government. Various speakers referred to Peterloo and the revolutions in Europe and South America. The most rousing speech was by Robert Waithman who insisted that without reform, ‘a revolution or the establishment of a military government must ensue’. The stakes could hardly be higher.

The caricaturists’ contribution to this debate was to support the reformist case by providing entertainingly subversive fantasies of Caroline’s triumph. Caricature’s unique immunity from prosecution allowed it to show what could never be verbally stated: the overthrow of the reigning monarch and his government. Viewers were at liberty to regard these images as moral and political allegories or as wish-fulfilled projections of the general will. Visual satire’s relation to public opinion was dynamic and complex: by activating a sophisticated set of iconographic codes and conventions, it simultaneously reflected, extrapolated, transformed, and dramatized political debate – and always with lashings of wit and irony.

A final example can be used to demonstrate these qualities. John Fairburn’s John Bull the Judge – Or the Conspirators at the Bar!! (Figure 11) converts Caroline’s trial into a full-blown revolutionary tribunal. Public opinion (‘Vox Populi – Vox Dei’) is reimagined as an actual people’s court presided over by a very bullish John Bull, who condemns all Caroline’s enemies to death. Once again, we can read the print as a populist revenge fantasy for Peterloo and the Cato Street ‘conspirators’, though the over-the-top Jacobin extremism (such as the discarded sword and scales of justice) hints at tongue-in-cheekiness. The scene reworks the first Plate of Gillray’s series Consequences of a Successful French Invasion (1798; British Museum Satires 9180) in which Pitt and his Ministers, trussed up in chains and convicts’ uniforms in the House of Commons, are about to be sent to Botany Bay by the French intruders. Like the Gillray original, Fairburn’s caricature uses satirical effects to mitigate the alarmingly impressive depiction of political terror, but the underlying frisson remains. Fairburn captures the tensions of the political crisis and translates them into highly consumable visual motifs. Moreover, he turns the centre of the scene into a self-conscious emblem of caricature’s unique ability to hold the powerful to account. The liberty-capped dock resembles both a picture frame and a guillotine, and the tilted mirror signifies inverted reportage, the reversal of power relations and, above all, the satirical lens of the artist.

Figure 11. John Bull the Judge – Or the Conspirators at the Bar!! (John Fairburn, November 1820). Lewis Walpole Library.

[1] See Malcolm Chase, 1820: Disorder and Stability in the United Kingdom (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013), 185-90. The festivities included the burning and hanging of effigies of foreign witnesses.

[2] One spy report concluded that ‘All the people are of one mind that Revolution has pervaded the Continent and will succeed here’ (cited in Anna Clarke, Scandal: The Sexual Politics of the British Constitution (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 189).

[3] See George Cruikshank, Massacre at St Peters, Or “Britons Strike Home”! (British Museum Satires 13258) and Manchester Heroes (British Museum Satires 13266). See also Michael Demson and Regina Hewitt, eds. Commemorating Peterloo: Violence, Resilience and Claim-Making during the Romantic Era (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019).

[4] British Museum Satires 8644.

[5] On the Historic Gallery, see Cynthia E. Roman, ‘Robert Bowyer’s Historic Gallery and the feminization of the “nation”’, in Dana Arnold, ed. Cultural Identities and the Aesthetics of Britishness (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004), 15-34.

[6] See also Thomas Stothard’s Boadicea the British Queen Animating the Britons (1812; British Museum 1873,0510.1168) in which she uses her chariot as a podium to harangue her followers. It is worth noting that although the word ‘animate’ did not take on its modern meaning of visual creation until the early twentieth century, in the context of Georgian caricature it would certainly not be an exaggeration to claim that one of Caroline’s unintended achievements was ‘animating the Britons’.

[7] In addition to the examples looked at here, see also George Cruikshank’s Radical Ladder (1820; British Museum Satires 13895) which shows the torch-wielding queen in Boadicean mode leading her ‘troops’ up a ladder of sedition so she can claim the crown.

[8] For example, Thomas Rowlandson, The Privy Council of a King (1815; British Museum Satires 12510).

[9] According to Malcolm Chase, the king did contemplate abdication and returning to Hanover (1820, 186).

[10]  Ian Haywood, ‘Hazlitt and the Monarchy: legitimacy, radical print culture and caricature’, The Hazlitt Review 9 (2016): 5-26. 

[11] See Rudolph Ackermann, Instructions for Painting Transparencies (London: [1800]).

[12] According to the Examiner (12 November) Hone exhibited ‘a very elegant C. R. in coloured glass lamps’.

[13] There is also an allusion to the Medusa head on Pallas Athene’s shield.

[14] The actual expression was ‘ipsa scientia potestas est’ (‘knowledge itself is power’), used in Bacon’s Meditationes Sacrae (1597). 

[15] In early 1821 the failure of the Whigs to reinstate Caroline’s place in the liturgy was one marker of her gradual loss of parliamentary and popular support.

[16] Ben Wilson, The Laughter of Triumph: William Hone and Fight for the Free Press (London: Faber and Faber, 2005), Chapters 7-9. Hone mounted his own defence and was acquitted on all counts. See also Ian Haywood, Romanticism and Caricature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), Introduction.

2 thoughts on “Queen Caroline in Caricature -November 1820

  1. Pingback: Queen Caroline in Caricature -November 1820 – BARS Exchange

  2. Pingback: Queen Caroline in Caricature – August 1821 | Romantic Illustration Network

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