Queen Caroline in Caricature – August 2020

Ian Haywood, University of Roehampton

Figure 1. William Hone and George Cruikshank, The Queen’s Matrimonial Ladder: A National Toy (15 August 1820). Wilhelm Busch Museum.

Queen Caroline’s eagerly anticipated trial for adultery began in the House of Lords on 17 August 1820. It is no understatement to say that the eyes and ears of the nation were focused on this bizarre but compelling spectacle. The event generated an unprecedented degree of publicity, media attention and public scrutiny. A few days before the proceedings opened, newspapers published an open letter from Caroline to the king (which was probably penned by William Cobbett) in which she denounced the Bill of Pains and Penalties as ‘a perversion and mockery of the laws’ (Times, 14 August 1820). She condemned the government’s ‘unprovoked and unparalleled persecution’ as the culmination of a ‘malignant and unrelenting’ campaign which began when the king (then Prince of Wales) followed his own ‘inclinations’ and abandoned her in 1796 after less than a year of marriage. Any follower of her story would know that the word ‘inclination’ was a reference to the king’s separation letter which had also been widely reproduced and which anchored this controversy in an earlier, foundational period of political and social unrest, the revolutionary 1790s. Seen in this longer framework, the trial was a highly symbolic illustration of the British state’s ‘unrelenting’ resistance to democratic reform. Caroline’s supporters sensed that the tide of history was on their side,[1] and their leverage over popular public opinion went into overdrive. The scale and intensity of the campaign increased dramatically, with daily massed protests outside parliament and constant reporting of the trial in a range of formats including newspapers, periodicals, pamphlets, and whole books.[2] Significantly, caricature also stepped up a gear.

Two days before the trial opened, William Hone and George Cruikshank published their illustrated pamphlet The Queen’s Matrimonial Ladder (Figure 1).[3] Hone and Cruikshank had invented this new satirical genre the previous year when they responded to the Peterloo massacre with the phenomenally successful Political House that Jack Built. To broaden the appeal of caricature, they borrowed the populist visual style and reprographic technique of emblem books and fairy tales, using wood-engraving to enable the simultaneous printing of image and letter-press text. This also kept the price down to the relatively inexpensive one shilling, and although this was beyond most working-class consumers, the new format was a smash hit with the middle classes who could now enjoy up to twenty vignettes for the price of one single-sheet caricature. As we shall see, the textual element of the new genre was also deceptively complex and multi-layered, comprising a sub-title, a literary epigraph, and a playful, parodic narrative. For the Queen’s Matrimonial Ladder, Hone and Cruikshank went one step further (pun intended) and provided at no extra cost another, simplified version of the satire they called a ‘toy’ (Figure 2). This was a small, stiff, cardboard ladder which resembled in every respect a children’s plaything, though its cultural allusiveness was, as we might expect, decidedly more nuanced.

Figure 2. The ‘toy’ version of the Queen’s Matrimonial Ladder. Special Collections, Adelphi University. Author’s photographs.

The delightful cover design of the pamphlet was firmly in step (forgive the second and last pun) with the defiant public mood. It shows a triumphal Caroline sitting cross-armed on top of a stepladder, the rungs of which are inscribed with 14 different stages of matrimony. She looks down on the pitiful figure of George who has tumbled backwards after breaking the penultimate downward step called ‘Coronation’. The clear message is that George will get his comeuppance (come-downance?) for his misdemeanours: in other words, moral and satirical logic dictates that justice will prevail, even if this means comically flirting with seditious iconography. In advance of the trial opening, the image not only declares Caroline’s innocence but exacts its own populist punishment on the errant monarch. In the event, the conclusion of the controversy was far less sanguine, but that could not have been foreseen in the summer of 1820. In cinematic terms, the design is both a trailer and a spoiler as it gives away the (happy) ending. With this reassuring denouement in place, the reader-viewer could enjoy this refreshing satirical review of what was by now a familiar, hagiographic story of an injured, elevated woman.

The use of the step ladder as the central symbol shows Cruikshank’s brilliance in revitalising and repurposing familiar visual motifs. He drew on two well-known precedents. The most obvious precursor was the Matrimonial Ladder, an existing genre in polite Georgian culture which reminded the middle classes about the pitfalls of marriage.[4] Cruikshank was almost certainly parodying decorous versions of this moralistic device such as a greeting card sold by Rudolph Ackermann which shares some of the same ‘-tion’ suffixed abstract nouns on the rungs (Figure 3).[5] But the more important point is that the pyramidal structure of the step ladder provided a symmetrical, bathetic, two-stage narrative: a rise and fall of the fortunes of the protagonists with a pivot point at the apex. For this schema to work, one has to imagine walking up one side of the ladder and down the other, an unlikely procedure in reality but nevertheless one that distinguished the step ladder from the regular, linear ladder which requires a reverse or backward motion to descend. In its non-satirical guise, the turning point is not especially dramatic (‘Dissension’, ‘Rumination’) and the squabbling wife and husband are kept separated in the borders. When the genre was transferred to caricature, Hone and Cruikshank abandoned such polite restraint.

Figure 3. This greeting card depicting a Matrimonial Ladder was sold by Rudolph Ackermann from his Repository of the Arts shop on the Strand, c. 1814-18. Victoria and Albert Museum.

To adapt this format for Caroline’s more tempestuous, tendentious, and cyclical story, Cruikshank moved the players centre stage where they could confront each other directly. This is most clear in the redacted ‘toy’ version where Caroline and George inhabit the rectangular black spaces of the Ackermann design. The incremental rise and fall of the original sequence (from ‘Admiration’ to ‘Separation’) is also disrupted to take account of the more complex, iterative, and confrontational structure of the royal marriage in which Caroline suffers at least three separations (from husband, daughter and country) on the upward slope. Contrastingly, her fortunes are in the ascendant on the downward side after she returns to Britain. It is this moment, the switch from ‘Emigration’ to ‘Remigration’, which forms the apex of the ladder and her transformation from victim to heroine. It is also the beginning of the end for George who suffers one humiliation after another, terminating in an empty coronation and the ‘Degradation’ of a becoming a national clown chastised by Britannia. Unlike the even-handed symmetry of the Ackermann ladder in which both participants suffer equally, Cruikshank’s partisan narrative has a clear winner and loser.

The other source that Cruikshank drew on was the political ladder, a motif used in numerous satirical prints from the late eighteenth century onwards.[6] In Popular Frenzy; or, the Demolition of St Stephs Chapel (1784), for example, we see the House of Commons under attack from William Pitt and his Tory ministers (Figure 4). In their bid to unseat the Fox-North Coalition, the Tories use a siege ladder whose rungs are inscribed with the word ‘Address’, a reference to the popular national support for this constitutional coup. In this pro-Whig print, the clear implication is that populism is a manipulative political tool which whips up public opinion into reactionary hysteria, anarchy, or ‘Frenzy’, but it is also important to remember that Addresses were one of the main levers of support for Caroline: one political party’s unruly ‘mob’ is another’s democratic base. The print also evokes a key moment in British political history when the Tories began their long period of rule, the consequences of which were still being unravelled in 1820. In this respect, Cruikshank’s ladder may also allude to another recent injustice which he helped to expose: the execution of hundreds of people for unwitting banknote forgery.[7] The cover design for a satirical pamphlet called Satan’s Bank Note (1819) shows Castlereagh as a hangman standing on a step ladder (Figure 5). The devil sitting on the gallows echoes Caroline’s position atop the matrimonial ladder, and the parallel provides a wittily diabolical analogy for her power over a king who mistreats his subjects.

Figure 4. Popular Frenzy; or, the Demolition of St Stephs Chapel (1784). British Museum Satires 6438.
Figure 5. Satan’s Bank Note (c.1819) British Museum Satires 14206.

Like the Political House that Jack Built, the Queen’s Matrimonial Ladder spawned a host of imitations by supporters and opponents, and Cruikshank was even paid handsomely enough to produce an anti-radical response to his own design, The Radical Ladder.[8] The huge success of the illustrated pamphlet genre shows that the public appreciated this new, rich interplay between satirical image and text. Illustration was not yet regarded as subservient or secondary to the text, and its evolving status can be seen in the subtitle of the Queen’s Matrimonial Ladder which refers somewhat confusingly (for modern eyes) to ‘scenes’, ‘illustrations in verse’ and ‘cuts’. The phrase ‘illustrations in verse’ implies that the primary appeal of the satire was visual, but another aspect of the cover design shows the importance of textual agency. The dominant visual image of the ladder is flanked by two quotations which embed the pamphlet in both reportage and literary tradition. The first is taken from one of the Queen’s widely disseminated replies to the thousands of Addresses sent to her and stresses the radical unity between her cause and the British people. The second is from Act 3 Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure in which the disreputable Pompey Bum is about to be sent to jail for visiting a brothel. The two quotations amplify and deepen the image’s depiction of heroinism and villainy. As the queen is elevated to a national icon of political justice, the king is further degraded and humiliated by the national bard.

On the inside pages, this textual interplay is enhanced by the addition of the main narrative. There is no knowing if readers consumed the images or texts first, though my hunch is for the former, especially as we know that hand-coloured versions of the pamphlets were available. But regardless of which way round the page was read, the process of decoding each component and fitting the whole together like a puzzle must have provided hours of illuminating entertainment. ‘Accusation’ and ‘Publication’, the two most up-to-date scenes, are particularly rewarding in this respect. Unlike the depictions of these two stages in the ‘toy’, which are limited to exquisite slapstick confrontations between Caroline and George, the pamphlet scenes are much richer extrapolations of government’s machinations against Caroline. Though reduced in scale, the sophistication and detail of these designs comes close to evoking the virtuosity and spectacular effects of single-print caricatures.

Figure 6. William Hone and George Cruikshank, ‘Accusation’. From The Queen’s Matrimonial Ladder.

‘Accusation’ (Figure 6) reimagines George as a watchman standing outside the door of one of Caroline’s residences. He holds a pole on top of which is a green bag entitled ‘Beware of the Report of a Bad House’; in other words, this is a house of ill-repute and Caroline is little better than a prostitute. On the other side of the king is his lantern containing a leech, a reference to Sir John Leach who led the ‘Milan Commission’ into Caroline’s guilt. George’s pole bisects the scene and gives an antithetical emphasis to the right-hand side of the image which contains Caroline’s defiant response. Backed by her two lawyers Henry Brougham and Thomas Denman, she leans out of an open window and puts a torch marked ‘Defence’ to the green bag. Although her face is stern, her reticule or string-drawn purse which dangles over the window sill has a face which smiles at the viewer. This minor detail is the punctum of the cartoon as it is a self-reflexive nod towards the power of satire which simultaneously condenses and rebuts the sexual slurs against Caroline. The grinning visage, reminiscent of Momus the god of mockery, hints at the presence of a mischievous pun on the idea that reticules or ‘ridicules’ were evidence of loose morals. As the text declares, with lashings of genital innuendo, ‘his wife held her ridicule at his “Report”’ – a witticism that gains added force and poignancy from the obscene slang term ‘Burning Shame’ that hovers prominently over the image.[9] The spry purse also evokes her refusal to be bought off with a £50,000 allowance. For all his attempts to perform masculine authority, George is upstaged by an assertive woman who wields the torch of justice and the carnivalesque weapon of ‘ridicule’.

The two quotations from Cymbeline add further levels of irony and interpretation to this already rich melange. The first, ‘I will kill thee, if thou dost deny/Thou hast made me a cuckold’ is spoken by Posthumus Leonatus in Act 2 Scene 4. He is reacting to Iachimo’s claim that, in response to a bet, he has slept with Leonatus’s wife Imogen. Leonatus’s Othello-like credulity and rage about his wife’s alleged infidelity is a subtle comment on George’s calculating and hypocritical determination to discredit and dishonour his wife. As he admits to himself, the church will not grant a divorce ‘If my own hands are dirty’ – which of course they are, stained indelibly by filthy lucre (the original, mercenary reason for the marriage, as shown in ‘Qualification’ and ‘Declaration’) and serial adultery (as shown in ‘Alteration’). In other words, he does not even ‘qualify’ to be a Shakespearean wife-killer. The other quotation, from Act 3 Scene 2, links to the xenophobic attacks on the Italian witnesses who were called to testify against Caroline. The stereotype of the avaricious, shifty and treacherous Italian achieved prominence in the first few weeks of the trial when her ex-servant Theodore Majocchi repeatedly answered Brougham’s questions with ‘Non mi ricordo’ (I don’t remember), a refrain that became the unofficial logo of the proceedings and the title of another Hone-Cruikshank pamphlet.[10] To rub in the point, the lines in Cymbeline are spoken by the loyal servant Pisanio who refuses to believe the allegations against Imogen. Pisanio’s next words can easily be applied to the idealized Caroline: ‘Disloyal! No:/She’s punish’d for her truth, and undergoes,/More goddess-like than wife-like, such assaults’.[11]

Figure 7. William Hone and George Cruikshank, ‘Publication’. From The Queen’s Matrimonial Ladder.

The theme of disloyalty is given a startling new twist in the next episode, ‘Publication’ (Figure 7). The scene shows George as a pantomime Guy Fawkes figure, breaking into a building which houses Caroline and planting a huge green bag of allegedly explosive evidence. He is accompanied in his nocturnal skulduggery by a disabled and demoralized Cupid, and he carries a conspiratorial dark lantern containing a leech (Leach) and a bunch of matches. Caroline peers down at him through a lorgnette from a window above the door. She does not appear distressed as the building is protected by Albion Life Assurance (a real company founded in 1805, but the allegorical significance of its patriotic name is what counts). She is also protected by the celestial eye of knowledge which encloses a printing press, the cherished symbol of freedom of expression and, according to the text, the ‘MORAL SUN’ of the nation. This motif echoes earlier satirical depictions of the Gunpowder Plot in which divine beams of light expose Fawkes’s treachery.[12] And even though Fawkes’s reputation shifted in the Romantic period from arch national traitor to heroic (if over-zealous) martyr for religious and political rights, the king’s self-interested motives hardly qualify for this liberal reinterpretation.[13] George is a danger to the nation and the enemy of the free press. Although the epigraph from a well-known speech by Sheridan points a finger at the ‘venal House of Peers’, the image targets the king alone.[14]

The final point to note about this scene is the punning title. To begin with, there are two conspicuous but antithetical references at play: the first is to the discredited ‘publication’ of the secret inquiry into Caroline’s affairs; the second is to the elevated mission of the ‘fearless’ free press which ‘guards, alike, the people and their throne’. There is also a third meaning waiting in the wings: the threat of Caroline’s legal team to publish the ‘recrimination’ or evidence of the king’s sexual indiscretions, including his first marriage. As Ben Wilson notes, although the word ‘recrimination’ is ‘conspicuously absent’ from the named rungs of the matrimonial ladder, the satire itself stands in for the judicial process and bares all.[15]

This takes us to a fourth connotation, the publication of the pamphlet itself. Satire was not routinely associated with the free press, even though it was clearly an important constituent, and the inviolable symbol of the hand-operated printing press evokes text rather than visual image. This is one reason why caricature was so self-reflexive, constantly defining, exploring, and promoting its unique brand. To be sure, some of this rhetoric was self-puffery, but in Hone and Cruikshank’s case there is little doubt that their success was the result of a self-propelling innovation in form.[16] By the end of the first week of its publication, according to the Examiner (20 August), the Queen’s Matrimonial Ladder was already in its 12th edition. The Examiner was full of praise for ‘another of Mr. Hone’s happy illustrations of public feeling’. The language is revealing: ‘illustration’ here can mean both visualization and enhancement. In an advert for the pamphlet in the same issue, the key word is ‘embellished’: ‘The most extensively embellished, and most rapidly selling production ever issued from the press’. In addition, ‘Orders from the country…will be punctually executed, and Placards for doors and shop-windows enclosed’. Exposure was key to the success of caricature: it relocated high politics to the ‘shop window’ and the gaze of the viewing public.


[1] One polemic argued that ‘the millions who compose the civilized and unbiassed part of mankind’ must ensure ‘the destruction of the prevailing system, by an adequate reform of parliament’ (Charles Maclean, The Triumph of Public Opinion (T. and J. Allman, 1820), 2).

[2] The free borrowing of newspaper text made the recirculation of news stories easier. Caroline’s trial could be followed on a daily, weekly, or monthly cycle, depending on the type of publication, or a combination of all three. Less ephemeral modes of publication also proliferated, including bound, serialized and multivolume trial reports, though it was not always clear where the initial information came from. Radical publishers seized their opportunity to cash in: see, for example, John Fairburn’s Whole Proceedings on the Trial of Her Majesty, originally in weekly parts, then 2 volumes, then 3 volumes with a reprint of the 1806 Delicate Investigation.

[3] The full text is reproduced with a useful introduction in Benjamin Colbert, ed. British Satire 1785-1840: Collected Satires III: Complete Longer Satires (2003; London: Routledge, 2016).

[4] Hone claimed that he got the idea for the pamphlet after seeing a toy Matrimonial Ladder in the window of a ‘little fancy shop’, and that he was offered £500 by the government to suppress it. See Frederick W. M. Hackwood, William Hone: His Life and Times (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1912), 236-7.

[5] For example, ‘Acceptation’ and ‘Declaration’. For an eighteenth-century example, see Hymen’s Ladder (c.1770-90), British Museum 1983, U.2187. The genre remained popular will into the nineteenth century: a mid-1820s print by the caricature publisher Thomas McLean is also in the British Museum collection, and Cruikshank collaborated on a Matrimonial Ladder as late as 1843 (British Museum 1859 0316 804). See also Marcus Wood, Radical Satire and Print Culture, 1790-1822 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), 172-6.

[6] In addition to the examples discussed here, Gillray’s Apotheosis of Hoche (1798; British Museum Satires 9156) is one of the more audacious parodies of Jacob’s biblical ladder.

[7] See Hone and Cruikshank’s Bank Restriction Note and Bank Restriction Barometer, British Museum Satires 13198, 13199. I cover this topic in Romanticism and Caricature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), Chapter 2, ‘Lethal Money’.

[8] British Museum Satires 13895. The radical publisher Thomas Dolby was a prolific producer of these pamphlets: some of my favourites are The Queen and Magna Charta and A Total Eclipse (both illustrated by Robert Cruikshank), and Jack and the Queen Killers. The main loyalist publisher was W. Wright: see, for example, The New Pilgrim’s Progress.

[9] According to Francis Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (London: S. Hooper, 1795), the term refers to ‘a lighted candle stuck into the private parts of a woman’ (23).

[10] Hone’s peddling of anti-Italian xenophobia was probably tactical and commercial as, like most liberals and radicals, he was a supporter of the European revolutionary struggles that were taking place in Italy and Spain in 1820, and in radical analysis a degraded national character was attributed to a corrupt political system. On the wider picture, see Will Bowers, The Italian Idea: Anglo-Italian Radical Literary Culture 1815-23 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020). The Caroline controversy was actually cited by rebel leaders to aid their cause (Jane Robins, Rebel Queen: How the Trial of Caroline Brought England to the Brink of Revolution (London: Simon and Schuster, 2006), 144-45).

[11] There is no space here to pursue the Shakespearean parallels further, but the ironies proliferate depending on the allocation of roles. For example, anti-Carolinites could have focused on Cymbeline’s treacherous queen rather than the victimized Imogen; on the other hand, Iachimo’s seedy spying on the sleeping Imogen evokes the trial’s lubricious obsession with Caroline’s love life.

[12] See: The Guy Faux of 1770 (British Museum Satires 41); James Sayers, A New Leaf for an Old Book of Common Prayer 1807 (British Museum Satires 10739); James Gillray, The Pillar of the Constitution 1807 (British Museum Satires 10738).

[13] See Frederick Burwick, ‘Staging Protest and Repression: Guy Fawkes in Post-Peterloo Performance’, in Michael Demson and Regina Hewitt, eds. Commemorating Peterloo: Violence, Resilience and Claim-Making during the Romantic Era (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019), 100-119.

[14] Sheridan’s speech occurred in 1810 during a debate about proposals to restrict the reporting of parliamentary proceedings (Annual Register (1810): 37-8). In the full speech, Sheridan praised the power of the free press to ‘shake down corruption from its height, and bury it beneath the ruins of those abuses it was meant to shelter’, an apt sentiment for the Caroline controversy.

[15] Ben Wilson, The Laughter of Triumph: William Hone and the Fight for the Free Press (London: Faber and Faber, 2005), 326.

[16] See the article ‘Political Publications in Wood-Cuts and Verse’ in the Examiner (24 December 1820) which celebrates Hone’s pamphlets as ‘a new feature in the history and publication of English politics’.

Queen Caroline in Caricature: June 1820

Ian Haywood, University of Roehampton

Image: Robert Cruikshank, The Secret Insult (Museum Wilhelm Busch)

On this day (5 June) exactly two hundred years ago, one of the most high-profile political and sexual scandals in British history burst onto the cultural scene. The focus of this unprecedented media storm was Caroline of Brunswick, the estranged wife of the new king George IV, previously the Prince of Wales and Prince Regent.[1]

The pair had married in 1795 when George agreed a deal with parliament to pay off enormous gambling debts – amounting to millions of pounds today – in return for reforming his rakish ways. The marriage was a disaster: George was drunk during the wedding ceremony, and there were rumours that Caroline’s standards of hygiene were not of the highest (though typically, this criticism did not apply to the Prince). Moreover, George was already illicitly married to Maria Fitzherbert, and his mistress Lady Jersey was appointed as Caroline’s bedchamber lady. Though Caroline conceived her daughter Charlotte, George insisted on a separation, a decision that would come back to haunt him.

From 1796 until 1820, the royal couple led independent lives, but George launched several undercover investigations to try to expose Caroline’s allegedly promiscuous lifestyle, and he restricted her access to Princess Charlotte. In 1814 Caroline want into exile and only discovered the news of Charlotte’s death in 1817 by accident. When George III died in January 1820, Caroline asserted her claim to be the lawful Queen of Britain and announced her intention to return to England. The king was horrified and determined to stop her. But how to manage this dilemma? The country was in a state of political unrest, and the Queen was already regarded by many people as an injured wife and mother. Her cause was an ideal opportunity to rally anti-government protest in the wake of the Peterloo massacre, the draconian Six Acts against freedom of speech, and the executions of the Cato Street conspirators. Undeterred, and against the advice of his ministers, George had Caroline’s name struck off the Church of England liturgy and demanded a solution.

Just as their relationship had begun with a royal bribe, George assumed Caroline could be bought off and sent a delegation to intercept her journey through northern France. During the weekend of 3-4 June 1820, Lord Hutchinson and the rising Whig star Henry Brougham met with Caroline in the town of St Omer. They offered her an allowance of £50,000 per annum (an increase of £15,000 on her existing stipend) in return for the renunciation of her claim and permanent exile. If she refused, she was threatened with prosecution for adultery. Caroline rejected the offer, resumed her journey to Calais, and arrived at Dover on 5 June 1820. Huge crowds of ecstatic fans welcomed her return and she was mobbed all the way to London.

For the remainder of the year, her story dominated the press and Romantic print culture. The media explosion was unprecedented: millions of words appeared in newspapers, periodicals, pamphlets, trial reports, Addresses, prayers, poems, broadsides and placards.[2] Caroline’s persecution seemed to capture the imagination of the whole country. The Times summed up the public mood in its report of her homecoming: ‘The Queen of England is at present every thing with every body’ (7 July 1820). Caroline represented a new force in British politics: public opinion.[3] Though the vast majority of the population had no vote, they were able to express their views through the ‘fourth estate’ of the press and traditional ‘out-door’ methods of agitation such as petitioning, Addresses, rallies, processions, charivari, threat-letters, window-smashing and effigy-burning. The flagrant hypocrisy and double standards of the accusations against Caroline’s sexual morality revived feminist arguments which had been dormant since the ‘Jacobin’ 1790s,[4] and the dubious legality of the trial was seized on by liberals and radicals as a prime example of political corruption. Lacking any independent access to the corridors of power, Caroline knew that her only chance of success was to appeal directly to the power of the people and the vox populi.

The mobilization of a popular front of oppositional Romantic politics and print was remarkable in its scale and intensity, and central to its success was the contribution that visual culture played in Caroline’s rise to political celebrity. In addition to the wide circulation of engraved portraits, medallions and other visual memorabilia, her story was a field-day for the caricaturists. Hundreds of satirical prints and illustrated pamphlets appeared in her favour, and after the collapse of her trial in late 1820 her opponents also turned to caricature to enhance their counter-offensive.

There were numerous reasons for the popularity and efficacy of Georgian caricature. It was a unique art form which combined political reportage with unbridled and entertaining fantasy; it was able to respond quickly and memorably to political events and it operated outside of conventional aesthetic and ethical norms. This imaginative freedom created a parallel visual universe in which public figures re-enacted and reconfigured newsworthy incidents according to a satirical logic of inversion, irony. allusion and parody.[5] The result was a compelling debunking of official ideology and the stripping away of polite codes of reverence and respect that frequently shielded and mystified social and political power. This anarchic tendency was often balanced by an apparent championing of an identifiable cause or faction, though on closer inspection this advocacy could prove to be unstable, and the consumer of caricatures had to be on their guard for surprises and traps.

The power of Carolinite caricature can be illustrated by looking at the response to her arrival in Britain. Within days of her spectacular ‘remigration’, Robert Cruikshank’s The Secret Insult; or Bribery and Corruption rejected!!! was published by the radical activist William Benbow. This collaboration reflected the significant role that radical publishers played in defining Caroline’s satirical identity. The field was led by the formidable partnership of William Hone and Robert’s more famous brother George Cruikshank, closely followed by the now-forgotten John Fairburn, Thomas Dolby, Benbow and John Cahuac.[6] The Secret Insult is a striking, proto-feminist idealization of Caroline’s authority, presence and prowess. In order to make her homecoming more mythic and symbolic, Cruikshank transplants the St Omer incident to a reimagined arrival on the shores of Britain. Instead of the cheering crowds of Dover, the scene fantasizes a stand-off between the forces of good and evil which is more reminiscent of an invasion tableau, except that the usual roles are reversed and it is the defenders who are in the wrong. The confrontation is semiotically and sartorially polarized into two trios: on the right side we see the proud, stern, virtuous, magisterial and upright figures of a modestly-attired Caroline, her advisor Alderman Wood in Roman armour and (not to be ignored) a patriotic frigate; on the left side, the compromised, obsequious, cringing, untrustworthy, cowardly and evasive figures of a cowed Hutchinson and a Brougham who has his back to the viewer and is confessing his discomfort to the devil.

The textual components of the print indicate its political sympathies and typically bring into play a range of allegorical, cultural and topical allusions: Wood’s ‘Shield for the Innocent’ and fiery sword of justice are stock emblems which glorify (even to the point of being tongue-in-cheek) Caroline’s elevated and iconic status; ‘The Wooden Walls of England’ inscribed on the frigate refers to a popular patriotic naval song and reflects Caroline’s alarming popularity with the rank-and-file of the armed forces;[7] the scroll of ‘Lawful Claims’ in her left hand countermands the forthcoming ‘Bill of Pains and Penalties’ against her; and the speech bubbles reduce the fastidious press reports of St Omer and Dover into populist soundbites. In response to Hutchinson’s fawning offer to ‘change your name & livery & retire to some distant part of the earth w[h]ere you may never be seen or heard any more; & if 50,000£ pr annum will not satisfy you, what will?’  – the latter an example of the ‘excessive profligacy of the age we live in’ according to the Times – Caroline simply replies ‘Nothing but a Crown!’[8] The retort gains added, if ironic force, from the echo of Proverbs 12.4: ‘A virtuous woman is a crown to her husband;/ But she that maketh ashamed is as rottenness in his bones’.[9] This sums up the opposing sides of her case and highlights how she is forced to defy patriarchal norms in order to conform to them and achieve her rightful place as the king’s consort.

Compared to the emissary’s flaccid money bags, she has the same columnal, phallic solidity as her (ludicrously classicized) protector Alderman Wood. Brougham’s embarrassed and unchivalrous back-turning suggests a radical mistrust of ‘secret’ Whig motives and backroom deals. In this respect the title of the print is actually something of a self-referring or self-cancelling misnomer as the whole ‘secret’ escapade was widely reported in the press, including the publication of supposedly confidential documents. Indeed, Caroline demanded to see the offer in writing and thereby initiated a recirculating paper trail that rebutted the notorious obscurity of the government’s Committee of Secrecy and its much-lampooned Green Bags of evidence. As the only uncaricatured figure in the scene, Caroline embodies the open, masculine qualities of civic republicanism: even though her motives are self-aggrandising and ambitious, it is clearly her duty to re-enter Britain and restore its moral and political fibre, sweeping away Old Corruption and its disreputable practices. She is the new broom (Brougham) of British politics. In the words of John Fairburn’s broadside On the Return of Queen Caroline to England,

Not fifty thousand pounds, nor fifty more,
Nor all the wealth that Britain has in store,
Could tempt the mind, in conscious virtue bold,
To barter innocence for sordid gold.[10]

The tension between the legal and moral definitions of ‘innocence’ would eventually prove to be Caroline’s undoing. Her controversy raised but could not resolve the protracted issues of women’s rights and freedoms in a patriarchal society. But for all its limitations and blind spots, the gender politics of the campaign was one of its enduring legacies. As the Examiner opined, ‘adultery is either a crime in every body, or it is not’ and the paper even hinted that a guilty verdict would expose the double standard: ‘men, generally speaking, indulge themselves as they please, and yet demand all the while fidelity from the women’ (11 June 1820). The controversy politicised many women and gave a voice to their concerns. This is the reason why the St Omer episode is so important, as it set the stage for female defiance, resistance and self-assertion.

William Hone hoped that ‘the answer of her Majesty were put into the hands of every man and woman in England – never was a finer compliment paid to the English nation’.[11] This was a vision of a democratic public sphere which Hone himself went some way to achieving through his own cheap publications, including his phenomenally successful illustrated satirical pamphlets. Though the popularity and social reach of caricature is still hotly disputed by scholars, visual satire made a unique contribution to the formation of public opinion in the Caroline affair. The sheer volume of prints that appeared, and their remarkable resourcefulness in creating new iterations of the key episodes in the controversy, is a fitting ‘compliment’ to the Golden Age of British caricature.

For more information, see the History Hub’s video on the Queen Caroline affair, presented by Dr Katie Carpenter in the Parliamentary Archives:


[1] A good recent biography is Jane Robins, Rebel Queen: How the Trial of Caroline Brought England to the Brink of Revolution (London: Simon and Schuster, 2006).

[2] According to Thomas Lacquer, the Caroline controversy was ‘popular as no previous political movement had been…the sheer volume of propaganda was staggering…[and it]  saturated the whole country’ (‘The Queen Caroline Affair: Politics as Art in the Reign of George IV’, Journal of Modern History (September 1982): 417-466, 429-30. Malcolm Chase agrees: ‘Queenite literature arguably constituted the greatest publishing phenomenon of the early nineteenth century’ (1820: Disorder and Stability in the United Kingdom (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013), 179.

[3] For Dror Wahrmann, public opinion in the Caroline controversy was regarded as ‘the ultimate key to the political process – an omnipotent, infallible, supreme arbiter’ (‘Public opinion, violence, and the limits of constitutional politics’, in James Vernon, ed. Re-Reading the Constitution: New Narratives in the Political History of England’s long Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996) 83-122, 90).

[4] Anna Clarke, Scandal: The Sexual Politics of the British Constitution (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), Chapter 8; Kristin Flieger Samuelian, Royal Romances: Sex, Scandal and Monarchy in Print, 1780-1821 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), Chapter 4.

[5] Ian Haywood, Romanticism and Caricature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013); David Francis Taylor, The Politics of Parody: A Literary History of Caricature, 1760-1830 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2018).

[6] In subsequent posts I will look at prints and publications by all these figures.

[7] A version by Henry Green was printed in 1773: see http://spenserians.cath.vt.edu/TextRecord.php?&action=GET&textsid=34845 Accessed 3/6/20. The irony of course is that the vaunted British navy’s function was to keep invaders out. On 15 June, just four days after The Secret Insult was published, the Third Regiment of Guards mutinied in Caroline’s favour. The Duke of Wellington declared: ‘Thus, in one of the most critical moments that ever occurred in this country, we and the public have reason to doubt in the fidelity of the troops, the only security we have, not only against revolution but for the property and life of every individual in the country who has anything to lose’ (cited in Robins, Rebel Queen, 128).

[8] According to the Times (6 June), Caroline replied, ‘My determination is soon formed: I shall set out instantly for England — it is in London, and London alone, that I shall consent to consider any proposals.’ William Hone added an even more defiant flourish: ‘Go – inform your Master  – that in London, and in London alone, I will consent to consider of any proposal of the King of England’ (The King’s Treatment of the Queen Shortly Stated to the People of the England (London: William Hone, 1820), 20).

[9] The Bible: Authorized Version (London: British and Foreign Bible Society,1963) 520.

[10] A copy is pasted into a collection of Carolinite broadsides in the British Library.

[11] Hone, the King’s Treatment of the Queen, 20.

George Cruikshank, Ah! sure such a pair was never seen so justly form’d to meet by natutre (Museum Wilhelm Busch)