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.

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’.

In conversation with… Ian Hislop

Ian Hislop, satirist, broadcaster, historian, and editor of Private Eye, chats to Roehampton’s Dr Mary L. Shannon about his new radio play ‘Trial by Laughter’ (co-written with Nick Newman) which dramatizes the trial of William Hone for libel in 1817, press freedom, and the importance of satirical images in the nineteenth century.

Click here to access the podcast and to get the full story.

Mary L. Shannon and Ian Hislop Private Eye