Queen Caroline in Caricature – July 1820

Ian Haywood, University of Roehampton

Figure 1. William Heath, The Pageantry put off or the Raree Show adjourned (S. W. Fores, 13 July 1820). British Museum.

Throughout June and July 1820, the Caroline controversy gathered pace. Unable to prevent her re-entering Britain after her long exile (see the June post), the government tried once again to persuade Caroline to renounce her claim to the throne. The veteran Tory MP and anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce was assigned to the task and repeated the offer of a £50,000 allowance in return for Caroline leaving the country. The queen was in no mood to compromise: buoyed up by the huge popular support for her cause, she rejected the bribe for a second time. According to radical journalist William Cobbett, who was angling to become Caroline’s speech writer, Wilberforce’s dejected deputation were ‘hooted, and were actually spitten upon, by such masses of people as are seen no where but in London’. Cobbett cited this charivari in a letter to the queen as evidence that her ‘strength and safety lie in public opinion’.[1] Cobbett’s overtures did not go unheeded, and by the time her trial began in August, the tone of Caroline’s campaign had become markedly more militant and class-conscious.[2]

Caroline’s steadfastness massively raised the stakes of the dispute. Under George IV’s direction, the government launched legal proceedings against Caroline. To divorce his wife and rescind her royal title, the king needed evidence that she had committed adultery. This had been tried before with no success – the ‘Delicate Investigation’ of 1806 had exonerated her from the charge of giving birth to an illegitimate child – but the so-called ‘Milan Commission’ had been gathering evidence of Caroline’s affair with her Italian steward Bartolomeo Bergami for several years. In late June 1820, this evidence was delivered in several customary green bags to a Secret Committee of the House of Lords, and on 6 July the Bill of Pains and Penalties was given its first reading. This procedure was a public relations disaster for the government and was met with widespread revulsion and ridicule. The infamous green bags were regarded by many as icons of subterfuge and despotism, their reputation indelibly stained by previous prosecutions of radicals for sedition. Unsurprisingly, the green bags feature prominently in caricatures, most famously George Cruikshank’s hilarious Ah! sure such a pair was never seen so justly form’d to meet by nature (23 June 1820), used as the masthead for these posts. Perhaps responding to the Examiner’s quip that ‘If the King has a Green Bag, the Queen might have one too’,[3] Cruikshank expresses his disdain for the whole affair in a relatively even-handed manner, but in most satirical prints the bags are bulging repositories of corruption, cowardice, and conniving. As is so often the case, the satire works through magnification and hyperbole, swelling the size of the bags to encompass and entrap the culprits in their own chicanery.

The Bill of Pains and Penalties, the central public document of the controversy, was also an easy target for ridicule. The Examiner dubbed it the ‘Bill of Divorce and Degradation’ (2 July 1820). A typically resourceful intervention came from William Hone, who published an alternative version of the Bill in which a parallel text compared the queen’s alleged ‘licentious’ and ‘disgraceful’ shenanigans to the king’s multiple sexual indiscretions and moral failings (Figure 2). The comic effect of these ‘dropt clauses’ resembles a satirical mirror in which an official narrative is inverted: see for example Robert Cruikshank’s Reflection: To be or not to be? (11 February 1820) in which the king sees Caroline’s reflection rather than his own in the looking glass.[4] Like many other pro-Caroline publications, Hone’s pamphlet also traces the origins of the problem back to the separation of 1796, the point at which George broke his marriage vows and set in train this travesty of a royal romance. The constant reiteration of the queen’s heroic-tragic story is one of the most distinctive cultural features of the crisis.[5] Her narrative became a template for social and political injustice, but also for resistance to persecution. She was a wronged woman, but also a strong woman. The main source of that strength, as she emphasised in her replies to the Addresses that poured in from around the country, was her connection with the people.

Figure 2. William Hone, Dropt Clauses Out of the Bill Against the Queen (1820). Special Collections, Adelphi University. The satirical cartoon juxtaposes the king and queen’s response to being smeared in blacking liquid: while Caroline repels the stain and remains pristine white, the king cannot be bleached.

Historians have identified Caroline’s adoption of the role of stereotypically vulnerable woman in need of (male) protection as a fatal weakness in her campaign, but this analysis underestimates the dissemination of proto-feminist imagery which shows the queen as sublimely powerful.[6] Due to its hyperbolic methodology, caricature was a particularly potent source of this empowering iconography. In the June post, we looked at Caroline’s pose of martial valour in Robert Cruikshank’s The Secret Insult!. For this post, we can turn to William Heath’s The Pageantry put off or the Raree Show adjourned, published by Samuel Fores on 13 July 1820.[7] Heath was responding to the government’s announcement on 12 July that the Coronation – the ‘raree show’ or children’s peep-show of the title – was to be postponed for a whole year until August 1821. This news arrived only a few days after the first reading of the Bill of Pains and Penalties and represented a mini-triumph for Caroline’s cause (it also put in place, ironically, the denouement of her story). To amplify this sense of success, Heath’s queen is transformed into a quasi-divine entity resembling one of the female personifications (Liberty. Justice, Britannia) who support her in other prints and satires.[8] Unlike The Secret Insult! or Robert Cruikshank’s Public Opinion (published a few weeks earlier, and which shows a seated Caroline outweighing the cabinet in the scales of justice [Figure 3]),[9] Caroline is unaccompanied, active, and in total command. Heath’s scene has all the trappings of a theatrical deus ex machina: her sudden, radiant appearance from a cloud startles and cows the king and his cabinet, and the shock symbolically dislodges the crown from the king’s head. Her dress is covered in astrological symbols to enhance her mystique, and she is literally elevated. But the crucial and most radical visual detail is the least spectacular: separating the two halves of the print is the queen’s wand, inscribed with the words ‘Vox Populi’ or voice of the people. It is this lightning rod of opposition and protest which empowers her and connects her to popular protest.

Figure 3. Robert Cruikshank, Public Opinion (William Benbow, June 1820). British Museum.

Her scolding words are also a subtle but highly effective rallying cry for her thousands of female supporters.[10] While the nation’s leaders scatter in stunned silence, Caroline declaims to the king,

That Cap becomes you not alone off with the Bauble tread it under foot. ‘tis not the time for Pageantry & Waste, while thousands starve for Want? & while your Royal Mistress suffer Scorn, Reproach & Persecution, from the Dastard Hands of Secret Enemies.

The first half of this speech is taken from Act 5 Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, and it is no coincidence that these are the words of Petruchio commanding obedience from his erstwhile ‘shrew’ wife Katherina. As Jonathan Bate and David Francis Taylor have shown, Shakespeare was a constant source of inspiration for caricaturists,[11] and Heath’s quotation is a brilliant example of how carefully and strategically satirical artists chose their quotations. Given that Caroline’s predicament was often compared to that of Anne Boleyn or Catherine of Aragon, supporters and satirists more commonly cited Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, but Heath clearly wanted to overturn the stereotype of the saintly female victim.[12] Of course, the cultural richness of this inversion of gender roles only works if the viewer recognises the Shakespearean allusion, but given the popularity of Georgian theatre at all social levels, there is every reason to suppose that the joke met its mark.[13]

The ideological work of the Shakespeare quotation does not end with the subversion of gender roles. It is also a mischievous reference to the postponed coronation, repurposing Shakespeare’s text into a seditious anticipation of the king’s downfall. In the play, Petruchio’s command ‘off with that bauble tread it under foot’ chastises stereotypical female vanity, but in the caricature the ‘bauble’ refers to the king’s dislodged crown, a visual omen of either a popular republican uprising or Caroline’s constitutional usurpation.  Moreover, Caroline’s expressed sympathy for the ‘thousands’ who ‘starve and want’ introduces a new tone of class-consciousness into the rebuke. If Caroline ever did come to power, this is how radicals imagined (or wanted to imagine) she would act.[14] Put another way, she would be paying back her dues for the people’s support.

The final point to note on the print’s utilization of Shakespeare is that it also subverted illustrations of the play. The Taming of the Shrew was included in Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery and its attendant printed outputs,[15] and there were several other illustrated versions of the play published subsequently. While there is no evidence of direct borrowing, it is illuminating to postulate ways in which the caricature is in dialogue with this burgeoning field of visual imagery. Robert Smirke’s design for the ‘taming’ of Katherina in Act 5 Scene 2 of the play (Figure 4) is a good example of the ideal of compliant femininity which Heath undermines and challenges. Like Caroline, Katherina stands on the left of the scene, admonishing Bianca and the widow in full view of the approving male gaze. In his gender reversal of this interaction, Heath may have drawn on an earlier illustration by Edward Francis Burney (cousin of Fanny Burney). His design for Act 3, Scene 2 (Figure 5) shows Petruchio brandishing his sword to protect Katherina. His pose and chivalric words – ‘Fear not, sweet wench they shall not touch thee/I’ll buckle thee against a million’ – may resonate strongly with the popular support for Caroline as a victim, but in Heath’s print the roles are switched and it is the queen who assumes Petruchio’s militant stance, defending women and the nation against malevolent male rulers. The ‘million’ are also transmuted into the liberating force of the ‘vox populi’.

Figure 4. Robert Smirke, artist’s proof of an illustration for Act 5 Scene 2 of The Taming of the Shrew (1821). British Museum.
Figure 5. Edward Francis Burney, illustration of Act 3 Scene 2 of The Taming of the Shrew (1805). British Museum.

The barely visible inscription on Caroline’s wand may seem a rather lightweight signifier in comparison to the Shakespeare quotation, but the talismanic term releases into the image a cacophony of radical ‘voices’ from the surrounding print culture.[16] Mention has already been made of the prolific number of supportive Addresses which poured in from all around the country, and it is worth adding that these were immediately recirculated in the press, usually accompanied by Caroline’s replies. The Addresses were also presented in person by formal delegations and processions, and the vast crowds that marched from central London to Caroline’s residence in Brandenbugh House in west London were a spectacular material demonstration of ‘popular feeling’ in action.[17] Accompanying this deafening chorus was a wide variety of popular political genres: songs, ballads, prayers, skits, broadsides and poems, many of which circulated across different media. The final section of this post will consider some demotic texts which interact with Heath’s caricature in intriguing and instructive ways, adding new layers of meaning and further enriching its cultural and political agency.

On 12 July 1820, the day before Heath’s print was published, the latest issue of Thomas Wooler’s radical periodical Black Dwarf appeared on the newsstands blazoning a sensational headline story, ‘The Portals of Revolution Opened’. The article argues that the government’s prosecution of Caroline risked provoking a full-blown constitutional crisis and, even worse, ‘all the horrors of a military revolution, and its attendant destruction of all civil rights’ (40). To avert this disaster, ministers needed to listen to the inviolable voice of the people: as an earlier issue of the paper put it, ‘The people will be heard, for through them operates the voice of eternal justice’ (14 June). One of the most populist sources of this democratic voice was a series of declamatory street posters or placards, and in its 12 July edition Black Dwarf republished a placard entitled ‘Glorious Deeds of Women!!!’ (Figure 6).[18] The text positions Caroline as the latest in a long line of patriotic political women stretching back to republican Rome. It is striking that the roll call becomes increasingly violent as it progresses, citing the famous Biblical stories of Jael and Esther, both of whom assassinated tyrants to save the Jewish people, and the more recent example of Charlotte Corday who murdered the Jacobin leader Marat.[19] Heath’s depiction of a militant Caroline may well have been influenced by this clamorous evocation of powerful women, especially when we remember that all three heroines were widely represented in art history.[20] Seen from this tyrannicidal perspective, Caroline’s wand resembles Jael’s hammer and spike, poised to ‘bring down the corrupt conspirators’ in a feminized coup d’etat. Like numerous other satirical responses to the Caroline debacle, the story of a persecuted queen is reimagined as righteous conquest over a ‘corrupt’ ruler.

Figure 6. ‘Glorious Deeds of Women!!!’ From Black Dwarf  (12 July 1820). British Library.

Heath’s decision to make Caroline a godlike figure may also have been a response to popular poetic rhetoric.[21] A prime example of her elevation to semi-divine status is the song ‘Britons Claim her as Your Queen!! An Address from Britannia’, which appeared in the two-penny A Collection of New and Popular Songs, Dedicated to Queen Caroline of England (1820). This anthology declared its impeccable radical credentials by opening with Samuel Bamford’s alternative national anthem, ‘God Save the Queen’. The editor explains that Bamford, the ‘Burns of Lancashire’, was languishing in Lincoln jail for ‘having attended the Meeting at Manchester’. Peterloo was a constant reference point in radical discourse throughout the Caroline controversy, providing a precedent and pretext for both oppression and resistance. Ideally, Caroline would be the providential healer of the nation:

O God! Her foes confound,
And save the Queen!
O, may she purer rise…[22]

In a broadside version of the song, Caroline’s glorification is even more pronounced: ‘Let Virtue’s sacred rays/Round her unsullied blaze’.[23] Bamford gives Caroline a sublime aura, but in ‘Britons claim her as your Queen!!’ her role is apocalyptic:

Now’s the day and now’s the hour,
Chase away the clouds that low’r,
Crush at once the villain’s power
Who dares insult his Queen!

Justice strikes th’avenging blow!
Rids Caroline of every foe,
Forever may she reign! (9-10)

The revolutionary message is strengthened by the tune, ‘Scots who hae wi’ Wallace bled’, the unofficial anthem of Scottish nationalism. The original words were written by Robert Burns in 1793 and expressed his outrage at the government’s persecution of radical activism. The incendiary final stanza echoes Justice’s ‘avenging blow!’ in ‘Britons claim her as your Queen!!’:

Lay the proud usurpers low!
Tyrants fall in ev’ry foe!
Liberty’s in every blow!
Let us do or die![24]

This interlocking and dynamically interleaved set of texts shows that the ‘vox populi’ encompassed a wide range of sources from both the past and present. The wand that Caroline wields in Heath’s caricature is a tribute to a rich tradition of radical writing and representation that reaches back to the Jacobin 1790s. Her elevation to the muse of ‘eternal justice’ mobilized an array of popular textual and visual genres spanning the whole of the Romantic era.

No one could have predicted this bizarre alliance a year earlier. When Percy Shelley concluded his unpublished Peterloo sonnet ‘England in 1819’ with a vision of a ‘phantom’ that ‘may/ Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day’, he could never have foreseen who would answer that call.[25] For Cobbett, writing in late July 1820, ‘the Queen’s cause naturally allies itself with that of the Radicals’.[26] But as this post has shown, ‘the Queen’s cause’ was a complex, collective articulation of multiple grievances. If the queen spoke for the people, they spoke through her.[27] Caricature was the only artistic genre which could give this reciprocal relationship a compelling and entertaining visual form.

See exhibition at the Lewis Walpole Library:

https://exhibits-new.library.yale.edu/s/trialbymedia/page/intro


[1] William Cobbett, History of the Regency and Reign of King George the Fourth (London: William Cobbett, 1830), para. 432. The Examiner reported that Wilberforce the ‘head kneeler’ was ‘much hissed and abused’ (16 July 1820).

[2] For an account of Cobbett’s role as Caroline’s speech writer, see James Grande, William Cobbett, the Press, and Rural England: Radicalism and the Fourth Estate, 1792-1835 (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2014), Chapter 5.

[3] Examiner, 11 June 1820.

[4] British Museum Satires 13661.

[5] Probably the most iconic example of this narrative is William Hone and George Cruikshank’s The Queen’s Matrimonial Ladder, which will be looked at in a later post.

[6] For Thomas Lacqueur, Caroline’s cause was ‘rendered harmless by being transformed into melodrama, farce, and romance’ and a ‘politically safe version of the story as domestic melodrama and royalist fantasy’ (‘The Queen Caroline Affair: Politics as Art in the Reign of George IV,’ Journal of Modern History (September 1982): 417-466, 418, 465).

[7] British Museum Satires 13759.

[8] See, for example, The Queen that Jack Found, Tenth Edition (London: John Fairburn, 1 July 1820). The cover shows Britannia and Wisdom shielding a bust of Caroline (represented as Innocence) under the light of Truth.

[9] British Museum Satires undescribed.

[10] According to Anna Clarke, the 25 Addresses from women contained around 70,000 signatures from all social classes (Scandal: The Sexual Politics of the British Constitution (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 200). Inflated rhetoric was commonplace: for example, the women of an inner London constituency waxed lyrical about Caroline’s ‘great soul’ which ‘shone resplendent, through the clouds gathered around you at St Omers’ (To the Queen’s Most Excellent Majesty: The dutiful tender of the loyalty, homage, and respect of the under-signed, the Married Females resident in the Parish of St Mary-le-Bone). Heath’s caricature literalizes this trope of sublime radiance.

[11] Jonathan Bate, Shakespearean Constitutions: Politics, Theatre, Criticism, 1730-1830 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989); David Francis Taylor, The Politics of Parody: A Literary History of Caricature, 1760-1830 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2018).

[12] For example, see the epigraph from Henry VIII in the poem ‘Who are the accusers of the Queen?’ by ‘Vox Populi’, Black Dwarf, 14 June 1820. See also J. Lewis Marks’s caricature King Henry VIII (1820), British Museum Satires 13829.

[13] See David Worrall, Theatric Revolution: Drama, Censorship, and Romantic Period Subcultures 1773-1832 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006); Frederick Burwick, British Drama of the Industrial Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

[14] In early July Caroline was still being cautious about revealing her politics. Her reply to an Address from Nottingham which complained that ‘pale misery, want, and disease, infest the poor man’s dwelling’ was that ‘I cannot mix political animosities with my just cause’ (Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register, 8 July 1820). In this respect, Heath’s print was nudging her towards a more radical stance.

[15] Examples of the Shakespeare Gallery illustrations can be viewed on the website of the Romantic Illustration Network (https://romanticillustrationnetwork.com/shakespeare-gallery/).

[16] In addition to the literary examples considered here, it is worth noting the very literal way in which the vox populi intervened in the political process. In his pamphlet The King’s Treatment of the Queen Shortly Stated to the People of the England, William Hone describes gleefully how the ‘animating, soul-inspiring cheers of the people’ assembled outside parliament disrupted Castlereagh’s opening of the green bags: ‘No wonder that at that moment the Minister turned pale…that very moment public opinion pronounced its verdict on the whole proceeding’ (21).

[17] Some examples of these processions will be looked at in future posts. According to Cobbett, the crowd usually made a point of stopping before St James’ Palace so that the King could not ignore the vox populi, the ‘sound of their voicesin shouts to have made him hear had he been in the clouds’ (History of the Regency, 439). The phrase ‘popular feeling’ comes from William Hazlitt’s oft-cited description of the controversy as ‘the only question I have ever known that excited a thorough popular feeling. It struck its roots into the heart of the nation; it took possession of every house or cottage in the kingdom’ (The Complete Works of William Hazlitt, ed. P. P. Howe. 21 vols (London and Toronto: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1930–4), 20: 136).

[18] The Examiner regarded these placards as ‘open and effective appeals to the people’ (30 July 1820) and credited Cobbett with the idea.

[19] For the story of Jael and Sisera, see Judges 5: 24-26; for Esther and Ahasuerus, see Esther 7: 1-10.

[20] For Jael and Esther, see Susan L. Smith, The Power of Women: A ‘Topos’ in Medieval Art and Literature (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995). Some of the best known paintings are: Artemisia Gentileschi’s Jael and Sisera (c. 1620); Haman Begging Mercy (c.1635), attributed to Rembrandt; and Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Marat (1793).

[21] For a study of the response of Romantic poets to the Caroline affair, see John Gardner, Poetry and Popular Protest: Peterloo, Cato Street and the Queen Caroline Controversy (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2011), Chapters 8-10.

[22] A Collection of New and Popular Songs, Dedicated to Queen Caroline of England (Newcastle: J. Marshall, 1820). Further page references are given in parentheses.

[23] A broadside version exists in the Special Collections of Adelphi University, Long Island.

[24] The Complete Works of Robert Burns (Boston: Philips, Sampson and Company, 1853), 286.

[25] Shelley: Poetical Works ed. Thomas Hutchinson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 574.

[26] Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register, 29 July 1820, 574-5.

[27] This was the radical interpretation of the voice of the people, but as Anna Clarke explains, the idea was ideologically contested: royalists and moderates argued that parliament was the vox populi, not the ‘mob’, while the Whigs preferred to define the middle class as ‘the people’, hedged between the two extremes (Scandal, 196).

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)

Meet your fellow-RIN Members (1)

In the first of what will hopefully be come a series, RIN member Michael Demson tells us about his current research:

‘Hello, I’m Michael Demson, and I am an assistant professor of English at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, where I teach undergraduate and graduate courses in Romanticism, World literature, and literary theory. Currently, I am working on a book-length study on transatlantic radicalism, agrarian politics, and Romantic literature, a project supported by an American Council of Learned Societies’ Fellowship for 2014-2015.

The first few chapters of this book will explore critiques of agricultural improvement in literary, philosophical, and political correspondences during the 1790s between such figures as Thomas Jefferson, Constantin-François Volney, and William Godwin (a transatlantic network of radicals that this anonymous 1798 cartoon sought to expose, figure 1.). The subsequent chapters explore later Romantic novels (Cooper, Hugo, Trollope) profoundly affected by the radical critique of improvement developed during the decade of revolutions.

Figure 1

Figure 1

I’ve also published articles in Romanticism, European Romantic Review, Nathaniel Hawthorne Review, among others, and my graphic novel, Masks of Anarchy: The History of a Radical Poem, about the second life of Percy Shelley’s 1819 lyrical satire among garment workers in New York City at the turn of Twentieth Century, was published by Verso Books in 2013 (figure 2.). You can reach me at demson@shsu.edu.’

Figure 2

Figure 2