Month: June 2012

Georgian Splendour

You often hear me whine about palaces and country houses that big up their Tudor and Victorian links, while virtually ignoring Georgian and other less “mainstream” periods. Not so with Historic Royal Palaces. I have to hand it to them, they do an excellent job of balancing the different eras of history associated with their buildings. Even Hampton Court, while clearly and quite rightly dedicated to Henry VIII, is rich in information about William and Mary, who started to renovate it, and the Georgians who held court there.

Kensington Palace is bursting at the seams with history, and in less capable hands, could easily have turned into a Victoria or a Diana fest. But while these wonderful Princesses are remembered and paid homage to, HRP are careful not to let them steal the show.

On Friday night, I attended a late night opening at Kensington for an evening dedicated to Georgian splendour. Tickets were a steal at £10 each and the entertainment lasted from 6 until 10. I was truly excited to find an event revolving around the Georgians; usually the best I can get is a Regency ball. Having said that, HRP are absolute stars and do Georgian dinners and talks at Kew Palace throughout the year; I REALLY want to attend the one on George III’s father, Prince Frederick, but with tickets at £100 a head it’s not likely to happen.

My plan was to amaze and astound you with photography of the great palace, but alas the combination of low lighting and a photographer with incredibly shaky hands (me, must have been the excitement) threw a spanner in the works. I’ll provide you with what useable photos I have, though, and talk you through my evening.

It would have been easy to merely run from talk to talk, so frequent were the pop up history sessions and workshops. Almost the moment we walked in the door (a little late, us office works can’t usually get anywhere before 7), we were viewing the “Trunk of Terror”, comically displayed by two charlatan “adventurers”. The worrying thing is such figures would be rife on the streets of Georgian London, with their “real” dragons, mummies and pickled embryos. My gentleman attendant, Kevin, proved himself extremely courageous and braved the mummy’s curse by touching it.

Next we were treated to a bit of gossip in the Queen’s apartments as a lady in a rather ravishing dress talked us through some of the Court’s secrets. I have to admit, as I’ve been focused on the later Hanoverians for my current projects, my knowledge of the early Georgians is sketchier than I would like. I was therefore thrilled to find out the woman at George II’s court who I’d instinctively felt I could write a book about, Henrietta Howard, was everything and more that I want in a “character”. I left almost desperate to put pen to paper and write her book. But of course she wasn’t the only interesting woman; Queen Caroline herself deserves a narrative, as does her predecessor, the lovely Sophia who was locked up in a remote castle for adultery.  You really couldn’t make up better storylines than the ones the Georgians actually lived through.

From here we went onto another talk – this one rather juicier. On the magnificent King’s Staircase, an “explainer” told us all about sex and the muckier aspects of life at a Georgian court.  I knew the men often urinated beside the fireplaces, but I hadn’t heard of the bourdaloue – a rather wonderful little pot shaped like a gravy boat that could go up ladies’ skirts for a discreet wee. Such contraptions were essential in a place where you couldn’t go anywhere without the Queen’s consent; we heard some mortifying stories of poor ladies who just couldn’t hold on and left truly gigantic puddles on the floor. Wetting  yourself in front of royalty; that has to be an all time low.

Of course the King’s staircase itself is a wonder just to look at, even if you aren’t listening to stories of Georgian wee at the same time. Kent painted it with the main characters from the court, some of which are still to be identified. The people who once traipsed or sallied up and down the stairs watch over you as you follow in their footsteps – how amazing is that?

Counting our blessings with modern lavatories, we went down the staircase straight into a dancing lesson. Having danced Tudor style for a few years, I managed to pick up the long set dance quite quickly and had the added advantage of a musician I was used to – my friend Lizzie Gutteridge on the fiddle, and I didn’t even realise she’d be there! My lord husband coped very well, I thought, and doffed his hat beautifully. Although it was tiring, I was quite relieved at the pace after my experience with quadrilles; those Regency girls must have had stamina!

After all that dancing it was time for a drink. Georgian inspired food and drink had been advertised but the only liquid I could see that seemed to fit the period was arrack punch. I took a glass in the gardens. It was lovely, but boy was it strong!  The gardens were just gorgeous, I wish we’d had time to explore them properly. Oh well, I suppose we’ll just have to go back….Shame!

There were plenty of other talks to listen to, but we chose to explore the King’s apartments for ourselves. This, dear readers, is where my photography skills truly failed. But I’m almost glad they did because it means you have to go and see it yourself! I loved the warren of rooms that wound deeper and deeper as you tried to approach the King in his innermost sanctum. My favourite for sheer beauty was the Cupola room; the very place where Prinny made poor Queen Victoria’s Christening an awkward business.

On display were some beautiful gowns and suits, complete with lappets (the essential headwear). I even saw King George III’s coronation robes. You know, the one from that famous portrait?  Many squeals from me, and groans from the long-suffering Kevin. Also of overwhelming interest to me was Prince Frederick’s chair, well-worn by time, holding court in the presence chamber.

As much as I enjoyed running around squeaking at Georgian things, I also took pleasure in the displays about William, Mary and Queen Anne. Perhaps the most poignant thing in the palace was Anne’s “Eighteen Little Hopes” – deserted chairs for her dead children. I’ve always fancied writing about Anne, but I think it’s one you have to build up to; there’s just so much tragedy to handle in the tale of the last Protestant Stuart. It was, of course, her failure to provide a surviving heir that opened up the throne for the House of Hanover.

But of all these wonders, I have to say, the thing that delighted me most was the amount of people who turned up. Nothing makes me happier than seeing people learning about Georgian history – and later Stuart history, for that matter – two periods often neglected. What’s more, they seemed to love it! I strongly believe people are interested in the eras, they just haven’t had as much exposure to them at school, or hit HBO shows like The Tudors, to point them in the right direction. While we still have Historic Royal Palaces, I can rest assured there are others out there defending “forgotten” history.

Click here to book your tickets for the next night of Georgian decadence!

The Strange Death of Queen Caroline


One of the joys of being a historical novelist is getting to sift through all the theories that have gone before, examine the evidence, and draw your own conclusions. When faced with the mystery of Caroline’s death, I can’t sit on the fence. I have to choose which version of “the truth” to put in my story and go with it.

Over the years, medical historians have tried to surmise the cause of Caroline’s death at the age of just 53. Stomach cancer, or a blockage of the bowels, are the most frequent diagnoses. There are good arguments for these, and it could be that Caroline’s demise was completely natural. But timed as it was, so soon after her victory at her trial and her shame at George IV’s coronation, I can’t help listening to the scandalous suspicions of the time. These are what I want to dwell upon today.

It is far too easy to cast George IV as the villain of the piece. I hope I show in my work that although he was one of the worst husbands ever to sully a marriage, he was generous and a good brother – even occasionally a good son, to  Queen Charlotte at least. I cannot credit the rumours that flew about, in true Regency style, that George poisoned his wife. Yes, he was conveniently out of the country when she died and prescribed the bare minimum of mourning for her – just three weeks. Undoubtedly he hated her with a maniacal frenzy. But poisoning just doesn’t seem like his style. Besides, what had he to gain?   He had already triumphed over her at his coronation, thwarting her attempts to gain access to the Cathedral while she was booed home. One might argue he wanted her out of the way to marry again – but he didn’t marry again. There was little in it for him but peace of mind, knowing she would not rear her ugly head again to make more mischief.

The person who stood to gain most through Caroline’s death was, bizarrely, Caroline herself. Which has led me to a rather disturbing theory: did Caroline, in fact, hasten her own death?

Perhaps I’m overly perceptive to signs of mental health, but it is safe to say Caroline was never completely stable. As early on as her exile at Blackheath, visitors reported her violent mood swings; prancing through the house in a wild conga one minute, despairing and repining over her lot in life the next. But it is not this aspect of her character which fuels my suspicions: it is her determination.

Contemporaries confirm that once she had set her mind on something, she would follow it through to the point of death. Worryingly, the things she set her mind on weren’t the products of careful deliberation. She was “caught by the first impulse”, “recklessness was central to her personality” and she would “risk solid  benefits” to gratify her desire to scandalise others whilst amusing and revenging herself. Could it possibly be that after the glory of her trial had faded away and she was nothing but a Queen snubbed at her own coronation, she took it into her head to revenge herself on George once and for all?

For Caroline’s popularity certainly did return with her death. Right up until her last breath, she was trying to get the sympathy vote from the people; she wanted her coffin to say “The Injured Queen of England”. Admittedly, it would be an extreme measure to go to. But this is the lady that sent obscene drawings by the penny post to revenge herself on a neighbour. Moreover, she was in a bad way.

For the first time in the many years of her horrid marriage, Caroline’s spirit was visibly broken.  She was disillusioned with even the victory of her trial, soon realising that no one had cared for her as “a poor forlorn woman”, but had followed their own political agendas. After being hissed away from her coronation (where, it is worth noting, her nervousness made her laugh hysterically) Caroline insisted on attending a pageant of the ceremony, performed at Drury Lane. Lady Anne Barnard, present at the show, reported the following:

“[The Queen] got up and curtsied to the manager, the pit, galleries and boxes in a manner so marked – so wild – with a countenance so haggard… I burst into tears to see royalty and pride so humbled and broken down.”

It was on the return from this performance that she began to vomit and her pulse grew fast and erratic. It could be that she had been unwell for some time and her body was finally breaking down at this stage. But the scenes that followed  remind me vividly of the end of Madame Bovary. She dosed herself up, without consultation, bleeding herself profusely, taking opium and enough castor oil “to turn the stomach of a horse”. Lady Anne Hamilton said:

“Her Majesty put on the semblance of unusual gaiety…but while she laughed, the tears rolled down her face – tears of anguish so acute that she seemed to dread the usual approach of rest.”

The Queen finally retired at 3am, taking a glass of water with a huge quantity of Magnesia and a few drops of laudanum. Lady Anne tried to stop her from taking such a strange concoction but she downed it with the use of a spoon.

The doctors called to consult on her later suspected she had, herself, caused a blockage with all her weird mixtures of medicines. Whether this was true, or intentional, we will never know. What we can be sure of is Caroline faced her death with a remarkable bravery and resignation. Perhaps I am just mistaking her strong courage and confusing it with the idea that she had planned to bring her death about all along. But the following exchanges are rather speaking.

“I am going to die,” she told her lawyer Brougham, “but it does not signify.” He assured her that the doctors were of quite a different opinion. “I know better than they,” she said. “I tell you I shall die, but I don’t mind it.”

Lord Hood observed:

“I never beheld a firmer mind, or anyone with less feelings at the thought of dying.”

A controversial theory, but one I am surprised no one seems to have put forward before. I will keep on with the digging and let you know what I find!

A Princess at War

As you’ve probably noticed by now, it’s the psychology of historical figures that really interests me. I’ve covered many “characters”, but I believe there are few as fascinating as Princess Charlotte of Wales, only child of George IV and Queen Caroline.

Not only was Charlotte born in the midst of Revolutionary War, she entered life as a main playing piece in the battle between her estranged parents. Sadly for Charlotte, she took after both her mother and father and in different ways. Since they couldn’t live together happily, how was she supposed to juggle these irreconcilable personalities within herself? It wasn’t easy and there were few people to help her.

Both George and Caroline loved their daughter, but it was a love tinged with darker emotions. She was an instrument of revenge to use against the other. Moreover, she reminded them of their less than happy union. She looked very much like her father and her manners at times brought her mother vividly to life. Neither could love her without reserve.

Caroline doted on the young Charlotte. Throughout her life, she was obsessed with babies and children, but I can’t help feeling that as Charlotte grew up, Caroline’s interest waned. It was very clear that Charlotte was to be raised away from her “polluting influence” and though Caroline tried to gain more frequent access to her daughter, the struggle soon became more about annoying George than actually seeing Charlotte. Besides, Caroline had adopted countless other waifs and strays to live with her at Blackheath, all of a younger, cuter age. To some extent, poor Charlotte must have felt replaced.

In my post Sweet Caroline, I discussed how difficult it is to form an opinion of Caroline. It comes as no surprise to me that her daughter also struggled. On the one hand, Caroline was a slice of fun punctuating the dreary monotony of Charlotte’s school room life. It must have been blissful to be swept away from the dull aunts at Windsor to Blackheath’s riotous parties. Charlotte was soon telling her governess she didn’t mind showing her legs when she got into the carriage – she had nice legs, after all. This is pure Caroline talking; a sign that perhaps Charlotte looked up to her mother as a kind of role model, an outspoken woman amongst her more retiring aunts. But Charlotte was not solely Caroline’s daughter, and she began to doubt her mother was quite so wonderful as she first thought. The findings of the Delicate Investigation of 1806 shocked Charlotte to the core. She was enough of George’s daughter to disapprove strongly of her mother’s actions, and begin to question her motives.

Caroline had once helped Charlotte conduct a love affair with Captain Hesse, carrying correspondence for them. At this time, her mother probably seemed like a godsend, wanting her to find true love. It was only later that Charlotte began to wonder if her mother was trying to ruin her reputation, thus punishing George and the entire royal family. Her fears seemed justified when the time came to arrange her marriage. Charlotte asked her mother for advice about accepting the Prince of Orange, but Caroline refused to give any. She was far more concerned that Charlotte should cause a fuss about Caroline’s exclusion from the recent festivities at Carlton House. When, desperate to avoid the match, Charlotte fled her house and cast herself on Caroline’s protection, she was told to go back home! Soon after, Caroline quit the country and left Charlotte to cope with the fall out alone.

It was no easier to trust her father. Personally, I think that George did love his daughter and wanted to do the  best by her. But he had a remarkably short memory. As an heir to the throne who had chaffed under the strict education imposed on him, you would expect his rearing of Charlotte to be more liberal. Alas, he was so terrified of Caroline’s influence that he kept her on a tight rein. He made it very clear that Charlotte was to have “no will of her own”. I doubt anyone would like being told that, but for the spirited Charlotte it was doubly exasperating.  She began to see him as a jailor. Since he hated and banned visits to Caroline, they became a kind of illicit treat. Another rod George made for his own back was raising Charlotte with Whig values. As heir presumptive, he had subscribed to the party views, but the tables turned when he became Prince Regent. Not only were the Whigs infuriating him with their party squabbles but they were determined to end the war. For the sake of what he believed best for England, George was forced to break with his old party and stick with the Tories. This widened the gap between father and daughter; Charlotte burst into tears at dinner when he gave an anti-Whig speech.

We must remember that George hated Caroline with an almost inhuman frenzy. There were times when his daughter, as a reminder of that hated woman, was loathsome to him. It became far easier to spend time in Brighton with Mrs Fitzherbert and their adopted daughter, Minnie Seymour. Minnie was a winning child, dutiful and sweet – probably because she didnt have the Hanover genes in her. Once again, Charlotte was finding her place filled in a parent’s heart. She even began to suspect that George wanted her out of the country, married to a foreign Prince, so it would be easier to divorce her mother. In which case, he would probably marry again and produce an alternative heir to the throne. She stood to lose everything if she didn’t keep her father sweet – or, if she abandoned her mother. How was she supposed to do both?

Unsurprisingly, with all this pressure, Charlotte “played up”. She liked to be rough with her playmates, laugh loudly and swagger like an ostler boy. She delighted in a tom-boy image, yet never lost sight of the great situation to which she was born. When asked to close the door by her governess, she replied grandly, “Not I. If you want the door closed, ring the bell.” For a period of her childhood, she made herself as difficult as possible. Why not? Whatever she did, she was bound to displease one or other of her parents.

Charlotte did have true friends who cared for her, but she didn’t realise it. Her grandmother Queen Charlotte and the five of her daughters who remained in England were on her side. But as they all loved George, Charlotte suspected them of being nothing but his puppets. Moreover, they were all so boring to her youthful mind. She scarcely thought of confiding in them until much  later on in life. Meanwhile, her Aunt Royal frequently wrote from Wurttemberg with recommendations for Charlotte’s upbringing. If George had attended to them, Charlotte might have enjoyed a bit of an easier ride. The only one of the family Charlotte knew she could trust was her grandfather George III. They were devoted to each other. But the “madness” snatched him away from her so often, he was of very little use.

Charlotte did eventually find happiness with Prince Leopold, who she married. She calmed down from this point and truly seemed able to be herself. Her relationship with her father and aunts improved, and she wrote fondly to her mother on the Continent. It seemed she had at last reconciled some of the turmoil within. Yet when she was on the point of completing her own joy by adding a child to the family, and delighting the nation by giving birth to a Prince, Charlotte tragically died.

It seems so unfair that she was only able to enjoy a brief snatch of happiness. But from a literary point of view, it has the perfect symbolism. The rotten marriage of her parents tainted her luck throughout life. The only good thing to come of the union, like the marriage itself, broke down at an early age. Poor Charlotte. I often wonder what would have happened if she and her son had lived, thereby erasing the Victorian era. We will never know, but I certainly hope that she has found the peace she was seeking all that time, beneath this beautiful monument with her son and grandmother.