As you may have seen from my Twitter feed, I’ve been invited to appear on a TV documentary about Hampton Court Palace (I understand this will be on PBS, although I don’t know when). What absolute bliss! A palace I love and a chance to witter away about the Georgians, all rolled into one! The only problem I could foresee was that most my research for the Hampton Court years revolved around Caroline of Ansbach and my great admiration for her. Although I adore her, and I hope you will all adore my novel about her when I come to write it, I was worried I might come across as a Caroline-obsessed weirdo. But when I spoke to the director, he too was fascinated by Caroline and wanted to hear my stories about her. So just what is it about this Georgian Queen that holds us in her thrall?
We’re not the first to be touched by her magic. She had a gift of inspiring the utmost devotion in her circle of close servants. This was an exclusive club you had to work hard to get into, but once you were there, Caroline would show you the human face behind the monarch. This was the Caroline who had to run from the room in tears when a woman begged her to save the life of a Jacobite rebel. And as for her husband, George II, he was besotted. He took mistresses for the sake of his male, Kingly pride, but always insisted they were not fit to buckle Caroline’s shoe. When arriving home after absences in Hanover, he would be quick to whisk his wife away to the bedroom, no matter who was looking. His grief on her death was profound and touching. He had a gem of a Queen and he knew it.
Caroline was not a conventional woman, nor a conventional Princess. She was orphaned at the age of only 13 and sent to live in Brandenburg with the elector Frederick and his wife Sophie Charlotte. This was the perfect place for the intelligent, quick young Princess to spread her wings. Sophie Charlotte was the aunt of Caroline’s future husband, George II. She entertained the great scholars and philosophers of the age, absorbing their knowledge and debating with them. Her husband, Frederick, loved fashion and splendour. No wonder Caroline learned to be fiercely intelligent with a keen sense of style. This court formed her at an impressionable age – but sadly, when Sophie Charlotte died, she was forced to return to the backwater of Ansbach.
Back home, she kept up her studies, concentrating on theology, philosophy and metaphysics. At some point – whether early on or shortly before her marriage is unclear -Caroline taught herself to write. Naturally, her self-taught hand was badly formed, causing George II to pronounce that she wrote ‘like a cat’, but you have to admire the ambition and tenacity that carried her through. Caroline certainly knew her own mind. Although she had no dowry at all, she refused a highly desirable offer of marriage because her prospective bridegroom was Catholic. Caroline herself was a devout Lutheran and there was no way she was converting.
The intelligent, lively Princess from Ansbach earned herself a glowing reputation. George II’s grandmother Sophia, who took the place of his absent mother, told him she was the loveliest Princess to be found. However, he was unwilling to plunge into a marriage without making his own decision. Disguising himself as a travelling count, he gathered his entourage and set out on a scouting mission to Ansbach.
Of course, the disguise didn’t fool a sharp young Princess like Caroline, but she played along. Her charms soon had George smitten. As George himself was far from interested in the “stuff and nonsense” Caroline liked, such as poetry, art, theology etc, it’s unlikely she captivated him with her scholarly conversation. More prominent in the wooing, I imagine, were her graceful manner, long blonde hair and soon to be legendary bosom. Either way, he returned home with his head full of her and determined to marry.
Caroline knew exactly how to work her husband. Her influence was of such a subtle, manipulative nature that it was extremely hard to trace. She was careful to “say what she did not think, assent to what she did not believe and praise what she did not approve” so that George thought she agreed with all his opinions. She would then slowly, almost imperceptibly, change these views to her own. George, carried along with the gradual process, always believed he had come to the new conclusions all by himself. Caroline was strongly supported in her role by Walpole and Hervey, who shared her Whiggish viewpoint. She needed all the allies she could get, as George was determined not to be ruled by women like his father. When rumours flew about that he was governed by his wife, he would do everything in his power to contradict them. He would humiliate Caroline in front of the court, laughing at her ignorance or shouting down her opinions in one of his famous rages. Astonishingly, Caroline always responded with sweetness and light. She flattered, she agreed and she let him think he had put her in her place. It was the same tactic she used when hearing of his mistresses – she encouraged him to tell her about them and keep her informed of every stage of the conquest, as if anything which brought him pleasure was the greatest delight to her. It couldn’t have been an easy course, but it was a brilliant one. Through it she ensured George remained bound to her heart and soul.
There was also a more human, earthy side to Caroline to add to this picture of the sainted wife. She was devoutly religious, but she also revelled in the risqué humour of Lord Hervey, who was known to take both male and female lovers. Her court was bright and lively, full of naughty, flirtatious maids of honour who danced at masquerades and giggled during sermons. She was also not above some petty jealousy towards George’s mistress Henrietta Howard. Although I like Henrietta and feel sorry for her, I can understand the emotions which led Caroline to remind her of her place. She had always been fond of Henrietta until she started sleeping with her husband. When the affair started, Caroline never openly reproached, but gave Henrietta more menial tasks to do and insisted she hold her wash basin on bended knee. I rather like this glint of a jealous woman showing through the veneer of a perfect Queen.
Since George I’s wife was imprisoned in a German castle for her infidelity, Caroline took on the role of Queen long before it was her actual title. She led the fashions and added some much needed gaiety to George I’s court. It is worth noting that in some of the early squabbles between George I and George II, the elder George remained tolerant of her while he hated her husband. Sadly, this was all to change. Following a huge row over the Christening of the couple’s son – another George – Caroline was separated from her children. George I did offer to let her come back and live with them if she would abandon her husband – but this was a thing she would never agree to. It took the death of the poor baby George to reunite the family. I doubt if Caroline ever forgave her father in law for separating her from her child before he died. She had already lost a son, and nearly died herself in giving birth to him. This was yet another blow.
Caroline the mother is a bit of a mystery. Her daughters praised both her and George II as wonderful parents and pined to return to them when they were separated. William, Duke of Cumberland (later to be known as Butcher), was clearly spoilt by his mother, receiving the beautiful Cumberland suite of rooms at Hampton Court palace, all carefully redecorated for him in fashionable blue mohair. But what about poor Frederick, her eldest, who she had been forced to leave in Hanover when she came to Britain? This child she completely detested, calling him “the greatest ass that ever lived”. Her venom towards him is extremely hard to reconcile with her behaviour towards her other children. Of course, she disapproved of his rakish behaviour when he came to England and knew he was close to George I, but these are hardly strong enough factors to turn a mother against her firstborn son. I can only imagine it was his interference in opposition politics which really got her goat. Caroline loved power, and anyone who threatened hers was an instant enemy.
Another great thing about Caroline was her cleanliness. We have accounts of how she cleaned her teeth with a sponge on a stick and various references to her constant bathing, which earned her the name “clean Caroline.” She would sit in a bath lined with linen, on a little stool, clothed in shift. Ewers of hot water would be brought to her and little soapy concoctions whipped up out of rose water and orange water. Her bathroom at Hampton Court Palace still retains a decidedly floral and spicy scent, helping you to imagine those bathtimes long ago. No doubt, her servants would think her slightly mad. Everyone knew bathing could be dangerous to your health. But a Queen will have her whims…
Caroline predeceased her husband in 1737 in a truly tragic way. She knew death was coming, because she had been hiding the cause of it for a long time. An umbilical rupture, endured at the birth of her last child, was slowly killing her, along with the gout to which she was a martyr. But why did she keep walking with gout, instead of letting William wheel her around in her merlin chair? Why didn’t she tell someone about the rupture? The answer was simple and definitive of Caroline: George. George hated anything to do with illness – hated even more the fuss that went with it. A perfect wife to the end, Caroline refused to trouble him with her agony. It is almost too sad for words. As you can imagine, George was inconsolable when he found out the truth. He spent hours lying on the death-bed beside her, assuring her she was the best woman who ever lived. He remonstrated against her constant plea that he would marry again. And then, in true Caroline style, when the hour of death was upon her, she ordered the candles extinguished so that he wouldn’t have to suffer the horror of watching her die. A truly courageous end for a remarkable Queen.
I think you can see why I’m so eager to start my novel about Caroline and her life. She is one of my heroines in a writing sense and a personal sense. But for now I am concentrating on one of her ancestors – another Caroline – who was less subtle, less clean but no less remarkable in her way.