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!