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BOOK REVIEW / Princess of Wales in extra-marital sex shock

The Unruly Queen: The Life of Caroline of Brunswick by Flora Fraser Macmillan, pounds 20
Poor Caroline of Brunswick! She is chiefly remembered for the passion with which her husband, the Prince of Wales, detested her. His words at their first meeting have justly entered the collective memory as a good joke about a hellishly bad marriage: "Harris, I am not well; pray get me a glass of brandy." (The Princess's teeth were rotting and Lord Malmesbury, who had escorted her to England, had already felt obliged to give her some embarrassingly intimate advice about the need to wash her person and change her stockings more frequently - advice to which she apparently paid too little heed).

Twenty-five years later the cruel one-liners were still coming. On being informed that his "bitterest enemy" (the speaker meant Napoleon) was dead, King George IV (as he by then was) exclaimed "Is she, by God?" The latter remark stands as evidence not only of his ludicrous implacability but also of his frivolity. His unloved wife was a match for him in political fecklessness.

Touring Europe in 1814, separated from her husband but still firmly intending to be Queen, and not only of hearts, she chose to socialise, to the Foreign Office's despair, almost exclusively with Bonapartes. She even called on Napoleon's Empress Marie Louise, but the visit was not a success. The Princess of Wales yawned so hard that she and her chair toppled over backwards. She laughed uproariously. The Empress, contemplating her upended feet, did not.

It was not, though, for her failings in an ambassadorial role that this Princess of Wales was disgraced, ostracised and eventually tried in the House of Lords, but for doing what her husband had always done with impunity, engaging in extra-marital sex. Her reputation, even as a teenager, was shocking. Her future mother-in-law Queen Charlotte heard that "when she dances" (which she was seldom allowed to do) a governess followed her through the ballroom "to prevent her making an exhibition of herself by indecent conversation with men." She had already developed a wildly dangerous penchant for playing up to her detractors' worst slanders. When, at the age of 16, she was forbidden to attend a ball, she smeared her face with white paste, took to her bed screaming, and claimed to be in labour. The ball was cancelled. Similarly, years later, she was to tease a new lady- in-waiting by referring to a protege, who was well known to be a launderess's son, as her own bastard, and when Walter Scott came to call she whisked him off to the conservatory where she "asked me slily if I was not afraid to be alone with her". By this time her love affairs, real or imaginary, had already been the subject of an official, though secret, enquiry. Clearly she found being stigmatised as a depraved woman as titillating as it was cruel.

She had tried being good, but her marriage never stood a chance. The Prince came drunk to the wedding, telling anyone who would listen that Mrs Fitzherbert was the only woman he would ever love. He passed out under the grate that night, and again three days later, having struck a gentleman who was trying to dissuade him from visiting his old mistress. After little more than a year of virtual imprisonment in Carlton House, with her husband's new mistress Lady Jersey as lady-in-waiting-cum-wardress, the Princess removed herself to a house in Blackheath. There, and subsequently in Kensington Palace and abroad, she led a decreasingly respectable, increasingly jolly life. She liked boisterous party games, rude jokes and staying up so late as to exhaust her poor ladies. Spiteful observers remarked on her coarsening complexion and ridiculous clothes ("showing too much of her naked figure"), but clever men, writers, politicians, travellers and scholars, were drawn to her. George Canning and Thomas Lawrence were both among her alleged lovers. In Italy, once her husband's animosity had driven her to leave England, she lived comfortably if disreputably with a handsome plebian lover, having attained, as Flora Fraser points out "perhaps the greatest liberty which any English woman enjoyed."

It was her insistence on being treated as Queen which brought about her public humiliation, with her dirty bedlinen being picked over at the bar of the House of Lords, and she herself turned away by flunkeys from her husband's coronation. Her story might have ended seedily but happily enough, had she only been content to go quietly.

The parallels between her marriage and that of our latter-day Waleses are plentiful and piquant - he returning thankfully to the woman he had loved long before the marriage, she entertaining a melange of good-looking officers and celebrities in Kensington Palace, while an ageing monarch begged them both to behave. Their use of publicity was as knowing as anything we have seen recently, and as much deplored by the older generation. For years King George III would refer to his eldest son only as "The person who published my letters." The Princess put her case in a memoir; government agents spent the equivalent of pounds 500,000, buying up copies to be burnt.

More importantly, then as now, efforts to salvage the crown's prestige came close to destroying it altogether. Only Robert Peel seems to have had the intelligence to grasp that "to establish a principle of dethronement for personal misconduct" was to open the door to republicanism.

Flora Fraser has a nice dry wit and a finely balanced view of her subject's rather splendid silliness which makes this book, at times, very funny. Caroline was not a clever woman, nor boldly adventurous in the style of her one-time attendant Lady Hester Stanhope. When she went East it was only to gush ignorantly - "the dear Arabians and Turks are quite darlings" - and to buy gaudy frocks. But her good nature was so great, even her husband had to acknowledge it. She seems now more attractive than most of those who condemned her. "Nothing can appear more revolting to propriety than the Princess of Wales using another person's plate", wrote one visitor, noticing her lover's (spurious) crest on the silver dishes. Nothing the princess ever did seems, in retrospect, as revolting as such petty snobbery.