An inquiry into the political efficiency of the 'carnivalesque' response to the Queen Caroline Affair of 1820

Essay, 2011

10 Pages, Grade: 1


In the early nineteenth century the political and social groundwork of Great Britain was undergoing some important changes. Following the Manchester Peterloo Massacre of 1819 the government introduced the so-called Six Acts which prohibited congregation of more than fifty persons on matters regarding the state without permission, accelerated the speed of prosecution for libel, and put further restriction newspaper publications.1 By 1824 the act was partially revoked, and 1832 marked the long-awaited Reform Act, which enfranchised more men and revised representation from newer boroughs. In this light the Queen Caroline Affair of 1820 provided the occasion for effective public ridicule of the oppression under the guise of carnivalesque conviviality and caricature. This movement of the working class from subjects to citizens through their engagement with fearless carnivalesque subversions of the established system using the wronged Queen Caroline as the icon of mistreatment by the government will be the main focus of this essay.

The affair at its core is not more than a domestic quarrel between George IV, and his unwanted wife, Caroline of Brunswick. In 1795, the king ended his illicit marriage to Maria Anne Fitzherbert in order to marry a more noble Caroline, the arrangement was one of convenience for George IV, as the Parliament promised to pay off his substantial debt if the notorious dandy agreed to live a more subdued life with his new wife. The marriage was doomed from the beginning when George IV humiliated Caroline before she even met him when he sent his new mistress Lady Jersey to be her lady-in-waiting.2 Shortly after the wedding, with Caroline pregnant, they separated and Caroline lived apart from the court. Already by 1807 George IV was attempting to rid himself of his homely wife by launching a ‘Delicate Investigation’ on the grounds of a rumor that Caroline’s adopted son was actually her bastard. The investigation concluded that although some of her behaviour is indiscrete there are no grounds for divorce.3 Despite her proven innocence, she was ostracized at court, excluded from attending important state events, and after a series of humiliations and restrictions on seeing her daughter, Princess Caroline chose to go abroad in 1814.4 After the death of George III, Caroline elected to return to Britain to claim her rightful place as the Queen beside George IV, however this proved to be difficult, and this is where the Affair begins.5 To liberate himself of Caroline, George IV pressed for a Bill of Pains and Penalties to be passed, which resulted in a long and sensational trial which, as William Hazlitt wrote in 1820 “struck its roots into the heart of the nation; it took possession of every house or cottage in the kingdom…”6 The goal was to prove Queen Caroline an adulteress and thereby annul the marriage, ironically a regular divorce court was impossible due to the multitude of known infidelities of George IV. The spectacle of the aging debauchering dandy taking his garish wife to court for infidelity contained an inherent theatricality, which was soon utilized by the caricaturists. The opposition linked the unjust prosecution of the Queen to the economic and political oppression of the people, the townspeople of Nottingham in an address to the Queen wrote, “the addressers felt for the wrongs of the Queen as they felt for the various oppressions under which they themselves laboured.”7

The greater social and political influence of this episode has been analysed with varying degrees of success in terms of gender issues,8 radical opposition to the king, middle- and lower-class morality, and very compellingly by Thomas Laqueur through melodrama and farce. To assert a single viewpoint on this issue would simplify it unjustly, thus this essay contends that through melodrama and the carnivalesque the public reaction to the Queen Caroline Affair actually dealt with issues of gender, parliamentary reform, class, and censorship. Thomas Laqueur in his analysis of the Affair argues “how that cause was rendered harmless by being transformed into melodrama, farce, and romance,” and although he acknowledges the attempt to make it into a radical cause, the people’s conversion of it into the more recognizable carnivalesque turns the episode into a meaningless soap.9 Whereas Laqueur evokes Mikhail Bakhtin to support his point about the Affair being a temporary escape from the realities of the actual condition into the unreal world of carnival,10 there is another aspect of Bakhtin’s carnivalesque worth mentioning: the power of carnivalesque laughter. The laughter of the people, directed at everyone, possesses an “indissoluble and essential relation to freedom” under the impunity of merrymaking and farce, the people can criticize and parody the established power, in the only way they know: bawdy jokes, and carnivalesque gatherings.11 To explain the political importance further, Bakhtin writes that within the carnival “the entire world is seen in its droll aspect, in its gay relativity…it is gay, triumphant, and at the same time mocking, deriding,” the carnival is the occasional chance for comic relief, but rather than being innocuous, it is politically charged, a potent political commentary hiding under the impenetrable motley of the fool.12

The public’s reaction of the trial is primarily seen through caricatures of the day, the years 1820-21 saw more caricatures in print than the following five years combined, a statistic that is directly affected by the public demand for free publication.13 The connection between the carnivalesque and caricature is not immediately apparent, although it is critique through the unassailability of the visual joke, it is not clearly a carnivalesque event. However the content of the caricature as well as the consumption of it by the public fall into the category of the carnivalesque experience as described above. Caricature of the period has a bipolar relationship to the Queen: on one hand she was represented as a paragon of virtue and truth as in Isaac Robert Cruikshank’s print Jack and the Queen Killers (Figure 1), where she is the shield that protects justice; on the other hand she is shown with her alleged Italian lover Bartolomeo Pergami14 partaking in all the activities the questionable evidence brought against her (Figure 2). One possible reason for this dichotomy is the King’s attempt to suppress publications of ‘queenite’ material and commission unflattering caricatures of Caroline, such as Grand Entrance to Bamboozl'em (Figure 3).15 A more appealing possibility for the duality is given by Anna Clark, who suggests that contrary to the aristocracy to the working classes “satire and farce celebrating Caroline as a lusty, defiant wife … spoke to them on both a political and a personal level,” while adultery and premarital sex were taboo for the elite, to the working-class they were a fact of everyday life.16 This is a difficult argument to stand behind factually, considering the number of addresses written to Caroline praising virtue and innocence, but it certainly does put us on the right track.17 The Queen was frequently criticized for being more amiable with her servants than was accepted by the aristocracy in England, she was known for dressing too young for her age and wearing excessive amounts of make-up, all flaws that made her more approachable to the lower and middle classes.18 From her spectacular disembarkation at Dover, her frequent appearances to the public, as in The Heart of Mayfair (Figure 4), and the incessant rumors propagated by caricatures about her exotic adventures abroad only kindled her association with the carnivalesque performance.


1 Rogers, Nicholas. Crowds, Culture, and Politics in Georgian Britain. Oxford: Clarendon, 1998. 257.

2 Clark, Anna. "Queen Caroline and the Sexual Politics of Popular Culture in London, 1820."Representations 31.1 (1990): 49.

3 Fulford, Roger. The Trial of Queen Caroline. London: Batsford, 1967. 26-28.

4 Fulford 30.

5 Fulford 35.

6 Quoted in Davidoff, Leonore, and Catherine Hall. Family Fortunes. London: Routledge, 2002. 150.

7 Clark 50.

8 For an interesting engagement with the issues of gender in the Affair see: Carter, Louise. "British Masculinities on Trial in the Queen Caroline Affair of 1820."Gender & History 20.2 (2008): 248-69.

9 Laqueur, Thomas W. "The Queen Caroline Affair: Politics as Art in the Reign of George IV."The Journal of Modern History 54.3 (1982) 418.

10 The trial of Queen Caroline ended as carnival, a "second life of the people, who for a time entered the utopian realm of community freedom, equality and abundance," as Bakhtin has characterized these occasions. Laqueur 456.

11 Bakhtin, Mihail. Rabelais and His World. Trans. Hélène Iswolsky. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984. 89.

12 Bakhtin 11-12.

13 Hunt, Tamara L. "Morality and Monarchy in The Queen Caroline Affair."Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies 23.4 (1991): 697-722. JSTOR. Web. 28 Nov. 2011. 699, footnote 4.

14 Sometimes ‘Bergami’ as in Herzog, Don. Poisoning the Minds of the Lower Orders. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998.

15 “In 1820, when he [George IV] was target for a host of prints attacking him for putting his wife on trial, he tried to prevent the appearance of grossly offensive caricatures, by the suppression of individual plates.” Robert Cruikshank received £70, George Cruikshank £100, Lewis Marks 10 separate transactions in 1820. Quoted in Dickinson, Harry T. Caricatures and the Constitution: 1760-1832. Cambridge: Chadwyck- Healey, 1986. 16.

16 Clark 55.

17 Interesting to note that the Examiner defended Caroline’s behaviour as “merely following the freer

customs of the continent and declared that the king, by his abandonment of her and his flagrant adultery, had positively incited her to take a lover.” Quoted in Clark 56.

18 Laqueur 462.

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An inquiry into the political efficiency of the 'carnivalesque' response to the Queen Caroline Affair of 1820
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Natalia Voinova (Author), 2011, An inquiry into the political efficiency of the 'carnivalesque' response to the Queen Caroline Affair of 1820, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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