The Regency era is back in popular culture yet again with the return of both Netflix’s Bridgerton and ITV’s Sanditon for their second seasons. Both shows feature bonnets, empire waistline gowns, ballroom scenes, and smoldering looks we’ve all come to expect from shows set in this era. In a similar manner to the 2020 version of Emma, directed by Autumn deWilde, these shows interpret the era through a twenty-first-century lens. Issues of race, class difference, and the inner psychological lives of characters come to the foreground in ways that previous Regency-set films and series have portrayed. Yet, this does not make these shows any less accurate than previous adaptations. It’s an era we’ve all come to recognize from Jane Austen novels and their countless movie adaptations. Yet, the real figures living in the time can often be forgotten in the glut of romantic stories set in the time period.
For instance, the Regent himself, the future George IV, almost never appears in Regency-set adaptations. He is the namesake for the ten-year period from 1810-1820, during which he served as regent for his incapacitated father, George III (you can learn more about the Regency Era here). When even the namesake for the era is rarely considered in the context of the Regency itself, it’s no wonder that his estranged wife, Caroline of Brunswick, receives even less attention. Her story, full of adventure, betrayal, and intrigue, is just as captivating as those of the heroines of Bridgerton and Sanditon. And perhaps her unconventional life story may have paved the way for the now-iconic figure of an independent-minded Regency woman.
Born Caroline Amelia Elizabeth of Brunswick in 1768, she was the daughter of the Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbuttel and his wife, Princess Augusta of Great Britain (the older sister of George III). Raised in Brunswick as a minor royal, her first language was German. She was also taught English in order to be groomed as a potential wife for her cousin, the future George IV. Her education, both in academic subjects and in etiquette, was lacking for a girl of her status. The reason seems to have been that her parents were busy at war with one another, leaving Caroline to the care of governesses. She was kept indoors, forbidden from looking out windows or interacting with anyone other than members of the household. On the rare occasion, she was permitted to attend a party, she was forbidden from dancing. Despite, or perhaps because of this combination of neglect and overprotection, she grew up high-spirited and full of rebellious impulses.
According to rumors of the time, Caroline fell in love with an Irish army officer and potentially had a baby while still a teenager. This gossip prevented her parents from finding her a suitable match. This worked out to their benefit though, as, at age twenty-six, Caroline was approached as a potential bride to her cousin, the Prince of Wales. The choice of Caroline as bride was entirely mercenary on his part. The least popular member of a historically unpopular royal family, George chose to marry a princess in order to get an increase in his allowance to help pay off his substantial debts.
The Earl of Malmesbury was dispatched to Brunswick to escort her from there back to England. It became apparent shortly after his arrival that the long-neglected Caroline was prone to speaking her mind at inappropriate times, behaving selfishly, and overall not presenting the bearing required of a royal woman of the era. Malmesbury attempted to train her as best as he could, but Caroline’s strong will had no patience for a makeover.
The reaction of both Caroline and George to their first meeting rivals that of Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves for the worst introduction of a future royal couple. Caroline found George “nothing like as handsome as his portrait,” and he was disgusted by her personality and manners. However, it was too late to call off the nuptials, and the couple were married three days later. Caroline later reported that her husband was drunk at the ceremony and into the wedding night and “passed the greatest part of his bridal night under the grate, where he fell, and where I left him.”
Caroline gave birth to their only child, Princess Charlotte, nine months later. Following the birth, George amended his will to leave everything to his mistress, Maria Fitzherbert, with a single shilling left for Caroline. Though he may have had no time for his wife, the subjects of the United Kingdom had grown to adore her. Without Bridgerton’s Lady Whistledown spreading rumors, it was up to the nascent tabloid press to breathlessly report on the unhappy royal marriage. These papers got their information from courtiers only too eager to spread rumors about what went on behind closed doors. And a population already disenchanted with this iteration of the royal family eagerly consumed information framing Caroline as the bullied victim of her husband, the Queen, and King. Caroline took her daughter for strolls outdoors in a pram and was greeted by cheering crowds to whom she was their heroine.
This behavior baffled and angered the royals, who had yet to understand the power of the tabloids. To rid themselves of this problem, George obtained a legal separation from Caroline and sent her to live in her own residence outside of London. If they were hoping she would keep a low profile, they had not been paying attention to her personality.
Independent for the first time, Caroline made up for all the parties she’d had to miss while trapped in her childhood room. She was granted limited visitation with her daughter and, perhaps due to the sadness of this separation, began the curious act of collecting other peoples’ babies. It was unclear to those around her where these children had come from, complicated by Caroline coyly claiming at times to be pregnant herself. Ultimately, she shared her home with nine children of mysterious provenance, including an infant named William Austin.
Caroline’s behavior made front-page news again when, in 1805, she had a very public falling out with her friend Charlotte, Lady Douglas. It was Lady Douglas who spread rumors that William was Caroline’s illegitimate child. To clear her name, Caroline wrote a letter to her local newspaper, which served only to turn this private matter into one of public record. The story grew so large that the royal family launched an official investigation into the parentage of William Austin. Were it proven that Caroline was the children’s biological mother; she would be found guilty of adultery.
The so-called “delicate investigation” brought in numerous witnesses to testify, including Lady Douglas as well as most of Caroline’s household staff. The matter was resolved when a woman named Sophia Austin arrived and claimed William as her son.
Six years later, George IV was declared permanently incapacitated, and the Prince of Wales was named Regent. This increase in his personal power led George to again turn his attention on his inconvenient wife, barring her from even limited visitations with their daughter Charlotte, now aged fifteen. In retaliation, Caroline turned to her ally Henry Brougham, a politician and anti-royalist, for support. Again the battle was fought in the newspapers, with details from the delicate investigation being leaked. Everyone in England, it seemed, had an opinion, including Jane Austen, who took Caroline’s side, writing, “Poor woman, I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a woman and because I hate her husband.”
The ongoing stresses of these battles led Caroline to leave the country, much to the relief of her estranged husband. She purchased a villa on Lake Como, and hired new servants, including a man named Bartolomeo Pergami, who, though married, was rumored to be her lover. Together, they traveled around the Mediterranean, and stories of their adventures were shared in the British tabloids. She was still in Italy when her daughter Charlotte died in childbirth. George refused to share the news with her but did write to the Pope. By chance, the courier bringing this letter passed through the region where Caroline was staying, and she learned the devastating news.
The death of Charlotte spurred George’s intent to formally divorce Caroline such that he could remarry and have another legitimate heir. Caroline returned to England to sort out this matter and was greeted as a returning hero to cheering and rioting crowds. Divorce could only be granted if it were proven that Caroline had committed adultery, and a new investigation was launched into the nature of her relationship with Pergami.
Witnesses from all around Europe who had seen Caroline and Pergami’s various trips testified of the behavior they’d seen. As the public trial was covered in newspapers, each new reveal seemed to make the public love Caroline more. Over 800 petitions were circulated, garnering over one million signatures from people who wanted the case against her to be dismissed. When Napoleon died, George was informed that his bitterest enemy was dead. “Is she, by God?” George replied in reference to Caroline.
On January 19th, 1820, George III died, and Caroline’s husband inherited the throne. Nominally, this meant that Caroline was Queen, though the title would not be official until she was crowned in Westminster Abbey. To ensure that did not happen, the new King banned her from attending the coronation. But that did not stop Caroline from showing up.
With guards posted at all entrances, she ran from door to door, attempting to be admitted inside the Abbey. All goodwill the public had felt for her seemed to evaporate in the face of her desperation, and she was jeered and booed by crowds. Unable to find a way inside, she retreated. Later that evening, she fell ill.
Her health worsened over the next three weeks, and, as it became apparent she was near death, she made a request to be buried in Brunswick in a tomb inscribed with “Here lies Caroline, the Injured Queen of England.” She died on August 7, 1821, aged fifty-three. It was unclear to palace staff what sort of funeral would be appropriate. It was tradition for a deceased Queen’s funeral procession to pass through the city itself. But, given the contentious mood of the citizens and Caroline’s divisive reputation, it was feared this may turn into a riot. And so plans were made for her procession to go around city limits, but not through it. This proved a miscalculation, as Caroline’s devoted fans took to the streets, throwing stones and rocks at soldiers in the procession and rioting to the point that at least two men were killed. And so, the route was changed to give her the tribute benefitting a Queen.
As per her wishes, her body was sent to Brunswick for burial. Her requested inscription had been denied by Parliament in England, who submitted instead a much more traditional Latin phrase. British cabinet ministers were shocked when, upon arrival in Brunswick, they found Caroline’s inscription had been affixed to the tomb. After considerable debate, her wording was removed and replaced with the more tame Latin phrase.
For all the attention she achieved during her life, Caroline’s life and legacy were soon forgotten as the Regency era made way for the Georgian and Victorian periods. Under the reign of Caroline’s niece-in-law, Queen Victoria, the British royal family became far more popular than it had been under the reign of George III or IV. While Regency-era figures like Jane Austen and Lord Byron stood the test of time, Caroline is too often left as a footnote in histories about her in-laws. Perhaps her story is too dramatic to be believed. Perhaps her iconoclastic lifestyle is too at odds with a current understanding of what the Regency era was like. But where her life story may have disappeared from popular culture, some of Caroline’s independent spirit can still be found in the strong-willed heroines of Bridgerotn and Sanditon.