Caro­line of Ans­bach

Caro­line of Ans­bach’s for­mi­da­ble in­tel­lect, po­tent sex­ual charisma and lim­it­less am­bi­tion helped make her one of the most pow­er­ful queen-con­sorts in Bri­tish his­tory. Matthew Den­ni­son traces the rise of Ge­orge II’s bril­liant wife

BBC History Magazine - - Contents - Matthew Den­ni­son is the au­thor of ac­claimed bi­ogra­phies of Queen Vic­to­ria, Vita Sackville-West and Beatrix Pot­ter

Matthew Den­ni­son makes the case for Ge­orge II’s wife be­ing one of Bri­tain’s great­est queen- con­sorts

C aro­line of Ans­bach be­came queen of Great Bri­tain by re­fus­ing to be­come Holy Ro­man Em­press. In the au­tumn of 1703, the young aris­to­crat re­ceived a breath­less let­ter from a Hab­s­burg courtier out­lin­ing in the vaguest terms “ex­tremely im­por­tant mat­ters con­cern­ing your Serene High­ness’s great­est hap­pi­ness”.

The chief “mat­ter” was Caro­line’s mar­riage. Her pro­posed spouse was the cur­rent claimant to the con­tested throne of Spain, Arch­duke Charles of Aus­tria. A sin­gle qual­i­fi­ca­tion was at­tached to her mar­riage: her con­ver­sion to Catholi­cism. After a lengthy strug­gle, Caro­line, who was a stead­fast Protes­tant, re­fused. In the words of the poet John Gay, writ­ing after Arch­duke Charles un­ex­pect­edly suc­ceeded his el­der brother as Holy Ro­man Em­peror, she “scorn’d an em­pire for reli­gion’s sake”. Not quite true, but the de­ci­sion was un­doubt­edly a dif­fi­cult one.

Sev­ered re­la­tion­ships

Caro­line was born 20 years ear­lier, on 1 March 1683, in the old Re­nais­sance palace of Ans­bach, a small town in mod­ern-day Bavaria. It was an event of no sig­nif­i­cance. By an ear­lier mar­riage, her fa­ther, John Fred­er­ick, mar­grave of Bran­den­burg-Ans­bach, al­ready had three chil­dren. He had no need of a sec­ond daugh­ter.

From in­fancy, Caro­line was ac­cus­tomed to sev­ered re­la­tion­ships, fi­nan­cial in­se­cu­rity and the pow­er­less­ness that has been the lot of so many princesses. Her fa­ther died when she was just three years old. Her mother, Eleonore, by then Elec­tress of Sax­ony, died 10 years later, in 1696.

Eleonore’s demise left her only daugh­ter an or­phan. Caro­line was 13 years old, home­less and dow­er­less. Although she could not have known it at the time, she would over­come th­ese im­mense hur­dles to oc­cupy one of the great po­si­tions in Euro­pean roy­alty.

Mar­riage pro­vided her es­cape. Yet even mar­riage in Caro­line’s case rep­re­sented suc­cess against all odds. As the por­tion­less younger daugh­ter of a lesser princeling, her prospects were lim­ited. That she found her­self a tar­get of the fu­ture Bri­tish king can be at­trib­uted to em­i­nent spon­sors, her Protes­tantism, a milky pink-and-white pret­ti­ness wholly in line with con­tem­po­rary ideals of beauty, and what ap­pears to have been po­tent sex­ual charisma.

In the after­math of her mother’s death, Caro­line was in­vited to Berlin by her most prom­i­nent re­la­tion, Fred­er­ick III of Bran­den­burg, a man who, in his own words, pos­sessed “all the at­tributes of king­li­ness and in greater mea­sure than other kings”. His­tory re­mem­bers his wife, Sophia Char­lotte, known as ‘Figuelotte’, for her fond­ness for phi­los­o­phy. She be­came a key player in Caro­line’s life. She demon­strated to her im­pres­sion­able charge one ap­proach to con­sortship: while Fred­er­ick oc­cu­pied him­self with do­mes­tic and for­eign pol­i­tics, Figuelotte took the lead in cul­tural and in­tel­lec­tual life, a model Caro­line her­self would partly em­u­late.

Lust at first sight

It was Caro­line’s po­si­tion as Fred­er­ick and Figuelotte’s ward that brought her to the at­ten­tion of Arch­duke Charles. Caro­line’s re­fusal to ac­cept his hand in mar­riage at­tracted a de­gree of un­sought promi­nence. In Hanover the dowa­ger elec­tress Sophia, named in the 1701 Act of Suc­ces­sion as heiress to the Bri­tish throne, de­ter­mined that Caro­line should marry her grand­son Ge­orge Au­gus­tus, fu­ture elec­tor and sub­se­quently Ge­orge II of Bri­tain. Sophia dis­cussed her hopes with her chil­dren, Figuelotte and Ge­orge Louis (the fu­ture Ge­orge I), though whether she knew of the plan Ge­orge Louis made with Ge­orge Au­gus­tus to woo Caro­line incog­nito is un­clear. Ge­orge Au­gus­tus vis­ited

Caro­line would over­come huge bar­ri­ers to oc­cupy one of the great po­si­tions in Euro­pean roy­alty

Caro­line in dis­guise. The re­sult was love – or at least lust – at first sight. “I found that all I had heard about your charms did not nearly equal what I saw,” Ge­orge Au­gus­tus wrote to Caro­line with un­char­ac­ter­is­tic ro­man­tic flour­ish. He would re­main sex­u­ally in thrall to his volup­tuous blonde wife, noted for her mag­nif­i­cent bo­som, for nearly three decades.

For her part, Caro­line shared a de­gree of at­trac­tion to the strut­ting, ea­ger prince who was in­tel­lec­tu­ally so far her in­fe­rior. Her de­ci­sion to ac­cept Ge­orge Au­gus­tus was not wholly prag­matic, though she un­der­stood from the out­set the glit­ter­ing prizes that awaited her as the wife of a Bri­tish heir. She ap­proached her mar­riage con­sci­en­tiously, sid­ing with her hus­band against his brusque and in­tractable fa­ther, cul­ti­vat­ing the good opin­ion of the dowa­ger elec­tress and work­ing at a care­ful pro­gramme of self-an­gli­ci­sa­tion.

Ge­orge Louis rev­elled in his role as Elec­tor of Hanover; his de­sire for the Bri­tish crown was qual­i­fied. But Caro­line was am­bi­tious and de­ter­mined. She un­der­stood the op­por­tu­ni­ties of­fered to her­self and Ge­orge Au­gus­tus by the Hanove­rian suc­ces­sion, as well as its lim­ited sup­port in Bri­tain, and the op­po­si­tion of To­ries and Ja­co­bites.

Through­out her mar­riage, Caro­line worked as­sid­u­ously at pre­sent­ing her­self and her hus­band as fu­ture Bri­tish rulers. In scale her ini­tia­tives were large and small, pri­vate as well as pub­lic – from drink­ing tea to sub­scrib­ing £100 to the pub­li­ca­tion of Alexan­der Pope’s trans­la­tion of The Iliad. She learnt English, vo­ra­ciously con­sumed po­lit­i­cal pam­phlets, set out to charm vis­it­ing Bri­tish politi­cians, courtiers, sa­vants and mil­i­tarists. Over time she would be­come ex­as­per­ated by the Bri­tish, but pub­li­cally she never re­nounced the po­si­tion of de­ter­mined an­glophilia she em­braced on her mar­riage in 1705.

“Her tem­per sweet”

In 1714, weeks after Sophia’s death, Queen Anne also died and Ge­orge Louis in­her­ited the triple crown of Eng­land, Ire­land and Scot­land. His ar­rival in Lon­don was shortly fol­lowed by that of his son, daugh­ter-in-law and three in­fant grand­daugh­ters: at his in­sis­tence his seven-year-old grand­son Fred­er­ick re­mained in Hanover to rep­re­sent the dy­nasty.

Th­ese linked events shaped much of Caro­line’s fu­ture. Sin­cerely she mourned her en­forced part­ing from her only son, re­sent­ing Ge­orge Louis’ de­ci­sion; equally sin­cerely she em­braced her hus­band’s en­hanced des­tiny. She rel­ished her po­si­tion as the first Princess of Wales since Cather­ine of Aragon mar­ried Henry VIII’s brother, Arthur, in 1501. Her birth­day even co­in­cided with the fes­ti­val day of Wales’s pa­tron saint, St David. “How lovely

is her mien, her tem­per sweet,” com­mented Thomas Jones, a mem­ber of the Most Honourable and Loyal So­ci­ety of An­tient Bri­tons, a char­ity ded­i­cated to as­sist­ing in­di­gent Welsh in Lon­don. Caro­line re­sponded to the so­ci­ety’s flat­tery by in­clud­ing Welsh maids of honour among her at­ten­dants.

Caro­line and Ge­orge Au­gus­tus launched a charm of­fen­sive on Ge­orge Louis’ new sub­jects, Caro­line ex­ploit­ing to the full her ap­pear­ance and a cul­ti­vated af­fa­bil­ity. Of those who en­coun­tered her, wrote The Daily Courant, “the whole con­ver­sa­tion turn[ed] upon the charms, sweet­ness and good man­ner of this ex­cel­lent princess”. So, up to a point, it would con­tinue.

Caro­line’s re­la­tion­ship with Ge­orge I was a strained one. In 1717, the king ban­ished his daugh­ter-in-law and her hus­band from court fol­low­ing a dis­agree­ment over the choice of god­par­ents for a sec­ond son, Prince Ge­orge Wil­liam.

De­spite such con­tretemps, in the ab­sence of his ex-wife Sophia Dorothea of Celle (in­car­cer­ated in the cas­tle of Ahlden for in­fi­delity), the king en­trusted much court en­ter­tain­ing to Caro­line, who acted as host­ess at his for­mal re­cep­tions, known as Draw­ing Rooms. An ob­server com­mended her “won­der­ful art at en­ter­tain­ing and di­vert­ing peo­ple”. Caro­line chose her house­hold with care. The ma­jor­ity of her ap­point­ments were drawn from the Whig aris­toc­racy that had sup­ported the

Ge­orge II was sex­u­ally in thrall to his volup­tuous blonde wife, noted for her mag­nif­i­cent bo­som, for nearly three decades

Hanove­rian suc­ces­sion, in­clud­ing the Lord Chan­cel­lor’s wife, Mary, Count­ess Cow­per. With Ge­orge Au­gus­tus she walked in St James’s Park in the morn­ing, es­corted by Yeomen of the Guard and favoured courtiers. At a ball at Som­er­set House, John Gay re­ported, “the prince and princess… danc’d our English coun­try dances”. And Caro­line took care that her state­ment that she would “as soon live on a dunghill as re­turn to Hanover” was widely cir­cu­lated.

It was not the whole truth. Caro­line had lived her life in courts. She was adept at dis­sim­u­lat­ing her feel­ings. Po­lit­i­cally she leaned to­wards ab­so­lutism and, like her hus­band and fa­ther-in-law, chafed at the pro­scrip­tions of Bri­tish con­sti­tu­tion­al­ism. Like them she at­tached ex­ag­ger­ated sig­nif­i­cance to rank and pedi­gree. She con­sulted Sarah, Duchess of Marl­bor­ough on court eti­quette but ig­nored the duchess’s sug­ges­tion that she her­self be treated as a royal princess, in­sist­ing in­stead on dis­plays of def­er­ence in line with those pre­vi­ously re­served for Mary II and Anne. Her pre­ten­sions earned her the duchess’s last­ing en­mity and a pithy dis­missal as “a lit­tle Ger­man princess… that some peo­ple called Madam Ans­bach”.

Also in line with the later Stu­art queens was the de­gree of in­flu­ence to which Caro­line as­pired. On the sur­face it was an am­bi­tion nei­ther her fa­ther-in-law nor her hus­band coun­te­nanced. Caro­line played her hand with dex­ter­ity, never in­di­cat­ing to Ge­orge Au­gus­tus the full scope of her am­bi­tion. In pub­lic and in pri­vate, she es­poused a rhetoric of sub­mis­sion, so that the poet Stephen Duck, ob­serv­ing her, ac­claimed her as the “most sub­mis­sive wife; who never yet her con­sort dis­obey’d”. She con­cen­trated her ef­forts on charm­ing the pe­riod’s lead­ing men: po­ets Pope and Swift, the ar­chi­tect Wil­liam Kent, an el­derly Isaac New­ton, Han­del and, most fruit­fully, the po­lit­i­cal le­viathan of the age, Robert Walpole (see box left).

The right sow bythe ear

The mea­sure of Caro­line’s qual­i­ties is the ex­tent to which she achieved at least a sem­blance of all that she craved. That Ge­orge Au­gus­tus four times ap­pointed Caro­line his re­gent, with wide-rang­ing pow­ers, dur­ing his ab­sences in Hanover fol­low­ing his ac­ces­sion in 1727, is a mea­sure of his con­fi­dence in his re­mark­able wife. Walpole, too, in earn­ing Caro­line’s trust, recog­nised that he had got “the right sow by the ear”.

Pub­lic opin­ion never doubted Caro­line of Ans­bach’s in­flu­ence. “You may strutt, dap­per Ge­orge, but ’twill all be in vain; We know ’tis Caro­line, not you, that reign,” taunted con­tem­po­rary dog­gerel. Walpole’s de­trac­tors la­belled him “the queen’s min­is­ter”. Amid vi­o­lent demon­stra­tions pro­voked by Walpole’s un­pop­u­lar Ex­cise Bill of 1733, an ef­figy of Caro­line was burnt along­side that of Walpole on the streets of Lon­don.

Th­ese views rep­re­sent an ex­ag­ger­a­tion of the truth, but the in­tel­li­gent, shrewd and worldly Queen Caro­line, who died in 1737 as a re­sult of bun­gled surgery for an um­bil­i­cal her­nia, was un­ques­tion­ably a force to reckon with in early Geor­gian Bri­tain.

Such was Ge­orge II’s con­fi­dence in Caro­line that he ap­pointed her re­gent four times dur­ing his ab­sences from Bri­tain

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