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The Wives of the Georgian Kings: Caroline of Ansbach

Lucy Worsley has called Caroline of Ansbach “the cleverest queen consort ever to sit on the throne of England”. In many ways, she really was. The wife of King George II was a patron of the arts and never missed an opportunity to branch out her knowledge. She was extremely well read, and during her husband’s reign, she popularised inoculation among the masses. Caroline served as regent on occasion, and her death left the King devastated – so devastated, in fact, that he never married again.

Queen Caroline in her later years.

Caroline of Ansbach as Queen of Great Britain and Ireland.

Caroline of Ansbach was born on 1st March 1683. Her parents were John Frederick, the Margrave of the small German state of Ansbach, and his wife Eleonore. Her father died when she was only three years old, and Caroline and her younger brother had to accompany their mother to Dresden, where she married the Elector of Saxony. After Eleanore’s death in 1696, Caroline went to live, first with her half-brother, the new Margrave of Ansbach, and then with the future King Frederick I of Prussia and his wife, Sophia Charlotte of Hanover.

By a happy coincidence, Sophia Charlotte was the sister of the future King George I of England. George had a stormy relationship with his own wife, and didn’t want his son, George Augustus, to go through the same thing. So George Augustus was given the freedom to choose a wife of his liking. He settled upon Caroline when, after having heard good reports of her from his aunt, he visited the court in Ansbach to see his future bride. George Augustus immediately took a liking to Caroline’s good character, and the couple were married in Hanover in 1705. Their eldest son, Frederick Ludwig, was born a little less than two years later.

Almost immediately after Frederick’s birth, Caroline came down with smallpox. Her infant son was kept away from her to avoid catching the disease, but George Augustus stayed by her side and subseqeuntly developed smallpox himself. Thankfully, the pair recovered soon enough, and Caroline went on to have seven more children with her husband, all but one of whom survived till adulthood.

For the first nine years of Caroline’s marriage, she enjoyed a relatively quite life in Hanover with her four oldest children. That all changed in 1714, when her father-in-law ascended the throne of England as King George I. George Augustus was now the Prince of Wales, and since the new King had divorced his wife, Caroline, now as the Princess of Wales, was the highest-ranking lady in the entire kingdom. She arrived on British shores in October with her daughters – her seven year-old son Frederick had been left behind to represent his grandfather in Hanover. In England, both Caroline and George Augustus made an effort to learn the English language and politics. King George, on the other hand, favoured the German customs, which led to the creation of a separate court run by the Prince of Wales.

King George and his son had shared a tense relationship ever since the former imprisoned the latter’s mother in a castle, and the formation of this rival court only made matters worse. Things came to a head in 1717 at the baptism of George and Caroline’s son, George William. Father and son got into an argument over who were to be the baby’s godparents and, infuriated by his son’s behaviour, King George had the Prince and Princess of Wales placed under house arrest in St James’ Palace, while their children were placed under his care. Just as he had done with his own wife, George forbade his son and daughter-in-law from meeting their children.

Being separated from her children took a serious toll on Caroline’s health. So desperate was she to see them that she paid her children a secret visit, against the King’s orders. Seeing Caroline’s state, George grudgingly allowed her to contact the young Prince and Princesses. Unfortunately, while all this was taking place little George William fell very ill, and died shortly afterwards. Both Caroline and George Augustus blamed the King for his death – they believed that the baby would have lived if he had been under his mother’s care.

As the Princess of Wales, Caroline became close friends with the politician Sir Robert Walpole. After George II became King, he almost had Sir Robert removed from his position, and only refrained from doing so on Caroline’s advice. In fact, Caroline, who was both intelligent and curious, vastly outshone her husband in most cultural and political aspects. So much so, that when they were crowned King and Queen, a satirist wrote about the royal couple: “You may strut, dapper George but ‘twill all be in vain; We know ‘tis Queen Caroline, not you, that reign.”

In the spirit of enquiry, Caroline convinced the King to commune the sentence of six prisoners, so that they could be a part of an experiment. She made an attempt to inoculate these prisoners against smallpox, and when they all survived, she tried it again – this time on children. The results were favourable, and Caroline soon had her own children inoculated against the disease. In her own way, she was a pioneer in the field of medicine. Caroline also spent her time curating portraits and miniatures, and collecting jewellery. She had a vast library at St. James’ Palace, and filled her court with artists, writers and other intellectuals.

When King George died in 1727, George II and Caroline were crowned in Westminster Abbey. The next year, they were joined by the new Prince of Wales, their son Frederick, who had come over from Hanover to England. Since childhood, Frederick had lacked adequate parental influence, and had developed a number of bad habits, such as taking mistresses and gambling. Frederick resented his parents for leaving him behind in Germany when they came to England, and wanted more political power than his father was willing to give him. Like the previous generation, the new King George and Frederick entered a feud with each other – a feud that lasted until Frederick’s death.

His constant gambling meant that Prince Frederick had racked up a large debt. His father agreed to settle it, on the condition that Frederick marry a bride chosen by the King. Frederick agreed, and he married Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha in 1736. Then, a few months before Caroline’s death, Prince Frederick did a truly shocking thing. Augusta had fallen pregnant with their first child soon after the wedding. The custom was for royal births to be attended by the King and Queen and other senior members of the family. But when Frederick found out that Augusta was in labour, he smuggled her out of Hampton Court Palace and, despite the fact that she was in great pain, forced her to travel by coach to St James’ Palace, in order to avoid his parent’s presence at the birth. When Caroline found out, she was shocked, and rushed to St James’ Palace, only to find that Augusta had already given birth to a baby girl.

Frederick’s breach of protocol and poor treatment of his wife horrified Caroline, who later said about her eldest son: “That wretch!-that villain!-I wish the ground would open this moment and sink the monster to the lowest hole in hell!” His disrespect further increased the indifferences between George II and his son, and when the King visited his native Hanover for five months, he chose to appoint Caroline as his regent rather than his son.

When Caroline gave birth to her last child in 1724, she had developed a hernia, which went largely untreated. In 1737, her womb ruptured, and it became necessary for doctors to perform surgery on her. There was no anesthesia at the time, and she suffered through intense pain, but to no avail. She finally died at the end of November of the same year. On her death bed, Caroline urged George to remarry, but the King was devoted to his wife, and refused, saying that he would only ever take mistresses instead. After her death, George said that he had known many women, but none of them were fit to buckle Caroline’s shoe.

In her final moments, Queen Caroline sent a letter of forgiveness to her son, the Prince of Wales, who did not attend his mother’s funeral. Prince Frederick would never become King, dying in 1751 and predeceasing his father. However, his son, who was born after Caroline’s death, would succeed his grandfather.

Queen Caroline was mourned throughout the country. True to his word, George II never married again, and when he died, 23 years later, he was buried next to her in a matching coffin, devoted till the end.

Do return to read the next instalment in this series, which deals with Queen Charlotte, the wife of King George III and the longest serving Queen consort in history.

Photo credit: the lost gallery via photopin cc

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