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The Power of Public Opinion :: Crime, Scandal, Spectacle

The Power of Public Opinion

1796 – The First Separation Attempt

A variety of English newspapers documented the devolution of the marriage of George and Caroline beginning with George’s first separation attempt in 1796. The Times, the paper that in 25 years would host Caroline’s staunchest supporter, published tales of public sympathy for Caroline – such as rounds of applause for the Princess at the opera. (Smith 75) Other papers, such as the True Briton, in the past supportive of the government, chastised the Prince for his ill treatment of his princess. (Smith 75) Due to George’s continued flitting from mistress to mistress and his gross control over his wife’s living arrangements – including where she lived and with whom she was allowed to socialize – the Princess remained the recipient of significant public sympathy. (Smith 77) Her people applauded her public appearances and, according to historian E. A. Smith, “[Caroline] became regarded as a woman wronged by a cruel and dissolute husband who had deserted her for a life of debauchery.” (Smith 78)

1820 – The Bill of Pain and Penalties

An example of a political cartoon emphasizing the infamous green bags mentioned in the Bill and in the trial.

The accusations directed toward the Queen in the 1820 Bill of Pains and Penalties prompted those in her camp to begin a smear campaign against the House of Lords to undermine the public’s opinion of this legislative body. The Queen’s supporters published a cheap pamphlet entitled A Peep at the Peers that publicized the incomes of each member of the House of Lords as paid by the government. Historian Jane Robins argues that the attack on the House of Lords “exposed the degree of nepotism among the aristocrats” and implied that the House of Lords “was corrupted by patronage and was, therefore, biased and incapable of being an independent judge of the Queen.” (Robins 147) One of the Queen’s most ardent supporters was journalist William Cobbett who urged the Queen to “recognize that her [Caroline’s] power lay in the force of public opinion.” (Robins 148) Whether the Queen actually acknowledged the advice of Cobbett is unknown; however, the Queen fully recognized the power of public sentiment. Caroline traveled about the country in modest attire seeking to rally the poor to her cause. (Robins 149)

George dancing with another man’s wife – evidence of his many transgressions.

Another journalist (although that term should be used lightly) called William Benbow sought to stir up support for the Queen through sensationalist publications, including articles and political cartoons. Benbow employed the use of graphic, borderline pornographic, images to degrade George IV. (Robins 151) The use of such tactics drew support from the less educated, poorer classes in which this sort of sensationalist journalism struck an appreciative chord. (Robins 151)

A pair of journalists working in support of the Queen included editor William Hone and his illustrator George Cruikshank. Hone, Robins argues, pioneered the modern tabloid newspaper editor in editorializing the news of the day.  (Robins 154) A champion of political reform, Hone sought to use the Queen Caroline Affair to expose government corruption and thus prompt political reform. Unlike Cobbett’s smear campaign or Benbow’s sensationalist cartoons, Hone undermined the power of throne by attacking the one who sat on it, George IV. In comparing the negative character traits of George IV with the virtuous character of his wife, Hone highlighted Caroline as “a paragon of womanly virtue and the representative of an oppressed nation.” (Robins 157)

Queen Caroline’s attorneys used the power of the press to undermine opposing counsel’s witnesses. The phrase ‘non mi recordo’ (I do not remember) stuttered by a former servant of the Queen’s became what historian Steven Parissien called a “national catch-phrase” when it was published and repeated all over England. (Parissien 221) Indeed, Parissien continues “the majority of print-makers, having caught the public mood, were fully behind Caroline.” (Parissien 222)

Her female subjects in particular defended Caroline enthusiastically as evidenced by the almost a hundred thousand addresses signed by English women in support of the Queen when she arrived back to England. (Parissien 219) While the sheer number of addresses from English women illustrates the strong support Caroline found in her female subjects, addresses came from a great variety of peoples and classes. Indeed, once received, Caroline’s camp often had such addresses published in the newspapers as both evidence of the Queen’s existing support as well as in an attempt to generate more support. (Robins 158) The spread of popular support for the Queen quickly expanded outside the columns of the daily newspapers. Caroline’s supporters ransacked the houses of those who did not champion their cause, attacked members of the House of Lords, and mobs formed. (Hibbert 153) A mutiny of the King’s soldiers took place as well. (Parissien 220)

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