The Trial of Queen Caroline by Sir George Hayter. Photo: Public Domain The Trial of Queen Caroline by Sir George Hayter. Photo: Public Domain

Jacqueline Mulhallen recounts the radical support for Queen Caroline and Shelley’s play Swelfoot the Tyrant which highlighted the distrust of the monarchy

Two hundred years ago George III died, and his son, who had been acting as Regent for years because of his father’s ill-health, became George IV.  He was massively unpopular for his extravagance and dissolute lifestyle. Grossly extravagant, he ran up gambling debts which were covered by the Civil List and gave lavish banquets when people were starving. Despite his scandalous private life (he was known for his greedy eating habits and many mistresses), criticism of him in print was dangerous. An editorial in The Examiner in 1812 responded to sycophantic remarks in the Morning Post describing George as an ‘Adonis of loveliness” by saying that in fact he was a ‘corpulent man of fifty!’ The editors, John and Leigh Hunt, were imprisoned for two years and had to pay heavy fines.

It was illegal for royalty to marry a commoner and George was already married secretly when, in 1796, he married Caroline of Brunswick. They only spent three nights together, but Caroline did give birth to Princess Charlotte, the heir to the throne. The couple separated and George made it difficult for mother and daughter to see each other. Hoping to find evidence of adultery, he began a ‘delicate investigation’ into her life, but was unsuccessful. In 1814, Caroline was granted permission to live abroad. However, George’s spies still pursued her. When Charlotte died in childbirth in 1817, Caroline was not even told.

Caroline returned to England hoping to be crowned Queen, but George was so against this possibility that he sent a delegation to buy her off before she arrived. Caroline refused, and George instituted divorce proceedings in the House of Commons.

When Caroline arrived in England, she was greeted by Matthew Wood, MP for the City of London. It turned out that she had many supporters. Huge crowds waited to pull her carriage through the streets of the cities she passed through. She had a following in the army and the navy – in fact one regiment mutinied and there was a seaman’s parade in her honour. In towns all over the country, her opponents were burnt in effigy, their windows broken or ricks burnt and crowds played charivari music and hissed outside their houses. Magistrates and bishops who took the King’s side were stoned. Groups of trades presented her with loyal addresses and petitions in her favour were made. She was sent dresses, baskets, rugs and bonnets. Women were particularly supportive of her and it is said that many women were drawn into politics for the first time. Radical journalists like Leigh Hunt were in her favour precisely because of the double standards of the King and his supporters.

Following the 1819 Peterloo Massacre and the protest meetings in the north of England which followed it, the deeply reactionary Tory Government passed the Six Acts, among which were heavy penalties for participating in public meetings and ‘seditious and blasphemous libels’. There was no reform activity. The radical press was already disadvantaged by being highly taxed. Nevertheless, William Cobbett wrote the Queen’s material, William Hone and Richard Cruikshank collaborated on pro-Caroline propaganda, and even the editor of the Republican, Richard Carlile, who was an anti-monarchist, supported the Queen. Carlile believed that exposing the quarrel would show people how corrupt the monarchy was and draw them towards a republic.

The King was forced to commission a series of anti-Caroline cartoons as the cartoons of, for example, Hone and Cruikshank, were numerous and often very funny. Prints were displayed in shop windows where the public could see them as they were published. The proceedings in Parliament did not go well, and the Queen was acquitted in November 1820.

The poet and revolutionary, Percy Bysshe Shelley, thought that the King and the Queen should fight it out ‘like Punch and his wife’ and that there were many more important issues to concern people, but he also thought that the King and his ministers were ‘so odious’ that ‘everything … opposed to them, is admirable’.[1] So he too joined in the discussion with a comedy, Swellfoot the Tyrant, which satirised the argument but pushed it further to say that actually what was needed was for the working people of Britain to overthrow the monarchy and the whole political system. It is an extremely funny satire, not just of the argument between the King and Queen but of Parliament and its ridiculous rituals, ministers and their hypocrisy, the fraudulent economic system, bribery and injustice.

Scene I of Swellfoot parodies the first scene of Sophocles’ tragedy, Oedipus Tyrannos, in which King Oedipus comes to hear the petitions of his subjects who are suffering a plague. Whereas Oedipus is sympathetic and wants to help his people, Swellfoot, fat, selfish and conceited, is impatient and has no use for the ‘pigs’ (alluding to the well-known insult of the people as ‘swinish multitude’) who he wants killed ‘out of the way’.[2] However, the ‘pigs’ get their own back by storming Parliament and at the end of the play, Swellfoot and his ministers are defeated by a combination of the ‘Minotaur’ (British people) and the Queen, who pours a potion intended for her by the king and his ministers onto their own heads, transforming them into foxes and badgers, considered vermin in Shelley’s day. The Minotaur allows Queen Iona/Caroline to ride on his back in a raucous hunt for the vermin, but explains to her that he will only support her until she has ‘hunted down her prey’,[3] thus showing Shelley’s distrust of any royalty.

Or any Swellfoot-like occupant of 10 Downing Street.


[1] The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, I, ed by F.L. Jones, 2 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964), p. 207

[2]  Swellfoot the Tyrant,I, l.93, in The Poetical Works of Shelley ed by Thomas Hutchinson, corr. by Geoffrey Matthews, (Oxford University Press, 1971)

[3] Swellfoot the Tyrant, lI. 114

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Jacqueline Mulhallen

Jacqueline Mulhallen, actor and playwright, has co-ordinated King’s Lynn Stop the War since 2003 and initiated and organised 14 Women for Change talks for King’s Lynn & District Trades Council (2012/2013). Her books include The Theatre of Shelley (Openbooks, 2010), and a Shelley biography (Pluto Press, 2015). Her plays include 'Sylvia' and 'Rebels and Friends’.