Caroline of Ansbach: why George II's remarkable queen was the first iron lady of British politics
A savvy political tactician, a schemer, a patron and a sex symbol, Caroline of Ansbach's formidable intellect 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...
Caroline of Ansbach’s path to becoming queen of Great Britain began 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.
Listen | Norman Davies explores the reign of Caroline's husband, the long-maligned and overlooked monarch George II, in an episode of the HistoryExtra podcast
Caroline had been 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.
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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. Marriage provided her escape. Yet in Caroline’s case, this still represented success against all odds. As the portionless younger daughter of a lesser princeling, her prospects were limited.
That Caroline found herself a target of the future British king can be attributed to eminent sponsors, her Protestantism, a milky pink-and-white prettiness, and what appears to have been potent sexual charisma
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 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.
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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.
Over time she would become exasperated by the British, but publicly she never renounced the position of determined anglophilia
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 publicly she never renounced the position of determined anglophilia she embraced on her marriage in 1705.
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.
“Her temper sweet”
She relished her position as the first Princess of Wales since Catherine of Aragon married Henry VIII’s brother, Arthur Tudor, 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 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.
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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.
That George four times appointed Caroline his regent with wide-ranging powers is a measure of his confidence in his remarkable wife
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”.
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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 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.
Matthew Dennison is a historian and author. His acclaimed biographies includes The First Iron Lady: A Life of Caroline of Ansbach (HarperCollins, 2017)
This article first appeared in the December 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine