Everyone was talking about it. Throughout England, there was endless speculation about whether a certain royal family member would attend the upcoming coronation of the new king. “The town is in a state of general lunacy,” Parliamentarian Henry Brougham wrote, “beginning most certainly with the illustrious person on the throne.”
Sound familiar? Royal watchers are eagerly awaiting to see if Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, attend King Charles’s coronation in May. Even bigger questions loom—how will they be received? Will Prince Harry go alone? But while the chatter surrounding the royal family seems to be reaching a fever pitch, it’s nothing compared to the drama that surrounded the coronation of King George IV in the summer of 1821.
Like King Charles, 58-year-old King George had spent a lifetime waiting to take the throne. An extravagant, artistic type with a penchant for peacocking, George spent months planning the most elaborate coronation Europe had ever seen, which he hoped would outshine that of Napoleon. According to Fergus Kelly of The Express on Sunday, his outfit alone cost £2.7 million in today’s money, with the total cost of the coronation coming in at more than £240,000—that’s roughly £27 million today or $32.8 million.
However, the carefully planned extravaganza was threatened by the one person King George did not want to bask in his reflected glory: his wife and rightful consort, Queen Caroline.
From the start, their relationship was a match made in hell. Born in 1762, George, Prince of Wales, was the eldest child of “mad” King George III and Queen Charlotte. The prince, derisively nicknamed “Prinny,” was known as a debauched, spoilt dandy, perpetually in debt and at one time secretly (and illegally) married to a Catholic beauty named Maria Fitzherbert. Although he could be charming, the hard-drinking, womanizing prince was despised by the press and much of the public, leading to countless caricatures and the infamous poem “The Triumph of the Whale” by Charles Lamb:
In 1795, he agreed to marry his cousin—the purportedly unsophisticated, guileless, somewhat sloppy Caroline of Brunswick—partly to persuade Parliament to pay off his debts. In the deliciously detailed The Unruly Queen: The Life of Queen Caroline, historical biographer Flora Fraser describes the cousins’ first meeting. “She very properly … attempted to kneel to him,” eyewitness Earl of Malmesbury wrote. “He raised her (gracefully enough) and embraced her, said barely one word, turned around, retired to a distant part of the apartment, calling me to him said ‘Harris, I am not well, pray get me a glass of brandy.’”
After the prince dramatically rushed from the room, Caroline gave as good as she got, remarking that her future husband was “very fat and nothing like as handsome as his portrait.”
Their wedding on April 8, 1795, continued on the same disastrous course. “Judge what it was to have a drunken husband on one’s wedding day, and one who passed the greatest part of his bridal night under the grate, where he fell, and where I left him,” Caroline later recounted.
Although the couple welcomed a daughter, Princess Charlotte, in 1796, they soon lived entirely separate lives, with King George reportedly claiming he’d rather “see toads and vipers crawling over my victuals than sit at the same table with her.”
While she was initially bewildered, hurt, and horribly treated by her vindictive husband and most of the royal family, Caroline eventually fought back through the media, leading politicians and newspapers to publicly take sides in this version of “War of the Waleses.” According to Martin Linton of The Guardian, in 1806, the Prince of Wales—a serial philanderer—had the audacity to set up a commission known as “the delicate investigation” to look into Caroline’s alleged infidelities.