Vendetta in courts

Published : Apr 20, 2007 00:00 IST

Easily the best book on the 1820 trial of Queen Caroline of England, with insights and comments that are of contemporary relevance.

BRITAIN has a glorious record of "State Trials", recorded in Howell's volumes that bear that name. Second only to the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots (1586), the trial of Queen Caroline in 1820 arouses keen interest still as this book demonstrates. Her husband King George IV charged her with adultery. He was drunk when he first met her and drunk also on the bridal night. Her marriage when he was Prince of Wales proved a disaster she should have foreseen. His mistresses were her only companions. The couple lived apart; the King even took away her child from her.

The Queen went to live abroad. Her travels spawned stories, predictably. The Prince of Wales let loose his spies on her and they fed him with stories, true and false. A Commission of Inquiry into her conduct exonerated her completely.

Her conduct, to be sure, was indiscreet to a degree. The Foreign Office received reports that led to the establishment of the Milan Commission, which dutifully reported the tales. The British Ambassador busied himself with collecting the evidence. In 1819, the Prince of Wales, now Regent, sought divorce. But the Minister of the Crown advised against it in view of the facts known to the whole country - the Prince's own infidelities and his cruelty to his wife. The advice was overtaken by the death of George III and the Prince's ascension to the throne as George IV. He launched divorce proceedings. Caroline was received by cheering crowds as she returned to England to contest the case. A Bill of Pains and Penalties was moved in Parliament to deprive her of her "title of Queen of England" on the grounds of adultery with one Bartholomo Bergami, "a foreigner of low station in life". The trial in the House of Lords began in August 1820.

Jane Robbins has written easily the best book on the Queen and her misfortunes. Queen Elizabeth II granted her access to the Royal Archives at Windsor. The author has spared herself no pains in undertaking her stupendous research. She captures the atmosphere of the times; the King's vendetta and cruelty, the Queen's infidelities and humiliation, the deep popular revulsion at the King's behaviour and sympathy for Caroline. It became a classic political trial.

The tabloid press did itself proud reporting the trial from June to November 1820. The slim majority at the third reading of the Bill and strong popular sentiment in favour of Caroline compelled the government to drop the Bill. A year later she died.

The author aptly calls the Bill "a trial through [an] Act of a Parliament", combining abuse of both the legislative and judicial processes. Caroline's guilt or innocence were to be decided by a vote in the House of Lords. It is this archaic procedure of impeachment that we adopted to try our Judges.

The author's style is lively and riveting. Her comments on the trial are of contemporary relevance. "The Queen's trial also demonstrated that a truly popular press, of some influence, was at work in Britain. The stories in the papers were shouted out in the streets, each paper was read by any number of people, some were rented out by the hour, others read aloud in coffee houses and taverns. Then, add to the true penetration of the respectable press the vast market for satires, cartoons, one-page broadsides and ballads, all commenting on the same event - the trial."

As for The Times, "[c]hampioning of Caroline turned it, for the first time, into the most important newspaper in Britain, a position it was to hold for more than 150 years". The Queen's trial dragged the King into the gutter. He was insulted, degraded, despised, lampooned and demonised day after day, in hundreds of prints, in defiance of the laws of the land and with more hostility than any British monarch has suffered since. Then, a year later, he was cheered at the Coronation. "For someone living in the twenty-first century, there is nothing strange about this - it continues to be the British way with royalty."

The only criticism one would make is that the author should have quoted Lord Broughan's speech for the defence in extenso. It is one of the greatest pieces of forensic eloquence ever. Sample this: "Such, my Lords, is the case now before you. Such is the evidence in support of this measure - evidence inadequate to prove a debt, impotent to deprive of a civil right, ridiculous to convict of the lowest offence, scandalous if brought forward to support a charge of the highest nature which the law knows; monstrous to ruin the honour, to blast the name of an English Queen! What shall we say, then, if this is the proof by which an act of judicial legislation, a parliamentary sentence, in ex post facto law, is sought to be passed against this defenceless woman? My Lords, I pray you to pause. I do earnestly beseech you to take heed. You are standing on the brink of a precipice - then beware: It will go forth as your judgment, if sentence shall go against the Queen. But it will be the only judgment you ever pronounced, which, instead of reaching its object, will return and bound back upon those who give it.

"Save the country, my Lords, from the horrors of this catastrophe; save yourselves from this peril; rescue that country, of which you are the ornaments, but in which you can flourish no longer, when severed from the people, than the blossom when cut off from the roots and the stem of the tree. Save that country, that you may continue to adorn it; save the crown which is in jeopardy; the aristocracy which is shaken; save the altar, which must stagger with the blow that rends its kindred throne! You have said, my Lords, you have willed - the Church and the King have willed - that the Queen should be deprived of its solemn service: She has instead of that solemnity, the heartfelt prayers of the people. She wants no prayers of mine. But I do here pour forth my humble supplications at the throne of mercy, that mercy may be poured down upon the people, in a larger measure than the merits of its rulers may deserve, and that your hearts may be turned to justice."

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