The Queen Caroline Affair and the Politicisation of the Church of England

Nicholas Dixon is an AHRC-funded second-year PhD student at Pembroke College, Cambridge. His doctoral research concerns the political and social influence of the Church of England during the early nineteenth century, with a particular focus on the Anglican clergy’s involvement in parliamentary politics, elementary education and tract distribution. He has also investigated various aspects of the Church’s relationship with the British monarchy and, at this year’s EHS summer conference (for which he was awarded a bursary), presented a paper on Queen Adelaide’s role in promoting Anglicanism in Malta. In this post, which describes the implications of the ‘Queen Caroline Affair’ for the Church, he draws together two important themes of his enquiries: the religious dimension of monarchy and clerical political activity. 

One seldom-acknowledged aspect of the tumultuous events which followed Queen Caroline of Brunswick’s arrival in England in 1820 is the degree to which the established church was drawn into political controversy by them. The ‘Queen Caroline Affair’ revolved around three principal issues: whether Caroline’s name should be in the Book of Common Prayer, whether King George IV could divorce her by a parliamentary bill depriving Caroline of her title and whether she should be crowned in Westminster Abbey. As all three debates by their very nature involved religious considerations, the Church of England often assumed the role of arbiter. Consequently, Anglican places of worship became contested spaces, appropriated by the supporters of King and Queen alike. Many clergy were to be found publicly supporting both factions through speeches, petitions, addresses, sermons, letters and pamphlets. Hence it is impossible to understand the full implications of the ‘Affair’ without investigating its ecclesiastical dimension.

‘MINISTERS on their MARROW-BONES!! or THINGS as they OUGHT to be.’ Satirical print published by John Fairburn, 1821. In this pro-Caroline satire, the Archbishop of Canterbury, trampling down ‘CANT’ and the ‘Vicar of Bray’, rejoins George IV and Caroline in marriage, while ministers do her homage. Copyright of trustees of the British Museum. Reproduced under Creative Commons license.


The liturgical issue was the first to arise. A prayer for the Royal Family in the Anglican liturgy conventionally included a specific reference to the Queen. The diarist John Wilson Croker, then Secretary to the Admiralty, records that initially the Queen was prayed for in some churches, but it was soon ordered that the Royal Family would only be prayed for generally. The rationale for this was supplied by Croker, who argued that if Caroline was ‘fit to be introduced to the Almighty, she is fit to be received by men, and if we are to pray for her in Church we may surely bow to her at Court.’ The Archbishop of Canterbury, Charles Manners-Sutton, argued against this decision in the Privy Council but would later defend it in the House of Lords. He stated that ‘all that her majesty complained of was, that she had not distinction in prayer, the omission of which was not a question connected with religion, but one of grace and favour.’

Such justifications did not satisfy Caroline’s supporters. The clergyman Samuel Parr, who became the Queen’s chaplain, entered a protest in the prayer book of his church in Hatton, Warwickshire: ‘Though forbidden to pronounce her royal name, I shall, in the secret and sacred recesses of my soul, recommend her to the protection of the Deity.’ A threatening anonymous letter to the Archdeacon of Rochester claimed that ‘many have declared they will never enter [church] until her Majesty’s name is restored in the liturgy!!!’ (The National Archives, HO 33/2, f. 205) Other supporters of Caroline compensated for her exclusion from the Prayer Book by printing alternative prayers in its style. One such composition asked for the King to ‘repent of all his evil doings’ and ‘become a pattern of that forgiveness of injuries, which his people see so admirably set by their amiable Queen, his wife; forming, as it does, an important part of that LITURGY from which she is excluded’.

The ‘Prayer for the Royal Family’ in 1818 and 1820 editions of the Book of Common Prayer. Note the disappearance of Caroline of Brunswick.

The bishops assumed prominence at Caroline’s ‘trial’ when, in November 1820, they commented on a proposed clause to the ‘bill of pains and penalties’ effecting a divorce. The Archbishop of York, Edward Venables-Vernon, argued that the divorce was contrary to biblical teaching and denounced ‘a measure…which gave the utmost pain to every good man, and tended most effectually to forward the views of a party whose object was…to bring into disgrace all that was most sacred and venerable in the laws and constitution of the country.’ In Lord Holland’s estimation, the Archbishop ‘acted a manly part & spoke with considerable effect.’ (Norfolk Record Office, DCN 154/11/5) The same could not be said of the Bishop of London, William Howley, who attracted ridicule by reminding his hearers of the constitutional maxim that ‘the king could do no wrong.’ Even though Howley clarified that he ‘did not…mean to argue it on such a principle’, his intervention was interpreted as absolutist. This was the basis of a satirical pamphlet by the radical printer William Hone, The Right Divine of Kings to Govern Wrong!

Manners-Sutton argued that the divorce was permissible on the basis of Christ’s words, ‘he who putteth away his wife for any other cause than adultery, causeth her to commit adultery.’ But other bishops sided with Venables-Vernon. The Bishop of Worcester, Folliott Cornewall, ‘could not vote for it, unless the Queen were allowed…the same means of defence as other persons were entitled to.’ George Henry Law, Bishop of Chester, ‘thought it contrary to the religious precepts expounded by the Divine Teacher of Christianity.’ The Bishop of Gloucester, Henry Ryder, contended that it was ‘inconsistent with, the spirit and tenor of the Christian morality and law.’ In the event, 10 prelates voted against the divorce.

Three bishops (Henry Majendie, Folliott Cornewall and George Henry Law) at the ‘trial’ of Queen Caroline. Sketch by Sir George Hayter, 1820. Copyright of National Portrait Gallery, London. Reproduced under Creative Commons license.

After the failure of the ‘bill of pains and penalties’, the Queen and her supporters attempted to appropriate Anglican worship for their cause. Caroline gave thanks by public church attendance twice, firstly at Hammersmith (where she received communion) and secondly at St Paul’s Cathedral. The Archdeacon of Norwich, Henry Bathurst, was asked to preach on the latter occasion but this was prohibited by the Dean of St Paul’s. Bathurst afterwards published his intended sermon, in which he argued that, ‘under the agency of Providence’, the ‘influence of public opinion’ had ‘saved’ the Queen ‘from ruin unmerited in the opinion of so many millions’ and ‘averted a precedent, which…might have changed a government of hitherto known law into a complex despotism’.

However, to George IV’s clerical defenders, such adulation constituted a hypocritical farce. Following Caroline’s taking of communion, Rev. Richard Blacow of Liverpool condemned the Queen from the pulpit for going ‘clothed in the mantle of adultery, to kneel down at the altar of that God, who is “of purer eyes than to behold iniquity,” when she ought rather to have stood barefoot in the aisle, covered with a sheet as white as “unsunned snow,” doing penance for her sins.’ For such expressions, Blacow was prosecuted for libel and imprisoned. Further controversy attended the ringing of church bells in the Queen’s honour, which many clergymen attempted to prevent. In the Diocese of London, despite Bishop Howley’s disapproval, churches were used for meetings by Caroline’s supporters.

The denouement of ecclesiastical involvement in the ‘Affair’ was George IV’s coronation on 19 July 1821. The incident of Queen Caroline being denied admission to Westminster Abbey on coronation day is well known, but this was merely the last of multiple efforts by Caroline to take part in the ceremony. The Queen’s associates attempted to consult records of coronations in Westminster Abbey, only to be turned away by its Dean, John Ireland, who stated that he would ‘never turn [his] situation into an instrument of assistance to His Majesty’s enemies’. Archbishop Manners-Sutton was compelled to hear the Queen’s arguments for being crowned, which were dismissed. Caroline’s death three weeks later created further dilemmas for clergymen. The Dean of Windsor, Lewis Hobart, was uncertain how ‘to do all that would appear decent towards the Dead & respectful also towards the feelings of His Majesty, the King.’ (The National Archives, HO 44/9, f. 316) At Durham the clergy were severely criticised by a radical newspaper editor for not tolling their bells, leading to a high-profile libel case.

‘PREPARING for the CORONATION.’ Satirical print by Charles Williams, 1821. John Bull brings a crown for Queen Caroline to the Archbishop of Canterbury, the jewels of which the Archbishop proposes to add to the King’s crown for the sake of ‘Economy’. Copyright of the trustees of the British Museum. Reproduced under Creative Commons license.

It might be assumed that the Church was simply a victim in this course of events. Such was the opinion of Henry Bathurst, Bishop of Norwich and father of the above-mentioned Archdeacon, who wrote in December 1820, ‘Never shall I feel disposed to quarrel with old age, when I recollect, that I am indebted to it for an exemption from attendance in the House of Lords, during the late unfortunate business. All the Radicals in the United Kingdom, could not in half a century, have done so much injury to Religion, and Government, as has been done, within the last few weeks.’ (Lambeth Palace Library, FP Howley 7, f. 71) Yet it is also the case that the ‘Queen Caroline Affair’ contributed to a heightened political consciousness on the part of the Church. No longer were the clergy content to stand back from political controversy, as they had so often done earlier in the century. Bishop Bathurst observed that the bishops ‘might easily have pleaded their professional duties’ as an excuse for absenting themselves from the ‘trial’, lamenting that ‘but a few of us…can say, with truth, as our Great Master did: “My Kingdom is not of this world.”’ (Norfolk Record Office, DCN 154/2/69)

Brighton clergyman Hugh Pearson stated when proposing a loyal address to the King that the clergy were ‘as much interested as other men in the public welfare’ and that ‘they ought surely to set an example of what is useful and laudable in public, as well as in private life.’ This new forcefulness would find outlets in later debates concerning Catholic emancipation, the Reform Bill and Church reform. Many clerical controversialists who assumed prominence in these debates, among them Henry Phillpotts and John Henry Newman, had early skirmishes during 1820 and 1821. The most important effect of the ‘Affair’, so far as the Church was concerned, was to accustom it to the cut and thrust of contemporary political debate, preparing it for the task of defending its position in an era of immense upheaval.


Nicholas Dixon
Pembroke College, Cambridge

This research has been supported by an AHRC Doctoral Training Partnership Studentship.

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