If someone asked you to list British monarchs, a few names may spring immediately to mind once you were past asking “Why?” Obviously, there is the present head of state, Queen Elizabeth II. Then there’s Henry VIII. Queen Victoria, perhaps? King George III may just get a mention, too. But someone who probably isn’t on your radar is Queen Caroline. And without her, it’s likely that Britain would look very different today.
Caroline behaved unusually for a royal. She was honest, informal – even affectionate – towards her attendants and was known to express strong emotions. An intelligent ruler, she made it her business to interact with some of the greatest minds of the time. Once, she reportedly even tried to resolve a disagreement between Gottfried Leibniz and Isaac Newton!
But perhaps more shockingly, Caroline wasn’t actually born within the borders of her future kingdom. She was, in fact, from the German territory of Ansbach. And thanks to this, Caroline was fluent in three languages: German and French as well as English.
Yet despite her unconventional nature and heritage, Caroline made her way to the top of the British hierarchy. While her husband, George II, was crowned king in 1727, his – to put it kindly – lackluster abilities meant that Caroline would eventually sit on the throne. And although she had an unlikely rise to power, the monarch would go on to become an extremely influential figure in Britain and beyond.
As we have subtly suggested, Caroline was much smarter than her husband. She therefore commanded a high degree of authority in British politics and daily life in general. In fact, at one stage during her time on the throne, Caroline made an important decision. And as it turns out, her actions changed her kingdom forever.
But how did this unusual woman actually come to sit on the throne of Great Britain and Ireland in the first place? Well, the answer is all down to a combination of some unfortunate events, a dose of religious prejudice and problems with succession. We begin in 1688, the year of the Glorious Revolution…
The Revolution led to King James II, a Catholic, being overthrown and replaced by his Protestant daughter, Mary II, and her husband. Then, after the pair died with no heir, Mary’s sister Anne took over. But this led to yet another issue. Sadly, although Anne fell pregnant 17 times, the only child to live beyond babyhood passed away when he was 11. When the queen met her ultimate fate, then, who would be next in line to rule?
Well, Anne did have a half-brother, but he wasn’t exactly popular. James III was splitting his time between France and Italy. A bit of a gadabout, he practically salivated at the prospect of becoming the British monarch. But James was a Catholic, and so parliament was determined to stop him. That led to the Act of Settlement of 1701.
This new legislation was designed to stop Catholics from ever taking the throne. Much of the act is in fact still operational today – although the bit about royals marrying “papists” was removed in 2013. Back in the early 18th century, however, it pointed towards Sophia the Dowager Electress of Hanover as Anne’s successor. Sophia isn’t a particularly well-known figure these days, but she was at the heart of Britain’s creative and academic evolution.
Now, the family tree gets a bit complicated here, but stay with us. It’ll be worth it. Sophia was the daughter of Elizabeth, who herself was the daughter of King James I. He ruled England between 1603 and 1625 and – just to confuse matters – was also the Scottish monarch from 1567 to 1625, operating there under the title of James VI.
Sophia’s father, Frederick, also served for a short spell as King of Bohemia. Owing to a squabble over some land, though, he had been overthrown by the time Sophia was born in 1630. Her early life was therefore spent as an exile in the Netherlands. And as the second youngest of 13 siblings, she never could have expected to become particularly powerful.
But Sophia was fond of taking the unexpected path. She went on to marry Ernst Augustus, who was heir to a very small bit of territory in Germany’s north. And Sophia and Ernst were said to be an extremely determined pair. In fact, thanks to sheer will and a dash of good fortune, they managed to bring together different territories under their own rule as Elector and Electress of Hanover.
But let’s get back to Britain, where Anne needed a successor. Though she had a huge number of relatives lined up before her cousin, they were all Catholic. So, the Protestant Sophia shot up the pecking order, and with the British parliament’s blessing – not to mention some relief – she became heir to the throne.
Sophia was one of a kind. Fluent in five different languages, she spent time with prominent intellectuals of the age and was personally interested in matters of religion, philosophy and politics. Impressive, right? Sophia strongly supported the following generation of royal women taking up similar interests, too.
Thanks to Sophia’s influence – and possibly her insistence – her daughter and niece were also well versed in the issues of the day. And as long as they didn’t stray too far from the limits imposed on them by their powerful husbands, these royal ladies could live interesting, cerebral lives.
As fate would have it, though, Sophia never actually made it to the throne. She passed away in 1714 – a couple of months before Anne. Sophia had been strolling around one of her beloved gardens when she suddenly fell to the ground. True to form, her death was entirely unexpected, although apparently she had been happy at the time.
So, who was heir to the throne now? Well, that would be Sophia’s son, George Louis. When Anne passed away shortly after Sophia, he left Germany and went to London to become the British monarch. Aged 54, George Louis was already the Elector of Hanover. After taking over a significant kingdom, though, he faced two immediate challenges: his English wasn’t great, and he brought no wife.
So, given that George Louis – now King George I – didn’t have a queen, it was down to another woman to be the female face of the British monarchy. Step forward George’s daughter-in-law, Caroline. And despite Caroline and Sophia having no blood relation, there were definite similarities between the pair. They were both cultured, for instance, and interested in higher pursuits.
Although born in Ansbach in 1683, Caroline was actually in Berlin for much of her adolescence. It was there that she received an education and was allowed to explore her own interests. She also befriended intellectuals and artists, such as the philosopher Gottfried Leibniz and the musician Agostino Steffani.
Caroline then joined the line of succession when she married George Augustus – Sophia’s nephew and son of King George I. And when George I ascended to the British throne in 1714, his son and daughter-in-law traveled to London to join him. Then, less than a decade and a half on, the couple would themselves be monarchs. Before that, though, Caroline would change the course of Britain entirely.
As a princess of Britain, Caroline had few peers to admire. For one, her immediate royal predecessors had apparently lacked the brains that she herself possessed. Even worse, the smarter women who had come before her – such as, say, Anne Boleyn – had prematurely lost their lives through execution. This was hardly an appealing prospect, and so Caroline was left having to forge her own path.
So, with no inspiration to be found in Britain, Caroline looked to her native Germany, where female royals often concerned themselves with creative and academic pursuits. She started arranging get-togethers, inviting groups of intellectuals to come and discuss matters of philosophy, literature, science and medicine. What fun!
Prominent politician of the era Robert Walpole once wrote of the types of people who’d show up at these gatherings. He explained, “Learned men and divines were intermixed with courtiers and ladies of the household. The conversation turned upon metaphysical subjects, blended with repartees, sallies of mirth and the tittle-tattle of a drawing-room.”
And Caroline was acutely aware of the power she could wield as a member of the British royal family. For starters, the things she concerned herself with could be easily popularized. Her passion for matters of science, for instance, could have real consequences. That’s why her actions in 1722 were so important.
Still, while Caroline may have been ahead of her time, the medical practices of the era were archaic. Pseudoscientific beliefs were widespread, and practitioners remained at a loss to explain the origins of disease. Yet the 18th century did see some advancements that would have a significant bearing on the future of medicine.
Throughout the 1700s, smallpox was arguably the most dangerous illness raging through Britain. And while there were signs that the idea of inoculating people against the disease was beginning to spread, this was a difficult concept for people to grasp. Many during that period thought that a victim’s recovery simply depended upon the will of God.
And in the early 1720s, Caroline was extremely concerned by smallpox. This was hardly surprising, considering that she and her eldest daughter had each survived bouts of the illness in the past. In 1722, then, Caroline made an incredible decision: she had two of her children inoculated against the disease.
Inoculation was still an extremely new – and unusual – practice at that time. And although there had been promising cases reported from Turkey, in Britain vaccinating was still considered a potentially dangerous thing to do. By allowing her own children to undergo the procedure, then, Caroline helped to normalize the idea across her kingdom.
To be clear, Caroline was not playing fast and loose with her kids’ well-being. Instead, she came to her conclusion with the level of scrutiny you would expect from any intellectual of the Enlightenment. Caroline conducted her own research, even helping scientists to gain access to convicts for an experiment. You can be certain she didn’t make this decision on a whim.
Then, after Caroline’s children were inoculated, the media circulated the story across Britain. In doing so, they showed the public that a royal trusted the procedure. This fact was enough to persuade many people into believing that inoculation was safe for their own offspring, too. But that wasn’t Caroline’s only legacy.
You see, Caroline’s embrace of science had further implications, as the social circles that she kept ultimately influenced the younger generations of her own family. Isaac Newton, for example, is said to have suggested specific teachers for Caroline’s children. The kids were also given music lessons by famed composer George Frideric Handel. Lucky them!
Then, in 1727, Caroline became queen consort. She was well-liked by her subjects, having firmly established the monarchy as one with a fondness for science and progress. She busied herself, too, with various highbrow pursuits, while George – not known for his intellect – mostly left her to it. So long as Caroline was popular, George himself would benefit.
George II had also retained his title of Elector of Hanover when he took the British throne, meaning he spent a lot of time abroad. But thanks to the Regency Act of 1728, Caroline was allowed to rule the kingdom in her husband’s absence. And it seems she was well up to the task of keeping things steady, too. So, what exactly was George doing with himself overseas?
Well, as was common during his era, George had several romantic liaisons outside of his marriage. In fact, at the time, it was said to be “educational” for royal men to have affairs. And while Caroline was entirely aware of his betrayals, she had a typically measured response. As one of George’s mistresses was Caroline’s attendant, the queen consort simply gave her lots of work rather than get rid of her outright. Nicely done.
Caroline also knew of someone with whom her husband had dalliances in Hanover. And in what was probably a power-play, she insisted that the king bring this woman to England. The visitor would need somewhere to stay, of course, so Caroline cleared her own books from a room for the woman to use and took the opportunity to build herself a new library to house the collection. Touché.
Sadly, it was in that very library that Caroline fell ill in 1737. For 13 years, ever since her final pregnancy, Caroline had been battling an umbilical hernia – essentially a hole in her stomach. And considering the queen consort’s support of new medical practices, ironically it was doctors who failed her.
Horrifyingly, a part of Caroline’s intestine worked its way out of her body through the gap. Her medical attendants should have put it back inside; instead, they removed it. Caroline was now stricken with a totally ruined digestive system. And after a week and a half of what must have been terrible pain, she ultimately died.
Caroline was surrounded by her family as she passed. She managed to speak with her children before the end, then she asked for the lights in the room to be extinguished. And her husband held her hand as she slipped away. Even after all George’s betrayals, it seems that he and Caroline still cared for each other.
So, while Caroline’s legacy has since faded somewhat into obscurity, she was undoubtedly an important figure. In the old-fashioned environment of the British royal court, she was an enlightened thinker who encouraged her subjects to open themselves up to the advances of medical science.
Yes, Caroline believed in science and demonstrated her commitment to it for all to see. After all, she allowed her children to be inoculated at a time when the practice was extremely rare. And in her way, Caroline helped to get the ball rolling on a movement that would last for centuries to come. So, the next time you go in for a vaccination, spare a thought for the inimitable British queen.