It can sometimes seem — unfairly but irresistibly — as if the sole function of the myriad Lilliputian German statelets of the Holy Roman Empire was to provide the royal families of Europe with some of their most dismal consorts. In the century and a half after George I came to the throne in 1714 Britain imported more than its fair share, but if in Caroline of Brunswick we drew quite possibly the rummest of the whole lot, in another and largely forgotten Caroline, Wilhelmine Karoline of Ansbach, the wife of George II, 18th-century Britain and Matthew Dennison struck, if not quite gold, then at least a good solid lump of iron.
No one could have been dreaming of thrones at her birth, though, because as the youngest daughter of the Margrave of Brandenburg-Ansbach — Rutland by any other name — Caroline’s destiny would have seemed to lie somewhere among the lower divisions of the imperial marriage market. As a young child she at least had the advantage of affectionate parents, but on the death of her father and miserable remarriage of her mother, chance, politics, religion and her own formidable charms swept her from the depths of the old Conference tier to Berlin and the rival attentions of Europe’s Premiership royals.
The crucial moment in her life, and perhaps the first that gives a sense of the iron that went with the charm, came when she turned down the hand of the Catholic Archduke Charles and the promise of the Spanish throne. It is clear that the temptations of a Habsburg alliance were not easily passed up; but in putting her Lutheran faith before personal ambition she became a kind of beacon of Protestant Europe, an increasingly attractive proposition for a pushy Hanover dynasty, and ultimately the Protestant princess that a deeply anti-Catholic England could welcome as the one bright star in an irredeemably grim Hanoverian package.
One of the most intriguing imponderables about Caroline, however, as Dennison skilfully explores in this finely judged and entertaining biography, is that invisible line which always seems to divide spontaneity and calculation in her character and behaviour. There is no more reason to doubt her faith than there is her natural charm or kindness; but she had not moved in sophisticated Berlin circles for nothing, and from the day she married the Elector Prince of Hanover and glimpsed the throne of England, every piece of patronage, every political and cultural connection, every stirring assertion of her ‘Englishness’, every portrait she sat for, was consciously designed to secure its future.
The problem was, of course, that she would only ever reign as consort, and with a silly, petulant husband and a boorish father-in-law who loathed his heir, her influence was inevitably limited. If George I had done the decent thing and died early it might have been a different story, but by the time she finally became queen in 1727, the ‘flaxen-haired, pink-and-white princess’ who had charmed the Berlin court and corresponded with Leibniz was well on her way to becoming the ‘fat old bitch’ of Walpole’s cheery description and the leaden butt of Tory satire.
While that was not the whole story — during George’s Hanover absences she was an able and restrained regent — the pages of the Dunciad seem a sad kind of immortality for a life of such youthful promise. It was inevitable in the factional politics of the time that she should make as many enemies as she did friends, but, as Dennison emphasises, the other truth was that for all her early anglophilia she remained an absolutist at heart, impatient, as all Hanoverians, of anything that smacked of opposition.
There is something so baleful about most royal biographies, something faintly embarrassing in the fatuous imbecility of court rituals, that it is a treat to come across one with so much real ‘stuff’ in it. There are every bit as many ladies of the bedchamber and grooms of the stole as an ardent royalist could wish for, but Dennison is an adept at having his cake and eating it, in giving Caroline the full royal treatment — coronation robes, jewels, fabrics, curtseys, maids of honour and all — without ever losing sight of the ‘futile elegance’ of court life.
There are also — come to think of it — an awful lot of ‘bosoms’ in this book, but then again there was clearly a lot of bosom about in late 17th- and early 18th-century Germany. The British women — or Lady Cowper at least — found it all a bit much when the Hanoverians hit town in 1714, yet in an age in which the role of a royal bride was to produce heirs and a Britain obsessed with the Protestant succession, it was small wonder that poets, panegyrists and portrait painters all dedicated so much time and space to celebrating the ‘legendary embonpoint’, as Dennison terms it, of the ‘nation’s mother’.
That is, though, an ironic epithet. Ironic, because real power and not a mother’s or consort’s influence was what always lay tantalisingly beyond the grasp of this gifted and courageous woman. Ironic, too, that the ‘mother of the nation’, in time-honoured tradition, hated her eldest son with all the vindictiveness that Hanoverians reserved for their offspring. And bitterly ironic, finally, that it was the complication of a late pregnancy which, ignored and hidden, would eventually, and horribly, kill her.