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The All-England Issue

Including the fascinating story of Willikins Rex

August 1st, 2014

BY JOHN M. DANIEL

During the summer of 1961 I worked for an antiquarian bookstore in Dallas. While I was there the store acquired a Book of Common Prayer inscribed by Caroline of Brunswick to her ward, William Austin, dated Christmas 1805, Montague House, Blackheath. The store manager sent me downtown to the public library to research these people in order to put a price on this book.

What I uncovered allowed us to charge $100, which was cheap, I thought. A hundred bucks bought a lot of book back then, but this one had a royal signature and included a special prayer for the King’s health, which was touch and go at the time, to the grief of his adoring subjects and the annoyance of his heir, who was impatient for the old man to get on with the business of dying.

georgeiii*Who were these people? The King was George III (pictured), who had lost his American colonies in 1776 and who was now mad as a hatter. The heir was George, Prince of Wales, the promiscuous, over-eating scoundrel who would eventually become Prince Regent and finally King George IV. Caroline Amelia Elizabeth of Brunswick was the Prince’s first cousin as well as his wife, and the person he hated most in all the world. William Austin was Caroline’s darling child, whom she adopted in 1802, when he was three months old. Little “Willikins” lived and traveled with Princess Caroline until she died in 1821.

I typed up a one-page paper relating these facts, and it was displayed in a glass case next to the book. That one page was the first of hundreds of pages I wrote about Caroline and Willikins, off and on over the next twenty years. It turned into a novel of love and hatred, insanity and cunning intrigue, manners and scandal. Fortunately for my career, my novel, Willikins Rex, never got published. I had no business attempting a historical novel, but I enjoyed the writing and the research. Along the way I bought every book I could find about Caroline and George, many of which were deliciously opinionated one way or the other about the twenty-five-year royal squabble. At this point I don’t remember how much of my novel came from research and how much I made up. I told the story from the point of view of William Austin, who was a child, and bonkers at that.

Here are a few things that really happened.

Prince George did not want to get married, to his cousin whom he had never met or to anybody else. He was quite happy with a succession of mistresses, including a number of stage actresses and ladies of society. Besides, he was already married, to twice-widowed Maria Fitzherbert, the only woman he ever truly loved, but that marriage didn’t count, because Mrs. Fitzherbert was a Catholic and the marriage was conveniently illegal. But George was deep in debt owing to a gambling addiction and an even costlier addiction to architecture; he had financed the Brighton Pavilion. So, in exchange for a grander stipend, marry he must. To whomever, it didn’t matter.

Lord Malmsbury and Lady Jersey went to the continent in 1795 to fetch the chosen candidate. Malmsbury’s first report was that young Caroline was flighty, stupid, indiscreet, and unwashed; she also knew very little of the English language. But Lady Jersey found Caroline charming and quite acceptable, probably because Jersey was one of the Prince’s mistresses and she didn’t want any serious competition for his affection. So they escorted young Caroline back across the Channel and introduced her to her betrothed.

Lady Jersey needn’t have worried. The Prince greeted Caroline with minimal courtesy, then shouted for a brandy and rushed from the room, holding his nose. He was seen late that night on a fast steed, thundering past Mrs. Fitzherbert’s house.

Queen Charlotte shared her son’s distaste for the bride-to-be. Mad King George, on the other hand, was instantly smitten, and stayed so for years.

The royal couple were married a few days later, after Lady Jersey had coached Caroline in a few basic manners. According to the bride, George spent their wedding night passed out in front of the fireplace. They spent the following night together as well. Those two nights were the only nights the Prince and Princess of Wales ever had a chance to conceive a child, for they never slept together again. Somehow, though, nine months later, Princess Charlotte was born. The Princess had done what she was brought to England to do.

George and Caroline were not on speaking terms, and Caroline was denied the right to raise her own daughter. She was given a separate residence, away from the royal palace, and none of the royal family (except mad, doting King George) came to visit. There were official visiting hours when the babe, or the child she became, would be brought to Caroline’s residence, but Caroline missed being a hands-on mother. Perhaps that’s why, in 1802, she adopted little Willikins.

Of course people talked, and Caroline even encouraged the gossip. Was William Austin perhaps the Princess’s bastard son? The Prince saw this as an opportunity for divorce, and his cronies in Parliament launched what was called the Delicate Investigation in 1806. But the Prince’s Whiggish opponents came to Caroline’s defense, and the matter was dropped.

Eventually, though, everybody on both sides of the House of Lords had endured enough of the Princess of Wales. By this time her only ally in the royal family, King George, had been declared cuckoo, making his profligate son, her outspoken enemy, the Regent. To please the Regent, the government offered Princess Caroline an annual living allowance of £35,000 pounds if she’d go back to Brunswick and never return to England. The year was 1814, Napoleon had been defeated, and Europe was at peace. Caroline had endured enough of drizzly, inhospitable England. She packed her bags and said so long, taking twelve-year-old Willikins with her.

She didn’t stay long in Brunswick, and she and Willikins traveled to Italy, where she bought a palace to live in, the Villa d’Este on the shore of Lake Como. Along the way she hired a staff of servants, including the dashing, mustachioed Bartolomeo Pergami, whom she called Pergi. She bought Pergi a title and made him the manager of her household staff. He also became the manager of her heart, and her bedroom.

Two years later, Caroline closed the villa for renovations and went traveling again, taking Pergi and Willikins with her. They toured the Mediterranean, displaying bad manners wherever they stopped, as if to embarrass her husband. She careened through the streets of Naples in a gold-painted chariot. In Athens she attended a gala ball en venu, meaning with her breasts bared. She rode into Jerusalem on an ass. In Jerusalem she established the Order of Saint Caroline, of which Pergi was made Grand Master and William Austin was dubbed a Knight of the Holy Sepulchre, Sir Willikins. The Order’s motto, borrowed from the Order of the Garter, was “Honi soit qui mal y pense,” her way of telling English society, “Shame on you for judging me.”

Throughout their travels, Caroline and Pergi were openly affectionate, eating at the same table and sleeping in the same chambers.

Shortly after their return to Italy, Caroline learned — by rumor, not directly from the English Royal Family — of the death of her daughter, Charlotte. She sank into a depression from which she never recovered. She sold the Villa d’Este and took Willikins to France, leaving Pergi behind. Meanwhile a team of political private eyes called the Milan Commission was dispatched to Italy to gather or buy evidence and testimony that Caroline had committed adultery with Pergami. Members of her household staff at the Villa d’Este were all too eager to cooperate, for a fee. It later turned out that some of the servants had already been on the English payroll, spying for the Regent. Prince George knew his father was on the way out, and he wanted a complete divorce before he ascended to the throne.

The Milan Commission was too late. In 1820 George III died, making our heroine officially Queen Caroline of England. She crossed the Channel, Willikins in tow, and was welcomed in London by a cheering crowd. The English people in general were not fond of their new King, and they had a soft spot for his wife. Political radicals made the most of this sentiment, fomenting riots in support of the woman they called “The Injured Queen.” “Long live Queen Caroline!” the crowds shouted; some added, “And long live her son, King Austin!”

Nevertheless, allies of the King would not be swayed. They introduced into the House of Lords a bill that would annul the royal marriage and therefore deprive her of the title of Queen. The debate that followed, which became known as the Queen’s Trial, was tawdry and salacious, full of graphic testimony about soiled sheets, shared chamber pots, and public caresses. The bill passed the House of Lords but was dropped before it went to the House of Commons. Caroline of Brunswick remained Queen of England.

The poor woman was never crowned, though. She was forcefully turned away from the coronation at Westminster Abbey. As she left in her carriage, she was hooted at by the fickle masses that lined the streets. The sentimental people of London had caught Coronation fever and were now cheering, “God save the King!”

Caroline of Brunswick died three weeks later, of a broken heart, or perhaps of poison, and even her remains were not welcome in England. Her body was shipped to Brunswick and was buried under a tombstone that still says: “Here Lies Caroline of Brunswick, the Injured Queen of England.”

Two questions remain. First, what happened to William Austin after Caroline’s death? In all my research the only information I found was that he died in a lunatic asylum in Chelsea, in 1849. Nothing about the twenty-nine years between the coronation and his death.

The second question has two parts: Was William Austin really Caroline’s son, and if so, who was his father?

Well, nobody knows, but the answers according to my fictional account amazingly match the answers in Richard Condon’s novel The Abandoned Woman, published in 1977:

Part one, yes.

Part two, Mad King George III. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All England Issue, Daniel | Link to this Entry

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