The Delicate Investigation

Detail of a portrait of Caroline by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1804

Detail of a portrait of Caroline by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1804


George, the Prince Regent of England and the soon to be George IV, hated his wife.  I don’t mean they didn’t get on well together, I mean he loathed the sight of her.  When Caroline of Brunswick was introduced to her future husband, George embraced her then retreated to the other side of the room where he flagged down the Earl of Malmesbury.  With a face as white as a sheet, he begged the Earl, “Harris, I am not very well, pray get me a glass of brandy”.  Then George proceeded to continue to drink for the three days prior to the wedding and be massively drunk throughout the entire affair.  George was a reluctant groom to say the least.  He was already secretly married to a Catholic, the beautiful Maria FitzHerbert, and was having an affair with Lady Jersey, his new wife’s chief lady in waiting.  He was only marrying to produce an heir so parliament would pay off his enormous debts.

In fairness, Caroline of Brunswick was no prize herself.  She rarely washed or changed her under things and as a consequence stank of BO.  The same Earl of Malmesbury who brought George the first of many brandies recorded in his diary Caroline lacked judgment, wit and tact.  Apparently, she had no filter and spoke whatever was on her mind as it came to her and acted indiscreetly.  In short, it was a match made in hell.

On the wedding night, George was so drunk he passed out on the bedroom grate and stayed there the entire night.  However, something must have happened as Caroline became pregnant and their only child, Princess Charlotte, was born nine months later.  Caroline’s access to her only daughter was instantly curtailed.  In fact, George wanted to separate from his wife now that his duty was done, but his father would not allow it.  Instead, Caroline was packed off to a house in Blackheath to do as she pleased, and that she did.  There were rumors of affairs as well as reports of dances where she pranced around without clothes.  However, she did a have a kind streak, as she was known for providing food for poor women in her kitchens and loving children.  This brought Mrs. Sophia Austin to her door on October 23, 1802.

Mrs. Austin’s husband had lost his job and she was hoping Caroline could user her influence to get him a new one.  Failing that, she hoped to get a meal from the kitchens.  To soften Caroline’s heart, she brought with her her three month old son, William.  Mrs. Austin was interviewed by Caroline’s footman and eventually brought to Caroline herself.  She immediately took a fancy to young William remarking “Oh what a nice one! How old is it?”  She then asked Mrs. Austin if she could have William for her own.  Mrs. Austin agreed to sell her son for one pound.   As awful as this sounds to modern ears, this was not an unheard of practice.  Mrs. Austin had several other children at home to provide for and money was tight.  Interviewed later, Mrs. Austin said she thought it would be better for William to be raised as a prince rather than in squalor.  From that moment on, Willikins, as he became known, was a constant fixture in Caroline’s home.

Caroline lavished all her frustrated maternal instincts on the young boy.  He was extremely spoiled and allowed to run wild through the household.  He would interrupt dinner parties to grab his favorite foods off the table, ruin expensive and rare books with his dirty fingers, and generally act like a brat.  Caroline would laugh indulgently and cater to his every whim.  However, this story takes a stranger turn than just a spoiled child.  Caroline fancied herself quite the practical joker, and had been stringing along one of her ladies in waiting by mimicking the symptoms of morning sickness and other pregnancy symptoms.  Lady Douglas bought this hook line and sinker, then when a baby showed up…well, it didn’t take much for her to believe little Willikins was Caroline’s illegitimate child.  Caroline made it worse by replying the child was the Prince of Wales’ when asked.  There was the matter of the throne at stake as there were fears Caroline would try to pop little Willikins on the throne over Princess Charlotte.genuinebookanin00percgoog

To get to the bottom of this, The Delicate Investigation was launched by the King and the Prince of Wales.  This was the creation of a commission to judge who exactly were the parents of young William.  The commission was comprised of no less than:  Prime Minister Lord Grenville, the Lord Chancellor Lord Erskine, the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales Lord Ellenborough and the Home Secretary Lord Spencer.  Lady Douglas testified of Caroline’s pregnancy symptoms and her indiscreet behavior with men in the household.  Caroline’s other servants only confirmed she was flirtatious, but did not offer any proof of an affair.  Sophia Austin was summoned and testified she was the biological mother of young William Austin.  Caroline went off on another tangent and claimed William was the son of neither the Prince of Wales or the Austins, but of her previous fiancee, Louis Ferdinand of Prussia.

The Delicate Investigation confirmed William was truly the son of the Austins, but it ruined Caroline’s reputation.  Eventually, Caroline was exiled to Europe and William went with her.  However, as he got older and was no longer a child he seemed to lose his allure.  Caroline actively looked for another baby to replace him when William became a teenager.  She did leave him a modest sum of money when she died, but it was not what he expected having been reared as a prince.  This strange duel life took its toll on William and he died at the age of 47 in an insane asylum in Chelsea.

ER