Item of the month: A disastrous royal funeral, 1821

Every month we’ll showcase here an item from our Heritage Collections.

The funeral of Queen Elizabeth II was a dignified and solemn occasion observed by millions around the world. In marked contrast the funeral procession of Queen Caroline of Brunswick (1768-1821), slighted consort of George IV (1762-1830), was a disorderly and violent affair. The queen, exiled and reviled by the Prince of Wales and then king in favour of his mistresses, had in the years of their estrangement become a figurehead for opposition Whigs and radicals pushing for parliamentary reform, a position she clearly revelled in. Her return from Europe after the accession of her husband caused riots but her support reached its peak in the parliamentary trial brought by Lord Liverpool’s Tory government. Her decision to attempt to attend the coronation – George IV had been careful not to issue her with a ticket – proved a step too far for popular public opinion and having been physically barred from several entrances to Westminster Abbey she was jeered by the crowd. She died within the month.

Her wish having been to be buried in her home of Brunswick, a funeral procession to Harwich was planned by the Government on 14 August leading from her residence at Brandenburgh House in Hammersmith across London and on to Colchester. To avoid the risk of further public demonstrations the unpublicised route was designed to avoid entering the City of London. But crowds on the day forced the cavalcade to divert through the City where indeed it was met by the Lord Mayor of London.

The decisive point of the procession came at Cumberland Gate by Hyde Park. The papers of Whig reformer Charles, 2nd Earl Grey, held in Durham University Library’s Special Collections, include a memorandum by soldier and radical MP for Southwark Sir Robert Wilson (1777-1849) who was present in the cavalcade on the day, and whose behaviour itself became the subject of political debate. In this memorandum, written on the “Evening of 14 & Morning of August 15th 1821” and with a postscript dated 28 August 1821, Sir Robert describes the lead up to the funeral and then all of his actions on the day, including his interactions with key figures like chief magistrate Sir Robert Baker and Colonel [Henry] Cavendish and Captain Oakes of the Life Guards. The document was written after he became aware of “calumnies” in public circulation about his conduct, and no doubt sensitive of being scapegoated as instigating or even planning some of the disorder or of bringing the conduct of the Army into disrepute. He is therefore very careful, for example, to state how recently he had returned from France and that on the eve of the funeral he spent no more than five minutes at Freemasons’ Tavern downstairs, not in the Great Room upstairs where “several deputations had assembled”.

Sir Robert Wilson describes the violence at Cumberland Gate, when mounted troops of the Life Guards charged among members of the hostile crowd and used their swords and pistols, but he states he was not present at whatever incident triggered the violence, being then still stuck at the tail end of the procession at Grosvenor Gate. When Sir Robert did reach the head of the drenched procession – there was a deluge that day – the crowd was throwing stones at the troopers and shouting insults such as “Piccadilly Butchers” (in reference to the 1810 Burdett riots). He intervened, encouraging the troopers to return to discipline, no orders to engage or to open fire having been given, saying: “this is quite disgraceful to continue firing in this way. Remember you are soldiers of Waterloo. Do not lose your honors [sic] gained on that occasion. The people are unarmed. You have had canon shot at your head – never mind a few stones”. He also then negotiated the withdrawal of the Life Guards by a different route and which succeeded in calming the situation. He notes that “both soldiers and populace seemed to think they had mutually been aggrieved and both were highly excited against each other”.

He concludes by emphasising “my duty as member of Community and a soldier was clear and imperative – namely, to assist the restoration of order and the Laws action by termination of a deadly conflict which had not been sanctioned by any military or civil authority and was no longer necessary, if it had been, for self defence”. Two members of the public were killed in the confrontation, Richard Honey, a carpenter, and George Francis, a bricklayer.

Detail from a memorandum by Sir Robert Wilson of his role in the disturbances of 14 August 1821 during the procession of Queen Caroline’s hearse from Hammersmith to Ilford, 13-14 and 28 August 1821 (GRE/B60/4/176/1-8)

The memorandum has an afterword, describing a visit Sir Robert made on 21 August on his own initiative to the Horse Guards. There he met with Sir Herbert Taylor, military secretary to the commander-in-chief (the Duke of York then being in Brighton), and declared himself ready to challenge the misrepresentations about his conduct by then circulating should they be noticed officially and to his detriment, but if not then he proposed returning to France. Sir Herbert’s reported response was chillingly brief, “’He had no official communication to make. That if there had been one to make it would have been passed thro him’ [and Sir Robert continues], and [he] then took down [a] short minute of [our] conversation”. If he didn’t realise it already this exchange must have confirmed in Sir Robert’s mind the intention of the government to take retribution for his actions that day. But as he had already set down his own recollections of the day a week earlier and the very evening of the funeral indicates he had been immediately aware of his exposed position. He was shortly afterwards dismissed from the Army and only regained his position with the election of the great reforming Whig government of Charles 2nd Earl Grey in 1830.

Papers of Charles, 2nd Earl Grey summary description

Earl Gray Family Papers summary description

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