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In 1821 a quite extraordinary event occurred in St Peters Church that involved one of the greatest political controversies of the age. The body of Caroline of Brunswick remained in the building overnight on the way to Harwich and eventual burial in Brunswick Cathedral. In 1795 she married her first cousin, George, Prince of Wales, as part of a deal to get Parliament to increase the Prince's income. The marriage was a disaster; George was drunk at the wedding, his new bride was "fat, coarse, vulgar and unwashed " and the couple separated very soon after, but did produce a child, Princess Charlotte, who was to die in childbirth in 1818. While George was acting as Prince Regent, ruling on behalf of his father King George III from 1811, Caroline was excluded from public life and agreed to leave the country in exchange for an annual allowance. For some years she toured Europe openly in the the company of the Chamberlain to the Queen's Household, Bertolomo Pergami.
When her husband became George IV in 1820, she returned to England, became a focus for those opposed to the King, and debate on a bill in Parliament to dissolve the marriage and strip her of her titles was effectively a trial for adultery. The bill passed in the Lords but was dropped when it was considered she had sufficient supporters to prevent it passing the House of Commons.
She was not invited to the coronation of her husband George IV on 19 July 1821 but arrived anyway and was refused entry. After this she declined medically and died on 7th August. Rumours circulated, but the cause was probably natural. Her funeral procession was arranged to bypass London, but was forced through the city by roadblocks manned by rioters, two of whom died in the disturbances.
Then the cortege arrived in Colchester....
Extract from a letter from the Revd. Samuel Carr. Recipient of the letter was "Widow Buxton", born Martha Diane Henning in 1792 she had first married Charles Buxon who had died in 1817 and she was later to marry Samuel Carr in 1826.
I had been an accidental spectator of the funeral procession, if such it may be called, of the late queen. Hearing that my sister was ill, I went over to Colchester and upon reaching the town found it in all the bustle of expectation. About 5 in the afternoon some soldiers entered the town, behind them a procession of men on horseback. Next came the Queen‘s carriage, the hearse and ten mourning coaches. The hearse was left in the street opposite the Inn, surrounded only by a guard of soldiers, without one single attendant. The mourners sat down to dinner, and seemed in high glee. Dr. Lushington at the head of the table and the friends on each side seeming to enjoy themselves as fully and as freely as if at a marriage feast, in fact it was such, I suppose to Dr. L. and Mrs. L. I was anxious to see young Austin, and for that purpose with many others passed into the great room at the Inn, where they were regaling themselves. At 7 it was unexpectedly announced that the coffin would be carried into St. Peter‘s Church to remain there during the night. A few yards of black cloth were hastily laid on the floor of the Chancel, some old candlesticks placed on each side and the gas lamps in the Church lighted. A few families were admitted into the Church, and at 8 o‘clock the body was removed without any ceremony beyond that of the mourners following it up the aisle to the Altar table on which it was deposited. It was without Pall, but the coffin was most splendid. No sooner was it placed on the Table than all the mourners pressed into the railing, the Ladies Hood and Hamilton pushing forward with almost rude violence, and seeming to drag Mrs. Lushington after them. I was standing close to the Altar assisting my Father as Church warden. The Minister Mr. Torrance was there also, and Sir George Naylor and the undertaker had previously entered. But no sooner had the mourners filled the aisleway, than a scene commenced which it would be impossible to describe. There seemed an anxiety on the part of Alderman Wood, Sir Robert Wilson and his sons to exclude all other persons from the Altar, and soon their motive for this was apparent. The coffin was surrounded by the partisans of the Queen. Mr. Flower, the Lord Chamberlain‘s man, by some strange accident, was a some little distance from the coffin, and others had retired to make room for the attendants. I had given way on the same account, but seeing the eagerness with which the mourners pushed forward and hearing silence proclaimed (for all was noise and bustle) and concluding that the Herald was about to announce in due form the titles of the deceased, I pressed forward also, but to my surprise the only sound I heard was Dr. Lushington‘s voice giving some directions, and Sir George Naylor‘s protesting against them, when at the same instant I saw a man jump upon the coffin and bore several holes in it. While he was doing this and screwing a plate upon the centre partition of the coffin, a warm altercation was going on between the Minister and Mr. Wilde, and between Dr. Thomas and Dr. Lushington. Alderman Wood, Mr R. Wilson and Lord Hood occasionally put in a word. The Rev. Mr. Wood in full canonicals storming against the irreverent and unclerical conduct of the Clergyman—Dr. Lushington highly pleased at having succeeded in fastening on the plate which bore an inscription purporting that the deceased was the Injured Queen of England—stood shrugging his shoulders and occasionally laughing. Lady Anne Hamilton also seemed to forget that she was a mourner, and indulged in an expression of hearty satisfaction that was little beyond a broad grin, and among the whole company of professed mourners I saw no one who even put on the semblance of sorrow, except young Austin. The whole scene more resembled the squabbles which sometimes take place at an election than anything connected with a funeral ceremony.
At last I ventured to push forward, in my Father‘s name enquired by what authority such proceedings had taken place in the Church. Dr. Lushington said that Lord Liverpool was fully aware of his intentions. Mr. Thomas, on the other hand, declared that was impossible, and that he had received no instruction to that effect. A conversation of nearly an hour ensued, during which the whole Church was in confusion. It was proposed to send an express to Lord Liverpool for instructions. Sir G. Naylor said there was no need for that, he would pledge himself to the Minister and Officers of the Church that the coffin should not be removed, without the plate so improperly fastened upon it having been previously taken off. This scene lasted till nearly 11 o‘clock, when orders were given to clear the Church, a task which was not easily executed. By 12 however there were not 20 persons left in the whole Church, including soldiers at the door, an Officer of the Guard, the Mayor and the undertaker.
At the moment the scene was strange beyond description. One light only was burning, the Chancel was all in disorder, a young officer was pacing up and down the middle aisle. The coffin was deserted except by an undertaker‘s man asleep on a form near it, Sir George Naylor was standing in close conversation with the Town Clerk, Mr. Thomas, the undertaker and the Mayor, one urging the immediate removal of the plate, another recommending delay till information could be sent to Lord Liverpool. Poor Mr. Thomas in greatest agitation, astonished at Dr. Lushington‘s assurances that Lord Liverpool did not object to his affixing whatever plate he pleased to the coffin, and at the same time reminded by Sir George Naylor that he had no directions to permit such a transaction. During this time I could not but reflect upon the vanity of all human distinctions, and the falseness of the world‘s warm friendship. The corpse of the Queen of England was lying in a more neglected state than that of any commoner‘s wife. Every one of her devoted friends had quitted that they might retire to their refreshments at the Inn. The whole scene was one of carelessness and indifference, and the only matter that seemed to be of any consequence was the preventing the removal of an inscription, on the one hand, and the affecting its removal on the other. An offer had been made to the personal friends of the late Queen for any of them to remain during the night, but one after another made excuses and retired. Two Colchester men offered to stay, and Dr. Lushington accepted their services, but they were excluded by Mr. Thomas, and when this was mentioned to Mr. Wilde (one of the executors) he complained that proper respect had not been shown to the Royal Corpse, and that suitable persons had not been permitted to remain with it during the night, on behalf of the executors, probably he was not aware that these two "suitable" persons were a journey-man ironmonger, and a journey-man carpenter, worthy and notorious Radicals.
About one o‘clock, a workman was sent for who was desired to remove the plate. Only imagine yourself in a large Church with one lamp only lighted and that near the Chancel, 3 or 4 persons in mourning around a most splendid coffin, the very countenances of these persons be speaking a low station of life. A petty constable with a staff in one hand, holding a candle with the other to give light to a mechanic who was prying up the plate. The sound of the tools upon the coffin echoing through the aisles while the few persons who remained in the Church stood at a little viewing the scene. It was such a sight as never can be forgotten, the plate was not easily detached, but at length it was forced off, and that the populace might not discover what was done it was safely place on the back of a Gentleman Usher, between his coat and his waistcoat and thus carried away. I remained in the Church about half-an-hour after this had taken place, the coffin was soiled with sawdust etc. which I brushed off with my handkerchief, and then leaving only a young officer, 2 undertakers and a verger, I retired not to sleep, but to meditate on the remarkable occurrences of the last 6 hours. They seemed more like a dream than a reality or rather like some of those scenes which I had read of in romances, but which I always regarded as lying beyond the verges of probability. How unfortunate has been the whole life of poor Caroline of Brunswick from the moment she set her foot on English ground she seems to have been the victim of false friends. Surely nothing could prove more deeply that those by whom she was surrounded during the latter part of her life, were false than their conduct during the solemnization of her funeral. Their levity was scandalous. On the following morning the official plate was fastened on the coffin and the procession towards Harwich began to move between 5 and 6 o‘clock
Our thanks to Oliver Dashwood for making this transcript available from his family records.
"The Lives of the Kings & Queens of England" Antonia Fraser (ed), Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London 1998
"The Secret History of the Court of England" an enlarged version of "Authentic Records of The Court of England, for the last Seventy Years " which was by Lady Anne Hamilton, 1832.
Various Wikipedia entries
Jane Danzey, for confirming Colchester obtained a public gas supply in 1819.
Tamsyn Taylor for suggesting an emendation to the text ("filled the aisleway" rather than the nonsensical "hilled the railway" in the original transcription)
Any additions and corrections gratefully received!
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