“Another of Mr. Hone’s happy illustrations of public feeling has just appeared called The Queen’s Matrimonial Ladder, a National Toy... We wish to heaven, the government would be as droll at as cheap a rate”. Examiner 20th August 1820
Shortly after the publication of The Man in the Moon, George III died and the Regent came to the throne. George had always been an unpopular figure; hated for his drinking, womanizing and his profligacy. Public opinion of the Prince of Wales hit a new low in 1793 when it became common knowledge that he had managed to accumulate debts of £630,000 (equivalent to about £57 million today) and that, in order to avoid the unseemly spectacle of the future heir to the throne being declared bankrupt, was expecting the taxpayer to step in and discharge his debts. Although the Pitt Ministry was willing to throw George a financial lifeline, this came with the caveat that he must marry a suitable bride who, it was hoped, would have a stabilizing influence on the rakish Prince.
In fact the marriage proved to be a disaster from the second George and his bride-to-be; Princess Caroline Amelia of Brunswick-Wolfenbuttel, set eyes upon each other. The Prince’s reaction to Caroline fell slightly short of physical repulsion and he spent the days leading up to the wedding complaining voraciously about his fiancée’s boorish manners, crude sense of humour and poor personal hygiene. The feeling of antipathy was virulently reciprocated by Caroline, who noted that the Prince was much fatter and uglier than his portraits suggested and who felt that he fell far short of her expectations of manly behavior. In perhaps what is one of the most succinct and accurate observations of George that has ever been made she described him as a man who “would make an excellent hairdresser but nothing else”.
At the wedding the Prince, who had drunk so much brandy beforehand that he had to be helped down the aisle, starred mournfully at his mistress Lady Jersey and often seemed on the verge of tears. Later that night Caroline would watch as the hopelessly drunk Prince collapsed into the fireplace of their honeymoon suite and passed out.
The wedding was consummated and within nine months the Princess gave birth to a daughter; Charlotte, but by this point the couple were already effectively separated. In 1806 George persuaded his Whig allies in government to begin an investigation into Caroline’s private life in order to find appropriate grounds for divorce; however the Whig Ministry collapsed before the case could be brought to trail and a new Tory Government dismissed all charges against Caroline the following year.
George’s ascent to the Regency in 1811 effectively meant the Caroline was shut out of London society. Tired of being publically snubbed and humiliated by her husband and of having her private life raked over by the London press, Caroline eventually agreed to leave the country in 1814 in exchange for an annual allowance of £35,000 (£2.1 million today). Despite this George remained determined to press ahead with a divorce and in 1818 he ordered a new commission of enquiry to investigate rumours that Caroline was having an affair with her Italian manservant Bartolomeo Pergami. The government duly dispatched the so-called ‘Milan Commission’ to travel to Italy in order to interview various members of Caroline’s household and gather evidence for a potential divorce hearing. Caroline appears to have been genuinely worried about the outcome of Milan Commission’s investigations and 1819 she let it be known that she would consider divorce in exchange for an increased annuity and the title of Duchess of Cornwall. However the death of George III in January 1820 appears to have strengthened Caroline’s resolve to return to England and challenge George to either make her Queen, or give her a generous settlement to remain abroad.
Caroline had always been popular in Britain and she enjoyed a triumphal entry into London in June, as tens of thousands of people came out to line the streets from Westminster Bridge to Greenwich. Meanwhile the government, acting on the evidence of the Milan Commission, passed the Bill of Pains and Penalties which summarily stripped Caroline of the title of Queen Consort and sought to rig the impending divorce trail by forbidding her lawyers to cite the King’s numerous infidelities in their defence.
It was the glaring injustice of the political establishment’s efforts to subvert the judicial system which aroused the anger of many Britons. Wherever the Queen went she was met by large crowds of admirers whilst the King was publically hissed on a number of occasions and resorted to travelling in public with Wellington, in the hope that public respect for the Iron Duke would prevent further indignities being heaped on him by the London crowds. In the summer of 1820 print shops and publishers began turning out scores of pro and anti-Caroline images, picking over every aspect of the trail and the evidence both for and against the Queen in minute detail. By mid-summer 1820 the divorce trial had become a national obsession and it was at this point that William Hone decided to re-enter the political fray.
After publishing The Political A-Apple Pie in January 1820 Hone had placed an advertisement in The Times which announced that his career as a political pamphleteer was to be put on hiatus in order to allow him to fully devote himself to a long-planned work on the history of parody. Indeed, Hone later claimed, he only took up political publishing again six months later because he was approached directly by representatives of the Queen. Whilst out wondering the streets of London looking for inspiration for his latest work Hone recalled “I wandered off towards Pentonville, and stopped and looked absently into the window of a little fancy toy shop. There was a toy, ‘The Matrimonial Ladder’. I saw at once what I could do with it, and went home and wrote ‘The Queen’s Matrimonial Ladder’”. F.W. Hackwood, William Hone, His Life and Times, (1912) pp. 236-7.
Hone uses the device of the ladder to plot a simple linear history of Caroline’s unhappy marriage. The first side begins with ‘Qualification’, a simple depiction of the hedonistic lifestyle which led to the debts which forced George to marry and ends with ‘Emigration’ in which a weeping Caroline is driven abroad. The reverse side depicts Caroline in the ascendency, beginning with her ‘Remigration’ to the shores of Great Britain and ending, ultimately it was hoped, in her ‘Coronation’ and the ‘Degradation’ of George IV. A further representation of the ladder was printed on the frontispiece to the pamphlet. This time a defiant Caroline sits atop the ladder and stares down a prostrate George.
Once again the success of the pamphlet, which outsold even the Political House and which may have achieved as many as 500,000 copies, can in no small part be attributed to the quality of Cruikshank’s engravings which are arguably amongst the finest he produced in woodblock. Each page of the pamphlet describes a step on the ladder and is accompanied by an illustration. One of the finest of these being ‘Qualification’ which, in something of a homage to Gillray’s A Voluptuary Under the Horrors of Digestion, Cruikshank depicts the monarch as a bloated and debauched youth who is surrounded by images which hint at his dissolute lifestyle. In another, ‘Remigration’ Cruikshank recalls his own earlier work which cast George as ‘The Prince of Whales’; a bloated sea creature who attempts to use his considerable bulk to deter Caroline from returning to claim her rights as Queen.
One historian and Hone biographer has concluded that “The Queen’s Matrimonial Ladder puts the King himself on trial -- but not before the court of venal hirelings and placemen that was to judge Caroline in the Lords... [they] might swallow the legal nostrum that ‘The King can do no wrong’, but George IV has been judged by his subjects. Whatever punishment George can inflict on his wife is nothing compared to ‘a mockery that shall never die: The curses of hate and the hisses of scorn’... No King can shield himself from ‘The Laughter of triumph, the jeers of the world’. (B. Wilson The Laughter of Triumph, 2005, p.327.
As Cruikshank himself would surmise in the print Advice from the Other World, Or, A Peep at the Magic Lantern, published in August 1820; The King had been ‘weighed in the balance and found wanting’.