Tuesday, April 12, 2011

William Hone Part VIII

“There never existed a parallel, in the memory of the present age, of such gross abuse and ridicule, such malicious falsehood, as have been mercilessly heaped upon the King by the radical press... It is not a mere joke! It is not a question of mere politics! But a vital question – whether infidelity or truth, whether revolution or the British Constitution shall triumph?” The Loyalists’ Magazine (1820) pp.223-4.

Hone’s next work was rushed out in the closing days of August 1820 in response to events which then unfolding at Queen Caroline’s adultery trial before the House of Lords. Non Mi Ricordo was a direct attack on the Crown’s attempts to interfere with the trial and it served to quickly draw attention to the fact that the Crown was attempting to subvert the course of justice by briefing hostile witnesses to testify against the Queen.

On the 21st August the prosecution had finally called their principle witness; the Queen’s former butler Teodoro Majocchi, to appear before the Lords. Over the course of the next few hours Majocchi delivered a damning testimony in which he confirmed that he had seen Caroline entering Bartolomeo Pergami’s bedroom; that the couple frequently held hands in public; and that Pergami would often ‘assist’ the Queen when she was bathing. The apparent impact of this evidence was such that Caroline, who under the terms of the Bill of Pains and Penalties had been denied the right to know the identities of the witnesses for the prosecution in advance, fled from the room in “a burst of agony” (The Times 23rd August 1820).

However, Majocchi’s credibility as a witness collapsed when he was subjected to a rigorous cross-examination by Caroline’s lawyer. It was noted that Majocchi, who could provide confident and detailed responses to questions about the alleged infidelities he had witnessed, was unable to provide even basic details about Caroline’s household and daily routine and when pressed could only respond by saying “non mi ricordo”, or; “I can’t remember”. Transcripts of the trial reveal that by the time Caroline’s lawyers had finished cross-examining the hapless Majocchi he had uttered the phrase “non mi ricordo” almost 200 times. It was clear that Majocchi had been instructed to provide a series of carefully rehearsed answers which would damn the Queen but his instructors had neglected to provide him with the more mundane information which would have been available to someone who was a trusted member of Caroline’s household.

Revelations about the Crown’s attempts to interfere in such a high profile trail were something which a satirist of Hone’s calibre would have found impossible to resist. His own Non Mi Ricordo was rushed into production within days; indeed it was published so quickly that Cruikshank only had time to complete three illustrations to accompany it. In it Hone acts out a fantasy of retribution in which the King, depicted on the frontispiece sporting Majocchi’s thick curly black hair and standing at the bar, is cross-examined on his own infidelities;

‘Are you married?’ -- ‘More yes than no.’

‘Why did you marry?’ –- ‘To pay my debts.’

‘Then why did you part?’ -- ‘Because my debts were paid.’

...’How much money has been expended on you since you were born?’ -- ‘Non mi ricordo’

...’How many wives does your church allow you?’ -- ‘Non mi ricordo’

‘How many have you had since you separated from your own?’ -- ‘Non mi ricordo’

...’How many bottles do you drink?’ -- ‘Non mi ricordo’

...’How many nights a week do you go to bed sober?’ -- ‘Non mi ricordo’

‘After dressing, drinking and dreaming, what time remains for thinking?’ -- ‘Non mi ricordo’

As the questioning continues the bar gradually transforms into a griddle on which the fat King is slowly subjected to a public roasting and the pamphlet ends with a mock missing persons advertisement in which Hone requests that if anyone should happen on “an infirm elderly gentleman in a public office...[who] delights in playing at soldiers, supposes himself a cavalry officer and makes speeches that others write for him” they are requested to “return him to his duty, and he will be kindly received and no questions asked.”

The viciousness of the humour which Hone deployed to attack George IV in Non Mi Ricordo was unprecedented and, as the quote at the top of this article illustrates, conservatives appear to have been genuinely angered by the fact that Hone had once again managed to use humour in order to completely undermine what was supposed to be a serious matter of state.

In August 1820 the government finally resorted to attempting to bribe both Hone and Cruikshank into silence. Cruikshank accepted a payment of £100 from the Crown and was willing to take further payments in order to produce illustrations for loyalist pamphlets on the Queen’s trial but he also studiously ignored his promise not to portray the King in any immoral situations and would carry on providing illustrations to Hone and other radical publishers. Hone recalled that he was visited by a member of the royal household and offered £500 in exchange for a pledge not to produce any more satires about the King. Hone, ever the ideologue, dismissed the man by saying “Could you make it £5,000? Even if you did, I should refuse it.”

The loyalist presses too were set in motion to try and counter radical satires on the trial which resulted in a profusion of pamphlets being published by both sides during the late summer and early autumn of 1820. However the loyalist pamphlets, which tended to focus on Caroline’s association with supposed revolutionaries and the more salacious aspects of her alleged adultery, were fighting a losing battle. The case against the Queen collapsed at the end of September and the mockery and jeers of the radical press had wounded George IV to such an extent that he had become a virtual recluse by the end of 1820.

The collapse of the case of against the Queen was portrayed as much as a vindication of the importance of a free press, as it was as a personal victory for Caroline. Not only had the radical press proven itself to be instrumental in undermining government attempts to subvert the judicial system and undermine individual liberties but it had also proven conclusively that government attempts to silence the press by passing the notorious ‘Gagging Act’ in December 1819, had conclusively failed. Richard Rush, the US ambassador to Britain noted;

“That which was perhaps most remarkable throughout the fierce encounter was the boundless rage of the press and liberty of speech. Every day produced its thousand fiery libels against the King and his adherents; and caricatures under the worst forms were hawked about the streets... the tempest of abuse, incessantly directed against the King and all who stood by him, was borne for several months, without the slightest punish or check on it.” The satires had had the desired effect; even members of the conservative press began to argue that legal restrictions on the press should be abandoned as the inability of the government to enforce them merely made the government appear weak. The conclusion of the Queen Caroline affair was to be the high-watermark of Hone’s career and influence as a political satirist.

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