On 16th July 1815 Princess Caroline of Brunswick – the wife of the heir to the throne of Great Britain, Northern Ireland and Hanover – purchased the Villa D’Este on the lakefront in Cernobbio, a small town just outside of Como itself. Here she set up her court and established a base for subsequent travels around the Mediterranean. She spent prolonged periods at Cernobbio over the next two years until her debts forced her into selling the villa. She continued to stay there albeit for shorter periods until the end of 1819. The Princess had launched herself on a self-imposed exile in a bid to exercise more freedom of expression and find more happiness away from the oppressive atmosphere of her estranged husband’s court. She returned to Britain on the death of her father-in-law George III in the hope of securing a better financial settlement due to her new status of Queen. She had always planned on returning to Italy but she died following a sudden illness shortly after. The Villa D’Este subsequently went on to become one of the world’s most luxurious hotels.
Caroline’s failed marriage
Caroline initially considered her betrothal to her cousin Prince George as an escape from her highly restricted upbringing in the suffocatingly dull household of the Duchy of Brunswick. However she was unaware of the spoilt, weak and shamefully self-indulgent character of her husband-to-be. The fact that she was met off the boat from Calais in Dover by Lady Jersey, Prince George’s principal mistress at the time, gave her a foretaste of what was to come. Neither bride nor groom were physically attracted to each other with Prince George collapsing drunk on his wedding night unable to face the ordeal of the night ahead of him. However, in spite of apparently only managing intercourse on three occasions, Caroline did become pregnant giving birth to a baby girl, Princess Charlotte, on 7th January 1796.
The relationship very soon broke down in its entirety with Prince George continuing his series of infatuations while also insisting that his favourite, Lady Jersey, act as Princess Caroline’s main lady-in-waiting. He was singularly unpopular in the country at large representing as he did the worst of aristocratic arrogance. Caroline was conversely very popular and would remain so in the general public’s estimation throughout the various scandals and vicissitudes of her life until just before her untimely death in 1821. George developed a seething hatred for his wife stating how he would ‘rather see loads of vipers crawling over my victuals than sit at the same table with her.’ He was adamant in keeping Caroline away from his royal court at Carlton House. Yet he also sought to limit and control her household so as to prevent Caroline from establishing a powerful rival court. This rivalry and hatred spawned associated intrigues and legal contests that dominated the royal couple’s lives until Caroline’s death. The relationship also dominated the political life of the times fuelling rivalry between Whigs and Tories but more dramatically, stoking the emotions born out of the French Revolution for reform, republicanism and popular revolution.
Her London Households
Princess Caroline was never going to take subordination and bullying from the Prince without a fight. She declared her intention to enjoy her own freedom as expressed in this formal letter to the Prince:
‘I have been two and a half years in this house [Carlton House]. You have treated me neither as your wife, nor as the mother of your child, nor as the Princess of Wales. I advise you that from this moment I have nothing more to say to you and that I regard myself as being no longer subject to your orders.’
Further arguments continued between the Princess and Prince as, in keeping with her declaration, she sought increasing independence and he, while happy to keep her out of his company, sought to retain control over her behaviour and finances.
Caroline’s estranged household in London would frequently move but one of the more constant and popular locations was Blackheath where she lived from 1796 until 1813 when she started to spend more time in Kensington Palace. Blackheath was a sufficient distance from the royal court to allow Caroline some scope in determining the company she wished to keep. The countryside also meant those spies sent down by the Prince to gather compromising evidence of moral turpitude could more easily be identified. But the Prince still exercised control on who served as ladies-in-waiting and both where and who looked after Caroline’s daughter, Princess Charlotte.
Among her regular guests was the court painter Sir Thomas Lawrence with whom she was alleged to have had an affair. Literary guests included Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott. It was also rumoured that she had an affair with George Canning, the young Tory politician who went on to have an illustrious career in spite of being hated by Prince George and who resigned his post towards the end of Caroline’s life in 1820 in sympathy with the way the Princess had been treated by Parliament. He later went on to become Prime Minister.
Caroline developed a more serious, possibly adulterous, relationship in 1813 when she took up singing lessons from a handsome Italian musician, Pietro Sapio. The Prince sent a spy out to seek evidence of adultery without success. The affair ended after a year when Sapio and his elderly parents left for Paris. Caroline remained friends with the entire Sapio family and invited them over to Lake Como three years later by when she had established a much more open and long lasting relationship with a dashing Italian beau.
The Delicate Investigation
In spite of the Prince’s own numerous infidelities, he was intent on gaining a divorce or formal separation from Caroline on the basis of her adultery. He therefore set in motion an investigation in May 1806 into the Princess’s moral behaviour. This became known as the Delicate Investigation and would initially remain secret to all those who had not sworn an oath and also to the Princess herself. If proven, the Princess’s adultery would result in a charge of high treason both for her and her partner. High treason still carried the death sentence although that was never likely to form any eventual outcome as it would have provoked immediate revolt amongst the population at large who wholeheartedly took the Princess’s side, irrespective of any moral failings on her part. Needless to say, the Prince’s own serial and open adultery did not face any legal challenge.
The allegations put together by spies and allies of the Prince were finally made public and brought to the Cabinet for consideration. The politicians wanted little to do with this issue since they recognised that the breakdown in the royal relationship was becoming an increasingly political matter with Whigs and Radicals supporting the Princess fuelled by the sympathies of an entirely disenfranchised and potentially revolutionary public. Ever since the French Revolution, Britain’s ruling class had become nervous of popular sentiment and, particularly in London, they lived in growing fear of the mob. The cabinet was therefore happy to reject all of the accusations against the Princess – a solution much favoured by George III who had always been critical of his son and supportive of the Princess.
Escape on the Grand Tour
On the initial but illusory first ending of the Napoleonic Wars in 1814, the Princess expressed a desire to travel on the continent – to take the Grand Tour. Parliament had recently increased her allowance and so, with travel across France and in all the other territories previously under Napoleonic rule now open, she decided on her travel companions and left forthwith for Calais. Prince George was happy to see her leave the country but also ensured he had spies accompanying her travels in the hope they could provide evidence for divorce.
Her sense of relief to be away from the stultifying atmosphere of accusation, open espionage and control soon went to her head on arrival in Switzerland. Normally the regular Grand Tour pause in Geneva was intended to give a final inoculation of Protestant ethics before travellers faced the perceived temptations of Catholic corruption over the Alps. Reports back from the Prince’s spies told of Caroline dancing naked to the waist in Geneva and consorting in Berne with Napoleon’s second wife, the Empress Marie Louise. the daughter of the Emperor of Austria. Neither of these estranged wives mentioned their husbands. Her open admiration of Napoleon throughout her time abroad was a cause of irritation and consternation to aristocrats and Tory politicians back over the Channel.
On reaching Italy, Princess Caroline took an immediate liking to Lake Como. She first stayed at the lake in October 1814 taking up residence in the Villa Saporiti on Como’s lakefront. This villa, often referred to as La Rotonda, was known at the time as Villa Villani after Eleonora Villani who commissioned its construction in 1790. It may have amused Caroline that Napoleon himself was a guest here seventeen years prior to her visit. She used her time at the Villa Saporiti to negotiate the purchase of the Villa D’Este in Cernobbio.
The Villa D’Este’s Backstory
The Villa D’Este was originally known as the Villa Garovo, named after the mountain stream that runs through its grounds having flowed down from Monte Bisbino to Rovenna and on through the beautiful Giardino della Valle to enter the lake. It was built for Cardinal Tolomeo Gallio in 1568. In 1806 the villa was inherited by Vittoria Peluso who went on to marry Conte Domenico Pino, the Italian General in Napoleon’s army who had achieved great success during Napoleon’s campaigns in Spain. Vittoria Peluso had the series of false fortifications built on the upper slopes of the villa’s exterior gardens as reproductions of the Spanish forts of Hostarlich and Gerona in Catalonia captured by her illustrious husband. On Napoleon’s defeat in Northern Italy and the return of Lombardy under Austrian domination, the General and his wife accepted retirement and gracious exile to their lakeside home in Cernobbio.
Princess Caroline at Como
Princess Caroline completed the purchase of the Villa Garovo in 1815 and renamed it the Villa D’Este after the branch of her ancestors who back in the 11th century left Bavaria to establish the Este dynasty in Ferrara. She may or may not have been aware that there was a secret patriotic society of so-called Este cells vowed to overthrow Austrian rule. Caroline’s actions could not help to be interpreted politically in this period of heightened political turmoil but she seems to have been respectful to all rulers on her travels including the re-established Austrians in Lombardy and equally to the Napoleonic Court in Naples or the Muslim Sultans in Tunisia. As long as the local courts paid tribute to her royal status she in turn would remain respectful of them irrespective of their political outlook.
Princess Caroline travelled extensively during her time abroad but the Villa D’Este would remain her principal address for the next two years. She went on to sell the Villa in 1817 due to shortage of funds but she continued to make return visits to Cernobbio but of shorter duration for the following two years. During her period of ownership of the villa she financed the building of a road from the Villa del Grumello on the outskirts of Como to Cernobbio, thus earning herself the gratitude of the local population. Prior to this investment, the villa could only be accessed from the lake. Apart from an extensive programme of decoration and refurbishment of the villa, she also commissioned the building of a new wing and a small theatre.
The villa’s payroll included a caretaker, three footmen, cooks, local boatmen, carriers, blacksmiths, laundresses, woodmen, tailors, hairdressers, butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers all coming from Cernobbio, Como or the surrounding villages, thus providing even more reason for the local population to be grateful for the Princess’s patronage.
The Princess herself was delighted with her new home writing in a letter that ‘I have now settled myself in a most beautiful grotto upon the Lac of Como. The place is romantic, superb…I have seven barges with boats….grand cascades, fountains in abundance, all possible fruit trees.’
Her Royal Court in Como
On arrival in Italy, Princess Caroline not only acquired the Villa D’Este but also a tall handsome servant and lover, the thirty-year old Bartolomeo Pergami. Pergami had served General Domenico Pino during his Russian campaign and had also acted as courier to the General’s wife, the previous owner of the Villa D’Este. Pergami remained faithful to Caroline for the rest of her life and was amply rewarded for doing so. Caroline even bought Pergami a baronial title so as to elevate him into the ranks of nobility and thus allow him to accompany her within the rigidly class conscious European courtly circles. Pergami introduced other members of his family to assist in running the Villa D’Este estate such that the Princess’s own court gradually became almost exclusively Italian.
She launched her court in Cernobbio with a grand reception held on 24th August 1815 with invitations sent out under the name of Caroline D’Este. She then established herself within the social and intellectual life of Como which was going through a particularly rich period at the time. Regular visitors to the court included the scientist Alessandro Volta and his follower Professor Pietro Configliacchi who lived in the nearby Villa Sucota. Her court physician was a local doctor called Mocchetti who was also a renowned art expert. Mocchetti accompanied the Princess on her travels around the rest of Italy providing her with an informed commentary on the treasures she visited. She also patronised a young poet of arguable merit called Bernardo Bellini who had described the Princess as ‘the most exquisite flower of the Este stock.’ Here is his equally florid poetic tribute to the Villa D’Este:
Where Lario, laughingest of lakes,
Mirror for Pliny’s cradle makes,
The sun-tipped towers to her breast she takes,
Beloved of Love and the Mother of Love,
Whilst hills bedecked with bosky woods
Surround the silvery solitudes,
And day, in gladsomest of moods,
Smiles from the heavens above.
Caroline would undoubtedly have been aware of the recently deceased local historian and intellectual Giambattista Giovio – the travelling companion of Volta, and father-in-law to Italy’s Byron, Ugo Foscolo. Giovio’s summer residence was the nearby Villa del Grumello. She would also have visited Como’s Teatro Sociale, built in 1811, as well as being in regular contact with the Austrian Governors of both Como and Milan.
She was accompanied throughout her Grand Tour by Willy Austin, whom she had adopted from a family living in Deptford when Willy was a mere three months old. He attended school in Como at the Collegio Gallio – a school founded by the same Cardinal Tolomeo Gallio who had also commissioned the building of the Villa D’Este.
The Milan Commission
The villa also hosted Baron Ompteda who had been insinuated into Caroline’s court by the Austrian Emperor with the express purpose of spying on Caroline in order to provide sufficient proof of adultery to pass on to Prince George back in London. George had not let up in his efforts to gain a divorce from his wife.
Prince George sent out to Italy two British aristocrats to establish a secret investigation into Caroline’s behaviour that came to be called the Milan Commission. Their task was to gather as much evidence of the Princess’s infidelity to put before the British courts through contacts such as Ompteda and others. Ompteda had managed to get Caroline’s German stableman Moritz Crede to steal a set of keys to the royal bedroom but no incriminating evidence was forthcoming. Following this incident, Caroline petitioned the Como authorities to provide a party of soldiers to stand guard over the villa. Unfortunately fights then broke out between these soldiers and the villa’s servants. Numerous attempts were also made to extract incriminating statements from Caroline’s staff without immediate result. In fact for a number of years the various members of the royal household exploited the expenses on offer by the Commission for travel and accommodation in Milan – and later still, to appear as witnesses in the English courts.
This intense spying and insinuation of immorality poisoned the atmosphere for Caroline and also brought about a deterioration in her reputation with the local community. Caroline’s own indiscretions did not help as when she replied to a question about her audience with the Pope by stating that all will be visible in nine month’s time. At one stage Cernobbio’s local priest delivered a sermon advising that mothers should not allow their daughters go near the foreign Princess’s villa.
A certain Antonio Augustoni of Chiasso wrote to Baron Pergami in December 1818 complaining of the Milan Commission, ‘For some days past, there have been people here, lurking about, and running from one person to another with questions….they have even found those who have dared to tell untruths….the most respectable of them are but porters and watermen.’
Escape to Pesaro
The constant spying, the changing attitudes of the locals and ongoing financial issues finally forced Caroline to abandon her visits to Como and Cernobbio. Instead she, Baron Pergami and their immediate inner circle moved to Pesaro on the Adriatic coast. Here she was free of the influence of the Milan Commission in a town where the presence of any potential spies was more immediately obvious. And here she remained until the death of King George III meant that she was now Queen of Britain and the House of Hanover. Her intention now was to return to London and claim an enhanced allowance as the Queen.
Return to Britain
The Queen had always hoped that her return to England would be temporary. The government had always hoped she would stay abroad knowing that her presence would only further stoke the spirit of rebellion and demands for parliamentary reform. The London Mob cheered the Queen’s procession into London seeing her as their champion against the establishment. George IV saw her return as the opportunity to bring her to trial on charges of adultery using the spurious evidence gained from her former employees at the Villa D’Este by the Milan Commission.
The government did everything possible to avoid a trial but could not prevent it going ahead in the House of Lords. The Queen was well represented for her defence but she had also asked that the Como lawyer, Avvocato Giuseppe Marocco be granted a visa to allow him to aid her defence. The dubious quality of the witnesses produced by the prosecution and the doubtful methods employed by the Milan Commission to extract their evidence meant the Queen was exonerated and deemed innocent. The London Mob became ever more incensed during and after the trial attacking numerous members of the government or stoning their residences. The loyalty of some of the troops could also not be relied upon. It seemed as if Caroline had unintentionally provoked a revolutionary situation.
However the fickleness of the London Mob was to show itself at the King’s coronation in July 1821. George IV was adamant that Caroline should not attend. She was determined to be recognised as the Queen and to take her allotted space within the ceremony. However all entrances to Westminster Abbey were barred to her in spite of her appeals of ‘Let me pass; I am your Queen.’
The London Mob seemed to have been seduced by the grandness of the coronation ceremony and the glories of the royal procession. They perceived Caroline’s attempts at gaining entry to the abbey as undignified and pathetic. This rapid change in the mob’s sentiments revealed their lack of political sophistication; the reformist politicians, keen on stressing their respectability, never did want to associate themselves with unruly behaviour. The Queen no longer had any allies or moral support within the country.
It was a mere three weeks after the King’s coronation when Caroline was taken ill, rapidly declined and died.
Flora Fraser’s ‘The Unruly Queen – The Life of Queen Caroline’ proved invaluable in researching this article. Her book is not only well written and highly informative about the life of Caroline but also provides insights into the atmosphere and attitudes of the time that are hard to find in standard politico-economic histories.
Enjoyable read. Thank you. Greetings from Tasmania, Australia.
Greetings back from Como!