George IV — Magna Carta abuser?

800 years ago today, King John signed the Magna Carta, an event that’s often regarded as marking the beginning of modern democracy.

But did you know that King George IV was once accused of abusing this important agreement? A satirical print from 1820 shows the king presiding over a trial in which the Magna Carta has been trampled underfoot.

King Henry VIII, Act II, Scene IV, 1820
King Henry VIII, Act II, Scene IV, 1820

The print refers to the trial of George’s wife, Caroline of Brunswick, as part of the Pains and Penalties Bill then passing through Parliament. The Bill was an attempt to annul George’s marriage: the couple had long been separated, and having become king after the death of his father in January 1820, George was determined that his wife should not become Queen of England.

Caroline was put on trial in Parliament, with evidence presented of an alleged affair with her servant, Bartolomeo Pergami. The print compares the trial to Henry VIII’s annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Arragon. The bloated George is depicted as the Tudor king, while Lord Castlereagh, the Foreign Secretary, is portrayed as Cardinal Wolsey.

Having already ruled as Prince Regent since 1811, George was an unpopular king. Caroline’s cause was taken up by his many opponents, and her trial was presented as an abuse of long-standing English liberties. This is why we can see the great Magna Carta trampled beneath Castlereagh’s feet.

Although the Bill was eventually withdrawn, Caroline was refused entry to George IV’s coronation in July 1821. She died less than a month later on 7 August 1821.

Kevin Bacon, Digital Development Officer