Everyone loves a royal wedding right? Well, if you were living in Britain in 1816 then your love of all things regal may well have been tempered by the fact that you were probably unemployed, half-starved and in no mood to be asked to dig deeper into your increasingly threadbare pockets in order to fund a gigantic knees-up for members of the ruling class. The end of the long wars against Napoleonic France heralded the arrival of a crippling recession, in which unemployment was rampant and food prices soared. By the spring of 1816, the mood in the country was growing ugly and with the ranks of the poor and destitute now swollen by hundreds of thousands of recently demobilised soldiers, many must have felt as though even a relatively minor incident could be the spark that ignited a revolution.
The news that Princess Charlotte, only child of the Prince Regent, was to marry Prince Leopold of Brunswick provided many with a rare cause for celebration amidst the gloom. Charlotte was young, attractive, and comported herself in a manner which contrasted favourably with the buffoonish antics of her dissolute father. The wedding took place at Carlton House in May 1816 and the surrounding streets were thronged with people who had gathered to cheer the royal newlyweds as they departed for their honeymoon. Perhaps the cheering drowned out the sound of other voices muttering darkly about the expense of it all and the obscenity of the poor being taxed to pay for a party for the rich. If they did then it was only for a moment, as London’s caricaturists spent much of the spring and summer of 1816 etching images of John Bull being roundly abused by the venal members of the aristocratic elite. The publisher and printseller S.W. Fores greeted the news of Charlotte’s engagement with a caricature by Charles Williams which shows the princess riding a debt-ridden John Bull like an ass.
In this context even the most tin-eared of politicians would have realised that the cost of the newly expanded royal household would have to be kept from the public at all costs. When the issue was eventually put before Parliament the government attempted to use an accountancy trick in order to claim that the wedding had actually saved the hard-pressed taxpayer some money. As a bachelorette Charlotte had been entitled to an annual income of £30,000 (just over £2 million in today’s terms) from the Civil List. However, ministers argued, as a married woman Charlotte no longer qualified for that money and the poor and needy could be extra-grateful to the royal family for having made such a significant contribution to the restoration of the public finances. Of course, what those same ministers failed to mention was that the government had simultaneously agreed to pay an additional £60,000 to the royal privy purse in order to fund the increased expense of Charlotte’s newly enlarged household. It was a move which was not lost on members of the opposition, but the issue was largely dropped once it became clear that Charlotte was pregnant and then completely forgotten about amidst the hysteria that followed her untimely death 18 months later.
This creamware mug is a rare piece of transferware produced to commemorate Princess Charlotte’s wedding. Pieces like this are presumably rare because the economic distress in the country meant that few people were in a position to spend money on such trifles and those that could were wealthy enough to collect better quality porcelain. The design does not appear to have been based on a known caricature print, although it is clearly influenced by the ‘long head’ and ‘pigmy revels‘ engravings that G.M. Woodward produced in conjunction with Isaac Cruikshank and Charles Williams during the 1790s and 1800s. The design shows four figures, one of whom appears to be Princess Charlotte, celebrating the news of the royal wedding. The male figure standing immediately to Charlotte’s left waves a placard reading “A Prize of 30,000£ Huzza” and is joined in his celebration by a musician and another man dancing a jig.
There are two possible interpretations we can place on the meaning of this design. We could take at face value and assume it is exactly what it purports to be: a piece of commemorative-ware designed to mark the occasion of the royal wedding. However look closely at the image and a more subtle message emerges. All four characters are portrayed as unflattering comic grotesques. The two figures that stand at either end of the scene as so heavily caricatured that they appear as capering buffoons to be laughed at not with. Our friend with the placard is dressed in a clown’s costume, suggesting perhaps that he too is a fool who has swallowed the government’s claim that the royal wedding will save the taxpayer some money. This may even be a caricature of Leopold himself, as his hat resembles a Germanic shako and he appears to be dancing with the Princess. If this figure is meant to represent the Prince then it would seem likely that the ‘prize of £30,000’ is a snide reference to the additional money that the public were being forced to contribute towards the cost of the royal household each year.