Show Hide image

Caroline of Ansbach: the Georgian queen who brought the Enlightenment to Britain

Three hundred years ago, an unlikely set of circumstances led to a minor German aristocratic family becoming the British royal family. Once the Georges arrived, Britain took the first steps towards becoming the nation it is today.

This year, 2014, marks an important historical anniversary. Or rather two, although one has a substantially lower profile than the other. As you can’t have failed to notice from the newspaper supplements, special exhibitions and television documentaries, it is a hundred years since the outbreak of the First World War. But two hundred years before Britain crossed the channel to go to war against German imperial might, the ruling family of a small principality in Lower Saxony travelled in the opposite direction in order to sit on the British throne.

Superficially, the Hanoverian accession is a good deal less cataclysmic and a great deal more bizarre than a global war – no armies were involved, and instead George Louis, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg, was ushered onto the throne by a long chain of coincidences. However, it is no less worthy of commemoration or re-examination, for it was under the rule of these unlikely monarchs that Britain took the first steps towards becoming the nation it is today.

It was at the beginning of the eighteenth century that parliamentary democracy advanced, constitutional monarchy was consolidated, freedom of the press was established, industry began to gather momentum, and the arts flourished – and yet when we hear the phrase “Georgian”, we most often think of the architectural style of places like Bath, or Hugh Laurie shouting “radish!” while trying and failing to put on his trousers as the Prince Regent in Blackadder the Third. It’s not a period of history that occupies a lot of time at school (we study Hogarth and the beginning of the British Empire, if we study anything from this time). Prior to this year, exhibitions and documentaries tended to steer clear too, for a very simple reason – these newly-British kings, the first four of whom were called George, just aren’t as exciting as what came before. It was all just a bit less fiery: the Catholic hell-fire had been extinguished in favour of perpetual Protestantism, nobody was burned at the stake for being a witch, and at no point was a large proportion of London on fire. Bo-ring, chant the schoolchildren. Can we do “divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived” again?

Well, no, but royal women (replete with heads) are just as vital to this age – indeed, they are how the Georges ended up in Britain in the first place, with a bit of help from institutionalised religious intolerance. After the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which saw the Catholic James II deposed in favour of his sensibly-Protestant daughter Mary and her Dutch husband William, the Stuart monarchy began to have a very Tudor problem – a distinct lack of heirs. The childless William and Mary were succeeded on their deaths by Mary’s sister Anne. Anne’s seventeen pregnancies resulted in just one child who lived beyond infancy, and he died in 1700 aged 11. Although by overseeing the Act of Union in 1707, Anne had united England and Scotland into “Great Britain”, she was left with no Protestant heir to whom she could pass it on. Her Catholic half-brother, who styled himself James III, was strutting about his Jacobite court in France and then Italy, waiting for his chance to take back his father’s throne.

It was to guard against this possibility that Parliament had passed the Act of Settlement in 1701. It excluded anyone who “professe the Popish Religion or marry a Papist” from inheriting the soon-to-be-united kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland. The majority of it is still in force today (the sections forbidding royals to marry “papists” were only removed by last year’s Succession to the Crown Act). Most importantly, it named an heir to Queen Anne – her distant cousin: Sophia, the Dowager Electress of Hanover.

Overlooked almost entirely by popular British history, Sophia is in fact vital to understanding Britain’s dynastic and intellectual development. Via her mother Elizabeth, the younger daughter of James I who married the Elector of the Palatinate (ruler of territories along the Rhine near Heidelberg in Germany) Sophia was a granddaughter of the first Stuart king of England and Scotland. Thanks to a territorial gamble that didn’t pay off (Elizabeth’s husband Frederick was briefly King of Bohemia, but was deposed after a single season, leading to their nicknames as “Winter King and Queen”), Sophia was born in 1630 to a royal family without a kingdom. Her childhood and adolescence was spent in exile in the Netherlands, and as the twelfth of thirteen children, she can have had little or no expectation she would ever be in a position of influence over a nation like Great Britain. She grew up studying and playing with her siblings, and later joined her mother’s little “court-in-exile”, greeting the foreign dignitaries and dynastic contenders who came to pay their respects to James I’s daughter. In 1658, after a convoluted courtship that originally saw her promised to her future husband’s older brother, Sophia married Ernst Augustus, himself the seventh child of the Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg and heir to a tiny sliver of northern Germany.

By the end of the seventeenth century, when the British political establishment began to look around for a Protestant heir to Queen Anne, Sophia and Ernst Augustus (who were a ruthlessly ambitious husband-and-wife team, by all accounts) had managed, through a combination of lucky inheritance and political machination, to unite a significant portion of Brunswick-Lüneburg land as the Electorate of Hanover. Anne had at least fifty nearer relatives than Sophia, but they were all Catholic, whereas the Electress of Hanover was staunchly Protestant and proud of it (her husband had even been a Protestant bishop at one point on his way to the electorship). Thus, Sophia was elevated to Heiress Presumptive of Great Britain, confirmed by Parliament as the people’s choice to succeed Queen Anne.

In her BBC4 documentary The First Georgians: The German Kings Who Made Britain, made to mark the anniversary of the Hanoverian succession, historian Lucy Worsley calls Sophia “the greatest Queen we never had”. It’s not hard to see why: she spoke five languages fluently, was personal friends with the philosopher Leibniz, took a learned interest in the philosophical, political and religious issues of her day, and – no mean feat – maintained an extensive correspondence with many of the royal houses of Western Europe (many of whom were her relations). The breezy, pragmatic approach to life which would have made her such a good queen is evident in the thoughts she recorded on seeing her future husband arrive for their wedding. She was “delighted to find that he was loveable because I was determined to love him”.

Sophia, Electress of Hanover.
Image: Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014

Sophia read widely and participated in all sorts of debates at the salons she organised at her favourite palace of Herrenhausen, just outside Hanover. She encouraged the next generation to follow her example, with the result that both her niece Elizabeth Charlotte (known as Liselotte) who married the younger brother of Louis XIV of France, and her daughter Sophie Charlotte (known as Figuelotte) who moved to Berlin as the wife of the King of Prussia, became the centres of their own intellectual and artistic circles. This triumvirate of brilliant woman took every advantage offered by the advancing Enlightenment on the Continent: as long as royal woman established the boundaries with their husbands (which mostly meant avoiding direct political interventions), they were increasingly free to become intellectual and artistic patrons. Indeed, both Ernst Augustus and his son-in-law Frederick of Prussia seem to have recognised the inherent advantages to having a wife who wielded influence in spheres in which the ruling monarch could not directly intervene so easily.

Sophia’s friendship with Gottfried Leibniz was crucial to her role as the intellectual face of her family. The philosopher was ostensibly employed by her husband to research and write a genealogical history of the House of Brunswick, in order to further support the Hanoverian branch’s dynastic ambitions. This gave Leibniz the freedom to travel extensively in Europe, supposedly to consult research materials. In fact, the history never appeared, although Leibniz did use his time and electoral stipend to advance the study of logic, mathematics, geology and a whole host of other subjects, including inventing the “Steeped Reckoner” – the first mechanical device to perform all four arithmetic functions and a forerunner of the modern computer. Judging by his correspondence with Sophia, he also seems to have served as an all-round adviser and her eyes and ears out in the world, delivering books and news to her daughter in Berlin, and even facilitating a visit to Hanover from Tsar Peter the Great.

Tragically, Sophia died in June 1714 at the age of 83, just two months before her cousin Queen Anne. She had enjoyed good health right up to the end – on the day of her death, one of her ladies-in-waiting recorded that Sophia insisted on her usual brisk walk around the extensive gardens she had created at Herrenhausen, even though the day was overcast. She collapsed and died at the end of one of the beautiful walks that lead away from the palace as the first drops of rain fell – “a sweeter death was never seen, nor a happier one”, it was said. A statue of her now stands at the place where she died, and her extraordinary gardens are now open to the public. The vast fountains alone are worth a visit – designed with Leibniz’s help, this original centrepiece to the garden could shoot water to heights of up to thirty-five metres, intended to outdo Versailles as the highest in Europe (and, as Worsley points out in her programme, a symbol of the Hanoverians’ rapid ascent to high office).

Sophia never set foot in Britain, despite appetite from some quarters for her to visit once she became heiress – the dull, poorly-educated Anne clearly feared having a rival with such a formidable intellectual reputation in close proximity. The faction known as the Whigs coalesced around the idea of the Hanoverian succession, with several notables making the trip to visit Sophia and the royal family-in-waiting. For this reason, too, there was no love lost between Sophia and Anne – upon the former’s death, the latter is said to have remarked that the news was merely “chipping-porridge” which would give her “neither more ease nor uneasiness”. When Anne died two months later, it was Sophia’s son George Louis who travelled to London in the autumn of that year to add “King of Great Britain” to his existing monicker, Elector of Hanover.


George was 54 when he arrived in Britain. He didn’t speak very good English, and crucially for the formation of a new royal court, he hadn’t brought his wife with him. Sophia Dorothea of Celle (below, also George’s first cousin on his father’s side) had been imprisoned in Ahlden Castle since 1694 for her infidelity with the Swedish Count von Königsmarck, who was rumoured to have been murdered and dumped in a river for his part in the affair. Sophia Dorothea would die in 1726, long after her husband had departed for Britain, having spent more than half her life locked away. The fact that their new king had behaved so to his wife was a major source of concern to his British subjects – even more so since he brought his half-sister and his mistress with him to London instead, who the court quickly nicknamed “the elephant” and “the maypole” owing to their relative sizes. (Never let it be said again that the Georgians lacked the sexual politics and dysfunction for which the Tudors are so well-known.)

Since the new court lacked a queen, George I’s daughter-in-law Caroline of Ansbach was able to occupy a much more prominent role than was typical for the sovereign’s daughter-in-law. Caroline was a woman very like her husband’s grandmother Sophia – intelligent, well-read, curious, and crucially, poised to become Queen of Great Britain. In her 2010 book Courtiers: The Secret History of the Georgian Court, Lucy Worsley calls her “the cleverest queen consort ever to sit on the throne of England”. She had spent part of her formative years at Figuelotte’s court in Berlin, and then on her marriage to George Augustus of Hanover had been transplanted to Sophia’s circle at Herrenhausen. There, she clearly picked up a lesson or two in how to be a queen for the Age of Enlightenment, as well as a fondness for energetic walking and fine art.

Caroline was, like Sophia, an enthusiastic correspondent of Liselotte in France and Leibniz in Hanover, and when she moved to London as Princess of Wales, she seized every opportunity to become involved in the intellectual life of her new country. The fact that she had no mother-in-law around who could rain on her parade, and that she had arrived in Britain having already given her husband a son and three daughters, confirmed her immediately as a central figure of the new Georgian court. The newly-united kingdom was in great need of stability – when the Hanoverians arrived, there had been seven monarchs in the past hundred years, not to mention a civil war. The smooth succession of the Georges might, with hindsight, seem inevitable, but at the time it was anything but.

In these uncertain times, Britain lacked a pattern for how intelligent women could exert their influence in the highest circles. The Stuart princesses Mary and Anne were known to be dull and disinterested in learning. Previous examples of clever, learned Protestant queens such as Anne Boleyn and Lady Jane Grey had both had their court careers cut short by an executioner’s axe. To all intents and purposes, Caroline had no British example to follow.

She therefore imported the German model of queenship, in which the wife of the ruler was the centre of cultural and intellectual life and court, and allowed Sophia and Sophie Charlotte to be her principal influences. The rise of the salon in the eighteenth century as a civilised place for debate and the exchange of ideas assisted her – as Princess of Wales she began to host such occasions, gathering around her the brightest minds from science, medicine, philosophy and literature. The Whig grandee Robert Walpole described the kind of company you could expect at one of her soirees as

a strange picture of the motley character and manners of a queen and a learned woman. . . learned men and divines were intermixed with courtiers and ladies of the household: the conversation turned upon metaphysical subjects, blended with repartees, sallies of mirth, and the tittle-tattle of a drawing-room.

As well as Walpole and a rosta of philosophers and scientists, writers like Joseph Addison, Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift and John Gay frequently attended her parties. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?

Given her longstanding connection with Leibniz, it is no surprise that soon after her arrival in London, Caroline sought to make the acquaintance of his great rival, Isaac Newton. The rest of her little coterie were also enthusiastic correspondents of the German philosopher: Liselotte liked him so much she described him as “a learned man who knew how to behave and did not stink” (clearly a rarity). At this point, Leibniz and Newton were at the centre of a scandal that was convulsing “natural philosophers” (as proto-scientists were then called) all over Europe: the calculus dispute. Both claimed to have invented this mathematical system of expressing changes to curves and sequences – Newton insisted that he had begun using it as far back as 1666 but had not published any of it, whereas Leibniz had published his own version in 1684. This dispute over intellectual property became the hot philosophical talking point of the early eighteenth century, with battle lines drawn and sides chosen.

The King's Staircase at Kensington Palace, designed by William Kent.

The King's Staircase at Kensington Palace, designed by William Kent.

Never one to shy away from a challenge, Caroline sought to find a way to contribute to the debate in the hope of healing the rift. She instigated an exchange of letters between Leibniz and the British philosopher Samuel Clarke, a supporter of Newton, in 1715-16, which was published after Leibniz’s death in November 1716. Despite her life-long loyalty to Leibniz, Caroline clearly appreciated the political pragmatism of developing a good relationship with Newton, who by this point was revered as a national hero. He accompanied Clarke to her salon to demonstrate his ideas, including his work with optics and prisms. In 1716, Caroline wrote to Leibniz that “the one that I have seen to prove the vacuum has nearly converted me”.

Caroline’s interest in science went beyond mere intellectual curiosity. She recognised the influence she could exert as Princess of Wales to improve the lives of her subjects. Her interest was a form of patronage, a way of legitimising research and garnering it greater publicity. Never was this more apparent than in the events of 1722, in which Caroline, no doubt alarmed by the prevalence of smallpox in London at the time, decided to have her children inoculated against the disease. Claude Amyand, surgeon to her father-in-law George I, performed the procedure on the sovereign’s second and third granddaughters, Amelia and Caroline. Later, a court doctor travelled to Hanover where the second in line to the throne, Prince Frederick, was holding down the fort in his family’s German territories and made sure he received the treatment too. The need was clear: Caroline’s eldest daughter, Anne, had survived a brush with the disease in 1720, while Caroline herself had already had her beauty marred by it in 1707.

The idea of inoculation, of infecting a child with a mild form of a disease in order to improve future immunity, was a relatively new one in London. The Royal Society had heard its first paper on the subject in 1714, which described how the practice was used in Turkey. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, another smallpox survivor who had spent two years living in Constantinople as the wife of Britain’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, had inoculated her own children and was an enthusiastic proponent of the idea. The nascent scientific community in London (the Royal Society was barely fifty years old at this point) was predictably interested. But for a princess to involve the king’s own grandchildren in pioneering medical research? This was something new.

In the best tradition of natural philosophy, Caroline didn’t take the supposed merits of inoculation at face value (the Royal Society’s motto is nullius in verba, or “take nobody’s word for it”). She did her research, persuading her father-in-law George I to commute the sentences of six prisoners at Newgate Prison in return for taking part in an experiment. Foundlings in London were inoculated too as part of this quest for evidence. Caroline also interviewed doctors who had performed the procedure before, and asked to see Lady Mary’s own children before she gave permission for her own children to receive the treatment. In this, as in many other things, she was the model of an Enlightenment thinker: rational, empirical, and decisive.

Caroline’s decision to inoculate the royal children was widely reported in the burgeoning press of the day, and thus convinced many other parents that the procedure was safe. It also had implications for the way the Hanoverian dynasty was perceived in Britain: their Stuart predecessors had made much of their godly kingship, and there are even instances recorded of them “laying on” their hands in order to heal the sick. By associating the Georgians with medicine and science, Caroline was linking them to the new age of rationalism and progress, and rejecting mysticism and mumbo-jumbo. She was also reinforcing something that had been stated by the Act of Settlement and the Glorious Revolution – this new line of monarchs ruled the new age of reason not through divine right, but at the behest of Parliament and the people.

Her relationship with the likes of Newton had a bearing on the training of the next generation, too. Caroline’s mentor Sophia had received an outstanding education – in her beautiful volume about Queen Caroline, Joanna Marschner notes that Sophia learned

theology, mathematics, history and jurisprudence as well as Latin and Greek, and every Wednesday and Sunday professors from Leiden University were invited for dinner at the Prinsenhof, the nursery palace established for Sophia and her brothers and sisters

Caroline obviously intended to do the same for her own children. Newton recommended mathematics and astronomy tutors for them, and Handel taught them music. Even during a period of estrangement between George I and his son, during which Caroline was cut off from her older children as the king kept custody of them while his son and daughter-in-law were kicked out of his palace, surviving schoolbooks show that the girls were learning Plutarch, Heroditus and Thucydides, the history of the Roman Empire, and theology. Caroline intended Britain’s ruling family to hold their own in the drawing-room and the debating-hall alike.

The gardens at Herrenhausen, c.1708. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The gardens at Herrenhausen, c.1708.
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Dynastic image-making was a big past-time of Caroline’s, and much of her refurbishments of royal palaces and gardens were undertaken with this aim in mind. Gardening was a hobby she shared with both Sophia and Sophie Charlotte; doubtless after growing up around the spectacular grounds at Herrenhausen in Hanover and the Charlottenburg Palace in Berlin, Caroline felt equipped to turn her hand to her own improvements. This enthusiasm also cohered with the current ideas proposed by Whigs like Joseph Addison and the Earl of Shaftesbury about the connections between landscape and nationhood – the growing popularity of “natural” designs and devices like the ha-ha which allowed the formal garden to blend seamlessly with the farmland beyond embodied this. For similar reasons, the Hanoverians favoured the new neo-Palladian architectural style, which epitomised “order, restraint and politeness”, contrasted with the Baroque floridness preferred by the Stuarts.

At Richmond, Caroline created two particularly significant garden features, the Hermitage and Merlin’s Cave. Delightful as I’m sure they were, these were more than just the idle projects of a woman with too much money and time on her hands: both were designed specifically to wield the kind of soft power that would entrench the Hanoverian dynasty in the public’s mind as truly British. The Hermitage was a showcase for sculpture, and here Caroline’s scientific leanings come to the fore once more – her choice of subjects for the busts inside included Isaac Newton, John Locke, Samuel Clarke and William Wollaston, with Robert Boyle in the place of honour presiding over them all, since he “embodied the marriage between natural philosophy and Newtonian science,” as Marschner has it. Caroline’s Merlin’s Cave was a great deal more eccentric, and somewhat less successful. It contained various waxworks intended to suggest the mythical origins of the British people, and included references both to Arthurian legend and the Elizabethan epic poem “The Faerie Queene” by Spenser, but the allegory was a bit confused, and apparently many visitors didn’t quite “get it”.

This harking back to ages past was a particular preoccupation of both Caroline and Sophia. As the image-makers for new, upstart royal lines, dynastic precedence was one of the most powerful tools available to them. Although he never completed his family history for the House of Hanover, Leibniz did discover for Sophia in 1676 that an ancestor of her husband’s had in the twelfth century married Matilda, the daughter of the English king Henry II, thus providing the family with a genealogical link to Great Britain that long predated the Act of Settlement.

Caroline continued this work through her curation of the royal family’s art collection, which had been much dispersed and depleted by public auctions during Cromwell’s Commonwealth in the 1640s, but still extensive. She followed the example of many nobles on the Continent (including Sophia and Sophie Charlotte) and put together her own Kunstkammer, a room in which she exhibited portraits that showed off her family’s heritage and demonstrated their right to the throne. A room at Kensington Palace was converted for the purpose (amusingly, it would become the young Victoria’s bathroom a hundred years later) and Caroline set about forming her collection. Her biggest and most important find was a set of 63 drawings by Hans Holbein the Younger of members of the Tudor court, which she had reframed and hung. Other portraits she amassed included those of Edward III, Henry V, Mary I and Elizabeth I. The Winter Queen and her Hanoverian descendants got a look-in, too. Caroline even had sub-collections at other palaces, just to be sure her courtiers didn’t miss the point she was trying to make – around the walls of her bedchamber at Hampton Court was a mini exhibition of Tudor, Stuart and Hanoverian worthies.

Complementary to her picture-closet was Caroline’s Wunderkammer, a “cabinet of curiosities” in which she collected and displayed all sorts of weird and wonderful things. This was partly a matter of dynastic image again – the collection included a number of fine miniatures of important relatives – and partly her scientific curiosity at work. It was a way of straddling the divide between magic and modernity, of showing that these new kings knew how to venerate their new country’s history while at the same time sponsoring the efforts of a modern nation. She had jewels, medals, several bezoars (stones found in the stomachs of animals that were thought to have magical properties) and even two unicorn horns, which were in fact from Arctic narwhales.

Lucy Worsley with a portrait of Queen Caroline  by Joseph Highmore. Photo: BBC/Royal Collection Trust/Jack Barnes

Lucy Worsley with a portrait of Queen Caroline by Joseph Highmore.
Image: BBC/Royal Collection Trust/Jack Barnes

This enthusiasm also something she could share with her female mentors across the channel – Liselotte in France particularly shared her passion for collection. The two women wrote to each other about their hoards regularly, and exchanged objects like elaborately carved eggs and microscope slides. It was an important way in which they reinforced their bond – as Liselotte remarked in a letter to Caroline, they had a lot in common, and were “made of he same stuff – electoral children who have become royal”. Many of these objects are still in the Royal Collection, and are currently on display as part of The First Georgians exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery. It’s worth a visit, if only to peer at the intricate, tiny ivory carvings and imagine Caroline’s glee as she unwrapped and presented another new treasure to her court.


What, it must be asked, was Caroline’s husband up to all this time? George II was not particularly renowned for his intelligence or his social skills, and the degree to which he was in thrall to his clever wife did not go unnoticed by the satirists of the day. A contemporary ditty contained the lines:

“You may strut, dapper George but ‘twill all be in vain;
We know ‘tis Queen Caroline, not you, that reign.

However, his enthusiasm for his new country could not be faulted (he supposedly once declared that the English were “the handomest, the best shaped, the best natured, and lovingest people in the world, and that if anybody would make their court to him, it must be by telling him he was like an Englishman”). He was also smart enough to let his wife get on with her projects, and pick up the bills when she overspent on this portrait or that new bit of garden. Caroline was popular with the people – in her TV series, Worsley terms her “user friendly face of the Hanoverian monarchy” – and her husband knew that he benefited by association.

Since George II was still Elector of Hanover as well as King of Great Britain, the Regency Act of 1728 was passed by Parliament so that Caroline could rule in her husband’s place while he went on his extended trips to Germany. Sophia might have died before she could inherit the throne of Great Britain, but her granddaughter-in-law and protégée more than made up for it. Caroline mostly seems to have kept the ship on an even keel – once that we know of George lost his rag at her when he returned, and that was because she had moved Vasari’s painting of Venus and Cupid out of his drawing room at Kensington Palace (presumably because she didn’t think it was very good). George might not have cared very much about art, but he was still the king, and he made a fuss until she put his fat Venus back where he wanted it. You can still see it there, in the state rooms at Kensington, which have been newly-refurbished to how they would have looked when George and Caroline were in residence, with bright white panelling, gilded cornices, painted ceilings and silk wall hangings replacing the dark Victorian aesthetic that succeeded it. You can even get a “scratch and sniff” map for the full olfactory experience of the Georgian court (best avoided if you have a delicate stomach).

George did have mistresses, of course – in the eighteenth century, it was considered “educational” for a prince to have extra-marital affairs, and eyebrows would have been raised if he did not partake. However, he never allowed these flings to jeopardise the partnership he enjoyed with his wife, and his most long-standing affair was actually with one of her Women of the Bedchamber, Henrietta Howard. Here, Caroline displayed the shrewdness she had learned from Sophia and Liselotte, both pragmatic veterans of long royal marriages, and rather than dismissing the offending mistress, kept her busy with the daily grind of personal ablutions, dressing and undressing that a royal woman of her status required of a lady-in-waiting. This way, George got to keep his mistress, but since his mistress was also the woman who had to hold his wife’s basin of water every day while she brushed her teeth, she was never perceived to rival Caroline in political power or influence.

The Queen's Library at St James's Palace by Charles Wild, c.1819. Image: Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014

The Queen's Library at St James's Palace by Charles Wild, c.1819.
Image: Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014

In 1735, Caroline exercised this supreme pragmatism once more, when she suggested that her husband bring the object of his latest enthusiasm, Amelia de Walmoden, to London from Hanover (probably so she could keep control of this affair, too). However, this addition to her household would need rooms at St James’s Palace, and this meant Caroline had to clear out some of her books to accommodate her (she owned over three thousand volumes). As ever with this most resourceful of women, Caroline managed to turn a depressing chore into an exciting new project, and commissioned William Kent to build her a new library at the palace to house her books.

It was in her library, in 1737, that Caroline collapsed just as Sophia had done in her garden. Always on the plump side, by the end of her life she had become so fat and gouty that she had to be wheeled about the palace in a decorative wheelchair first made for a sea goddess in a masque. She lingered on for a week, until an unpleasant hernia (a legacy of her final pregnancy) and her doctors’ mistreatment of it, claimed her. She died holding her husband’s hand, and Walpole reports that George II afterwards declared that he “never yet saw a woman worthy to buckle her shoe”.

That great statesman had placed the stability of the court (and country) very much on Caroline’s shoulders. When she was taken ill, he demanded: “Should any accident happen to Your Majesty, who can tell what would become of him, of your children, and of us all?” Walpole’s reliance upon her was a great accolade in and of itself, and a sign that Caroline’s efforts to carve out a way in which an intelligent, shrewd woman could occupy a position of influence had been successful.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, a woman who had lived her life in pursuit of the same aim, once wrote that a woman should conceal “whatever learning she attains, with as much solicitude as she should hide crookedness or lameness”. But thanks to her own perspicacity, and the lively network of intellectual woman to which she belonged, Queen Caroline was one woman who didn’t have to spend her life pretending to be stupid. The celebrations this year to mark the anniversary of the Hanoverian accession are all named after one George or other, but she’s there, if you choose to look for her – the woman who brought the Enlightenment to Britain.


If you’re interested in the anniversary of the Hanoverian accession, I would recommend Lucy Worsley’s three-part series “The First Georgians: The German Kings Who Made Britain” on BBC4, starting 1 May at 9pm, as a good place to start. The “Glorious Georges” season at Hampton Court, Kensington and Kew is good for appreciating the atmosphere and decor of the time. A lot of the paintings and objects I've mentioned in this piece are part of “The First Georgians: Art and Monarchy 1714-1760” at the Queen’s Gallery. And at the Victoria & Albert Museum, you can learn more about George II and Caroline’s favoured designer at the “William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain exhibition.

For further reading, try Joanna Marschner’s “Queen Caroline: Cultural Politics at the Early Eighteenth-Century Court”, Lucy Worsley’s “Courtiers: The Secret History of the Georgian Court”, Tracy Borman’s “King's Mistress, Queen's Servant: The Life and Times of Henrietta Howard”, J N Duggan’s “Sophia of Hanover: From Winter Princess to Heiress of Great Britain”, Jeremy Black’s “The Hanoverians: The History of a Dynasty” and Amanda Vickery’s “The Gentleman's Daughter: Women's Lives in Georgian England”.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

Fox via YouTube
Show Hide image

Are smart toys spying on children?

If you thought stepping on a Lego was bad, consider the new ways in which toys can hurt and harm families.

In January 1999, the president of Tiger Electronics, Roger Shiffman, was forced to issue a statement clearing the name of the company’s hottest new toy. “Furby is not a spy,” he announced to the waiting world.

Shiffman was speaking out after America’s National Security Agency (NSA) banned the toy from its premises. The ban was its response to a playground rumour that Furbies could be taught to speak, and therefore could record and repeat human speech. “The NSA did not do their homework,” said Shiffman at the time.

But if America’s security agencies are still in the habit of banning toys that can record, spy, and store private information, then the list of contraband items must be getting exceptionally long. Nearly 18 years after TE were forced to deny Furby’s secret agent credentials, EU and US consumer watchdogs are filing complaints about a number of WiFi and Bluetooth connected interactive toys, also known as smart toys, which have hit the shelves. Equipped with microphones and an internet connection, many have the power to invade both children’s and adults’ private lives.


“We wanted a smart toy that could learn and grow with a child,” says JP Benini, the co-founder of the CogniToys “Dino”, an interactive WiFi-enabled plastic dinosaur that can hold conversations with children and answer their questions. Benini and his team won the 2014 Watson Mobile Developer Challenge, allowing them to use the question-answering software IBM Watson to develop the Dino. As such, unlike the “interactive” toys of the Nineties and Noughties, Dino doesn’t simply reiterate a host of pre-recorded stock phrases, but has real, organic conversations. “We grew it from something that was like a Siri for kids to something that was more conversational in nature.”

In order for this to work, Dino has a speaker in one nostril and a microphone in the other, and once a child presses the button on his belly, everything they say is processed by the internet-connected toy. The audio files are turned into statistical data and transcripts, which are then anonymised and encrypted. Most of this data is, in Benini’s words, “tossed out”, but his company, Elemental Path, which owns CogniToys, do store statistical data about a child, which they call “Play Data”. “We keep pieces from the interaction, not the full interaction itself,” he tells me.

“Play Data” are things like a child’s favourite colour or sport, which are used to make a profile of the child. This data is then available for the company to view, use, and pass on to third parties, and for parents to see on a “Parental Panel”. For example, if a child tells Dino their favourite colour is “red”, their mother or father will be able to see this on their app, and Elemental Path will be able to use this information to, Benini says, “make a better toy”.

Currently, the company has no plans to use the data with any external marketers, though it is becoming more and more common for smart toys to store and sell data about how they are played with. “This isn’t meant to be just another monitoring device that's using the information that it gathers to sell it back to its user,” says Benini.

Sometimes, however, Elemental Path does save, store, and use the raw audio files of what a child has said to the toy. “If the Dino is asked a question that it doesn’t know, we take that question and separate it from the actual child that’s asking it and it goes into this giant bucket of unresolved questions and we can analyse that over time,” says Benini. It is worth noting, however, that Amazon reviews of the toy claim it is frequently unable to answer questions, meaning there is potentially an abundance of audio saved, rather than it being an occasional occurrence.

CogniToys have a relatively transparent Privacy Policy on their website, and it is clear that Benini has considered privacy at length. He admits that the company has been back and forth about how much data to store, originally offering parents the opportunity to see full transcripts of what their child had been saying, until many fed back that they found this “creepy”. Dino is not the first smart toy to be criticised in this way.

Hello Barbie is the world’s first interactive Barbie doll, and when it was released by Mattel in 2015, it was met with scorn by parents’ rights groups and privacy campaigners. Like Dino, the doll holds conversations with children and stores data about them which it passes back to the parents, and articles expressing concerns about the toy featured on CNN, the Guardian, and the New York Times. Despite Dino’s similarities, however, Benini’s toy received almost no negative attention, while Hello Barbie won the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood’s prize for worst toy of the year 2015.

“We were lucky with that one,” he says, “Like the whole story of the early bird gets the worm but the second worm doesn’t get eaten. Coming second on all of this allowed us to be prepared to address the privacy concerns in greater depth.”

Nonetheless, Dino is in many ways essentially the same as Hello Barbie. Both toys allow companies and parents to spy on children’s private playtimes, and while the former might seem more troubling, the latter is not without its problems. A feature on the Parental Panel of the Dino also allows parents to see the exact wording of questions children have asked about certain difficult topics, such as sex or bullying. In many ways, this is the modern equivalent of a parent reading their child's diary. 

“Giving parents the opportunity to side-step their basic responsibility of talking to, engaging with, encouraging and reassuring their child is a terrifying glimpse into a society where plastic dinosaurs rule and humans are little more than machines providing the babies for the reptile robots to nurture,” says Renate Samson, the chief executive of privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch. “We are used to technology providing convenience in our lives to the detriment of our privacy, but allowing your child to be taught, consoled and even told to meditate by a WiFi connected talking dinosaur really is a step in the wrong direction.”


Toy companies and parents are one thing, however, and to many it might seem trivial for a child’s privacy to be comprised in this way. Yet many smart toys are also vulnerable to hackers, meaning security and privacy are under threat in a much more direct way. Ken Munro, of Pen Test Partners, is an ethical hacker who exposed security flaws in the interactive smart toy “My Friend Cayla” by making her say, among other things, “Calm down or I will kick the shit out of you.”

“We just thought ‘Wow’, the opportunity to get a talking doll to swear was too good,” he says. “It was the kid in me. But there were deeper concerns.”

Munro explains that any device could connect to the doll over Bluetooth, provided it was in range, as the set-up didn’t require a pin or password. He also found issues with the encryption processes used by the company. “You can say anything to a child through the doll because there's no security,” he says. “That means you've got a device that can potentially be used to groom a child and that's really creepy.”

Pen Test Partners tells companies about the flaws they find with their products in a process they call “responsible disclosure”. Most of the time, companies are grateful for the information, and work through ways to fix the problem. Munro feels that Vivid Toy Group, the company behind Cayla, did a “poor job” at fixing the issue. “All they did was put one more step in the process of getting it to swear for us.”

It is one thing for a hacker to speak to a child through a toy and another for them to hear them. Early this year, a hack on baby monitors ignited such concerns. But any toy with speech recognition that is connected to the internet is also vulnerable to being hacked. The data that is stored about how children play with smart toys is also under threat, as Fisher Price found out this year when a security company managed to obtain the names, ages, birthdays, and genders of children who had played with its smart toys. In 2015, VTech also admitted that five million of its customers had their data breached in a hack.

“The idea that your child shares their playtime with a device which could potentially be hacked, leaving your child’s inane or maybe intimate and revealing questions exposed is profoundly worrying,” says Samson. Today, the US Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) said in a statement that smart toys “pose an imminent and immediate threat to the safety and security of children in the United States”. 

Munro says big brands are usually great at tackling these issues, but warns about smaller, cheaper brands who have less to lose than companies like Disney or Fisher Price. “I’m not saying they get it right but if someone does find a problem they’ve got a huge incentive to get it right subsequently,” he says of larger companies. Thankfully, Munro says that he found Dino to be secure. “I would be happy for my kids to play with it,” he says. “We did find a couple of bugs but we had a chat with them and they’re a good bunch. They aren’t perfect but I think they’ve done a hell of a lot of a better job than some other smart toy vendors.”

Benini appears alert to security and the credibility it gives his company. “We took the security very, very seriously,” he says. “We were still building our systems whilst these horror stories were coming about so I already set pipelines and parameters in place. With a lot of devices out there it seems that security takes a backseat to the idea, which is really unfortunate when you’re inviting these devices into your home.”

As well as being wary of smaller brands, Munro advises that parents should look out for Bluetooth toys without a secure pairing process (ie. any device can pair with the toy if near enough), and to think twice about which toys you connect to your WiFi. He also advises to use unique passwords for toys and their corresponding apps.

“You might think ‘It's just a toy, so I can use the same password I put in everything else’ – dog’s name, football club, whatever – but actually if that ever got hacked you’d end up getting all your accounts that use that same password hacked,” he says.

Despite his security advice, Munro describes himself as “on the fence” about internet-connected smart toys as a whole. “Most internet of things devices can be hacked in one way or another,” he says. “I would urge caution.”


Is all of this legal? Companies might not be doing enough ethically to protect the privacy of children, but are they acting responsibly within the confines of the law?

Benini explains that Dino complies with the United States Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of which there is no real equivalent in the UK. COPPA says that companies must have parental permission to collect personal information over the internet about children under 13 years of age. “We’ve tried to go above and beyond the original layout of COPPA,” says Benini, when describing CogniToys transparent privacy documents. Parents give their consent for Elemental Path to collect their children’s data when they download the app that pairs with the toy.

Dino bears a striking similarity to Amazon Echo and Google Home, smart speakers that listen out for commands and questions in your home. Everything that is said to Amazon Echo is recorded and sent to the cloud, and an investigation by the Guardian earlier this year discovered that this does not comply with COPPA. We are therefore now in a strange position whereby many internet of things home devices are legally considered a threat to a child’s privacy, whereas toys with the same capabilities are not. This is an issue because many parents may not actually be aware that they are handing over their children’s data when installing a new toy.

As of today, EU consumer rights groups are also launching complaints against certain smart toys, claiming they breach the EU Unfair Contract Terms Directive and the EU Data Protection Directive, as well as potentially the Toy Safety Directive. Though smart toys may be better regulated in Europe, there are no signs that the problem is being tackled in the UK. 

At a time when the UK government are implementing unprecedented measures to survey its citizens on the internet and Jeremy Hunt wants companies to scour teens’ phones for sexts, it seems unlikely that any legislation will be enacted that protects children’s privacy from being violated by toy companies. Indeed, many internet of things companies – including Elemental Path – admit they will hand over your data to government and law enforcement officials when asked.


As smart toys develop, the threat they pose to children only becomes greater. The inclusion of sensors and cameras means even more data can be collected about children, and their privacy can and will be compromised in worrying ways.

Companies, hackers, and even parents are denying children their individual right to privacy and private play. “Children need to feel that they can play in their own place,” says Samson. It is worrying to set a precedent where children get used to surveillance early on. All of this is to say nothing of the educational problems of owning a toy that will tell you (rather than teach you) how to spell “space” and figure out “5+8”.

In a 1999 episode of The Simpsons, “Grift of the Magi”, a toy company takes over Springfield Elementary and spies on children in order to create the perfect toy, Funzo. It is designed to destroy all other toys, just in time for Christmas. Many at the time criticised the plot for being absurd. Like the show's prediction of President Trump, however, it seems that we are living in a world where satire slowly becomes reality.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.