The coffee house politicians: scandal and The London Gazette

'The coffee house politicians' is a piece of satire that features two gossiping figures reading a copy of The London Gazette. Others are absorbed in pamphlets of the day to such a degree that they’re oblivious to the young serving boy, who’s similarly distracted while the coffee pot tumbles to the floor.

What does the illustration reveal?

The news in the illustration that is startling and gripping the readers is thought to be the affair between Caroline Matilda, Queen of Denmark and Johann Friedrich Struensee, physician to King Christian VII of Denmark.

Princess Caroline was the daughter of King George III. In 1764, negotiations between British and Danish royal houses about a marriage between the Danish heir to the throne and a British princess resulted in agreement that cousins Christian and Caroline Matilda (aged just 15) were to be married. The announcement of 10 January was published in The London Gazette (Gazette issue 10486), a proclamation by the king claiming that it would ‘cement the Union which has long subsisted between the Two Crowns, by the Marriage of the Prince Royal of Denmark with my sister the Princess Caroline Matilda’.

Married life soon produced a son, but it wasn’t a happy union. The king, who had been crowned in 1766, just weeks before his 17th birthday, took a tour of Europe, during which time he met and was accompanied by Struensee. The physician became close to the monarch as his doctor and advisor, and in the months to follow gained much influence in parliament. He was able to introduce progressive reforms, becoming privy councillor in March 1771. 

Having grown in the affections of both the king and queen, on the occasion of the king’s birthday, Struensee had conferred on him the Order of Mathilda in February 1771 (Gazette issue 11119), a new order that was ‘to consist of Twenty-four Persons, the Ensign of which is a Cypher of her Majesty's Name enriched with Diamonds'.

The affair between the queen and Struensee soon became public knowledge, and scandal ensued after the birth of a daughter, Princess Louise Augusta, referred to as la petite Struensee, though she was officially accepted as princess. In a London Gazette issue of 30 July 1771 (Gazette issue 11166), the birth was announced, along with Struensee’s appointment as a count of Denmark, which is perhaps the issue featured in the illustration:

‘Last Night the Ceremony of the Christening of the young Princess was performed at Hirschholm. Her Royal Highness was named Louisa Augusta, after her Majesty the late Queen of Denmark, and her Royal Highness the Princess Dowager of Wales. The Sponsors present were his Majesty the King of Denmark, with his Brother Prince Frederick, and the Dowager Queen Julia Maria. Upon this Occasion Mr. Struensee and Mr Brandt were declared Counts of Denmark, which is the highest Rank of Nobility in this Country.’

Following a masked ball at Christiansborg Palace in January, Struensee and Caroline Matilda were arrested. For usurping royal authority, Struensee had his right arm cut off before he was decapitated on 28 April 1772, along with Count Enevold Brandt, his so-called accomplice. King Christian VII and Caroline Matilda divorced as a result of the affair in the same month.

Caroline Matilda’s death at Celle, where she had been exiled to after release from imprisonment, from ‘a malignant Fever, after an Illness of Five Days’ (scarlet fever) on 10 May 1775 is documented in Gazette issue 11562.

In the illustration, you can just make out that the newspaper has a two column format, which was The Gazette's legacy for all subsequent newspapers. Previous to this, newsheets and pamphlets had a measure that spanned the whole page, and the only precedent for the multi-column format had been the bible.

What were coffee houses?

Coffee houses were places for men (women were not permitted as customers) to meet socially, exchange news and discuss politics. They first came about in the 17th century, spreading from Oxford to London in 1652. 

They were hotbeds of gossip for people from all walks of life to talk about state and public affairs, and the penny or two entry fee would cover the newspapers and pamphlets provided.They were alternatives to public houses, being places for discourse and discussion of a more sober nature while drinking coffee and hot chocolate, newly imported from Africa and South America. As fashionable as this new beverage had become, with its stimulant and appetite suppressing effect, the taste was not too appealing, described by contemporaries as musty and muddy-tasting, or like ‘syrup of soot or essence of old shoes’.

Why were coffee houses viewed with suspicion by the establishment?

These places of free and frank views, with their talk of equality and criticism of politicians, concerned King Charles II, that men were ‘speaking evil of things they understand not’ (Gazette issue 686) and in doing so, were plotting against him.

On 29 December 1675, a proclamation by the king was published that forbade coffee houses to operate after 10 January 1676 (Gazette issue 1055), because ‘the Idle and Disaffected persons’ who frequent these establishment have led to ‘very evil and dangerous Effects’ and ‘malicious and scandalous reports to the defamation of His Majesties Government’.

The wish was to have these burgeoning coffee houses, where people discussed politics and literature, among other issues of the day, freely, ‘Put down and Suppressed’, that such establishments ‘do not presume from and after the 10th day of January ensuing, to keep any publick Coffeehouse, or to utter or sell .… any Coffee, Chocolet, Sherbett or Tea, or they will answer the contrary at their utmost Perils’. Licences were to be made void, and if continued to trade, given a forfeiture of £5 per month and then ‘the severest Punishments that may by Law be inflicted’.

However, the proclamation was not popular. It was withdrawn on 8 January after outcry from the public and coffee, tea and chocolate merchants.

Sources: LoBionda M. ‘Culture of coffee, “syrup of soot”’, Princeton Weekly Bulletin, 5 April 1999 [online]

Image: The Coffeehouse Politicians, artist anon. © Heritage Image Partnership Ltd/Alamy Stock