The Art of Lèse Majesté

Monarchs claim to be surrounded by an aura of majesty. Cartoon historian Mark Bryant examines some famous incidents when a caricaturist’s pen punctured this aura and revealed the lack of a sense of humour in high places.

From the beginning of Victoria’s reign until the 1960s, political cartoonists and caricaturists in Britain were remarkably respectful towards the royal family. Indeed Punch (founded in 1841) rarely even published cartoons featuring the monarch. Gone were the days of Rowlandson, Cruikshank and others who had mercilessly lampooned Victoria’s uncle, George IV, and were fined and even imprisoned for such acts. Victoria had said ‘We are not amused’ and that seemed to be an end of it until Private Eye and Spitting Image came on the scene more than a century later.

However, things were different on the other side of the Channel: as the 1789 Revolution had born witness, the French don’t suffer bad kings gladly. Nonetheless, after the defeat of Napoleon, the Bourbon dynasty returned until it was finally ousted in July 1830 and replaced by the so-called ‘Citizen King’ Louis-Philippe, whose Charter promised to grant freedom of the press and other liberties. As a result, under Louis-Philippe (and later under Napoleon III) there were periods when French political cartoonists could again indulge in acts of lèse majesté (‘hurt majesty’). But once both had fled to exile in England the Gallic satirists’ new targets became the British royal family, especially Victoria’s dissolute son, Edward VII.

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