With the collapse of the old ruling class in Europe came a string of familial despots who governed under the heel of Napoleon Bonaparte and his empire which stretched from Spain to Poland. The shadow of France had descended almost all of Europe –Britain stood almost alone against the upheaval. And at this critical juncture, the kingship of Britain fell from the mad King George III to his pompous, hedonistic son Prince George, who served as regent until his insane father finally gave up the ghost in 1820. Today, despite certain revisionist historians, George IV is not remembered fondly and with good reason. With vague pretensions of being “the first gentleman of Europe,” in truth George IV was a feckless, indulgent, roly-poly dandy –a “preposterous preening prince.” Lord Byron dubbed him “Fum the Fourth” and other writers poked fun at his girth dubbing him “Prinny.” From a young age “Prinny” and his brothers were endlessly embroiled in scandals between numerous mistresses and exponential indebtedness while also rubbing shoulders with a less than savory band of companions. By the time George became king, it was widely understood that George IV was a fat, feckless fornicator. Even The Times, which typically served as an echo-chamber for the monarchy, wrote ‘there never was an individual less regretted by his fellow creatures.’ Even children in the schoolyards mocked the king as in the case of the following popular nursery rhyme:
“Georgie Porgie, pudding and pie,
Kissed the girls and made them cry;
When the boys came out to play
Georgie Porgie ran away.”
George IV’s debauchery began in the bedroom –his carnal appetites were insatiable. It was often said that he kept a lock of hair for every woman he slept with, carefully cataloging each in a library of envelopes which by the end of his life was rumored to have totaled over 7,000 envelopes. George often found himself in the awkward situation of compensating his mistresses in exchange for their public silence about his indiscretions. This was the case of a well-known actress named Mary Robinson whom George once dubbed his affectionate “Perdita” after Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale. In 1785, George secretly married a Roman Catholic woman twice-widowed, Maria Fitzherbert, but the marriage was deemed illegal according to the 1772 Royal Marriage Act –a law which strictly prohibited any British royal under the age of 25 from matrimony without the express permission of the reigning king or queen. Furthermore, the 1701 Act of Succession would have barred George from the royal succession as a result of marrying a Catholic. Nevertheless he petulantly disobeyed his father and continued live with Mrs. Fitzherbert where he lived a life of extreme indulgence –fine dining and sex as well as outrageously expensive fashion and the copious daily intake of an opiate called laudanum. There were no pretensions of being “Farmer George” like his father. To make matters worse his accountants were incapable of even calculating George’s immense debts. It got to the point that Parliament was called upon to rescue the poor, broke Prince from his many creditors. The following year, George III suffered his first bout of mental illness. When the Prince arrived for his first service as regency, his feeble-minded father still attempted to strangle his son whom he deemed a failure and a disappointment. As time went by and with astronomical debts continuing to grow again, George was made aware that only a truly dynastic marriage could save him from insolvency. Thus after living with Maria Fitzherbert for a decade, he abandoned her in pursuit of a more suitable situation in the eyes of the royals (apparently the relationship between George and Maria had grown somewhat stale anyway).
As with all the men of Hanover, Prince George had developed a certain degree of disdain for his father. While the aging King George III drifted apart from the Whigs, the young Prince steadily gravitated toward his father’s political enemies. The Prince found himself under the sway of one Charles James Fox, a radical Whig who had personally managed to fritter away a vast fortune on gambling and alcohol. Fox attempted to secure for the Prince a hefty allowance, but the request was swiftly denied. During George III’s bouts of insanity, Fox also attempted to persuade Parliament to grant Prince George extensive powers, including the ability to appoint a Prime Minister. It led to a minor constitutional crisis that was only resolved when the elderly king devolved into a wholly incapacitated state and Prince George ruled as regent for ten years more.
Seeing his debts mounting and in order to appease the royal family’s concerns, George was persuaded to meet a suitable woman for marriage. An introduction was arranged with his cousin, an eligible German Princess named Caroline of Brunswick. They met on April 5, 1795 at St. James Palace and sadly it was loathing at first sight. Apparently Caroline carried a pungent stench about her that reeked like a “farmhouse” –George caught wind and immediately turned to a courtier begging for a hasty glass of brandy. In turn, Caroline commented on how fat and unattractive George had become. Never had their been a worse pairing in royal history. Nevertheless the wedding was orchestrated a mere three days later, but George only participated in the wedding after consuming an inordinate quantity of alcohol, so much so in fact that he was completely plastered for the first few days of his marriage. In George’s own words the inebriation was necessary ‘to conquer my person and overcome the disgust of her person.’ On the wedding night, George lay passed out drunk on the floor and he awoke with his head in the fireplace hearth. Somehow the marriage was indeed consummated and nine months later to the day Caroline gave birth to a daughter: Princess Charlotte. However, Caroline remained a boisterous and uninhibited woman with an energetically foul mouth, she was neither demure nor subservient like George’s mistresses. She and George utterly despised one another and the couple soon permanently separated. They remained apart for many years while George pursued a revolving door of mistresses, and Caroline spent her days in Italy surrounded by outrageous extravagance, cavorting with a group of indiscreet men. As time passed, George was desperate to cut ties with his wife. He tried to divorce her under vague accusations of adultery, but when Parliament was unable to find strong evidence of the charges, public sympathy had swung hard in favor their blighted Queen-to-be. When his father died, George assumed the throne in 1820 but he delayed his coronation for a year in the hopes of securing a divorce from Caroline.
In this milieu, Caroline decided to relocate to England in order to claim her throne as Queen Consort alongside her still-legal husband, however upon arrival she was met with George’s characteristically cold indifference. Crowds of adoring well-wishers hailed Caroline from her landing at Dover all the way to London but the King refused to accept her. On July 19, 1821 she arrived at George’s coronation ceremony in London, but the great door at Westminster Abbey was slammed shut in her face –she was barred from even witnessing the ceremony. Humiliated and dejected, she departed the scene and died a mere three weeks later. George ordered that Caroline’s name be stricken from the Book of Common Prayer, and the Anglican Church was only too willing to comply. The King, fearing a riot, ordered Caroline’s coffin be quietly transported back to the Continent, but it was seized by Londoners who staged their own funeral procession in the streets. Ultimately, the house guard intervened and fired open rounds on the crowd tragically gunning down several people at Hyde Park corner. The incident only further served to divide the King from his people.
Meanwhile, the nascent King had hoped to model himself upon Charles I, a great patron of the arts, but his extravagance quickly drew the ire of the people as an economic crisis hit in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars. There were suddenly thousands of ex-soldiers, and an agricultural crisis in the summer of 1816, followed by rising unemployment due to the advent of new machinery. George IV’s extravagance was born out in numerous architectural achievements under the craftsmanship of John Nash –including the rebuilding of Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle, as well as the Regent’a Street in Brighton. The push for more dazzling extravagance was, in part, a response to the Napoleonic transformation of Paris from its condition of tired medieval decrepitude into the splendid global mecca of culture we see today. At the time London was larger than Paris but it had become a somewhat dingy capital shrouded in fog and coal smoke. George IV sought to transform his capital city into a wonder worthy of the likes of Napoleon Bonaparte. Alas his efforts were often perceived as elitist and in poor taste.
After assuming the throne George IV maintained many of his father’s policies, including support for the Tories rather than the Whigs, snubbing many of his former allies. After the death of Charles James Fox in 1806, George was content to keep the government in the hands of the Tories first under Lord Liverpool and then the duke of Wellington, a war hero in the Napoleonic wars. The Catholic Question was the central issue du jour. Early into George’s reign there was hope in the air when Sir Walter Scott orchestrated an extravagant visit for the king to Scotland and Ireland –George was the first reigning British monarch to visit Ireland since the 1690s and the first to visit Scotland since the 1630s. Somehow the king managed to squeeze into tights and a kilt for the trip’s festivities. However, as time passed, the king grew increasingly obstinate to Catholic freedom. Naturally, the English bishops joined the king in opposition to Catholic emancipation, they sought to maintain their hegemony. Bitter negotiations lingered on for weeks in Parliament exhausting the poor, enfeebled king. Only after the dramatic resignation of the entire cabinet was the duke of Wellington able to force George IV to the table. In a tantrum of tears and wails, George IV granted his signature to Catholic emancipation in 1829. Following the heated debates regarding the Catholic Question, like his father before him, George IV fell into a raving state of lunacy –blind and incompetent, George convinced himself he was the commander of a British division at Waterloo. He was not long for this life.
Despite only reigning for ten years (not including his regency) George IV spent most of his kingship confined to Windsor Palace, fearful of being attacked or mocked for his gigantic, swollen body. In truth, the king managed to avoid being seen in public at all from 1823 onward, the few who did visit the Palace found a greedy, contemptible man lost in an opiate-haze, surfeited with food and drink. Per Winston Churchill: “This once handsome man had grown so gross and corpulent that he was ashamed to show himself in public. His extravagance had become a mania, and his natural abilities were clouded by years of self-indulgence” (517). His days were spent in extreme indulgence: he took 200 drops of laudanum, gorged himself on food, experienced severe gout in his feet and hands, rising rheumatism and cataracts, an inflamed bladder, shortness of breath, dropsy –the king had become an embarrassment. George’s mistresses continued to come and go, including Lady Jersey, a member of the Villiers family. As he lay dying with a miniature of Mrs. Fitzherbert around his neck, his mistress Lady Conyngham was found busily collecting her special privileges, a collection of fine plates and jewelry, before she promptly relocated to Paris, eager to depart from George.
In 1819, as the aging monarch was close to the end, the poet Shelley condemned George and his brothers:
“Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
Through the public scorn – mud from muddy spring-
Rulers who neither see nor feel nor know
But leech-like to their fainting country cling.”
The bloated King finally died on June 26, 1830, largely unmourned by his subjects. He was predeceased by his one and only daughter, Princess Charlotte, who had married Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, the future king of Belgium but in 1817 she died in childbirth along with her stillborn infant. The tragic death of the Princess permeated throughout the people, and in fact the death of Charlotte was the ultimate catalyst for Victoria’s ascendency. Thus the crown of Britain fell to George’s brother William duke of Clarence (the future William IV) whom Winston Churchill dubbed “the most eccentric and least obnoxious of the sons of George III” (517).
In their scathing obituary of George IV The Times wrote the following: “If he ever had a friend – a devoted friend in any rank of life – we protest that the name of him or her has never reached us.” Below is yet another mocking epigram of the late king, this one written by Walter Savage Landor:
“George the First was always reckoned
Vile, but viler George the Second;
And what mortal ever heard
Any good of George the Third?
When from earth the Fourth descended
God be praised, the Georges ended.”
For this reading I used Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples, David Starkey’s Crown and Country, and Peter Ackroyd’s Dominion: The History of England From The Battle of Waterloo.