Skip to main content
Select Source:

George IV

George IV

George IV (1762-1830), the king of Great Britain and Ireland from 1820 to 1830, was one of the most detested British monarchs. He was also a man of exquisite taste who profoundly influenced the culture of his age.

Regency England, roughly the first 3 decades of the 19th century, takes its name from George's title of prince regent, which he held from 1811 to 1820. It was a period of great elegance in art, architecture, and the style of aristocratic life, and also one of unrestrained indulgence and moral laxity. The prince regent set the example in both respects.

The future George IV was born on Aug. 12, 1762. His father, George III, an extremely moral and pious man, loved his eldest child as a son, but hated him as his heir. For both reasons the young prince was kept under a very tight rein and carefully insulated from the outside world. In 1783, when the prince came of age, he violently reacted against these restraints and entered society with a great splash. George was tall and handsome, with a tendency toward portliness, which in maturity was to become gross obesity. He entered into the pleasures of life with gusto, and Mrs. Fitzherbert soon emerged as the first of a succession of mistresses. He began to indulge his passion for building, and the Royal Pavilion at Brighton was begun in 1784. By 1787 the prince was already hundreds of thousands of pounds in debt and had to be bailed out by Parliament, the first of many such occasions.

The prince's escapades strained relations with his father, and political differences increased the tension between them. The prince became the intimate friend of George III's bitterest political enemies, the Whigs, led by Charles James Fox. Fox was a man of immense personal charm, and Whig society was the most glittering group of the day. The Whigs fought the prince's battles for money in Parliament; he entered fully into their political schemes. Together they waited in 1788 in ill-disguised anticipation that the King's insanity would prove permanent and that the prince would become regent.

George III, however, recovered. The prince had not been able to grasp power, and his reputation had suffered. It suffered still further from a secret, and illegal, marriage to the Catholic Mrs. Fitzherbert, which soon became common knowledge. In 1795, at his father's urging, the prince decided to regularize his position and increase his income by making a legitimate marriage. The choice of Princess Caroline of Brunswick could not have been more unfortunate; she was coarse, vulgar, and wildly eccentric. It was an arranged marriage, and the prince detested her from first sight. The marriage was barely consummated when the couple separated. Princess Charlotte, their only child, died in 1817. Caroline's notorious affairs in England and abroad only served to underline George's own sexual irregularities, and their interminable bickering until her death in 1821 surrounded the monarchy with scandal.

Patron of the Arts

Without Caroline, George's reputation might well have been higher. He was warm-hearted and generous, and devoted to his often motherly mistresses. He was also a man of superb taste. England is in his debt for some of its most famous and beautiful architectural treasures. Regent Street and Regent's Park owe their beauty to him, and he rebuilt Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle. The beautiful classical portico of the National Gallery came from Carlton House, his residence as heir to the throne.

George made a magnificent collection of 17th-century Dutch paintings, and, as king, he persuaded his government to spend a fortune for a collection that formed the nucleus of the National Gallery. He filled his palaces with the finest examples of 18th-century French and contemporary English furniture. No British monarch, except possibly Charles I, ever added so much to the nation's cultural heritage. But George's tastes were expensive, and at a time when most of his subjects were experiencing extreme privation during the wars with France and their aftermath, his extravagance caused bitter resentment.

Regent and King

In 1811 his father became permanently insane, and George was declared prince regent. The Whigs, however, did not come to power with him, for the prince's relations with the Whigs had become increasingly strained since Fox's death in 1806. In 1812 George did make an attempt to bring some of the Whigs into a coalition ministry, but they would not accept a compromise. George had never been a Whig by conviction, and thereafter he settled comfortably with his father's Tory ministers and advisers. He, however, was never the strong political influence George III had been in his prime. The blunt Duke of Wellington, his last prime minister, called George and his brothers "the damnedest millstones about the neck of any Government that can be imagined."

In 1820, when he came to the throne on his father's death, George IV persuaded a reluctant government to undertake a divorce from his detested queen. This caused a national outcry, less because the Queen was loved than because George was hated, and the action had to be dropped. On occasion the King exerted his prerogatives, as when he chose George Canning over Wellington for prime minister in 1827, but in general George followed the advice of his ministers. He enjoyed his public role, and though old, overweight, and corseted, he played it with great dignity and a real sense of drama until he died, unlamented, on June 26, 1830.

Further Reading

Roger Fulford, George the Fourth (1935; rev. ed. 1949), is a fine modern biography. See also J. H. Plumb's delightful The First Four Georges (1956). R. J. White, Life in Regency England (1963), is recommended for general historical background.

Additional Sources

Foord-Kelcey, Jim., Mrs. Fitzherbert and sons, Sussex, England: Book Guild, 1991.

Hibbert, Christopher, George IV, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976.

Hibbert, Christopher, George IV: Prince of Wales, 1762-181, New York, Harper & Row 1974, 1972.

Hibbert, Christopher, George IV, regent and king, 1811-1830, New York: Harper & Row, 1975 1973.

Palmer, Alan Warwick, The life and times of George IV, London: Cardinal, 1975, 1972.

Richardson, Joanna, The disastrous marriage: a study of George IV and Caroline of Brunswick, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1975, 1960. □

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"George IV." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"George IV." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/george-iv-0

"George IV." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved July 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/george-iv-0

George IV

George IV (1762–1830), king of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (1820–30), and king of Hanover. Brought up under strict discipline by his parents George III and Queen Charlotte, he was a high-spirited boy and reacted against the regime they imposed in what Horace Walpole called ‘the palace of piety’. He and his brother Frederick frequently escaped in their teens to sample the pleasures of the town and their pranks became notorious. In 1780 his father had to buy back the indiscreet letters he had written to the actress Mary ‘ Perdita’ Robinson. Always susceptible to feminine charms, George then fell in love with Maria Fitzherbert, a widow six years his senior, and when she refused to be his mistress forced her to promise marriage by faking suicide. They married secretly in 1785 without his father's consent, so that the marriage was illegal under the Royal Marriage Act, and as she was a Roman catholic it would have prevented his succession to the throne. It was nevertheless valid in the eyes of the catholic and Anglican churches.

George was fascinated by the arts and had a lifelong mania for building and decorating his residences. In 1787 he applied to Parliament for additional funds to pay his debts, but to achieve success he had to authorize his friend Charles James Fox to deny in the House of Commons that he was married. His subsequent disclosure of the truth to Charles Grey resulted in a breach between him and his Whig political allies. They made up the quarrel in 1788 when his father suffered his first attack of mental illness, the Whigs proposing that George should be made regent with full use of all the royal prerogatives, hoping that he would change the government in their favour. Pitt defeated their scheme by proposing statutory limitations on the regent's powers, but the king recovered before the regency came into effect.

When the French Revolutionary War began George appealed to his father for a military command, but was refused. By this time he was again deeply in debt owing to the cost of building and furnishing Carlton House, his London residence, and the pavilion at Brighton where he disported himself in extravagant style with his cronies and Mrs Fitzherbert. In return for financial help the king insisted that he should marry a protestant princess, to secure the royal succession. The choice fell upon Caroline of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, who was brought over to be his bride in 1795. George, however, took an instant dislike to her lack of cleanliness, coarse language, and flighty manner. He had to be supported, in a state of intoxication, during the ceremony and spent the wedding night asleep on the floor. They separated permanently soon afterwards, though he had managed to father a child, Princess Charlotte, born nine months after the wedding. She was to provide a further source of contention between her parents over her upbringing, education, and marriage shortly before her premature death in 1817.

During the Napoleonic War of 1803–15 George was again unsuccessful in obtaining a military command and had to content himself with designing elaborate uniforms for himself and his forces. After Fox's death in 1806 he severed his political connection with the Whigs and in 1810, when his father's illness became permanent and he was appointed prince regent, he confirmed the existing Tory ministers in office. During the later war and post-war years he was very unpopular with his subjects, who contrasted his lavish life-style and expenditure with the distressed state of the country, and was caricatured and lampooned in the public prints, often in indecent and obscene circumstances. When he became king in 1820 his attempt to divorce his wife by a parliamentary Bill of Pains and Penalties on the grounds of her alleged immoralities aroused a public outcry against him and in favour of Caroline as an unjustly persecuted woman in view of his own infidelities. His popularity sank to its nadir during this period but Caroline's death in 1821 and recovery from the economic recession marked a turning-point. George's love of pageantry, given full rein in the magnificent coronation which he himself designed in 1821, helped to boost his popularity.

George IV attempted to exert authority over his ministers, but he lacked political skill and persistence and he could always be outmanœuvred or outfaced by determined ministers such as Liverpool and Wellington. He was compelled to accept the repeal of religious discrimination against dissenters and catholics in 1828–9 and his reign witnessed a further decline in the strength of the ‘influence of the crown’, which was eroded by financial and political reform.

George IV was a man of some dignity, was affectionate and generous towards his friends, and raised the royal patronage of the arts to greater heights than had been seen since the reign of Charles I. He could be selfish, but though The Times remarked, in a famous obituary, that ‘there never was an individual less regretted by his fellow-creatures’, Wellington more justly declared that he possessed ‘a medley of opposite qualities with a great preponderance of good’.

E. A. Smith

Bibliography

Hibbert, C. , George IV (1972–3);
Smith, E. A. , George IV (New Haven, 1999).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"George IV." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"George IV." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/george-iv

"George IV." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Retrieved July 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/george-iv

George IV (king of Great Britain and Ireland)

George IV, 1762–1830, king of Great Britain and Ireland (1820–30), eldest son and successor of George III. In 1785 he married Maria Anne Fitzherbert, a Roman Catholic. The marriage was illegal, however; and in 1795, to secure parliamentary settlement of his enormous debts, he made a political marriage with Caroline of Brunswick. In constant and open opposition to his father, George associated closely with the Whigs, particularly Charles James Fox, whose friend he became in 1781. As a result, when George III had his first serious fit of insanity in 1788–89, the Tory William Pitt proposed that the regency vested in the prince be closely restricted (to prevent George bringing his Whig friends to power), while Fox, usually the opponent of royal prerogative, wanted the prince to have unlimited powers as regent. In 1811, after the king had become permanently incapacitated, George became regent on terms very similar to those proposed by Pitt in 1788. However, when the limitations on his power to make appointments and spend crown revenues were removed in 1812, the prince regent retained most of his father's ministers, breaking his connection with the Whigs. The Tories, under the leadership of the 2d earl of Liverpool for most of the period, remained entrenched in power throughout the regency and George's subsequent reign. As regent and as king, George was hated for his extravagance and dissolute habits, and he aroused particular hostility by an unsuccessful attempt, immediately after his accession (1820) to the throne, to divorce his long-estranged wife, Caroline. During his reign the monarchy lost a significant amount of power. George's only legitimate child, Charlotte Augusta, married (1816) Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg (later Leopold I, king of the Belgians) but died in childbirth in 1817. George was succeeded by his brother William IV. See Regency.

See biographies by R. Fulford (rev. ed. 1949, repr. 1963) and C. Hibbert (2 vol., 1974–75); S. David, Prince of Pleasure (1999).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"George IV (king of Great Britain and Ireland)." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"George IV (king of Great Britain and Ireland)." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/george-iv-king-great-britain-and-ireland

"George IV (king of Great Britain and Ireland)." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved July 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/george-iv-king-great-britain-and-ireland

George IV

George IV (1762–1830) King of Great Britain and Ireland (1820–30). He served as Regent for his father, George III, from 1811. Self-indulgent and extravagant, government bored him but he was a strong patron of the arts. His marriage to Caroline of Brunswick (1795) was a source of scandal and he contracted a legally invalid marriage with Mrs Fitzherbert in 1785.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"George IV." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"George IV." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/george-iv

"George IV." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved July 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/george-iv