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.
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.
Foord-Kelcey, Jim., Mrs. Fitzherbert and sons, Sussex, England: Book Guild, 1991.
Hibbert, Christopher, George IV, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976.
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. □
GEORGE IV (1762–1830; regent 1811–1821; ruled 1821–1830), one of the most controversial and loathed monarchs in British history.
Born on 12 August 1762, George Augustus Frederick, 21st Prince of Wales, was notorious as a young man for drinking, gambling, and other acts of indiscretion and his failures as a politicians and a leader began quite early in his political life. He allied himself with the opposition leader Charles James Fox (1749–1806) in 1781, no doubt as part of the Hanoverian tradition of sons rebelling against fathers' political appointees. This alliance hardened the government's dislike and distrust of the Prince of Wales, clearly exhibited during the first bout of insanity George III (1738–1820) experienced from 1788 to 1789.
Furthering poor relations with his father's government, George secretly married a Catholic widow, Maria Anne Fitzherbert (1756–1837) in 1785, but the marriage was dissolved as required by the Royal Marriages Act of 1772, since the king and Privy Council had not granted permission for the marriage to take place. In 1795, the prince then married his cousin, Caroline of Brunswick (1768–1821), a disaster from the outset. The birth of their only child, Charlotte Augusta, followed in 1796 even as the couple had already separated. George III refused to allow the two to divorce and they would live apart for the rest of Caroline's life.
The Prince of Wales was, after 1811, regent for his father until the latter's death. He soon broke ties with Fox, appointing William Wyndham Grenville (1759–1834) to form a ministry, but differences arose between the two almost immediately and he kept his father's government in power. With the 1812 resignation of Richard Colley Wellesley (1760–1842), the regent was forced to reconfigure his government and he invited several Whigs to join the Tories in forming a government. Most Whigs refused, as they hoped they could negotiate a Catholic emancipation measure in exchange for their support and participation in his new government. The regent, furious over this tactic, maintained a Tory government and in 1812, the 2nd Earl of Liverpool (1770–1828) began his long political career heading the government of the regent and future king. However, George IV's few attempts to be taken seriously as a leader were dashed by his well-known self-indulgence in mistresses, parties, and building projects at a time when the country was embroiled in the Napoleonic Wars and the economic crises that followed. Lord Liverpool was forced to address growing hostility toward the monarch. In 1817, crowds broke the windows of the regent's carriage on this way to open Parliament. His government was forced to suspend habeas corpus and reinstate several laws concerning seditious behavior in order to quell anti-monarchical sentiment.
The next crisis to embroil George's political life was his effort to exclude Caroline from being crowned queen. He ordered his government to initiate legal proceedings against Caroline that would ultimately end the marriage before any question of coronation could become a matter of public debate. The very public trial lasted eleven weeks with the House of Lords, leaders of the Anglican
Church, and the heads of the judicial system in attendance. But with little evidence of any just cause to divorce Caroline and deny her right to be queen, combined with widespread and vocal public support behind her, the government's bill was withdrawn at the last minute rather than risk a full debate in the House of Commons upon its final reading. Refused admission to the 1821 coronation ceremony, Caroline lost much of her public support even as her husband gained nothing but contempt among his subjects.
Relationships with his ministers only became more strained as George IV's alcohol and laudanum addiction clouded his judgment further and he grew more and more distant from the workings of his government throughout the 1820s. While he approved of George Canning (1770–1827), who became prime minister in 1827, his influence over the Tory and Whig Parties was already negligible, even as he tried to interfere with issues of political importance such as the growing popular sentiment to eliminate restrictions on Dissenters and Catholics, and more widely, to reform Parliament. His last Tory prime minister, Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington (1769–1852), described George IV as "the most extraordinary compound of talent, wit, buffoonery, obstinacy, and good feelings, in short, a medley of the most opposite qualities … that I ever saw in any character in my life."
George IV died on 26 June 1830 after a series of strokes. The public celebrated, rather than mourned, the loss of their monarch whose time as regent and reign as king were marked by selfishness, scandal, and very poor political judgment.
David, Saul. Prince of Pleasure: The Prince of Wales and the Making of the Regency. New York, 1998.
Fulford, Roger. George the Fourth. Rev. ed. London, 1949.
Hibbert, Christopher. George IV: Prince of Wales, 1762–1811. New York, 1974.
Huish, Robert. Memoirs of George the Fourth. London, 1831.
Lacquer, Thomas. "The Queen Caroline Affair: Politics in the Reign of George IV." Journal of Modern History 54 (1982): 153–182.
Parissien, Steven. George IV. Inspiration of the Regency. New York, 2002.
Richardson, Joanna. George IV: A Portrait. London, 1966.
Smith, E. A. George IV. New Haven, Conn., 1999.
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
Hibbert, C. , George IV (1972–3);
Smith, E. A. , George IV (New Haven, 1999).