Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Monarch Profile: King George IV of Great Britain & Ireland

HRH Prince George Augustus Frederick was born on August 12, 1762 the first of fifteen children born to King George III and Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Within days he was given the title Prince of Wales and as he grew up he fit into what seemed to be a pattern for royals of the House of Hanover and British monarchs in general with eldest sons having an antagonistic relationship with their parents as well as the way monarchial parents and royal heirs seemed to alternate between those who held firmly to traditional family values (George III, Victoria, George V) and sons who lived a ‘playboy’ lifestyle (George IV, Edward VII, Edward VIII). While his father was the first Hanoverian monarch in Britain who was faithful husband, was very disciplined, upright, frugal and so on, the Prince of Wales began to show opposite characteristics as soon as he reached adulthood. As soon as he gained the first degree of freedom from his parents, he showed a great fondness for food, drink, women and lavish living. However, like others that would come after him, these qualities did not make him terribly unpopular with everyone. He had qualities that were to his credit as well and was known to be a charming, likeable fellow.

As a child, the Prince of Wales proved himself to be a quick study and very bright. He would be the second Hanoverian monarch to speak English as his first language but he was also proficient in German, French and Italian. He was witty and a great conversationalist, the sort of man who seemed able to talk easily with anyone about anything. He had an informality that put people at ease while, in his younger days at least, a regal bearing that impressed people. His appearance was to change dramatically over the years but in his youth few failed to remark on how handsome he was. Tall, dignified and charming, he had a presence none could forget, only lady (a mistress) remarking on, “the grace of his person, the irresistible sweetness of his smile, the tenderness of his melodious yet manly voice”. However, his fondness for drink and over-eating left him increasingly overweight by his mid to late thirties. Earlier than that his high living and over-spending left him heavily in debt and thus increasingly at odds with his very frugal father. By the time he was fifty years old the descriptions of his appearance were the total opposite of what they had been in his youth. He could charm women and in the company of men could easily seem ‘one of the boys’ but when it came to the tensions with his father, he could display a cruel streak. Aside from his lifestyle, father and son disagreed over politics as well.

Probably more out of an urge to rebel and assert his independence from his father rather than genuine ideological agreement, the Prince of Wales openly associated himself with the very leftist and even anti-monarchial opposition leader Charles James Fox. During the American War for Independence, Fox and his clique openly took the side of the rebels, condemning the King and parading about in the blue and buff colors of the continental army. If the Prince of Wales only associated with Fox as a way to annoy his father, Fox likewise had little genuine use for the Prince as well. He disliked monarchy altogether but saw in the Prince of Wales someone he could use to gain power and who could be duped into helping him wreck the political establishment in Britain. However, the Prince of Wales was not the dupe Fox thought he was, as would be proven in due time. First, however, the Prince had to get through his first, really serious, scandal which arose from his love life. Yet, it was not because of the succession of mistresses he had but rather one woman who was actually one of the best things to ever happen to him and who just might have changed the course of his life.

The woman in question was Maria Fitzherbert, who was five years older than the Prince and a Roman Catholic. Where all else had failed, she actually succeeding in altering his habits. A very upright woman, she firmly refused to be his mistress. This put the Prince in a difficult situation as he was totally smitten with her and would do anything to have her. Maria made it clear that the only way that would happen is if they were properly married in the eyes of God. So, the Prince of Wales grabbed a churchman from debtor’s prison (promising him a bishopric when he became king) and had him married to Maria Fitzherbert. This may have made them husband and wife in the eyes of God (and they lived as such after that) but according to British law in had no validity as the King had not consented to the marriage and there was certainly no way he would have ever given such consent for the heir to the throne to marry a Catholic. For the Prince of Wales, he genuinely loved Maria but he was not a faithful man and soon left her for his next mistress (Lady Jersey). However, the fact that he went through a religious marriage with Maria would cause him problems for some time to come.

When the Prince of Wales did legally marry it came about not because of romance but because of his mounting debts. The King was absolutely opposed to any increase in his allowance because of his lavish spending. However, Parliament finally agreed to cover his debts if he would settle down and get married. So, in 1795, he agreed to marry his cousin Caroline of Brunswick. It was hardly a match made in Heaven. Bride and groom were repulsed by the other and the Prince was drunk at his own wedding (perhaps the only way he could go through with it). After the birth of their first child early the following year, a daughter, the two lived apart. Meanwhile, the Prince of Wales was becoming more critical to national life as King George III began to show signs of madness, actually the first symptoms of porphyria. As the behavior of the King became more erratic, more looked to the Prince of Wales for leadership. Yet, for some, the Prince seemed all too eager to snatch power from his father. He did himself no favors by associating with the opposition, mocking the King, spreading embarrassing stories about him and even speaking (though surely not seriously) about a sort of palace coup to seize the royal powers for himself. Despite rallying for a time, eventually the mental state of the King became such that he had to be set aside and the Prince of Wales was appointed regent to act on his behalf in 1811.

With his achievement of power, the Prince of Wales did not immediately become the creature of the Whigs as many had expected. The Tories continued in power and continued the vigorous prosecution of the war against Napoleon. He presided over the War of 1812 with the United States, signed the peace ending that conflict and he saw Napoleon finally defeated at the Battle of Waterloo. So central did that battle become to the British national narrative that the Prince Regent seemed to genuinely convince himself that he had actually been present on the field that day, which of course he was not. The final peace achieved at the Congress of Vienna saw the British Empire in a very strong position with new footholds around the world and the elevation of Hanover to a kingdom. In 1820 King George III passed away and, at 57, the Prince Regent came to the throne as King George IV. The occasion was marked by what was probably the most lavish and grandiose coronation in British history. Although some groaned about the huge expense, the people enjoyed the occasion and the grand style of George IV symbolized a British Empire that had emerged victorious from the French Revolutionary Wars and was growing around the world.

There was plenty of criticism during the rather short ten-year reign of King George IV for his personal habits, his spending and his interference in politics. That, however, should be kept in perspective. The criticism of his personal life was mostly accurate but his political meddling was mostly due to incorrect assumptions based on his previous association with the Whigs. In fact, he largely stayed out of politics and the era of royal involvement in government seen during the reign of his father stopped and the era of royal non-interference had begun with George IV (or resumed from the first two Georges). However, that fact alone meant that when he did involve himself in political matters, particularly to carry on certain policies of his father (such as blocking Catholic emancipation) caused it to stand out more than it should have. There was also more to the man than the drunken glutton portrayed in the press. Many consider him the most intelligent of the Hanoverian monarchs and, when he was sober, he could demonstrate his knowledge, wit and uncanny memory.

Surely the greatest contribution made by King George IV was in his great sense of style. He left the country far more grand than he found it. Many of the most famous landmarks of Britain are attributable to King George IV. Whereas his predecessors had lived more simply in the German style, George IV seemed more reminiscent of the great patrons of the arts from the Stuart era. He restored Windsor Castle and rebuilt the Royal Lodge (lately the home of the Queen Mother). Brighton Pavilion was probably his most grandiose architectural achievement, built in an Oriental style it had Near Eastern exteriors, Chinese interiors and it still stands as a monument to the cosmopolitan nature of the British Empire. It also turned Brighton from a largely overlooked community to a major holiday center. The King stayed there often and after 1800 lived again with Maria Fitzherbert who still regarded herself as his wife, in the eyes of God if not in the eyes of the law. Although not often known, she did help him considerably, nursing him back from a stomach ailment and managing to get him to cut down on his drinking. Whenever they were together she proved to be very good for him. His unstable legal wife, Caroline of Brunswick, had left the country to live a rather scandalous life in Italy only to return at the time of his coronation to claim her place as queen. She was turned away at the doors of Westminster Abbey and died in 1821. He had tried to divorce her but was told that to do so would throw into the public much about his private life that would do no one any good. So when Caroline died she at least died fairly popular with the public who had no idea of what she was really like, having most of the same disgusting habits as her husband but without anything like his winning personality.

During his reign, King George IV moved considerably to the right from where he had been in his rebellious youth when aligned with Fox. Once the responsibility of royal leadership was fully on his shoulders, George IV realized that the type of ideas espoused by Fox would lead to anarchy and the sort of revolutionary chaos seen in France. Because of this, the Whigs viewed him as a traitor to their cause and would never forgive him for it. However, he was not the sort of man to put up much of a fight in the political arena. By the time he was actually King, with a lifestyle that had aged him beyond his years, he preferred to avoid confrontation whenever possible. As a result, he often promised one group his support on a certain issue only to fail to give it when it seemed there would be resistance. This left him with an untrustworthy reputation that caused most to try to avoid him. He was secluded most of the time but when he did make public appearances he could still awe a crowd with his magnificent fashion sense and showed that he could still display the regal bearing and dignity of his youth, despite his increased years and even more increased waistline. He could still win people over and, while often discounted, his highly choreographed visit to Scotland (the first such royal visit since the Stuart era) did help bring the United Kingdom more closely together.

In the final years of his reign, as his health declined, George IV seemed to be increasingly out of touch with reality. He devoted his time to planning further even more grandiose building projects, none of which were to ever see fruition. He might also talk at length about his imagined exploits at the Battle of Waterloo where his imaginary role became ever greater and more heroic. He also became much more religious at the very end of his life and that end finally came on June 26, 1830 at the age of 67 at Windsor Castle. Despite all the criticism of his habits and private life, he had not been a terrible monarch even though he was certainly not a great one. The tragedy is that he could have been so much better. He had the intelligence and he had the presence to make for a great monarch but he lacked the discipline and work ethic. As it was, he seemed to be marking time until he was succeeded by his younger brother the Duke of Clarence (King William IV) who himself is often seen as a placeholder until the accession of Queen Victoria. He had many faults but his reign was certainly not a disaster and, if nothing else, George IV at least left behind a country with a few more beautiful buildings and a finer sense of style because of him.


  1. My question for u MM is do u consider him a positive or negative kind given his full history in the end. Did he do enough during the whole time or was it just near the end he did started to improve as king so how would u rank him on a scale of 1 to 10.

    1. As I recently discussed with an English friend of mine, England has been fortunate to have had very, very few monarchs that were legitimately bad. King George IV is one I would maybe rank at a 4 or 5. He certainly was not all he should have been, he did not really do much good aside from leaving some glorious buildings and better fashion trends. However, he was certainly not a disaster, the country didn't fall apart under his reign or anything like that so I can't rate him too poorly.


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