The two sides of George IV: is his wretched reputation deserved?
George IV was cultured, urbane and generous. Yet he trashed his reputation with his weakness for women, wine and spectacular self-indulgence. Two centuries after he became king, Stella Tillyard introduces the two, contrasting, sides of a little-lamented monarch
At the end of January 1820, Charles Greville, young man-about-town and future clerk to the Privy Council, was enjoying the good life at the Duke of Bedford’s luxurious estate of Woburn in Bedfordshire. He “shot the whole week”, he recorded in his diary, “and killed an immense quantity of game”. The solemn news that demanded his close professional attention was more laconically reported. “On Sunday last, arrived the news of the king’s death,” he wrote, adding without comment: “The new king has been desperately ill. He had a bad cold at Brighton, for which he lost 80 ounces of blood; yet he afterwards had a severe oppression, amounting almost to suffocation, on his chest.”
So George III was dead, and the British crown passed to his son George IV, who, at only 57 years old, was almost too broken down to receive it. Greville was to spend many hours in the company of the new king, but he never came to like him. Ten years later, on 16 July, the day after George IV's funeral, Greville noted, as if he had never known him: "Nobody thinks any more of the late king than if he had been dead 50 years, unless it be to abuse him and to rake up all his vices and misdeeds." The august Times newspaper ran a leader the same day declaring with relish that: "There never was an individual less regretted by his fellow creatures than this deceased king," and asked rhetorically: "What eye has wept for him? What heart has heaved one throb of unmercenary sorrow? If George IV ever had a friend – a devoted friend – in any rank of life, we protest that the name of him or her has not yet reached us."
George IV’s reputation was thus poor when he acceded to the throne in 1820, poor when he vacated it in 1830, and has not really recovered since.
'There never was an individual less regretted by his fellow creatures,' opined the Times on the death of George IV
Part of the reason for this is the fact that he was held in low esteem both by his chief executor, the Duke of Wellington, and by his niece, Queen Victoria, who disapproved of his spendthrift ways, his morals and his laziness. The duke destroyed many of George IV’s personal possessions and, presumably, as much of his private correspondence, both incoming and outgoing, that he could get hold of. As for Queen Victoria, she hung onto the best of his paintings, porcelain, silver and furniture, but sold off or junked what she didn’t like.
Few of George’s acts as king and, before that, regent (when George ruled as a proxy for his father, who had been declared irremediably mad) are remembered. In the absence of George’s jottings and sketches, his plans for interiors and his vast and expensive wardrobe, his private world and emotions are difficult to reconstruct. And so it was left to Victoria, and the age to which she gave her name, to fill the vacuum and seal George IV’s terrible image in the eyes of the British people.
Victoria, who acceded to the throne seven years after George’s death (following the brief reign of William IV), set out to be everything her uncle was not: a successful and long-lasting monarch; a devoted spouse with a large brood. As if that wasn’t enough to eclipse him, his father, George III, was another hardworking monarch (before he succumbed to mental illness), faithfully married for 57 years and the father of 15 children.
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Although George was undoubtedly the architect of his own lowly reputation, he was also unlucky in the time and circumstances in which he inherited the throne. In 1820 he was an ailing man without a direct heir or family. Estranged from his wife, with his only daughter dead in childbirth, he was obese and dependent on alcohol and laudanum. Lackadaisical at the best of times about business, at the end of his reign he became more a hindrance to the governance of the nation than a symbol of its greatness.
But this bleak picture is only part of the story. George IV was also a man of charm and taste, probably the last British monarch to display any real feeling for good painting, innovative architecture and eclectic design. He could be gracious, was naturally socially adroit, and skilled at putting visitors at their ease. His instincts were always on the side of kindness. He was playful with children and generous to his sisters, was unafraid of sentimentality and hated cruelty towards animals.
When George was king, he shrank at any discussion of the execution of criminals, which he had to approve, and always preferred leniency. “It not unfrequently happens that a culprit escapes owing to the scruples of the king,” an observer noted. Had he not been who he was, his acquaintance Lady Holland wrote, “he would, I am persuaded, have been a most amiable man”. Unfortunately, George was a prince – both Prince of Wales and Prince Regent – for a very long time, and it was this accident of birth, about which he could do nothing, that defined his life.
George IV was also a man of charm and taste, probably the last British monarch to display any real feeling for good painting, innovative architecture and eclectic design
A very few years after his birth on 12 August 1762, George would have become aware that he was different from the long line of brothers and sisters who followed him. He was the heir to the throne, and subject way beyond his childhood not just to the conditions of the 1701 Act of Settlement that laid down the relationship between the crown and the executive, but also to his father’s whims and strictures. The Act of Settlement precluded him from marrying a Catholic, while the Royal Marriages Act of 1772 forbade him from marrying anyone without his father’s permission before the age of 25. By the time he was 23, in a spectacular enactment of the multi-generation Hanoverian hatred between kings and heirs, George had done both.
Listen to acclaimed historian and author Antonia Fraser discuss her book The King and the Catholics: The Fight for Rights 1829.
George’s relationship with his father began to unravel at a very young age. He was removed from his family as a young boy and set up in Kew Palace under the eye of a harsh governor, Lord Holdernesse, and several tutors. By the time George was a teenager, the combination of an unremittingly severe regime, subservience and emotional neglect had produced a rebellious, self-regarding young man, one disinclined to the efforts required of his position as the future king.
This set him on an inevitable collision course with his father, who voiced a disapproval and disdain that the prince soon returned. The king “hates me”, George told his friend James Harris a few years later, adding: “He always did, from seven years old.” As if to spite his father, as soon as he turned 18 and was granted his own establishment, the prince began to pursue with great energy and pleasure the life of women, song and wine that his father most feared.
The duties of the Prince of Wales were undefined, but, in practice, determined by the king. From the age of 21, George received a handsome allowance of £62,000 a year, and a household and establishment of his own in Carlton House on the southern side of Pall Mall. He was forbidden from leaving the country without permission or taking a military role, both of which he longed to do, and he was now in a very public way his father’s heir. George III expected him to act with the decorum his position demanded, especially in the matter of politics, where he was expected, if not to support his father, then certainly to stay out of the limelight.
Matters were supposed to continue in this way until the king died. But in 1783, when the prince moved into Carlton House, his father was only 45 years old. Decades might pass before he inherited the throne. The burning question of the prince’s life was what to do in the meantime.
The answer came quickly: George began to overspend extravagantly, on full-scale renovations to Carlton House, on furniture and art and on a spectacular wardrobe. He pursued enthusiastically all the amorous opportunities that money and rank put in his way, and infuriated his father by consorting with opposition Whig politicians, notably the brilliant and louche Charles James Fox. At Carlton House he shrugged off the disciplined use of the day and tepid evening entertainments. When he was to be found at home, it was often in his bedchamber, where he transacted both friendship and business. The memoirist Nathaniel Wraxall reported that visitors often found the prince in bed, “rolling about from side to side in a state approaching to nudity”.
Early in 1784, when he was still 21, the prince met a twice-widowed Catholic, Maria Fitzherbert. Six years his senior, and extremely devout, Mrs Fitzherbert rebuffed George’s advances, driving him to frenzies of letter-writing and present-giving that culminated first in her fleeing to France to escape his advances, and then, when that failed, to his promising a marriage that he was in no position to offer. It went ahead, legal in the eyes of the Catholic church, doubly illegal (and therefore non-existent) in English law, a fact that would prove convenient to the prince some years later.
Timeline: George IV's scandalous life
12 August 1762Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, wife of King George III, gives birth to the future George IV at St James's Palace.
15 December 1785George marries Maria Fitzherbert in secret. The union is illegal on two counts: she is a Roman Catholic and he has failed to secure his father's permission to marry her.
8 April 1795Having dismissed Maria the previous year, George marries his cousin Princess Caroline of Brunswick, in exchange for parliament paying off his debts. The marriage is a disaster and George soon tries – and fails – to divorce her.
7 January 1796Caroline of Brunswick gives birth to George's only child, Princess Charlotte of Wales. Charlotte becomes the darling of the nation before dying, aged 21, shortly after childbirth in 1817.
1811George becomes Prince Regent, ruling on behalf of his mentally ill father.
1815George commissions John Nash to design a seaside residence for him. The result, completed in 1822, is the remarkable Royal Brighton Pavilion inspired by the architecture of India and China.
29 January 1820George ascends to the throne as king following the death of his father. By now, he is obese and dependent on alcohol and laudanum.
1823George gives his father's extensive library to the British Museum. Throughout his life, he is a prolific collector of art, a generous patron and a fine musician.
13 April 1829Under huge pressure from his ministers, George gives assent to the Roman Catholic Relief Act, allowing Catholics to hold public office and sit in parliament.
26 June 1830After teetering on the edge of death for months, George succumbs to a ruptured blood vessel.
With Mrs Fitzherbert installed in a mansion round the corner from Carlton House, the prince’s domestic life stabilised, though his eye continued to rove. By the early 1790s, after a crisis when the king was ill and the prince had been all too eager to take the reins of power, his relationship with both his father and the press was on the rocks. The only way to appease both was to get married properly, which would also release the funds to pay off his massive debts. In 1794, having already taken a new mistress, George dismissed Mrs Fitzherbert (though he left instructions in his will of 1796 that he be buried with his miniature of Mrs Fitzherbert round his neck) and the following year married his cousin Princess Caroline of Brunswick.
This was another disaster, undertaken with scant regard for the people involved. From the first, the prince hated Caroline and claimed only to have slept with her three times. Although an heir, Princess Charlotte, was born from this brief flurry, George’s marriage only made everything worse. The public sided with the princess, the prince’s debts mounted again and the king continued implacable.
Princess Charlotte’s death in childbirth, aged 21 in 1817, earned George scant sympathy, and even after Queen Caroline’s death shortly after his coronation, in August 1821, his public reputation rose very little.
Through all this, though, as prince and then king, George remained a man capable of kindness, generosity and artistic discernment. In his youth he was a leader of fashion and style, and always insisted on the highest standards of tailoring and finish in every project he undertook. He was a fine musician and was capable of genuine admiration for singers and composers, counting it an honour, for instance, to play the piano accompaniment for Gioachino Rossini when the Italian came to Britain in 1823 to sing through arias from his operas. George was a generous patron to various institutions and gave his father’s extensive library in its entirety to the British Museum in 1823, a gift that resulted in the demolition of the existing museum and the building of a grand new neoclassical structure.
After music, the prince’s talents were best engaged by art and architecture. George IV was the last monarch who bought any decent art for the crown (much of which is currently on display in an exhibition at Buckingham Palace – see the end of the piece for more details). His collection of Dutch 17th-century painting, first hung in Carlton House and then divided between Buckingham Palace and Windsor, was of the highest quality.
Though his alterations at Carlton House resulted in an overdose of grandeur without a controlling aesthetic, and the renovations at Windsor and Buckingham Palace lacked lightness, the construction and decoration of the Royal Pavilion in Brighton resulted in perhaps the only royal building that shows any genuine personal stamp and flair.
George was capable of kindness, generosity and artistic discernment. In his youth he was a leader of fashion and style
George first took the lease of the house that turned into the pavilion in 1786, but it was only in 1815 that the plain house began its transformation under the architect John Nash. When finished in 1822, the pavilion stupefied and horrified visitors in equal measure. While one described the exterior as “taken from the Kremlin at Moscow”, the interior seemed to others an enchanted palace of light, with colours shifting through stained glass, and light glancing and twinkling from lanterns, mirrors, chandeliers and lacquered walls. Glittering objects filled the rooms: gilt conch-shells, silvered dragons and snakes, and gilded furniture. Everything was saturated with colour: deep reds, yellows, blues.
Reformer to reactionary
George IV was an immensely strong man but not even his formidable frame could withstand the decades of abuse to which he subjected it. On 26 June 1830, that abuse finally caught up with him and, after months of drifting towards death at Windsor Castle, a ruptured blood vessel sent him to his grave.
Few lamented his passing – as the Times' leader-writer pointed out with stinging relish – yet George's reign may not have been the unmitigated disaster that it is widely portrayed to be. If George, the man, had two sides to him, so does his legacy. He was, for example, too averse to bureaucratic work to interfere much in the business of government – yet this very lack of meddling contributed to the solidity of the constitutional monarchy over which he presided.
During his life, George undertook a political journey from reformer to reactionary. The French Revolution ended the sympathy he had once held for constitutional change, and the Napoleonic Wars and unrest in Ireland turned it to a firm hostility. But, as his reign drew to a close, George – under immense pressure from the Duke of Wellington – signed the Catholic Relief Act of 1829. This not only allowed Catholics to hold public office and sit in parliament, but also paved the way for the more wholesale changes to the franchise of the Great Reform Act of 1832.
George IV may have, at times, appeared hellbent on wrecking the monarchy. But, in signing the act, he contributed to the piecemeal reforms that were handed out with just enough frequency to preserve aristocratic government and the crown itself.
Stella Tillyard is an author and historian. Her latest book, George IV: King in Waiting, was published by Allen Lane in July 2019
George IV: Art & Spectacle, an exhibition at Buckingham Palace, showcases some of the highlights of the king's extraordinary art collection
This article was first published in the February 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine