The Georges

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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!

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The story

The observant reader will deduce that this was written sometime before the accession of George V, never mind George VI. By the way, that’s not a typo in the fifth line – the word is indeed “descended”, as in going downwards after death.

This was actually a highly uncharacteristic outburst of doggerel from Walter Savage Landor (1775–1864). While Landor’s name is still recognised by many nowadays, almost no one reads him anymore. His Imaginary Conversations (with famous people from history) might still be bedside reading for some, but most of his poetry, with its heavy classicism, is hardly read at all these days.

If he’d had more of the populist touch, like his friend Charles Dickens, he might have lived on as a household name, because he was one of the most colourful personalities of his day. Dickens apparently modelled the character of Mr Boythorn in Bleak House on Landor: loud, extroverted, hearty and quarrelsome but an extremely generous man at heart. That was Landor all over.

Landor’s adventures included fighting for the Spanish rebels against Napoleon’s occupying army. He raised a volunteer unit at his own expense and was awarded the honorary rank of colonel. When he returned to the property he’d bought at the ruined Llantony Abbey in Monmouthshire, the story goes that he was sent some merino sheep by the Spaniards. Landor was no lover of the House of Hanover to start with, and it seems that the sheep were mistakenly appropriated by the royals, as they had arrived with some gifts for the Prince Regent. The verses above may have been posthumous vengeance when George IV died.

Landor liked to settle his scores in verse. As one of the leading classical scholars of his day, he sometimes tried to get around the libel laws by attacking his targets in Latin. Living in Italy, he would discover that the laws there stated that you could libel someone in Latin. Back in England, another libel suit (though for defamation in English this time) left him living out his final years on the charity of family and friends.

Whatever arguments Britons have nowadays about the merits of having a monarchy, it’s always worth remembering that many of our ancestors were outright republicans. Many more may have been committed to the idea of monarchy, but uninspired by the actual monarchs.

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Landor’s epitaph is probably only the best-known of no end of satirical verses written at the time, and since. In the hit-parade of Hanover libels it’d come just ahead of Edmund Clerihew Bentley (1875–1956) and his George the Third/Ought never to have occurred./One can only wonder/ At so grotesque a blunder. Or Winthrop Mackworth Praed (1802–1839) on George IV: A noble, nasty course he ran,/Superbly filthy and fastidious./He was the world’s “first gentleman,”/And made the appellation hideous.