Dr Steve Parissien looks back at the life of George the Fourth whose name became a byword for extravagance and a national joke.
By Dr Steven Parissien
Last updated 2011-02-17
Dr Steve Parissien looks back at the life of George the Fourth whose name became a byword for extravagance and a national joke.
Never in modern times has a sovereign died so unlamented, nor has the person of the monarch retained so little respect after death, as King George IV in 1830. Robert Huish's venomous biography of 1830-1 declared of the late King that, 'with a personal income 'exceeding the national revenue of a third-rate power, there appeared to be no limit to his desires, nor any restraint to his profusion', and concluded that George IV contributed more 'to the demoralisation of society than any prince recorded in the pages of history'.
George Augustus Frederick, 21st Prince of Wales, was born on 12 August 1762. Even his birth was dogged by the sort of absurdity which was to dominate his life, as the attending courtier, the Earl of Huntingdon, promptly pronounced the newborn heir to be a girl. And as Prince of Wales and, after 1811, Regent for his increasingly ailing and mad father George III, George was not to prove, as one royal apologist piously hoped at the beginning of his Regency, 'a great king - the lover of his people - the protector of liberty and defender of the laws - as bright, if not brighter, than any of his predecessors'. Although one of the most gifted of royal princes, his obsessive self-interest and vast expenditure on palaces and pictures, militaria and mistresses, parties and pageants meant that, by the time of his accession to the throne in 1820, he had become a byword for senseless extravagance and a national joke.
Even his birth was dogged by the sort of absurdity which was to dominate his life
As Prince, Regent and King, George IV strove to fashion an idealised image of himself that increasingly bore little relation to reality. His glittering art collections and over-ambitious building programmes; the colourful, pseudo-historic pageants he devised for his coronation of 1821 and his visit to Edinburgh of 1822; his fascination with soldiering and with the trappings and symbols of military success (though his father never allowed him to be responsible for more than a pet regiment stationed at home) - all these testified to his seemingly inexhaustible desire to promote himself to a place in the nation's hearts which his dismal conduct had signally failed to win. Depressed by his evident failure to reinvent himself, as monarch (1820-30) the ailing King simply withdrew into a fantasy world of laudanum and alcohol.
George IV's undoubted charm, his evident wit, his innate aesthetic sense, his enthusiasm and his imagination still left him ill-equipped to rise to the challenge of a nation daily growing in self confidence and wealth. His self-indulgence and short attention span, together with his evident ability to abandon political principles and to forget friendships with barely a backward glance, won him little praise. One obituary of George IV attested that, 'At an age when generous feelings are usually predominant, we find him absorbed by an all-engrossing selfishness; not merely careless of the feelings of others, but indulging in wanton cruelty'. While this judgement is harsh, George had certainly been heedless of the feelings even of those closest to him. The obituarist's subsequent comment that 'George IV was essentially a lover of personal ease' - and that 'during the later years of his life, a quiet indulgence of certain sensual enjoyments seemed the sole object of his existence' - is difficult to fault.
George's notorious treatment of his legion of mistresses is easy to censure. His first serious affair was at the age of 17, and by the time he came of age in 1783 he was well-known as an inveterate ladies man who would woo his targets ardently, promise them his eternal love - and a sizeable pension - and then brusquely drop them when he tired of their charms. The whole royal edifice of sexual respectability and family values which George III had worked so hard to create in the 1760s and 70s was rapidly demolished by his son and heir, brick by brick. And, significantly, as he grew older George's marked preference was not for younger, libidinous lovers but for older, motherly mistresses who were able to offer a degree of sympathy and understanding which had never received from his own, coldly calculating mother, Queen Charlotte.
George was forced to agree to a proper marriage to a suitably Protestant German princess in order to have his immense debts paid off by parliament.
The most famous and long lasting of these older women was the twice-widowed Catholic, Maria Fitzherbert, whom George actually married - in an illegal ceremony - in 1785. His attachment to Maria was predictably fitful; cast aside for the scheming Countess of Jersey in 1794, she was reconciled to the royal bosom in 1800 only to be rejected once more a decade later. In the meantime, however, George was forced to agree to a proper marriage to a suitably Protestant German princess in order to have his immense debts paid off by parliament - by no means the last time that such a solution would be necessary.
Somewhat inevitably, the subsequent marriage to Princess Caroline of Brunswick was an unmitigated disaster.The Prince was blind drunk at his wedding, and the couple only cohabited long enough to beget an heir: the ill-fated Princess Charlotte, who tragically died in childbirth in 1817. When, in his letter to Queen Caroline of 30 April 1796, the Prince of Wales piously expressed the hope that 'the rest of our lives will be passed in uninterrupted tranquillity', he actually had no intention of fulfilling this lofty aim, and had indeed already parted from her. Almost from the moment that Princess Charlotte was born, the Prince exaggerated or simply invented slights perpetrated by his wife against himself, and as the years progressed his demands and complaints became increasingly unreasonable and hysterical. The climax came with his attempted divorce of 1820 - an act which only served to unite the whole nation against him, which as quickly dropped by the government, and which provided even further ammunition for the scurrilous satires of the day.
Women were not George's only passion. Flamboyant and extravagant costumes were another significant and lifelong preoccupation. From his earliest years he enjoyed the feel, colour and sheer thrill of expensive and well-cut new outfits. As early as 1782 George's friend the Duchess of Devonshire admitted that the Prince of Wales 'is fond of dress even to a tawdry degree' and that 'his person, his dress and the admiration he has met... from women take up his thoughts chiefly'. Her prediction, however, that his fascination with clothes, 'young as he is, will soon wear off', was to prove very optimistic. Indeed, as he grew older, the images which fashion could create - whether of the 'First Gentleman of Europe', an Admiral of the Fleet or an Elizabethan sovereign - became one of George's primary obsessions. Guided by the arbiter of fashion George 'Beau' Brummell, the Prince's day-to-day wear did indeed become an important standard for British and continental contemporaries. The memory of the subtlety and exemplary tailoring of such outfits was, however, soon erased by George's increasing girth - his waist measured 50 inches on his death - and by his growing penchant for outrageous, pseudo-historical fancy dress.
To George IV, everything revolved around his own whims and caprices; if these altered, so the attitudes and actions of his friends, his household and his government were expected to follow suit. Notwithstanding the King's incontrovertible charm, this major failing was to exasperate even his political supporters. In 1829 Charles Greville put his finger on it: 'He has a sort of capricious good-nature, arising however out of no good principles or good feeling, but which is of use to him, as it cancels in a moment'.
This fascinating combination of talents and insecurities can, unsurprisingly, be traced directly to his relationship with his parents. Much of his aesthetic sense appears to have been inherited from his father, who was in many ways as accomplished a connoisseur as his eldest son. However, George IV's subsequent collecting policy and building programmes were guided by an overwhelming desire to shock his parents and to reject his father's values. This reaction to the stifling morality of George III's court was perhaps inevitable. It was certainly in the tradition of his family; and in George IV's own case, he had good reason to feel aggrieved at an unnecessarily strict, austere upbringing that was notably deficient in terms of both academic achievement and emotional support.
The example of Emperor Napoleon was one which George was constantly trying both to emulate.
George spent his early years not at the royal stronghold of Windsor Castle, the home of the Order of the Garter, but in the modest Surrey villas which his father seemed to prefer to the many castles and palaces at his disposal. The Prince's subsequent preference for vast and elaborately-decorated new homes must surely have been a direct reaction to the relatively cramped and sober environments provided by these undersized and unpretentious early residences. The astonishingly colourful, glittering and eclectic interiors he created at Brighton Pavilion, Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle and Carlton House all set new standards of lavishness, taste, connoisseurship and ostentation. And they survived - all save Carlton House, demolished on George IV's orders in 1826 - as the key royal residences of the 19th and century.
One of the principal reasons why the Prince Regent was so eager to build, augment and redecorate his magnificent palaces was so he would be judged by posterity to be a more munificent patron than his great rival across the Channel. His overblown view of his own self-importance made it inevitable that George, a perennial francophile, would seek to measure himself against the one man who, during his lifetime, really did dominate Europe: Napoleon Bonaparte. To all but George IV, any comparison between the two rulers was laughable. However, the example of the Corsican emperor was one which George was constantly trying both to emulate and surpass.
Newly equipped with the financial resources of the Regency in 1811, George announced that henceforth he and his court would 'quite eclipse Napoleon'. By the time of the Emperor's fall in 1815, this understandable aim had been converted into blatant self-promotion. For the rest of his life George persisted in the fiction that he alone had been Napoleon's nemesis. That the decaying King should in his dotage begin to believe that he had played a key role at the Battle of Waterloo itself was, given his daily consumption of prodigious amounts of drugs and and of cherry brandy, a predictable progression.
What is perhaps most astonishing about George's life and achievements is that the British monarchy survived his appalling neglect of his office and its responsibilities. During the late 18th and 19th century that institution suffered successively from George III's ostensible insanity, George IV's self-obsession, William IV's cavalier attitude to parliament and, after 1861, the reclusive Victoria's blank refusal to fulfil her constitutional role. Yet by the beginning of the 20th century the monarchy was once again in rude health.
The explanation for this lies in the events and circumstances of George IV's adulthood, when what Linda Colley and others have defined as a growing sense of national identity, of a genuine 'Britishness' which encompassed the basic concept of constitutional monarchy while relegating the actual incumbent of the throne to a marginal role. The sovereign was celebrated in abstract as head of state, whose limited powers were unlike those of any other European power and who, crucially, was answerable to parliament. This apparently successful constitutional balance was indeed one of the key factors that helped many Britons to define their own sense of place and worth. It is interesting that the royal family survived the years of George IV's adulthood to emerge re-branded and reformed - diminished, perhaps, but still buoyant. Prince Albert, and not George IV, must surely be credited with enabling the British monarchy to weather the changing circumstances of the industrial age, ensuring that by 1900 this ancient institution was once again able to play a significant part in the life of everyday Britons.
In many ways he was a strikingly modern monarch
George IV was, by the time of his death, largely an irrelevance to Britain's constitutional equation. He undoubtedly left to his successors and their subjects a shimmering legacy of stunning - though at the same time highly eclectic and diverse - homes and collections. And many of the pageants and settings he had devised for his own pleasure and amusement were subsequently adapted to serve as key symbols in the iconography of 19th and 20th century monarchy. But he also bequeathed to future generations, and particularly to the sovereigns who were to follow him, an object lesson in how, and how not, to conduct oneself.
In many ways he was a strikingly modern monarch - not in the constitutional sense, but in the way in which he intrinsically recognised how an attractive, manufactured image could be used to hide or divert attention from the less impressive aspects of the life of a key public figure. In this context, George IV's obsessive desire to be taken for something which he plainly was not anticipated the celebrity culture of present-day Britain and, more pertinently, foreshadowed the attempts during the last four decades to market and repackage the British monarchy. George IV's crucial mistake was to actually believe in the image he had carefully manufactured, rather than in the less edifying reality. For most of his subjects, whatever he did George remained as the cartoonist George Cruikshank had defined him in 1814: The Grand Entertainment.
King George IV, The Grand Entertainment by Steve Parissien (John Murray, 2001)
George IV by Steve Parissien, (John Murray, 2001)
George IV by Christopher Hibbert (Penguin, 1998)
George IV by E.A.Smith (YUP, 2000)
The Secret Wife of King George IV by Diane Haeger (Saint Martin's Press)
Dr Steve Parissien, Assistant Director of Yale University's Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art. Dr Parissien has written extensively on architectural history and building conservation. His second book, Adam Style (Phaidon Press, 1992), was voted Apollo magazine's Book of the Year for 1992 and the American Institute of Architecture's Book of the Year Choice for 1993. His biography of King George IV, The Grand Entertainment, was published by John Murray in March 2001.
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