GEORGE IV: AN INDOLENT ENIGMA
George IV, having served intermittently as Prince Regent during his father’s bouts of mental illness during the Napoleonic Wars, was crowned King in 1820 and reigned until his death in 1830. The antithesis of his father, he was conservative in his infrequent political involvement and licentious in his private affairs. Although he was a patron of the arts, he is best remembered by posterity for his prodigal lifestyle of drinking, womanizing and gambling that scandalised the country and got him heavily into debt.
At the tender age of 21, the Prince became infatuated with Maria Fitzherbert, a commoner, six years his elder, twice widowed, and a Roman Catholic. She could not have been more unsuitable for the heir to the throne, but the Prince married her despite two Acts of Parliament regarding royal marriages: the Act of Settlement 1701, which barred the spouse of a Catholic from succeeding to the throne, and the Royal Marriages Act 1772, which prohibited marriage without the King’s consent.
For political reasons, the union remained secret and Mrs. Fitzherbert promised not to reveal it, although legally the union was void, as the King’s consent was never requested or granted. nevertheless, Mrs. Fitzherbert believed herself the Prince’s true wife, holding the law of the Church to be superior to the law of the State.
Continuing his exorbitant lifestyle, the prince became deeply indebted, and the king’s refusal to assist forced him to quit his residence at Carlton House and live with Mrs. Fitzherbert. In 1787, the Prince’s political allies proposed to relieve his debts with a parliamentary grant, warning that any revelation of the true nature of the Prince’s relationship with Mrs. Fitzherbert would scandalize the nation and kill any parliamentary proposal to aid him. Mrs. Fitzherbert, overset by a public denial of her marriage,contemplated severing her ties to the Prince, but meanwhile Parliament granted him £161,000 (equal to £16,775,000 today) to pay his debts and additional monies to improve to Carlton House.
The Royal Pavilion at Brighton, commissioned by the Prince as a place to tryst with his mistresses, is testimony of his extreme extravagance.
Eventually, the marriage was declared illegal at his father’s behest; as he would have been ineligible to reign with a Catholic wife. After Mrs. Fitzherbert’s dismissal from court, George turned again to mistresses until he submitted to the King’s wishes in 1795 to marry his cousin Caroline of Brunswick.
The couple detested each other and produced only one daughter, Caroline in 1796. The couple separated and Caroline took the child and moved to Italy, returning to England only when George succeeded his father, to claim the rights of queen. George, however, barred her from his coronation, and denied her queenship.
Throughout his life, George IV had many mistresses, and is said to have cut a lock of hair from each one, placing it in an envelope with her name on it. Supporting the rumor, an astonishing 1000 such envelopes were discovered upon his death.
The Duke of Wellington described George IV:
“He was the most extraordinary compound of talent, wit, buffoonery, obstinacy, and good feelings, in short, a medley of the most opposite qualities, with a great preponderance of good – that I ever saw in any character in my life.”