King George IV

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King George IV (August 12, 1762 – June 26, 1830) was king of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland from January 29, 1820 until his death, as well as King of Hanover (now part of Germany). Prior to his taking the throne in his own right, he was Prince Regent during his father King George III's bouts of madness. George IV was succeeded in 1830 by his brother, the Duke of Clarence, who reigned as King William IV. George IV was an ineffective leader and was hated by the British people as a lecherous glutton.

Contents

Life

Born in London on August 12, 1762 as George Augustus Frederick, he was the eldest son of King George III and Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. At the age of 18 he was given a separate establishment, and in dramatic contrast with his prosaic, scandal-free father threw himself with zest into a life of dissipation and wild extravagance involving heavy drinking and numerous mistresses and escapades. He was a witty conversationalist, drunk or sober, and showed good, but expensive taste, in decorating his palace. On turning 21 he received £60,000 and £62,000 annually, not enough enough for his needs. (The stables alone cost £31,000 a year.) By 1795 he was £630,000 in debt, but Parliament covered it.[1]

George attached himself to Charles James Fox and the Whigs in opposition to his father's Tory ministers. In 1785 Prince George secretly married Mrs. Maria Fitzherbert, a beautiful young widow who was a Roman Catholic. The law of 1701 stipulated that anyone who married a Catholic forfeited his right to the throne. The Prince had a loophole, for a 1772 law his marriage was illegal, since it did not have the king's consent. Mrs. Fitzherbert regarded herself as his wife in the eyes of his church and in her own eyes. She was recognized by all, including the king, as the best influence on George's life.

In 1795 a real marriage was arranged with Princess Caroline (1768-1821), daughter of the Duke of Brunswick and of George III's sister Augusta. George consented to this dynastic necessity in return for yet another grant from Parliament for the payment of his debts. She rejected his request to bring along his latest mistress, Lady Jersey, on the honeymoon. This loveless marriage of an unstable profligate to a giddy woman turned out poorly, with 25 years of bitterness and public dissension, even though they separated after the birth of their only child, Princess Charlotte, in 1796.

Regent and King

The Prince drifted away from the Whigs after Fox died in 1806, and when he became regent in 1811 for his insane father, he refused to dismiss the Tory prime minister, Spencer Perceval, and did not bring in the Whigs. In 1812 he broke with the Whigs and retained his father's Tory ministers. The decision was politically wise, for the Whigs were unenthusiastic about the prolonged war with Napoleon, and their support for Catholic Emancipation was unacceptable to the Protestant establishment. By contrast the Tories, under the leadership of Lord Liverpool (1812-1827), remained entrenched in power throughout the regency and George’s subsequent reign.

His father died in 1820 and the Prince became King George IV. His official marriage was in crisis, as the public knew about his wife's adultery and in 1814 she left to be with her new lover in Italy, but she returned when George became king. Determined finally to be rid of her, the king had his ministers introduce a "Bill of Pains and Penalties" that would dissolve the marriage and deprive her of her title and royal rights. Caroline was much more popular than her husband, and was championed by the king's many enemies; therefore the bill had tepid supported from the House of Lords and was withdrawn. The angry king had to settle for a legal separation.

In these royal disputes the public had always taken the "mistreated" wife's part against her loose-living husband; and this greatly increased George's unpopularity. Counting on public support, Caroline, in a notorious incident, tried and failed to force her way into Westminster Abbey at the king's coronation; she died soon afterward.

Reign

A weak monarch, George IV let his ministers take full charge of government affairs, playing a far lesser role than his father, The principle now became established that the king accepts as prime minister the person who wins a majority in the House of Commons, whether the king personally favors him or not. This was the old Whig principle they had championed under George III, but which kept them out of power. The king had to accept George Canning, first as foreign minister and later as prime minister. He had to drop his opposition to Catholic Emancipation, without winning any credit for it.

His governments, with little help from the king, presided over victory in the Napoleonic Wars, negotiated the peace settlement, and attempted to deal with the social and economic malaise that followed.

Intellectually the cleverest of the Hanoverian kings, George IV was the least successful in politics. Wits commented in his youth he was destined to be either the most polished gentleman or the most accomplished blackguard in Europe--possibly both. His charm and culture earned him the title "the first gentleman of Europe," but his bad relations with his father and wife, and his dissolute way of life earned him the contempt of the people and dimmed the prestige of the monarchy. Taxpayers were angry at his wasteful spending in time of war. He did not provide national leadership in time of crisis, nor a role model for his people. His ministers found his behavior selfish, unreliable, and irresponsible. At all times he was much under the influence of favorites.

On the other hand he did not interfere in politics, thus allowing the modern constitution to emerge whereby an elected government made policy. On the positive side he did well as patron of the arts, helping painters such as Sir Thomas Lawrence, and architects such as John Nash. He built the exquisite Pavilion at Brighton, carried out the remodeling of Windsor Castle, and using connoisseurship to make the Royal Collection one of the finest in the world; and his devotion to building, which left a significant mark on the architectural heritage.

His last years were marked by increasing physical and mental decay; he died, unlamented, at Windsor on June 26, 1830. The Times commented, "There never was an individual less regretted by his fellow creatures than the deceased King ...an inveterate voluptuary...of all known beings the most selfish." Privately a senior aide to the king confided to his diary:[2]

"A more contemptible, cowardly, selfish, unfeeling dog does not exist....There have been good and wise kings but not many of them...and this I believe to be one of the worst."

Bibliography

  • Baker, Kenneth. "George IV: a Sketch." History Today 2005 55(10): 30-36. Issn: 0018-2753 Fulltext: Ebsco
  • Gash, Norman. Lord Liverpool (1985).
  • Haeger, Diane. The Secret Wife of King George IV (2001) excerpt and text search
  • Hibbert, Christopher. "George IV (1762–1830)," Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004); online edn. 2007
  • Hibbert, Christopher. George IV: The Rebel Who Would Be King (1974, 2007) excerpt and text search
  • Parissien, Steven. George IV (2002) excerpt and text search
  • Smith, E.A. George IV (The English Monarchs Series) (2001) excerpt and text search
  • Smith, E. A. "Caroline (1768–1821)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (2004); online edn, 2008

References

  1. Marilyn Morris, "Princely Debt, Public Credit, and Commercial Values in Late Georgian Britain." Journal of British Studies 2004 43(3): 339-365. Issn: 0021-9371 Fulltext: Ebsco
  2. Kenneth Baker, "George IV: a Sketch." History Today 2005 55(10): 30-36.
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