George IV was highly unpopular in his lifetime, and almost equally unpopular after it. Nobody regretted his death except his mercenary mistress, Lady Conyngham – the supply of jewels and trinkets had been cut off – and even she was bored with him. Grief was absent at his funeral. ‘A coronation could hardly be gayer,’ noted a peer, and the Times reported that there was ‘not a single mark of sympathy’ in the congregation. It seemed, wrote Mme de Lieven, that George IV had ‘never seriously inspired anyone with attachment’. Later observers viewed him no more favourably, Thackeray catching the prevailing flavour in 1855 and fixing it for future generations in his brilliant essay in The Four Georges.
The 20th century has seen several biographies of the last of the four, much the best of which is Christopher Hibbert’s two-volume study published nearly thirty years ago. The late E.A. Smith, who sadly died between the writing and the publication of this biography, thought that all previous studies were ‘to some degree superficial, and most follow the view that George IV was a dissolute, pleasure-loving dilettante and a feeble, ineffective monarch who dissipated the popularity of the throne created by his father, allowed the constitutional power of the crown to be eroded by unscrupulous politicians, and brought the royal family into a disrepute from which it was rescued only by the virtuous reign of his niece Victoria and her husband Prince Albert.’ He therefore decided to take ‘a more balanced view’ and to rehabilitate George IV. Smith was a notable scholar with some excellent books on this period to his credit, and this one is every bit as good as his others. Yet the rehabilitation of George IV is an uphill struggle, and to my mind Smith gets at the most halfway up the hill, sometimes indeed sliding further down it. That, though, is in a sense intentional. After making a claim on behalf of George, the author’s scholarly integrity occasionally leads him to undermine it by providing detailed evidence to the contrary.
A year or so before he died, according to Charles Greville, George IV slept badly and used to ring his bell ‘forty times in the night’. He had a watch close by him, but he sent for his valet de chambre rather than look at it. ‘The same thing if he wants a glass of water; he won’t stretch out his hand to get it.’ This selfishness was not a reversion to his second childhood, for George never grew out of his first one. He was a spoilt child all his life. Yet as a child he had not been spoilt. Although his father, George III, cannot have been unaware that an over-disciplined schooling had proved disastrous with his fairly dreadful siblings, he subjected his own sons to the same strict upbringing. And, like his uncles and brothers, George IV became the worst possible advertisement for such treatment.
He was extremely intelligent. Leaving aside Henry VIII, Charles II and William III, he was perhaps our cleverest King since the Middle Ages. He had polished manners, and was also musical, a lover of literature and a patron of the arts. But there his virtues ended. He was selfish, idle, self-pitying, cruel and unscrupulous. Nor were his brothers much better. Probably, as David Cannadine has written, the lives, loves and morals of George III’s children made them ‘the most unloved royal generation in English history’; though the previous one, the brothers of George III, must have run them pretty close.
George behaved like a spoilt child over his two marriages. His first was to Maria Fitzherbert, a widow six years older than himself. He gained her consent through persistence and the threat of suicide. Since she was a Roman Catholic and the King had not given his consent, the marriage was doubly illegal and almost jeopardised his accession. The Act of Settlement of 1701, repeating the Bill of Rights, excluded from the throne not only Roman Catholics but also anybody who ‘shall marry a papist’; and the Royal Marriages Act of 1772 forbade any descendant of George II to marry without the King’s permission. According to Horace Walpole, one man described this Act as ‘a measure giving the Princes of the Blood leave to lie with our wives, while forbidding them to marry our daughters’. And an MP moved that the Bill’s title be changed to ‘an Act for the encouragement of adultery and fornication’. In fact, neither George nor his brothers needed any encouragement for either of those activities. Not surprisingly, they reacted against the smug prudery of George III and Queen Charlotte, whose faithfulness was never threatened, her ugliness putting adultery out of the question.
Despite the ridicule poured on it, the Bill was forced through Parliament. And then, despite the Act, in December 1785 George and Mrs Fitzherbert went through a ceremony of marriage. George assured his friend, Charles James Fox, that he was not married, and Fox repeated the assurance to the House of Commons. Maria was furious when George told her what Fox had said; and Fox was similarly infuriated when, from somebody who had been present at the wedding, he found out that George had lied to him, and consequently that he himself had deceived his fellow MPs.
George of course was the chief culprit. He was inexcusably irresponsible, selfish and silly to undergo a marriage which, because it was valid in Rome, tied Maria to him but which, because it was invalid in Britain, did not tie him to her. Although its invalidity (thanks to the 1772 Act) did not bring the Act of Settlement into operation, his marriage would have caused a major political crisis had it become fully known. Yet Smith is surely right to blame Maria, too. She knew the marriage was illegal in Britain, and if her piety was a barrier to her taking the easy way out – becoming George’s mistress – she should have stayed away from him.
Nine years later, George left Maria in an unforgivable manner. As his ‘wife’ was sitting down to dinner at the Duke of Clarence’s, where George was expected to join her, she was handed a note, saying that he intended never to see her again. The separation was largely engineered by Lady Jersey, an attractive, tyrannical and deeply unpopular grandmother, who had succeeded Maria as the royal mistress. Having effectively ended the Prince’s first marriage, Lady Jersey had a hand in contriving his second. George’s sole motive for marrying was money. By 1786-7, his almost pathological extravagance had produced debts amounting to some £15 million in today’s money. After Fox’s assurance that he was not married to Mrs Fitzherbert, the Government and House of Commons more or less paid up. But by 1790 George was again in serious debt. He and his two brothers turned to Dutch money-lenders. Their failure to pay them any interest on the loan, let alone repay the capital, led to the lenders’ bankruptcy and, Smith adds, ‘it was alleged they committed suicide.’ Still worse was to follow. The Princes negotiated another Dutch loan, on which Smith’s only comment at this point is that ‘the burden of interest and repayment added to their difficulties in the future.’ But later he says of this second loan: ‘Bonds had been issued but they were never honoured, and a number of French émigrés who had taken them up were got rid of and expelled under the Aliens Act, and on returning to France were sent to the guillotine, while three agents involved in the loan committed suicide.’
Even if George and his brothers were indifferent to the suicide and guillotining of their creditors – or, more probably, relieved by the extinction of their liabilities – one would like to know more. But though Smith has not fully succeeded in clearing the matter up, George and his brothers’ discreditable behaviour is not in doubt; only the extent of their guilt is open to question.
Marriage and the hope of a legitimate heir was the Prince’s only chance of persuading George III to rescue his finances; he did not much care whom he married so long as his debts were paid. Since George III, like other royalty of the day, thought that for ‘a Prince’ to marry ‘a subject’ was ‘dishonourable’, the possible field was effectively limited to German princesses; and Princess Caroline of Brunswick, George’s first cousin, was the victim chosen, possibly at the instance of Lady Jersey. Caroline, too, had had a strict upbringing, her mother being George III’s elder sister and, like him, a foolish, narrow-minded and heavy-handed parent. Caroline survived such a rearing only a little better than her future husband. Like him, she was intelligent and good-looking but, while she lacked his self-righteous and self-pitying malevolence, she was self-willed and reckless in her manners and behaviour.
George began his ill treatment of Caroline even before he had met her. For him to have a mistress was normal enough; for him to impose his mistress, Lady Jersey, on his wife as her lady-in-waiting was odious. George may have come to be called ‘the first gentleman of Europe’, but he was not, as the Duke of Wellington is said to have told him, a gentleman. At his famous first meeting with Caroline, she evidently smelt; he called for brandy and then boorishly left the room. Ever afterwards his treatment of her veered between the boorish and the brutal. (The story of the marriage and of much else is very well told in Flora Fraser’s entertaining biography, The Unruly Quern.) Caroline remained a slattern, but nobody else complained of her personal hygiene. Presumably, therefore, she subsequently improved it.
On his way to the wedding, George told his friend Lord Moira that he would ‘never love any woman but Fitzherbert’. Caroline had thus to contend with a wife, or former wife, and a reigning mistress. She never had a chance of winning. George was drunk at the wedding ceremony, and drunk and probably impotent that night. According to Caroline, he spent ‘the greater part of his bridal night under the grate where he fell and where I left him’. In the morning, however, after he had been retrieved from the grate, he summoned his wife to his bed and managed to perform his duty to her and his country. Three days later, he called for his carriage to go to Mrs Fitzherbert and had to be forcibly prevented from leaving by an equerry. Almost immediately he and Caroline ceased living as man and wife, but she had conceived, which she herself thought something of a miracle. When she gave birth to a daughter, Princess Charlotte, the Prince made a will leaving everything to Mrs Fitzherbert, ‘my wife, the wife of my heart and soul’, and to ‘her who is call’d the Princess of Wales’, he left one shilling. He also insisted that his real wife was to be ‘in no way’ concerned in the care or education of their daughter. Caroline, though, was popular with the public, who thought her a deeply wronged wife, while the Prince was profoundly disliked. Smith considers the popular view to be ‘one-sided and unjust’; it is hard to spot the injustice.
The injustice, if it was one, persisted. Even when the country was celebrating the seemingly final defeat of Napoleon in 1814, the Prince Regent – as he had been since 1811 – did not benefit. The Allied sovereigns, visiting London, were warmly greeted by the crowd, but if George was seen apart from his fellow monarchs, nothing could equal, reported Thomas Creevey, ‘the execrations of the people’, adding that George was ‘worn out with fuss, fatigue and rage’. His rage was doubtless inflamed by Caroline receiving the applause denied to him. ‘She ... carries everything before her,’ wrote Creevey. Only very near the end of her life, after her attempted entry into Westminster Abbey for the coronation of her husband, did Caroline’s popularity subside. And it would have posthumously revived, had the public known of a letter written by George IV to a (male) intimate in which he referred to Caroline’s death as a ‘great and incalculable blessing which the protecting Hand of God in his mercy has bestowed on me’.
This great blessing only momentarily delayed his visit to Dublin, prompting Byron to write:
Ere the Daughter of Brunswick is cold in her grave,
And her ashes still float to their home o’er the tide,
Lo! George the Triumphant speeds over the wave,
To the long-cherished Isle which he loved like his – bride.
But George had no sense of the fitness of things. Smith rightly praises his successful visits to Dublin and Edinburgh, where his Georgian predecessors had never been seen. He also praises George’s patronage of the arts. He had considerable knowledge of both literature and the plastic arts, and would nowadays have been snapped up as a consultant by Christie’s or Sotheby’s. But, as rather more was required of a king, the substance of Smith’s defence has to deal with politics and the Constitution. Certainly, George IV was much less anxious to hang criminals than were Peel and other politicians, even if he was sometimes capricious and there were some deplorable lapses. Not much can be done, however, for his views on foreign policy. ‘The opinions which he sometimes avows on the subject of legitimacy,’ his Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, told Wellington, ‘would carry him to the full length of the principles of the Emperor of Russia and Prince Metternich.’ George would have been at home in the Holy Alliance.
Nevertheless, Smith believes that ‘it was George IV, rather than his niece Victoria, who took the decisive role in creating the constitutional monarchy of the age of Gladstone and Asquith.’ In so far as this is true, it was not, it goes without saying, intentional but the result of George’s unpopularity and weakness. His judgment of politicians depended on the extent to which they furthered his own affairs and interests. Grey was never forgiven for refusing to help him deceive the House of Commons over the Fitzherbert marriage. In consequence he eventually became as anathema to George IV as Fox had been to George III; in 1829 Wellington was told he could have any Whig he liked except Grey. Whigs of lesser account, such as Sheridan, were preferred, though even Sheridan offended George when in an attempt to persuade the House of Commons to pay the royal debts, he said that the heir to the throne ‘ought not to be seen rolling about the streets in his state-coach as an insolvent prodigal’.
Because of his friendship with Fox and because of the Hanoverian tradition of the Prince of Wales being in political opposition to his father, George initially aligned himself with the Whigs. But after Fox had died and the so-called Ministry of All the Talents had proved insufficiently deferential to him and insufficiently hostile to Caroline, he dropped them. Similarly, after his accession in 1820, he was annoyed by the Liverpool Government’s refusal to let him have more money and even more by its opposition to his plans to get rid of Caroline. ‘I consider the Government as virtually dissolved,’ Liverpool told his brother. However, Grey and the Whigs were the only alternatives, and as they were divided, Liverpool survived.
In view of their attitude to the war, George was right not to bring the Whigs into office when he had the power to do so in 1811. Yet a decision not to dismiss a prime minister and a government is scarcely enough to establish a claim to be the founder of constitutional monarchy. Probably any such entitlement to that distinction must largely rest on George’s appointment of Canning as Prime Minister in 1827 and his acceptance of Catholic Emancipation in 1829. He had earlier been hostile to Canning, partly because of the latter’s liberal views but more because of his earlier dalliance with Caroline and his refusal to support George’s attempt to divorce her. Yet by tact and flattery and making appointments to please him, Canning won the King round. On one occasion, Mme de Lieven recorded, the King ‘nearly swooned with gratitude’. So when, after Liverpool’s death, Canning was the obvious choice to succeed him, George had no great reason to object. Similarly, two years later, although he made a considerable fuss and Wellington found him at one interview ‘evidently insane’, George had little choice over Catholic Emancipation. Once Wellington and Peel had come round to it, the King had to do the same even though he had opposed it for so long. For a monarch to bow to the inevitable is certainly sensible and praiseworthy, but need not lead us ‘to swoon with gratitude’. That George did not found the constitutional monarchy is surely shown by the actions of his brother. ‘In his short reign of seven years,’ Norman Gash once wrote, William IV ‘thrice dismissed a Ministry; twice dissolved Parliament for political purposes before its time; three times made formal proposals to his ministers for a coalition with their political opponents; and on one celebrated occasion allowed his name to be used, independently of his political advisers, to influence a crucial vote in the House of Lords’. But then William IV was infinitely more popular that his brother. As Wellington, sharing the general relief at William’s accession, told Mme de Lieven: ‘this is not a new reign, it is a new dynasty.’
Greville gave this summary of George IV: ‘The fact is that he is a spoiled, selfish, odious beast, and has no idea of doing anything but what is agreeable to himself or of there being any duties attached to the office he holds ... he only wishes to be powerful in order to exercise the most puerile caprices, gratify ridiculous resentments, indulge vulgar prejudices, and amass or squander money; not one great objective connected with national glory or prosperity ever enters his brain.’ While Smith thinks that this ‘was a spiteful and in many ways an unjustified portrait’, he concedes that ‘George did little to invite a better one’; or, he might have added, to deserve one.