1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/George IV.

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GEORGE IV. [George Augustus Frederick] (1762–1830), king of Great Britain and Ireland, eldest son of George III., was born at St James’s Palace, London, on the 12th of August 1762. He was naturally gifted, was well taught in the classics, learnt to speak French, Italian and German fluently, and had considerable taste for music and the arts; and in person he was remarkably handsome. His tutor, Bishop Richard Hurd, said of him when fifteen years old that he would be “either the most polished gentleman or the most accomplished blackguard in Europe—possibly both”; and the latter prediction was only too fully justified. Reaction from the strict and parsimonious style of his parents’ domestic life, which was quite out of touch with the gaiety and extravagance of London “society,” had its natural effect in plunging the young prince of Wales, flattered and courted as he was, into a whirl of pleasure-seeking. At the outset his disposition was brilliant and generous, but it was essentially unstable, and he started even before he came of age on a career of dissipation which in later years became wholly profligate. He had an early amour with the actress Mary (“Perdita”) Robinson, and in the choice of his friends he opposed and annoyed the king, with whom he soon became (and always remained) on the worst of terms, by associating himself with Fox and Sheridan and the Whig party. When in 1783 he came of age, a compromise between the coalition ministry and the king secured him an income of £50,000 from the Civil List, and £60,000 was voted by parliament to pay his debts and start his separate establishment at Carlton House. There, under the auspices of C. J. Fox and Georgiana, duchess of Devonshire, he posed as a patron of Whig politics and a leader in all the licence and luxury of gay society—the “First gentleman in Europe,” as his flatterers described him as years went on. And at this early age he fell seriously in love with the famous Mrs Fitzherbert.

His long connexion with this lady may most conveniently be summarized here. It was indeed for some time the one redeeming and restraining factor in his life, though her devotion and self-sacrificing conduct were in marked contrast with his unscrupulousness and selfishness. Mary Anne (or as she always called herself, Maria) Fitzherbert (1756–1837) was the daughter of Walter Smythe, the second son of Sir John Smythe, Bart., of Acton Burnell Park, Shropshire, and came of an old Roman Catholic family. Educated at a French convent, she married first in 1775 Edward Weld, who died within the year, and secondly in 1778 Thomas Fitzherbert, who died in 1781, leaving his widow with a comfortable fortune. A couple of years later she became a prominent figure in London society, and her beauty and charm at once attracted the young prince, who wooed her with all the ardour of a violent passion. She herself was distracted between her desire to return his love, her refusal to contemplate becoming his mistress, and her knowledge that state reasons made a regular marriage impossible. The Act of Settlement (1689) entailed his forfeiture of the succession if he married a Roman Catholic, apart from the fact that the Royal Marriage Act of 1772 made any marriage illegal without the king’s consent, which was out of the question. But after trying for a while to escape his attentions, her scruples were overcome. In Mrs Fitzherbert’s eyes the state law was, after all, not everything. To a Roman Catholic, and equally to any member of the Christian church, a formal marriage ceremony would be ecclesiastically and sacramentally binding; and after a period of passionate importunacy on his part they were secretly married by the Rev. R. Burt, a clergyman of the Church of England, on the 15th of December 1785.[1] There is no doubt as to Mrs Fitzherbert’s belief, supported by ecclesiastical considerations, in her correct and binding, though admittedly illegal, relationship to the prince as his canonical wife; and though that relationship was not, and for political reasons could not be, publicly admitted, it was in fact treated by their intimates on the footing of a morganatic marriage. The position nevertheless was inevitably a false one; Mrs Fitzherbert had promised not to publish the evidence of the marriage (which, according to a strict interpretation of the Act of Settlement might have barred succession to the crown), and the rumours which soon got about led the prince to allow it to be disavowed by his political friends. He lived in the most extravagant way, became heavily involved in debt, and as the king would not assist him, shut up Carlton House, and went to live with Mrs Fitzherbert at Brighton. In 1787 a proposal was brought before the House of Commons by Alderman Newnham for a grant in relief of his embarrassments. It was on this occasion that Fox publicly declared in the House of Commons, as on the prince’s own authority, in answer to allusions to the marriage, that the story was a malicious falsehood. A little later Sheridan, in deference to Mrs Fitzherbert’s pressure and to the prince’s own compunction, made a speech guardedly modifying Fox’s statement; but though in private the denial was understood, it effected its object, the House voting a grant of £221,000 to the prince and the king adding £10,000 to his income; and Mrs Fitzherbert, who at first thought of severing her connexion with the prince, forgave him. Their union—there was no child of the marriage—was brutally broken off in June 1794 by the prince, when further pressure of debts (and the influence of a new Egeria in Lady Jersey) made him contemplate his official marriage with princess Caroline; in 1800, however, it was renewed, after urgent pleading on the prince’s part, and after Mrs Fitzherbert had obtained a formal decision from the pope pronouncing her to be his wife, and sanctioning her taking him back; her influence over him continued till shortly before the prince became regent, when his relations with Lady Hertford brought about a final separation. For the best years of his life he had at least had in Mrs Fitzherbert the nearest approach to a real wife, and this was fully recognized by the royal family.[2] But his dissolute nature was entirely selfish, and his various liaisons ended in the dominance of Lady Conyngham, the “Lady Steward” of his household, from 1821 till his death.

Notorious as the prince of Wales had become by 1788, it was in that year that his father’s first attack of insanity made his position in the state one of peculiar importance. Fox maintained and Pitt denied that the prince of Wales, as the heir-apparent, had a right to assume the regency independently of any parliamentary vote. Pitt, with the support of both Houses, proposed to confer upon him the regency with certain restrictions. The recovery of the king in February 1789 put an end, however, to the prince’s hopes. In 1794 the prince consented to a marriage with a German Protestant princess, because his father would not pay his debts on any other terms, and his cousin, Princess Caroline of Brunswick, was brought over from Germany and married to him in 1795. Her behaviour was light and flippant, and he was brutal and unloving. The ill-assorted pair soon parted, and soon after the birth of their only child, the princess Charlotte, they were formally separated. With great unwillingness the House of Commons voted fresh sums of money to pay the prince’s debts.

In 1811 he at last became prince regent in consequence of his father’s definite insanity. No one doubted at that time that it was in his power to change the ministry at his pleasure. He had always lived in close connexion with the Whig opposition, and he now empowered Lord Grenville to form a ministry. There soon arose differences of opinion between them on the answer to be returned to the address of the Houses, and the prince regent then informed the prime minister, Mr Perceval, that he should continue the existing ministry in office. The ground alleged by him for this desertion of his friends was the fear lest his father’s recovery might be rendered impossible if he should come to hear of the advent of the opposition to power. Lord Wellesley’s resignation in February 1812 made the reconstruction of the ministry inevitable. As there was no longer any hope of the king’s recovery, the former objection to a Whig administration no longer existed. Instead of taking the course of inviting the Whigs to take office, he asked them to join the existing administration. The Whig leaders, however, refused to join, on the ground that the question of the Catholic disabilities was too important to be shelved, and that their difference of opinion with Mr Perceval was too glaring to be ignored. The prince regent was excessively angry, and continued Perceval in office till that minister’s assassination on the 11th of May, when he was succeeded by Lord Liverpool, after a negotiation in which the proposition of entering the cabinet was again made to the Whigs and rejected by them. In the military glories of the following years the prince regent had no share. When the allied sovereigns visited England in 1814, he played the part of host to perfection. So great was his unpopularity at home that hisses were heard in the streets as he accompanied his guests into the city. The disgust which his profligate and luxurious life caused amongst a people suffering from almost universal distress after the conclusion of the war rapidly increased. In 1817 the windows of the prince regent’s carriage were broken as he was on his way to open parliament.

The death of George III. on the 29th of January 1820, gave to his son the title of king without in any way altering the position which he had now held for nine years. Indirectly, however, this change brought out a manifestation of popular feeling such as his father had never been subjected to even in the early days of his reign, when mobs were burning jack-boots and petticoats. The relations between the new king and his wife unavoidably became the subject of public discussion. In 1806 a charge against the princess of having given birth to an illegitimate child had been conclusively disproved, and the old king had consequently refused to withdraw her daughter, the princess Charlotte, from her custody. When in the regency the prince was able to interfere, and prohibited his wife from seeing her daughter more than once a fortnight. On this, in 1813, the princess addressed to her husband a letter setting forth her complaints, and receiving no answer published it in the Morning Chronicle. The prince regent then referred the letter, together with all papers relating to the inquiry of 1806, to a body of twenty-three privy councillors for an opinion whether it was fit that the restrictions on the intercourse between the princess Charlotte and her mother should continue in force. All except two answered as the regent wished them to answer. But if the official leaning was towards the husband, the leaning of the general public was towards the wife of a man whose own life had not been such as to justify him in complaining of her whom he had thrust from him without a charge of any kind. Addresses of sympathy were sent up to the princess from the city of London and other public bodies. The discord again broke out in 1814 in consequence of the exclusion of the princess from court during the visit of the allied sovereigns. In August in that year she left England, and after a little time took up her abode in Italy. The accession of George IV. brought matters to a crisis. He ordered that no prayer for his wife as queen should be admitted into the Prayer Book. She at once challenged the accusation which was implied in this omission by returning to England. On the 7th of June she arrived in London. Before she left the continent she had been informed that proceedings would be taken against her for adultery if she landed in England. Two years before, in 1818, commissioners had been sent to Milan to investigate charges against her, and their report, laid before the cabinet in 1819, was made the basis of the prosecution. On the day on which she arrived in London a message was laid before both Houses recommending the criminating evidence to parliament. A secret committee in the House of Lords after considering this evidence brought in a report on which the prime minister founded a Bill of Pains and Penalties to divorce the queen and to deprive her of her royal title. The bill passed the three readings with diminished majorities, and when on the third reading it obtained only a majority of nine, it was abandoned by the Government. The king’s unpopularity, great as it had been before, was now greater than ever. Public opinion, without troubling itself to ask whether the queen was guilty or not, was roused to indignation by the spectacle of such a charge being brought by a husband who had thrust away his wife to fight the battle of life alone, without protection or support, and who, whilst surrounding her with spies to detect, perhaps to invent, her acts of infidelity, was himself notorious for his adulterous life. In the following year (1821) she attempted to force her way into Westminster Abbey to take her place at the coronation. On this occasion the popular support failed her; and her death in August relieved the king from further annoyance.

Immediately after the death of the queen, the king set out for Ireland. He remained there but a short time, and his effusive declaration that rank, station, honours were nothing compared with the exalted happiness of living in the hearts of his Irish subjects gained him a momentary popularity which was beyond his attainment in a country where he was better known. His reception in Dublin encouraged him to attempt a visit to Edinburgh in the following year (August 1822). Since Charles II. had come to play the sorry part of a covenanting king in 1650 no sovereign of the country had set foot on Scottish soil. Sir Walter Scott took the leading part in organizing his reception. The enthusiasm with which he was received equalled, if it did not surpass, the enthusiasm with which he had been received in Dublin. But the qualities which enabled him to fix the fleeting sympathies of the moment were not such as would enable him to exercise the influence in the government which had been indubitably possessed by his father. He returned from Edinburgh to face the question of the appointment of a secretary of state which had been raised by the death of Lord Londonderry (Castlereagh). It was upon the question of the appointment of ministers that the battle between the Whigs and the king had been fought in the reign of George III. George IV. had neither the firmness nor the moral weight to hold the reins which his father had grasped. He disliked Canning for having taken his wife’s side very much as his father had disliked Fox for taking his own. But Lord Liverpool insisted on Canning’s admission to office, and the king gave way. Tacitly and without a struggle the constitutional victory of the last reign was surrendered. But it was not surrendered to the same foe as that from which it had been won. The coalition ministry in 1784 rested on the great landowners and the proprietors of rotten boroughs. Lord Liverpool’s ministry had hitherto not been very enlightened, and it supported itself to a great extent upon a narrow constituency. But it did appeal to public opinion in a way that the coalition did not, and what it wanted itself in popular support would be supplied by its successors. What one king had gained from a clique another gave up to the nation. Once more, on Lord Liverpool’s death in 1827, the same question was tried with the same result. The king not only disliked Canning personally, but he was opposed to Canning’s policy. Yet after some hesitation he accepted Canning as prime minister; and when, after Canning’s death and the short ministry of Lord Goderich, the king in 1828 authorized the duke of Wellington to form a ministry, he was content to lay down the principle that the members of it were not expected to be unanimous on the Catholic question. When in 1829 the Wellington ministry unexpectedly proposed to introduce a Bill to remove the disabilities of the Catholics, he feebly strove against the proposal and quickly withdrew his opposition. The worn-out debauchee had neither the merit of acquiescing in the change nor the courage to resist it.

George IV. died on the 26th of June 1830, and was succeeded by his brother, the duke of Clarence, as William IV. His only child by Queen Caroline, the princess Charlotte Augusta, was married in 1816 to Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, afterwards king of the Belgians, and died in childbirth on the 6th of November 1817.

George IV. was a bad king, and his reign did much to disgust the country with the Georgian type of monarchy; but libertine and profligate as he became, the abuse which has been lavished on his personal character has hardly taken into sufficient consideration the loose morals of contemporary society, the political position of the Whig party, and his own ebullient temperament. Thackeray, in his Four Georges, is frequently unfair in this respect. The just condemnation of the moralist and satirist requires some qualification in the light of the picture of the period handed down in the memoirs and diaries of the time, such as Greville’s, Croker’s, Creevey’s, Lord Holland’s, Lord Malmesbury’s, &c. Among later works see The First Gentleman of Europe, by Lewis Melville (1906), a book for the general reader.  (S. R. G.; H. Ch.) 

  1. For a discussion of the ecclesiastical validity of the marriage see W. H. Wilkins, Mrs Fitzherbert and George IV. (1905), chs. vi. and vii.
  2. Mrs Fitzherbert herself, after her final separation from the prince, with an annuity of £6000 a year, lived an honoured and more or less retired life mainly at Brighton, a town which owed its rapid development in fashionable popularity and material wealth to its selection by the prince and herself as a residence from the earliest years of their union; and there she died, seven years after the death of George IV., in 1837. William IV. on his accession offered to create her a duchess, but she declined; she accepted, however, his permission to put her servants in royal livery. William IV. in fact did all he could, short of a public acknowledgment (which the duke of Wellington opposed on state grounds), to recognize her position as his brother’s widow. Charles Greville, writing of her after her death, says in his Diary, “She was not a clever woman, but of a very noble spirit, disinterested, generous, honest and affectionate.” The actual existence of a marriage tie and the documentary evidence of her rights were not definitely established for many years; but in 1905 a sealed packet, deposited at Coutts’s bank in 1833, was at length opened by royal permission, and the marriage certificate and other conclusive proofs therein contained were published in Mr W. H. Wilkins’s Mrs Fitzherbert and George IV. In 1796 the prince had made a remarkable will in Mrs Fitzherbert’s favour, which he gave her in 1799, and it is included among these documents (now in the private archives at Windsor). In this he speaks of her emphatically throughout as “my wife.” It also contained directions that at his death a locket with her miniature, which he always wore, should be interred with him; and Mrs Fitzherbert was privately assured, on the duke of Wellington’s authority, that when the king was buried at Windsor the miniature was on his breast.