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George IV: Vain, Lazy, Hedonistic, Arrogant...
In my opinion Britain’s most hated king has to be George IV (1762-1830.) This Hanoverian was debauched, arrogant and unapologetic about his behaviour. Although he was an intelligent young prince who could have excelled and done more, especially in the spheres of art and architecture, George chose to revel like every day was his last.
From an early age George, Prince of Wales was more interested in fashion, women and having fun than he was in being a responsible king in waiting. His father, George III (1738-1820) despaired of him and tried to keep the prince away from his five younger brothers so that they might not fall in to his bad habits. Even without his direct influence, with the exception of Adolphus, Duke of Cambridge, the brothers found improper pursuits and debts were soon a part of their lives.
Throughout his life George gambled, accrued eye-wateringly huge debts, had a legion of mistresses from actress Mary Robinson and alleged spy Grace Dalrymple to the Lady's Jersey and Coyningham. He married the widow Maria Fitzherbert in secret, guaranteeing his father King George III's displeasure.
In his courtier Charles Greville's view "a more contemptible, cowardly, unfeeling, selfish dog does not exist….” With George, everything except duty was done to excess. When he died in 1830 not even The Times newspaper pretended that the people were grief-stricken.
After a few dalliances George married Maria Fitzherbert, a Catholic widow, because she refused to be his mistress. He had threatened to kill himself if he lost her but she still hadn’t been persuaded to yield to his advances. This royal marriage was against the rules. Maria was a commoner, a Catholic, and therefore not the legally required Protestant bride, and she was not approved by George III. The king wanted a dynastic match with a royal relation for the heir to the throne. The younger George hid the union. The wedding was held in Maria’s drawing-room on the 15th December 1785 with a Reverend Burt officiating. Maria’s uncle and brother were the only other people present.
Royal Marriage: Caroline of Brunswick
George’s debts escalated and George III instructed him to marry a royal bride. On the day of his wedding, his debts of £600,000 would be cleared. The king chose George’s first cousin Princess Caroline Amalie Elisabeth of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel. The younger George sent a short note to Maria telling her that their marriage was over.
Caroline was not classed as beautiful but she was popular in the royal marriage market despite her alleged poor hygiene. George, Prince of Wales was desperate to clear his debts. The couple detested one another when they met just prior to the wedding. George, drunk and unable to stand unsupported, had to be prompted by his father to speak his vows. She thought his portrait was too flattering. He spent their wedding night drunk by the fireplace, but they must have slept together at least once. (He claimed three times). Nine months later Princess Charlotte arrived.
Prince and Princess of Wales at War
George changed his will after Charlotte’s arrival. In it, he left Caroline, as he openly wondered whether she was a virgin on their wedding night, the insult of a shilling as a bequest. He left all his other property to Maria Fitzherbert who he claimed was his real wife. The royal couple swiftly separated.
Public sympathy lay with Caroline of Brunswick for having to suffer the indignity of George as a husband. Jane Austen commented, "Poor woman, I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a woman and because I hate her husband."
Charlotte was raised in her own household away from her parents homes of Carlton House and Montagu House. It was not the happiest of childhoods and she bore the brunt of their tug of war for her affections. George paid for Caroline to leave England in 1814. She travelled around Europe, generally courting controversy and acting impetuously, as she had done in England.
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Tragic Death Leads to Royal Baby Race
In November 1817 Charlotte, married to Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld (1790-1865) died in childbirth. Her son did not survive. George had a huge memorial erected for her and the baby, partly to answer his critics who accused him of not paying Charlotte enough attention in her final days. Leopold was too distressed to write to anyone, George wrote to the Pope but not trouble himself to inform Caroline. She found out about Charlotte and her grandson by chance as the letter for the Pope passed through Italy on route to the Vatican.
Several of George's brothers were almost as dissipated as him with their mistresses and illegitimate offspring. The royal baby race of 1818 in which three brothers became fathers to legitimate issue helped to raise British spirits again.
George's Final Insult to Caroline
George tried to divorce Caroline twice but was thwarted both times. When George became king in 1820 he made his 1821 coronation a ticket only event and Caroline was not given a ticket. George refused to allow her to be crowned as Queen Consort. She processed to Westminster Abbey as was her right as George IV’s legal wife, but was turned away because she couldn’t gain entry without her ticket. She died a short while later. Britain’s population blamed their new king for her humiliation and demise. George was horrendous but thoughts of a republic caused panic amongst the people and politicians. The French Revolution was a frightening episode in recent history that the British had no desire to repeat.
The King is Dead, Long Live the King!
By the time George IV, the country’s worst and most hated king, died in 1830 he was almost blind, addicted to laudanum and he consumed great amounts of brandy to help ease his pain. William, Duke of Clarence (1765-1837) his brother, was next in line to the throne. After "Silly Billy," who had no legitimate surviving heirs with his wife Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen, the future hopes of the nation rested with the sweet demure Princess Victoria of Kent, King's George and William's niece and heir, born on 24th May 1819. She would able to fulfill the peoples’ expectations.
Hadlow, Janice. (2015). The Strangest Family. Harper Collins
Encyclopedia Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/biography/George-IV
BBC History: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/george_iv_king.shtml#:~:text=George%20IV%20%C2%A9%20Famous%20for%20his%20dissolute%20lifestyle,George%20III%20and%20his%20son%20were%20no%20exception
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Joanne Hayle
fran rooks from Toledo, Ohio on May 21, 2021:
Joanne, thank you so much for the detailed article on King George IV. love the history of the royals and your article and photo was excellent.