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The Debauched Prince Regent

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

In 1810, King George III became seriously ill and developed dementia. His son was declared Prince Regent and performed the monarch’s duties until his father died in 1820, when he was crowned King George IV.

When he too died in 1830, Robert Huish penned a harsh biography of the late monarch, writing that “there appeared to be no limit to his desires, nor any restraint to his profusion;” adding that George IV contributed more “to the demoralisation of society than any prince recorded in the pages of history.”

As Prince of Wales, George loved dressing up in extravagant costumes.

As Prince of Wales, George loved dressing up in extravagant costumes.

The Birth of the Prince Regent

George Augustus Frederick, 21st Prince of Wales, came into this world on August 12, 1762. In attendance during the momentous event, as the former Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, wife of King George III, laboured to give birth, was the tenth Earl of Huntingdon.

The worthy gentleman held a number of posts in the royal household:

  • Master of the Horse (probably more than one sway-backed old nagl);
  • Bearer of the Sword of State (although on the one occasion when this function mattered, that is the coronation, the actual sword could not be found; and,
  • Groom of the Stool (the much sought-after post of assisting with the regal bowel movements).

(You can’t make this stuff up.)

On that August day in 1762, the earl was also tasked with delivering to the king the gender of the newly arrived royal baby. But, though the man may have been gifted in matters of the potty, he clearly had a very poor grasp of anatomy; he announced to the king that the child was female.

Yale University’s Dr. Steve Parissien notes that even Prince George’s “birth was dogged by the sort of absurdity which was to dominate his life.”

George loved to project the image of being a military man although he was never allowed to get anywhere near real battles because he was likely to mess things up.

George loved to project the image of being a military man although he was never allowed to get anywhere near real battles because he was likely to mess things up.

The Prince Regent’s Early Life

As with all royals, George Augustus Frederick had many titles bestowed upon him; Duke of Rothesay, Duke of Cornwall, and Prince of Wales. He became known within the family by the less dignified name of “Prinny.”

The lad was undoubtedly smart. In addition to English, he was able to speak French, Italian, and German. He was cultured, charming, and witty. He was also dissipated, extravagant, and unprincipled.

At the age of 18, he moved out of the family home and into a palace of his own, and embarked on over-indulging in the pleasures of the flesh. The booze flowed and the mistresses came and went with dizzying speed.

He also embarked on several ambitious and sometimes flamboyant architectural adventures, such as the Royal Pavilion in Brighton.

This elaborate confection is the Royal Pavilion in Brighton.

This elaborate confection is the Royal Pavilion in Brighton.

But, the expense of the Prince of Wales’s lifestyle massively outpaced his income. By 1795, he was in debt to the tune of £630,000 (that’s about £8 billion in today’s money). Parliament voted the spendthrift an annual income of £50,000 (worth about £6 million today), but that wasn’t nearly enough to cover his regular expenses.

Maria Fitzherbert

For a man with such a flippant and self-indulgent character he surprisingly developed a deep affection for one of his playmates, Maria Fitzherbert. Prince George was infatuated with her but she had a number of problems that made it impossible for her to marry a future king.

She was a commoner, twice widowed, and the most insurmountable of all difficulties was that she was a Roman Catholic. Various laws prevented the heir to the throne from marrying a Roman Catholic, all of which go back to Henry VIII when he booted the Vatican out of England so he could marry Anne Boleyn.

Maria Fitzherbert.

Maria Fitzherbert.

Mrs. Fitzherbert was six years older than the prince who was so smitten that he threatened to kill himself if she didn’t accept the gift of a ring. Of course, she didn’t want royal blood on her hands so accepted the present, which Prince George took to mean they were betrothed. She was eager for the liaison that immediately took off for the Continent. George had her tracked down and brought back to begin a life of married bliss with him.

A clergyman was found who was willing to join the couple in holy matrimony and, in doing so, risk being prosecuted for treason. The wedding took place in total secrecy on December 15, 1785, so it wasn’t long before rumours started circulating.

An Acceptable Marriage for the Prince Regent

The Prince of Wales continued to bed-hop with numerous society women although he declared Maria to be “the wife of my heart and soul.” His austere father, George III, forced the libertine to marry from the stable of available European princesses; the unfortunate woman chosen for this duty was Princess Caroline of Brunswick.

The marriage was, of course, for convenience. The happy couple could be paraded in public as evidence that peace and harmony was the constant companion of the Royal Family. For the Prince of Wales the price for quietly accepting a suitable wife was the retirement of his massive debts.

Caroline of Brunswick.

Caroline of Brunswick.

The wedding took place in 1795 with the Prince of Wales legless from drink. The marriage was a complete disaster. The groom invented numerous grievances against Princess Caroline, some might have been valid, and even tried to divorce her in 1820. Parliament put a stop to that plan and the people turned against him.

It can hardly be said that the marriage to Mrs. Fitzherbert was much more harmonious. There were stormy separations and reconciliations followed by more rows over the prince’s outrageous behaviour.

King George IV

As monarch, George was terrible. His excesses of food, drink, and women, along with his extravagant spending on his clothing and palaces alienated him from his subjects.

His impulsive nature led to sudden changes of policy. His friend, politician Charles Greville wrote that King George “has a sort of capricious good-nature, arising however out of no good principles or good feeling, but which is of use to him, as it cancels in a moment.” And, this was his friend.

He gradually became more and more delusional and persuaded himself that he personally had delivered the finishing blow to Napoleon Bonaparte. He even claimed to be present at the Battle of Waterloo although, in truth, he had nothing to do with it. The fantasy world in which he increasingly lived was helped along by prodigious quantities of cherry brandy and laudanum (diluted opium).

He was grossly obese and seriously ill with several maladies brought on by his lifestyle. He died in June 1830 when a blood vessel in his stomach burst.

George IV was often mocked by caricaturists and the public alike for his corpulence.

George IV was often mocked by caricaturists and the public alike for his corpulence.

Bonus Factoids

  • At his command, George was buried wearing one half of a diamond-encrusted locket that he had given to Maria Fitzherbert. The Fitzherbert family retained possession of the miniature portrait half and, in 2017, sold it at auction for ₤280,000.
  • John Nash was an architect hired by George IV to build numerous vanity projects such as, Marble Arch, Regent Street, and the expansion of Buckingham Palace.
  • Beau Brummell was a fashion dandy and member of George IV’s entourage. The king slavishly followed Brummell’s dictates about fashion down to how many buttons of a waistcoat could remain undone.

Sources

  • “Memoirs of George the Fourth.” Robert Huish, T. Kelly, 1831.
  • “George IV: The Royal Joke?” Dr. Steven Parissien, BBC History, February 2, 2017.
  • “The Prince Regent (1762–1830).” Candice Hern, Regency World, undated.
  • “Diamond Locket Given to George IV’s True Love Maria Fitzherbert Expected to Fetch £120,000 at Auction.” Hannah Furness, The Telegraph, May 27, 2017.
  • The Westminster Review, Volume 14, page 106, Baldwin, Cradock, and Joy, 1831.
  • “This is Death.” Catherine Curzon, Mimimatthews.com, September 6, 2016.

© 2020 Rupert Taylor