In Which I Take Sides in History

Poor George IV.  He was set up, by fate and by family.  By the time he became king in fact he was 58 years old and had spent most of his adult life in waiting.  He was an arbiter and patron of fashion and the arts but, by virtue of his unique role as heir to the throne, had little in the way of responsibilities or work.  And as he pursued his interests in architecture and style, he was increasingly disapproved of by his father and his nation.  Can you see I’m a little partisan here?  I think George IV, for all his many flaws, got a raw deal.

Jobwise, the Prince of Wales was expected to be a Good Example to the Nation and to wait patiently until it was his turn to be King.  Since George III had no interest in relinquishing so much as a thimbleful of his own authority (and this was a time when royal authority was diminishing anyway) this meant, in practice, that  Prince George got to stand around for decades essentially waiting for his father to die so that he could have something like a meaningful life.  His brothers were given work (his brother Frederick, Duke of York, was a military man who, among other things, founded Sandhurst)–even countries to rule–but the Prince of Wales had to play a waiting game.

When he was a young man he was regarded as the leader of the new guard of European royalty, “the First Gentleman of England,” the one with liberal ideas, sophisticated taste.  He was handsome and charming and smart, and his interests lay in cities, in architecture and the arts and theatre, and (of course) all the fashionable dissipations of a young man of his time.  His interests were, as a matter of fact, diametrically opposed to those of his father the King.  It’s not for nothing that George III was derisively called “Farmer George;” the King liked the comforts of home and family, and would possibly have been happiest as a well-to-do squire with a big farm (which, in a sense, is how he saw himself).  The King loved children–until they turned old enough to begin to have opinions and ideas of their own (I’ve always thought it telling that the child of whom the King spoke the most fondly was Prince Alfred, who lived less than two years.) Virtually every communication or quote I’ve seen attributed to the King on the subject of his eldest son was full of disappointment; there was nothing the prince could do right as a boy or a man.  When George got out from under that glare of disapproval he was 18; he was given his own establishment and he promptly went off the deep end, overspending and generally raising hell.  And who could rein him in?  The only one with the authority, really, was his father, who seemed to think that scolding his son and being Very Disappointed was going to solve the problem.

And then there was his marriage.  Or rather, his marriages.  As a young man George fell in love with Maria Fitzherbert,  a widow, a commoner, six years his elder (he had a lifelong thing for older women), and Catholic.  She would not consent to become his mistress; nor would she convert from Catholicism.  That last was a real problem, as by law marriage to a Catholic would bar him from succession to the throne.  And George wanted her, and by his lights I think loved her.  So, secretly and illegally, he married her.

But the King wanted his heir to marry and produce heirs.  The prince had, by this time, hell’s own pile of debt (if you can’t be happy, spend money!) and the King would only assist him if he agreed to marry his cousin, Caroline of Brunswick.  The kindest thing that can be said about that marriage (aside from the fact that, morally if not legally, it was bigamous) is that the parties did not get on.  They managed to produce an heir, the Princess Charlotte, but by the time the princess was born George and his wife were separated.  He later tried to divorce her, without success; neither party led what might be called a blameless life.

By the time he achieved the Regency the young, liberal prince had become a middle-aged man.  I don’t think his father would ever have approved of him, although the prince did not gratify his early Whig supporters by shifting the government in a more liberal direction.  He had become a figure of fun; even Beau Brummel, who had thrived under the prince’s patronage, began to believe it was safe to snub George (no, it wasn’t; saying loudly “Who’s your fat friend?” to an acquaintance walking with the prince was an example of a zinger that bit Brummel right back).  When he was crowned he sought to have Caroline (his “legal” wife) barred from asserting her rights as Queen, an action that only increased his unpopularity.  When he died, the Times (the mouthpiece of the establishment) kindly noted “There never was an individual less regretted by his fellow-creatures than this deceased king. What eye has wept for him? What heart has heaved one throb of unmercenary sorrow?”

I’ve read half a dozen biographies of George IV.  He was not a good king.  He became a self-absorbed, self-serving voluptuary, and he was wildly inconsistent politically and personally.  But he was also what his times and his expectations made him.  I feel a certain sympathy for the prince.  Allowed to marry as he wanted, given work to do and some responsibility, and people around him who did not regard him as a failure almost from his first moments, he might have been an okay guy.  Which is why the Prince of Wales that Sarah Tolerance encounters in Point of Honour and Petty Treason is an okay guy.  In my history he got those advantages.  I figure it was the least I could do.

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3 responses to “In Which I Take Sides in History

  • Bookmobiler

    Now I’m not making comparisons, just commentary.
    It seems to be the curse of English royalty over the last 2 1/2 centuries that the majority of its monarchs have reigned for an extraordinarily long time.
    George IV, George V and Prince Charles; apparently waiting around as the Heir might not be good for you character.

  • saffronrose

    Edward VII also waited a considerable time through Victoria’s reign, thus far, I believe, the longest reign in the hitory of England.

    I agree with you–if George IV had been given something responsible and useful to do, to use his considerable energy, and to keep him away from the terrible advisors he’d had, and to have married Mrs. Fitzherbert legally, in addition to more supportive family and nobility, he would have been a happier, more productive regent and King.

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