Who was this guy who gave an entire period a title? It is interesting to me that the Prince ruled in his father’s stead for a mere 9 years and only for ten years as King, yet so much has revolved around this time. Why?
First, the facts. The Prince’s father was George III, who technically ruled from 1760 until his death in 1820. The four Georges who were king occurred in a long succession from 1714 until the death of George IV (the Prince Regent) in 1830. This over one hundred year period, including those Regency years, is more appropriately referred to as the Georgian Era. A Google search will yield literally hundreds of pages of information about those years, a large portion of them centering on the latter decade of the 1700s and beyond. This is clearly because it was during this time that the French Revolution raged, followed by the troubles with Napoleon.
George III, however, was also quite famous to us Americans due to that spot of turmoil we lovingly refer to as our War of Independence! Actually, I rather feel sorry for poor George as his lengthy reign was rife with conflict. The fellow barely had time to rule his own country as so much was going on elsewhere. No wonder he was driven insane! Seriously, it is now hypothesized that the King suffered from an inherited blood disease called porphyria that causes neurological complications. To top it off, he also endured crippling rheumatism and cataracts.
This tragically recurring disease beget the subject of needed the Prince of Wales to assume the throne years before he actually did. In 1788 his imbalance became so severe that he was unable to open the session of Parliament per tradition. For the first time in history, Parliament convened without the address from the King’s throne and the first order of business was to begin the procedure that would name little George as Regent. The squabbling amongst the Lords of Parliament went on for nearly five months. The official bill was in the final stages of being passed in the House of Lords (having already passed the House of Commons), when George III recovered. Luckily, the wise King understood the action of his underlings and confirmed the measure as valid. This paved the way for the easier assumption as Regent in 1810 when George’s illness again consumed him. Tragically, the King would have no further remissions.
The Prince of Wales, from even his youngest days, was radically different than his frugal, conservative father. He embraced all forms of profligate entertainments. One fact I noted, in odds with the fine 1816 portrait to the right, is that by 1797 at the age of 35, the Prince weighed some 245 pounds (111 kilograms)! And he only kept on growing! I am thinking that Henry VIII had nothing on this guy!! The etching at the top is probably a bit more accurate.
He was extravagant in all ways. His debts were astronomical, far beyond the generous income granted him. His mistresses were numerous and it is speculated that he fathered several illegitimate children. At the age of 21 he illegally married Maria Anne Fitzherbert, a Catholic widow. This one act alone should have prevented him from ever assuming the throne as it was unlawful to marry a Catholic or without the King’s consent. It could have been a scandal of epic proportions if not for the loyal connections the Prince had in Parliament, culminating in a public declaration that the swirling rumors were false. This protected the heir, but dashed any hopes Mrs. Fitzherbert held of ever being Queen. Their relationship would continue on through his life, but not exclusively as the Prince appreciated all the lusts of life, especially women.
All through his life as Prince, financial troubles would plague him as a result of his exorbitant lifestyle. His marriage to his cousin, Caroline of Brunswick, was accomplished only because it was the lone way his father would pay his debt. The marriage was a disaster, the two barely speaking or doing anything else! The couple would produce one child, a daughter Charlotte (who would sadly die in childbirth along with her son), before separating formally. George refused her the title of Queen, leading to another minor scandal, and Caroline would die under suspicious circumstance a year after her husband became King. He never married again.
His rule as both Regent and King was mercurial. His preference was clearly to party rather than govern! I shall not go into details here. Naturally much can be found about the political goings on. Years of laziness, heavy drinking, indulgent living, an addiction to laudanum, and general debauchery took their toll. His health rapidly deteriorated. His final few years were spent in various agonies, including possibly his father’s illness of porphyria, all leading to his death in 1830, the shortest reign of the four Georges.
So, as fascinating as all this history is, (at least to me) I still have not answered my initial question. To quote Lord Wellington upon the King’s death,
“He was the most extraordinary compound of talent, wit, buffoonery, obstinacy, and good feelings, in short, a medley of the most opposite qualities, with a great preponderance of good – that I ever saw in any character in my life.”
He was a huge patron of the arts and modern architecture. Building was a passion for him, inspiring the whole Regency style which added a lightness and elegance to the traditional Georgian by blending Greco and Roman influences. His close association with the architect John Nash, who designed both Regent’s Park and Regent Street in London, was instrumental in advancing this technique. Both can be seen below.
It was George who basically discovered and revamped Brighton with massive quantities of money spent to elaborately establish a resort catering to decadence and entertainment. He completely renovated Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace into the places they are today. The Regency design can be seen in hundreds of places throughout the UK.The Prince was also a dandy. Friends with the notorious Beau Brummell, who literally revolutionized men’s fashion during that time, George added touches of his own, most greatly inspired by his bulk. Long trousers overtook knee breeches due to the rotund man’s need for covering his legs, high collars and fancily tied cravats hid a double chin, and darker colors were slimming. It was he who abandoned the use of powdered wigs. His delight in pageantry of all kinds led to the ceremonial side of the monarchy now commonplace.
He was a lavish collector of art and books, including the novels of one relatively obscure writer named Jane Austen. Ever heard of her? Me neither. For all his myriad faults, he possessed taste, elegance, intelligence, comportment, and charm. This seems to be a universal acknowledgement even among those who disliked him. His collections exist to this day in the British Museum, at Brighton, and the two palaces.It would seem that even though his extravagant lusts nearly bankrupted the country, the effects of his avant-garde tastes and excesses transcended. Leisure became an art form in itself, pleasures of all kinds premiere, comfort and glamour highlighted, class and manners exalted. He was a bad king, but a trend setter extraordinaire! I suppose we can thank him for that.
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