An entire period is titled for him, so who was he exactly? The Prince of Wales ruled as Regent in his father’s stead for a mere nine years, and was King for only ten years. Why has so much history revolved around his short reign?
GEORGE AUGUSTUS FREDERICK was born at St. James’s Palace in London on August 12 in 1762, the eldest child of King George III and Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. He immediately upon birth became Duke of Cornwall and Duke of Rothesay, and was created Prince of Wales and Earl of Chester a few days later. In due course, he would be joined by a total of fourteen siblings (eight brothers and six sisters).
King George III, who ruled technically from 1760 until his death in 1820, was the third of what would eventually be a four-George succession for the House of Hanover from 1714 to 1830. This one-hundred-sixteen-year period, including the nine Regency years, is appropriately referred to as the Georgian Era. A Google search will yield pages of information about those years, a large portion of them centering on the latter decades of the 1700s and beyond. While we who love Jane Austen and the Regency tend to focus on the Prince Regent and the roughly two decades of his influence, the momentous events which shaped the world were far more significant under the previous King Georges.
The fact is, while the child Prince of Wales was being pampered, educated, and safely protected, King George III was contending with numerous troubles at home and abroad. His reign saw the beginnings of the Industrial and Agricultural Revolutions, which profoundly altered the world as he knew it, and of course that wee turmoil with the American colonies! Even as a proud American, I feel rather sorry for poor George. No wonder he was driven insane!
In all seriousness, it is not known with 100% certainty the cause or scope of King George’s illness, but the prevailing hypothesis is that he suffered from an inherited blood disease called porphyria that causes neurological complications. Treatments for many illnesses during this time included mercury, which is a poison, so surely this did more harm than good. To top it off, he also endured crippling rheumatism and cataracts.
King George III’s tragically recurring disease brings us back to the Prince of Wales.
Upon the age of 18, the Prince was given a separate establishment and income. He reputedly had a marvelous personality, was a witty conversationalist, and had excellent taste in the arts and literature. However, unlike his conservative, frugal father, the Prince was extravagant and embraced debauchery of every sort. He quickly amassed an astronomical amount of debt, far beyond the generous income granted him, and this would plague him throughout his life. His zest for living included all manner of extravagant dissipation, from food and drink to women, the latter almost his downfall.
The Prince would have numerous mistresses during his life and it is speculated that he fathered several illegitimate children. In 1785, at the age of 21, he illegally married Maria Anne Fitzherbert, a commoner six years his elder who was a Catholic and twice widowed. 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 from utter ruin but dashed Mrs. Fitzherbert’s hopes of being Queen. The Prince kept Maria as his mistress, but not exclusively as the Prince appreciated all the lusts of life, especially women.
Between his massive debts, a lifestyle that was disgusting to the King, and an illegal marriage, George III alienated his son. For a time he was forced to vacate Carlton House, the royal residence given to him, and things might have gone very differently if not for friends in Parliament who protected the wayward prince. The fact that King George’s health was rapidly declining was also a huge factor inspiring those close to the King and in Parliament to come to his defense.
In 1788, King George’s 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 the Prince of Wales as Regent. The squabbling amongst the Lords of Parliament went on for nearly five months. What might normally have been interpreted legally as the standard course of action, that is for the heir to exercise sovereignty during the King’s incapacity, was vehemently fought due to this particular prince’s numerous faults. The Prime Minister himself, in this case William Pitt the Younger, led the charge against naming the Prince as Regent. His preference to name someone else entirely failed but he succeeded in formalizing a compromised resolution which included strict limitations on the powers of the Prince Regent. The official bill passed the House of Commons and was in the final stages of being passed in the House of Lords when, in February of 1789, George III recovered.
Needless to say, the Prince was severely displeased with the Prime Minister, declaring it a “project for producing weakness, disorder, and insecurity in every branch of the administration of affairs.”
Luckily for the country, King George III wisely understood the actions of his underlings and confirmed the measure as valid. This paved the way for the easier assumption of the Prince as Regent in 1810 — when George’s illness again consumed him — but in the years in between, the King exerted his power in a somewhat vain effort to control his son.
To begin, the King refused to pay a cent of support or to clear the ever-mounting debts unless the Prince married his cousin, Princess Caroline of Brunswick. The Prince complied, the marriage taking place at St. James’s Palace on April 8, 1795. The marriage was a disaster, the two barely speaking or doing anything else. The couple would produce one child, a daughter Charlotte born in 1796 (Princess Charlotte would tragically die in 1817, in childbirth along with her son). By the following year, the two would formally separate when a divorce was denied.
The passage of the previously written Regency Act went smoothly in 1811, and on February 5 the Prince of Wales became the Prince Regent. His willingness to embrace the pageantry of the role as Regent, and later as King, came as no surprise, but any hopes of him assuming the reigns of power with temperance and seriousness were instantly destroyed. His rule was mercurial with sporadic interest in government. His preference was clearly to party rather than govern.
In 1820, George III died. The Prince Regent, at the age of 57, ascended the throne as King George IV. The elevation of status had no real change in his powers or interest in being an active monarch. His estranged wife Caroline had left the UK in 1814, and although she did return for his coronation in an attempt to assert her rights as queen consort, George refused to recognize her. Again he tried to obtain a divorce or annulment but Parliament withdrew the request, although the resulting “Trial of Queen Caroline” was a major scandal. Undeterred, George excluded her from attending the coronation held on July 19 in 1821. On that same day she fell ill and died on August 7, claiming she had been poisoned. Whether true or not, the newly crowned King was a free man but he never married again.
The best that can be said about his tenure is his commitment to the arts, architecture, fashion, and furniture. This is, after all, what most remark upon about the Regency Period. 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. In collaboration with renowned architect John Nash, the Prince Regent commissioned major projects, including the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, the King’s Opera House in Haymarket, Regent’s Park, and Regent Street. During his reign, Brighton was totally revamped, with massive quantities of money spent to elaborately establish a resort catering to decadence and entertainment. Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace were also renovated into the places they are today. Regency design can be seen in hundreds of places throughout the UK.
He was a lavish collector of art and books, including the novels of Jane Austen. His collections exist to this day in the British Museum, at Brighton, and the two palaces.
Friends with the notorious George “Beau” Brummell, who literally revolutionized men’s fashion during that time, the Prince Regent was a dandy who added touches of his own. He abandoned the use of powdered wigs, for instance, and delighted in pageantry and ceremonial dress. However, after years of laziness and heavy eating and drinking, by 1797 at the age of 35 the Prince weighed 245 pounds (111 kilograms). Many of the fashion trends established during the era came about due to his excessive weight. Long trousers overtook knee breeches in part due to the rotund man’s need to cover his legs, high collars and fancily tied cravats hid a double chin, and darker colors were slimming.
Official portraits tried to hide the truth of the Prince’s appearance, but caricaturists weren’t as kind.
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. He was a phenomenally bad king and his extravagant lusts nearly bankrupted the country, but the transcendent effects of his avant-garde tastes, emphasis on class and manners, trend setting fashion sense, and passion for leisure and art have withstood the test of time. Grudgingly I suppose we can thank him for that.
As is inevitable, years of indulgent living, an addiction to laudanum, and general debauchery took their toll. His health rapidly deteriorated and his few years as King were spent in various agonies (gout, arteriosclerosis, edema, obesity, cataracts), including possibly his father’s illness of porphyria. Halfway through his ten year reign he retired to Windsor Castle, dabbling in politics rarely as the mood struck him. By the spring of 1830, weighing 280 pounds (130 kilograms) his death was imminent. Barely coherent during his final months, the King managed to dictate his will and sought comfort from the clergy. He died on June 26, 1830 at the age of 67, ending the shortest reign of the four Georges and leaving the House of Hanover succession to his brother William IV.
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.”