George IV (George Augustus Frederick) (12 August 1762 – 26 June 1830) was King of the United Kingdom and Hanover from 29 January 1820. He had earlier served as Prince Regent when his father, George III, suffered from a relapse into insanity from porphyria.
The Regency (George's nine-year tenure as Regent, which commenced in 1811 and ended with George III's death in 1820) was marked by a victory in the Napoleonic Wars in Europe. George was a stubborn monarch, often interfering in politics (especially in the matter of Catholic Emancipation), though not as much as his father. For most of George's regency and reign, Lord Liverpool controlled the government as Prime Minister.
George is often remembered as an extravagant prince and monarch. He had a poor relationship with both his father and his wife, Caroline of Brunswick, even excluding her from his own coronation. He was a patron of the arts; his regency and reign were graced by such literary figures as George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron and Jane Austen. George was responsible for the building of the Royal Pavilion in Brighton.
George, the eldest son of George III and Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, was born in St James's Palace. At his birth, he automatically became Duke of Cornwall and Duke of Rothesay; he was created Prince of Wales shortly afterwards. He was a talented student, quickly learning to speak not only English but also French, German and Italian. The Prince of Wales turned twenty-one in 1783, when he obtained a grant of £60,000 from Parliament and an annual income of £50,000 from his father. He then established his residence in Carlton House, where he lived a profligate life. Animosity developed between the Prince and his father, a monarch who desired more frugal behaviour on the part of the heir-apparent. The King, a strong supporter of the Tory party, was also alienated by the Prince of Wales's adherence to Charles James Fox and other Whigs.
Soon after he reached the age of twenty-one years, the Prince of Wales fell in love with a Roman Catholic, Maria Anne Fitzherbert. Mrs Fitzherbert was a widow twice over; her first husband, Edward Weld died in 1775, and her second husband, Thomas Fitzherbert , in 1781. A marriage between the two was impeded by the Act of Settlement 1701, which declared those who married Roman Catholics ineligible to succeed to the Throne. An even more daunting barrier was the Royal Marriages Act 1772, under which the Prince of Wales could not marry without the consent of the King, which, unquestionably, would have never been granted. Nevertheless, the couple contracted a "marriage" in 1785. Legally the union was void, as the King's assent was never requested and received. However, Mrs Fitzherbert believed that she was the Prince of Wales's canonical and true wife, holding the law of the Church to be superior to the law of the State. For political reasons, the union remained secret, and Mrs Fitzherbert promised not to publish any evidence relating to it.
The Prince of Wales was plunged into debt by his exorbitant lifestyle. His father refused to assist him, forcing him to quit Carlton House and live in Mrs Fitzherbert's residence. In 1787, the Prince of Wales's allies in the House of Commons introduced a proposal to relieve his debts with a parliamentary grant. The Prince of Wales's personal relationship with Mrs Fitzherbert was suspected, but revelation of the illegal marriage would have scandalised the nation and doomed any parliamentary proposal to aid the Prince of Wales. Acting on the Prince's authority, the Whig leader Charles James Fox declared that the story was a calumny. Mrs Fitzherbert was not pleased with the public denial of the marriage in such vehement terms and contemplated severing her ties to the Prince. The Prince of Wales appeased her by asking another Whig, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, to restate Fox's forceful declaration in more careful words. Parliament, meanwhile, was sufficiently pleased to grant the Prince of Wales £161,000 for the payment of his debts, in addition to £20,000 for improvements to Carlton House. The King also agreed to increase the Prince of Wales's annual allowance by £10,000.
Regency Crisis of 1788
George III suffered from an hereditary disease known as porphyria. In the summer of 1788, the disease took a great toll on the King's mental health, but he was nonetheless able to discharge some of his duties. Thus, he was able to declare Parliament prorogued from 25 September to 20 November 1788. During the prorogation, however, George III became deranged, posing a threat to his own life, and when Parliament reconvened in November the King could not deliver the customary Speech from the Throne during the State Opening. Parliament found itself in an untenable position: according to long-established law, it could not proceed to any business whatsoever until the delivery of the King's Speech at a State Opening.
Although theoretically barred from doing so, Parliament began debating a Regency. In the House of Commons, Charles James Fox declared his opinion that the Prince of Wales was automatically entitled to exercise sovereignty during the King's incapacity. A contrasting opinion was held by the Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, who argued that, in the absence of a statute to the contrary, the right to choose a Regent belonged to Parliament alone. He even stated that, without parliamentary authority, "the Prince of Wales had no more right … to assume the government, than any other individual subject of the country." Though disagreeing on the principle underlying a Regency, Pitt agreed with Fox that the Prince of Wales would be the most convenient choice for a Regent.
The Prince of Wales—though offended by Pitt's boldness—did not lend his full support to Fox's philosophy. Prince Frederick, Duke of York declared that his brother, the Prince of Wales, would not attempt to exercise any power without previously obtaining the consent of Parliament. Following the passage of a number of preliminary resolutions, Pitt outlined a formal plan for the Regency, suggesting that the powers of the Prince of Wales be greatly limited. (Amongst other things, the Prince of Wales could neither sell the King's property nor grant a peerage dignity to anyone other than a child of the King). The Prince of Wales denounced Pitt's scheme, declaring it "project for producing weakness, disorder, and insecurity in every branch of the administration of affairs." Nevertheless, in the interest of the nation, both factions agreed to compromise.
A significant technical impediment to any Regency Bill involved the lack of a Speech from the Throne, which was theoretically necessary before Parliament could proceed to any debates or votes. The Speech, it was noticed, was normally delivered by the King, but could also be delivered by royal representatives known as Lords Commissioners. But no document could empower the Lords Commissioners to act unless the Great Seal of the Realm was affixed to it. Unfortunately, the Seal could not be legally affixed without the prior authorisation of the Sovereign. Pitt and his fellow ministers ignored the last requirement and instructed the Lord Chancellor to affix the Great Seal without the King's consent. This course of action was denounced as a "phantom," as a "fiction," and even as a "forgery." The Prince of Wales's brother, the Duke of York, described the plan as "unconstitutional and illegal." Nevertheless, others in Parliament felt that such a scheme was necessary to preserve an effective government. Consequently, on 3 February 1789, more than two months after it had convened, Parliament was formally opened by an "illegal" group of Lords Commissioners. The Regency Bill was introduced, but, before it could be passed, the King recovered. Retroactively, the King declared that the instrument authorising the Lords Commissioners to act was valid.
The Prince of Wales's debts continued to climb; his father refused to aid him unless he married his cousin, Caroline of Brunswick. In 1795, the Prince of Wales acquiesced. The marriage, however, was disastrous; each party was unsuited to the other. The two were formally separated after the birth of their only child —Princess Charlotte—in 1796, and remained separated for the rest of their lives. The Prince of Wales remained attached to Mrs Fitzherbert for the remainder of his life, despite several periods of estrangement.
Even before meeting Mrs Fitzherbert, the Prince of Wales had been active, and already had several illegitimate children. His mistresses included Mary Robinson, an actress who got revenge for her rejection by selling his letters to the newspapers, Grace Elliott, the Scottish wife of a sought-after London physician, and Frances, Lady Jersey , who would dominate his life for some years.
Meanwhile, the problem of the Prince of Wales's debts (which then amounted to the extraordinary sum of £660,000 in 1796) was solved (at least temporarily) by Parliament. Being unwilling to make an outright grant to relieve these debts, it provided him an additional sum of £65,000 per annum. In 1803, a further £60,000 was added, and the Prince of Wales's debts were finally paid.
The Prince Regent
In late 1810, George III was once again overcome by his malady following the death of his youngest daughter, Princess Amelia. Parliament agreed to follow the precedent of 1788; without the King's consent, the Lord Chancellor affixed the Great Seal of the Realm to letters patent naming Lords Commissioners. The Lords Commissioners, in the name of the King, signified the granting of the Royal Assent to a bill which became the Regency Act 1811. Parliament restricted some of the powers of the Prince Regent (as the Prince of Wales became known). The constraints expired one year after the passage of the Act.
As the Prince of Wales became Prince Regent, one of the most important political conflicts facing the country concerned Catholic Emancipation, the project to relieve Roman Catholics of various political disabilities. The Tories, led by the Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval, were opposed to Catholic Emancipation, whilst the Whigs supported it. At the beginning of the Regency, the Prince of Wales indicated that he would support the Whig leader, William Wyndham Grenville, 1st Baron Grenville. He did not, however, immediately put Lord Grenville and the Whigs in office. He claimed that a sudden dismissal of the Tory government would exact too great a toll on the health of the King (a steadfast supporter of the Tories), thereby eliminating any chance of a recovery. In 1812, when it appeared highly unlikely that the King would recover, the Prince of Wales failed to appoint a new Whig administration. Instead, he asked the Whigs to join the existing ministry under Spencer Perceval. The Whigs, however, refused to coöperate because of disagreements over Catholic Emancipation. Angrily, the Prince of Wales allowed Perceval to continue as Prime Minister.
When, in May 1812, John Bellingham assassinated Spencer Perceval, the Prince of Wales was prepared to reappoint all the members of the Perceval ministry under a new leader, except that the House of Commons formally declared its desire for a more "strong and efficient administration." The Prince of Wales then offered leadership of the government to Richard Wellesley, 1st Marquess Wellesley, and afterwards to Francis Rawdon-Hastings, 2nd Earl of Moira. He doomed the attempts of both to failure, however, by forcing each to construct a bipartisan ministry at a time when neither party wished to share power with the other. Using the failure of the two peers as a pretext, the Prince of Wales immediately reappointed the Perceval administration, with Robert Banks Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool as Prime Minister.
The Tories, unlike Whigs such as Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey, sought to continue the vigorous prosecution of the war against the powerful and aggressive Emperor of France, Napoleon I. With the aid of Russia, Prussia, Sweden, Austria and other countries, the United Kingdom defeated Napoleon in 1814. In the subsequent Congress of Vienna, it was decided that the Electorate of Hanover (a state which had shared a monarch with Britain since 1714) would be raised to a Kingdom. Napoleon made a return in 1815, but was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo by Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, the brother of the Marquess Wellesley. Also in 1815, another war, the British-American War (also called the War of 1812), was brought to an end, with neither side victorious.
During this period George as Regent took an active interest in matters of style and taste, and his associates such as the dandy, Beau Brummell and the architect John Nash created the Regency style. In London Nash designed the Regency terraces of Regent's Park and Regent Street. George took up the new idea of the seaside spa and had the Brighton Pavilion developed as a fantastical seaside palace adapted by Nash in the "Indian Gothic" style inspired loosely by the Taj Mahal, with extravagant "Indian" and "Chinese" interiors.
Also something that saddened the king was the death of his only child in childbirth in 1817.
When George III died in 1820, the Prince Regent ascended the Throne as George IV with no real change in his powers. By the time of his accession, he was obese and possibly addicted to laudanum. He also showed some signs of the disease that had affected his father. His relationship with his wife, who had gone to live abroad, had also deteriorated. George IV refused to recognise Caroline as Queen, commanding British ambassadors to ensure that monarchs in foreign courts did the same. By the royal command, Caroline's name was omitted from the liturgy of the Church of England. After George ascended the Throne, Caroline began to make her way to England, publicly asserting her rights. George sought to divorce her and ensured the introduction of the Pains and Penalties Bill 1820 into Parliament to strip her of the title of Queen consort. Few ministers dared to oppose the will of the King, lest he remove them from office. Nonetheless, the King consented to the withdrawal of the extremely unpopular bill at its last stage. Excluded from George IV's coronation at Westminster Abbey on 19 July 1821, Caroline died on 7 August of the same year.
George's coronation was a magnificent and expensive affair, costing about £243,000. The coronation was a popular event. Many across the nation bought souvenirs that bore copies of the coronation portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence. In 1822, George IV visited Edinburgh for "one and twenty daft days." His visit to Scotland was the first by a reigning monarch since Charles II went there in 1650. The visit was organised by Sir Walter Scott, and also increased the King's popularity.
The Catholic Question
George IV spent the majority of his reign in seclusion at Windsor Castle, but continued to interfere in politics. At first, it was believed that he would support Catholic Emancipation, but his anti-Catholic views became clear in 1824. The influence of the Crown was so great, and the will of the Tories under Prime Minister Lord Liverpool so strong, that Catholic Emancipation seemed hopeless. In 1827, however, Lord Liverpool retired, to be replaced by the pro-Emancipation Tory George Canning. When Canning entered office, the King, who was hitherto content with privately instructing his ministers on the Catholic Question, thought it fit to make a more bold declaration. It was made known that "his sentiments … on the Catholic question, were those his revered father, George III, and lamented brother, the Duke of York, had maintained during their lives, and which he himself had professed when Prince of Wales, and which nothing could shake; finally, … that the recent ministerial arrangements were the result of circumstances, to His Majesty equally unforeseen and unpleasant."
Canning's views on the Catholic Question were not well-received by the most conservative Tories, including the Duke of Wellington. As a result, the ministry was forced to include Whigs. Canning died later in that year, leaving Frederick John Robinson, 1st Viscount Goderich to lead the tenuous Tory-Whig coalition. Lord Goderich left office in 1828, to be succeeded by the Duke of Wellington, who had by that time accepted that the denial of some measure of relief to Roman Catholics was politically untenable. With great difficulty, Wellington obtained the King's consent to the introduction of a Catholic Relief Bill. The King afterwards withdrew his approval, yet he granted it again. Relief was granted to Catholics in 1829.
George IV died in 1830 and is buried in Windsor Castle. His daughter, Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales, had died from post-partum complications in 1817, after delivering a still-born son; his eldest brother, Frederick, the Duke of York, also pre-deceased him in 1827. He was therefore succeeded by another of his brothers, William, Duke of Clarence, who reigned as William IV.
A bronze statue of George IV on horseback stands in Trafalgar Square. In Edinburgh George IV Bridge is a main street linking the Old Town High Street to the south by a bridge over the ravine of the Cowgate, designed by the architect Thomas Hamilton in 1829 and completed in 1835.
In fiction, he is usually represented as extravagant and irresponsible, notably by Hugh Laurie in the mock historical comedy series Blackadder and by Rupert Everett in the 1994 film The Madness of King George.
On George IV's death the Times commented unfavourably: 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?.
Style and arms
George's official style whilst King was, "George the Fourth, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland King, Defender of the Faith." His arms were: Quarterly, I and IV Gules three lions passant guardant in pale Or (for England); II Or a lion rampant within a tressure flory-counter-flory Gules (for Scotland); III Azure a harp Or stringed Argent (for Ireland); overall an escutcheon tierced per pale and per chevron (for Hanover), I Gules two lions passant guardant Or (for Brunswick), II Or a semy of hearts Gules a lion rampant Azure (for Lüneburg), III Gules a horse courant Argent (for Westfalen), the whole inescutcheon surmounted by a crown.
- Farnborough, T. E. May, 1st Baron. (1896). Constitutional History of England since the Accession of George the Third, 11th ed. London: Longmans, Green and Co.
- "George IV." (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th ed. London: Cambridge University Press.