8 Facts About King George IV’s Life and Reign | History Hit

8 Facts About King George IV’s Life and Reign

Jon Bauckham

10 Dec 2020

King George IV, who reigned between 1820–30 and served as prince regent between 1811–20, is widely regarded to have been one of the worst rulers in British history.

An arrogant and drunken womaniser, whose gluttony led him to be known as the ‘Prince of Whales’, his absurd spending habits and flagrant disregard for his royal duties were condemned by Parliament, the public and his own family alike.

However, George was also a highly cultured individual, famous for his patronage of arts and architecture. In fact, the monarch is responsible for the creation of some of Britain’s most recognisable landmarks.

Here are eight facts about George IV’s life and reign…

1. He spoke numerous languages

The future king was born George August Frederick on 12 August 1762, the eldest child of George III and Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz.

Unlike the extravagance that would come to be associated with his later years, the young royal had a rather austere upbringing.

Although he was born in London, George – who received the title Prince of Wales – spent his childhood in near-isolation at Kew Palace in Surrey, where his father imposed a strict educational regime.

The bright young prince showed a proficiency for languages, picking up German (his mother’s native tongue), French and Italian.

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2. An early love affair risked major scandal

After a relatively sheltered childhood, it didn’t take long until George began to rebel against his father’s conservative values.

Setting up home at Carlton House on London’s Pall Mall, the 21-year-old Prince of Wales had already developed an insatiable appetite for gambling, expensive parties, copious amounts of alcohol, and members of the opposite sex.

In 1784, George embarked upon a salacious affair (one of many) with a widow named Maria Fitzherbert. Six years his senior, Fitzherbert was also a Roman Catholic, which meant she was expressly forbidden from being able to marry the heir to the throne.

This didn’t seem to faze George, and he wed Fitzherbert at an illegal ceremony the following year. The ‘marriage’ soon broke down, but the couple would rekindle their relationship several times throughout their lives.

Maria Fitzherbert pictured in an illustration dated c1790. The twice-widowed Roman Catholic married the future King George IV at an illegal ceremony, which they were forced to keep a secret (Image Credit: Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum / Public Domain)

3. His father’s health embroiled him in a political crisis

In late 1788, King George III experienced an episode of severe mental instability – likely triggered by a condition called porphyria. Unable to carry out his royal duties, Parliament urgently set about trying to find a solution.

Whereas the prominent Whig MP Charles James Fox was keen to see the Prince of Wales installed as regent, the Tory prime minister – William Pitt the Younger – claimed that he had no greater right to rule than any other Briton.

This sparked a constitutional crisis, made all the more difficult by the fact that Fox was a close personal friend of the prince.

Although Parliament eventually agreed to let the younger George rule as regent (albeit with limited powers), it turned out that the king was well enough to return to his duties by February 1789.

4. He turned up drunk on his wedding day

By 1795, the spendthrift Prince of Wales owed £650,000 to creditors (roughly £78 million in 2020), even though he had been given generous allowances from both his father and the public purse.

While undoubtedly frustrated by his behaviour, Parliament promised it would clear George’s debts if he agreed to marry his German cousin, Caroline of Brunswick.

A painting by Henry Singleton depicts George’s marriage to Caroline of Brunswick in 1795. The princess accused her husband as having been “dead drunk” (Image Credit: Royal Collection / Public Domain)

Yet, perhaps predictably, the resulting union was a disaster. Drunk during their first meeting, the prince was also inebriated when they wed at St James’s Palace on 8 April 1795.

The couple were soon estranged, and George’s later attempts to divorce Caroline caused widespread outrage.

Their marriage did produce an heir in the form of Princess Charlotte of Wales, but she would die giving birth to a stillborn child in 1817, aged just 21.

5. George was a passionate patron of arts and architecture

When his father’s mental illness returned permanently in 1811, George found himself in the position of prince regent once again – and this time he was able to formally begin his duties. It was this nine-year period, known as the Regency, that saw him greatly expand his patronage of the arts.

One of the most famous symbols of George’s legacy today is the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, which was eventually completed in 1823 to an Indo-Islamic design by John Nash, who took over the existing building project in 1815.

The Royal Pavilion in Brighton, which George envisioned as an elaborate seaside retreat. The building visible today was designed by John Nash, who expanded the prince’s existing Marine Pavilion (Image Credit: Xgkkp / CC)

Under George’s orders, Nash was similarly responsible for the creation of Regent’s Park in London, as well as transforming the modest Buckingham House into the grand Buckingham Palace.

George also splashed out on his private art collection, with a particular fondness for paintings by the old Dutch and Flemish masters, such as Rembrandt and Rubens.

6. He (reluctantly) gave new freedoms to Britain’s Catholics

When George III died 1820 and the Prince Regent succeeded him as George IV, his loose morals and excessive spending (particularly during the costly Napoleonic Wars) had already made him deeply unpopular.

But one issue that would dog George IV’s reign centred on the so-called ‘Catholic question’, over whether Britain should grant Roman Catholics greater freedoms, including the right to vote and hold public office.

As a young man, George’s close association with the Whigs (who supported emancipation) had infuriated his staunchly anti-Catholic father. Yet by 1820, George had severed ties with his old Whig friends, and had seemingly adopted similar sentiments to that of his predecessor.

It was only in 1829 – as the government faced the prospect of a major rebellion in Ireland – that George was effectively forced into giving the Catholic Emancipation Bill royal assent.

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7. He revived the wearing of tartan in Scotland

In 1822, George IV became the first monarch to conduct a state visit to Scotland in more than 170 years.

Stage-managed by the novelist Sir Walter Scott, the tour (described by the Duke of Atholl as “one and twenty daft days”) was packed with romanticised Scottish pageantry and extravagant entertainment.

However, one of the most notable moments of the trip came when George arrived at a ceremony wearing full Highland dress, including a kilt that barely covered the tops of his legs (thankfully, he wore some flesh-coloured tights underneath).

Left: Famed novelist Sir Walter Scott was the architect of George IV’s state visit to Scotland in 1822 (Image Credit: Public Domain). Right: A portrait of George wearing Highland dress, painted by Sir David Wilkie seven years later (Image Credit: Royal Collection / Public Domain)

This was to prove symbolic. Highland dress had once been banned in Scotland following the failed Jacobite rebellion of 1745, and had long since fallen out of favour.

However, the tour sparked something of a tartan resurgence. Soon, both Highland and Lowland Scots were wearing similar garb as an expression of their national identity.

8. George suffered a grim demise – without an heir

By the late 1820s George was morbidly obese and suffering from severe gout, which also greatly affected his eyesight. Despite his many ailments, the monarch still continued to drink in vast quantities, and was also likely addicted to the opioid drug laudanum.

During the small hours of 26 June 1830 – after passing a particularly bloody stool – George drew his final breaths at Windsor Castle. An autopsy revealed that the 67-year-old had died of upper gastrointestinal bleeding, and also had a large bladder tumour.

With Princess Charlotte having predeceased him, the throne instead passed to George’s brother, the Duke of Clarence, who went on to rule as William IV.

When William IV too died without an heir in 1837, the brothers’ niece – Princess Victoria – became queen. She was the daughter of their younger sibling, Prince Edward, who had succumbed to pneumonia in 1820.

A satirical picture of George IV by William Heath, published in 1824. The coloured etching shows the severely overweight and gout-ridden king relaxing in front of several portraits of himself (Image Credit: Wellcome Images / CC)

Jon Bauckham