The Ill Fated Marriage of George IV

On 8 April 1795 at the Chapel Royal, St James’s Palace took place the marriage of The Prince of Wales to his cousin, Princess Caroline of Brunswick. No love match, the Prince was marrying Caroline in exchange for Parliament’s agreement to pay off his astronomical debts. In fact, the Prince had previously, and quasi-secretly, married Maria Fitzherbert on 15 December 1785, in the drawing room of her house in Park Street, London. Whilst the marriage wasn’t announced with a public hue and cry, it was still public knowledge.

From Mrs. Fitzherbert and George IV by William Henry Wilkins (1905):

The denials of the Prince’s friends counted for little, for people remembered how emphatically the rumour of the marriage between the Duke of Gloucester and Lady Waldegrave had been denied, and yet it proved to be true after all. The accounts of Mrs. Fitzherbert’s marriage were categorical, and the fact that she was supported and visited by many ladies of the first fashion lent the weight of corroborative evidence. With the public the opinion gained ground that a marriage had taken place. The Marquis of Lothian wrote to the Duke of Rutland, March 4, 1786, “You ask me my opinion respecting the Prince’s marriage. I think it has all the appearance of being true. I believe, when he has been spoken to about it, he has been violent, but I cannot find out that he has denied it peremptorily. He has said to one of the most intimate in his family [household], when asked on the subject, that he might answer, if asked the question, in the negative. But surely a report of this sort, were it not true, should be publicly contradicted, and I am amazed that some member of Parliament has not mentioned it in the House. Most people believe it, and I confess I am one of the number. Though I dined alone with him, and you know the general topic of his conversation about women, he never mentioned her to me amongst others. I am very sorry for it, for it does him infinite mischief, particularly amongst the trading and lower sort of people, and if true must ruin him in every light.”

Maria Fitzherbert

It may be supposed that the topic was not confined to private letters. The press, then far less restrained than now, continued to teem with scarcely veiled innuendoes and scandalous rumours. Some journals maintained that “some sort of marriage” had taken place, others stoutly denied it. Nor did the caricaturists, those inevitable satirists on the follies of the day, linger behind. Prints and cartoons on the subject of the marriage were published in great number and variety; they were exposed in the shop windows, and even sold in the streets, to the great delight of the vulgar. All, or nearly all, of them were wide of the facts, and many were exceedingly scurrilous. It was an age of coarseness, and the licence permitted to the caricaturists was great.

Rumour and innuendo aside, the marriage was illegal, as under the Royal Marriage Act, the Prince of Wales, being below the age of 25, could not marry without the Kng’s permission. He most especially could not marry a Roman Catholic. Now, there’s alot more to the story – much more than we have room for in this post – but suffice to say that George, Prince of Wales was fairly forced by his father, King George III, to settle down, to marry and to beget himself an heir. Unfortunately, George loathed Princess Caroline on sight, taking offence at her looks, her voice, her personality, her manner and, it seems fair to say, her very existence.

Nevertheless, the marriage ceremony which took place on April 8th, at which the Prince of Wales was attended by three unmarried groomsmen including: the 30-year-old friend the 5th Duke of Bedford and the 3rd Duke of Roxburghe, a 54-year-old favorite of George III. The Prince was also attended by his friend, the 17-year-old Coronet George “Beau” Brummell. And whilst he was not attended by her, also present was the Prince’s current mistress, Frances, Lady Jersey.

Caroline, 1804 by Sir Thomas Lawrence

The Prince of Wales arrived for the wedding very drunk and was obviously reluctant to proceed with the ceremony, hesitated frequently in his responses and cried openly in front of the company. In fact, at one point in the ceremony, his father actually had to urge him to say his lines and get the business concluded. The Prince looked not at all at his bride but frequently at his mistress, the 42-year-old Lady Jersey, the wife of the 60-year-old fourth Earl of Jersey, George Bussy Villiers.

After the ceremony, the King and Queen held a drawing-room for the couple in the Queen’s apartment in St. James Palace. Caroline seemed pleased and chatty. The Prince was silent and morose until near the end of the evening when he recovered his composure enough to become “very civil and gracious.” This upturn did not last long, as soon the Prince of Wales became so drunk that he spent his wedding night passed out on the floor in front of the bedroom fireplace. He finally awakened early in the morning and performed his conjugal duties, which resulted in a daughter, Princess Charlotte, nine months later when, coincidentally, the couple split up, never again to live as man and wife.

Regency Reflections: The Regency Era Begins

Two hundred years ago today, the English Regency began. George, Prince of Wales, swore his allegiance to King George III followed by oaths of office as Regent according to Parliamentary Acts, and as protector of the  Protestant religion. The solemn ceremonies at the Prince’s residence, Carlton House, were attended by the Royal Dukes, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Parliamentary ministers led by the Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval.
At right, a highly flattering picture of George, Prince of Wales, by John Singleton Copley, displayed at the Royal Academy in 1810. George always yearned to be a military leader but, sadly for Copley, he did not purchase this picture. It now hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Its official nme is Portrait of HRH The  Prince of Wales at a Review, attended by Lord Heathfield, General Turner, Col. Bloomfield, and Baron Eben; Col. Quinton in the Distance. The Prince never took the battlefield, however much he tried to convince the Duke of Wellington that he’d been at the Duke’s side at Waterloo.
Up to the time of his Regency, the Prince’s closest friends were associated with the Whigs, a political group of prominent aristocrats and their associates, who favored some “liberal” ideas, though one would never say they were radical reformers.  The differences between the Tories and the Whigs in the early 19th century today seem rather minor. The Whigs wanted reform but just a little bit! Gradually, the Whigs came to stand for extension of the voting franchise, Catholic emancipation, abolition of slavery, and other forward-thinking policies. But, unexpectedly, the new Prince Regent did not dismiss the Tory government and appoint his old friends. Needless to say, the old buddies were not pleased.
Jane Austen, NPG
Is it just my bias, caused by my admiration of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer, or were there really an unusually brilliant collection of characters in the Regency? Here are a few of the personages who capture my fancy.
Jane Austen (1775-1817), brilliant author.  Nuff said.

The Duke of Wellington, Waterloo victor

Lord Byron, mad, bad and dangerous to know
George “Beau” Brummell, fashion arbiter

Princess Lieven, by Lawrence, c. 1813
sees all, tells all?

Earl Grey, led the Whig opposition

Sir John Soane, brilliant architect

Sir Thomas Lawrence, self-portrait; he painted them all

Above is just a sliver of the fascinating characters of the Regency Era. Who is your favorite?  Let us know…

Regency Reflections: On 5 February, 1811, the Regency Begins…

By February 5, 1811, both houses of Parliament had passed the Regency Act, making George, Prince of Wales, the Regent for his incapacitated father, George III, who was under doctors’ care at Windsor Castle. The Prince took the royal oath on February 6, 1811.

He was 48 years old. He had a legal wife, Princess Caroline, whom he despised, and from whom he had been estranged since shortly after the wedding.  Their daughter, Princess Charlotte of Wales, was 15 years old, and suffered from the great inconsistencies in her father’s attention and attitude.  She was most often ignored by him, but occasionally she was flaunted before the public, which adored her and loathed him.

Princess Charlotte by Richard Woodman,
1816,  NPG
Charlotte was a lively girl who had limited contact with both her mother and father.  She was often with her aunts, the Princesses, and her grandmother, Queen Charlotte, and only rarely with girls of her own age. From time to time, the Prince spent time with her, but he complained that her looks reminded him, painfully, of his wife.  Little wonder she had the German/Hanoverian stamp, since her George and Caroline were first cousins, both grandchildren of Frederick, Prince of Wales (1707-1751), the son of George II.
Princess Charlotte led a lonely life, though surrounded at all times by attendants and court-appointed companions.

Caroline,  Princess of Wales
by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1798, VandA

Caroline, by 1811, had set up a separate establishment where she entertained and socialized. Some of her behavior was reported to be scandalous, and her access to her daughter was often restricted. Caroline enjoyed — and often flaunted — her personal popularity with the people. She resented her position as a cast-aside wife with little or no access to court and none of the honors due her. Little wonder that there were constant rumors  circulating in London society.



Mrs. Fitzherbert by Gainsborough, 1787

Prince George had another wife, Maria Fitzherbert, though the union was not legal according to the requirements of the laws regarding royal marriages. Maria put up with a lot of misbehavior from George too. He left her not only for a legal wife, however temporarily, but also had numerous mistresses while he was associating with her. Like Caroline, Maria loved children; both women adopted other children on whom they poured their maternal love. One hopes that all three of these women – Maria, Caroline and Charlotte – managed some degree of happiness in their lives as they were consistently disappointed by the whims and caprices of George, Prince of Wales.

 Prince George resided at Carlton House in London, a building he had turned into a palace filled with magnificent art works and sumptuous furnishings. Typical of his over-indulgence in all matters, as King, George IV had Carlton House demolished in 1825 for a new plan to enhance the new Regent Street. Meanwhile, he turned his Marine Pavilion in Brighton, from  the tasteful building completed by Henry Holland in 1787, below, into a fantastical building in which the interior is Chinese style while the exterior is Indian-Mughal, whatever that is. Rev. Sydney Smith remarked upon seeing the Pavilion, “It looks like St. Paul’s Cathedral came down and pupped.”

The Marine Pavilion, Brighton
 Henry Holland, Architect, 1787

 Brighton Pavilion, as remodeled by John Nash, after 1811

England at the beginning of 1811 had been at war with France on and off for decades. British armies were fighting in the Peninsular Wars in Portugal and Spain. Shifting alliances among the continental European powers kept Britain’s diplomats busy negotiating and re-negotiating treaties and mutual support pacts.  The Prince Regent left the hard jobs to his ministers while he concentrated on his social life, his collections, his designs for army uniforms, and other even more trivial matters.  We will dip further into some of these in future posts.  

But George never was very popular. Sometimes the press was full of praise, but between the essayists, satirists and artists of caricatures, the Regent took his full share of criticism.
Here is a fragment of the praiseful poem published by the Morning Post newspaper in honor of the new Prince Regent:

Adonis! In thy shape and face,
A liberal heart and Princely grace
In thee are seen combined …

But Leigh Hunt and his brother John, editor of a literary magazine called the Examiner, published a different view:
“… An Adonis of 50 … a violator of his word, a libertine over head and ears in debt and disgrace, a despiser of domestic ties, the companion of gamblers and demi-reps, a man without a single claim to the gratitude of his country or the respect of posterity …”

Though many hailed them as heroes for their position, the Hunts were sued for and convicted of libel and served time in jail. Among the visitors to Leigh Hunt in prison were the poet Lord Byron, Lord Brougham, and essayist Charles Lamb.

Leigh Hunt, essayist and critic, 1784-1859

“The Prince of Whales, or The Fisherman at Anchor:
George Cruikshank,  1812

We will look at the Prince, or Prinny as many called him, and his reign many times in the upcoming months.  It was a time of excess in many ways, and he certainly led the pack. We will see many more caricatures — they were in their glory in those days — and we will look at the real achievements of the Prince, particularly in assembling his collections of art and decorative arts.

At his Pavilion in Brighton, a new exhibition is about to open: Dress for Excess, Fashion in Regency England.  suitable title, don’t you agree?  It will include the magnificent Coronation Robe worn by the Prince as he became George IV in 1921. Below, the King’s portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence (who else?).

Regency Reflections: Leading up to the Regency of Prince George, 1811

George III, c.1809; studio of Sir William Beechey, NPG

After the first regency crisis in 1788-89, George III had occasional relapses of illness and mental incapacity. However, each time he would gradually recover, and he retained the powers of his office for more than two decades.

George, Prince of Wales, bided his time, indulging in his characteristic excesses. He was not esteemed by the common people. He complained that he was not given an important post in the Army, like his brother Frederick, Duke of York, or in the Navy like his brother William, Duke of Clarence. This is how he was caricatured by James Gillray (1757-1815) in 1792 as A Voluptuary Under the Horrors of Digestion.

James Gillray, 1792
Caroline, Princess of Wales by Lawrence

Acceding to his father’s and Parliament’s wishes, and to pay his debts,  in 1795 he married his cousin Caroline of Brunswick, a marriage which lasted only a few days or weeks before they were effectively estranged forever. Nevertheless, a child was born nine months after the ceremonies, Princess Charlotte. At last there was a legitimate grandchild who could inherit the throne.

Marriage did nothing to improve Prince George; in fact it may have increased his reckless behavior.

Princess Amelia, Hoppner, 1785

The leaders of both political parties died in 1806, William Pitt, the Tory Prime Minister in January and Whig leader Charles James Fox in September, leaving a new cast of characters to assess the need for a regency.

Princess Amelia, 1783-1810, by William Beechey

 The British people had grown fond of their old king and his jubilee, celebrating 50 years on the throne, was widely acclaimed in 1809. The next year, King George III’s madness recurred. He was much distressed by the fatal illness of his youngest daughter, Princess Amelia. Though she chafed at the strictness of her parents and her virtual imprisonment at Windsor, she loved her father. Anticipating her death, she had a special jewel set for him including a lock of her hair. The very sight of it caused him tears.

The Prime Minister in 1810-11 was Spencer Perceval (1762-1812), who presided over a fractious set of ministers. Perceval, who called himself “not a Tory but a follower of Pitt”, did not like the Prince. The feeling was mutual. Perceval had taken the side of Caroline, Princess of Wales, in her disputes with her husband, and George was not a forgiving man.

But after much discussion and examination of the King by doctors and politicians alike, Perceval told the Prince that the Parliament would discuss a bill to establish a regency. George was to be ruler in the name of his father. The prince was not pleased with the restrictions placed on his actions by the bill, which was very similar to the one passed by Commons and almost passed by the House of Lords in 1789. These restrictions had mainly to do with the creations of peerages and other offices, awards and pensions. The Queen would be responsible for the care of the King.

For some of the members of both Commons and Lords, the bill gave too much power to the Prince. But despite the bill’s shortcomings, it passed in early February, 1811, and the Regency was established. The Prince took the Royal Oath on February 6.

To the surprise of almost everyone, the Prince Regent did not choose new ministers from his close friends, the Whigs. The Parliament had many issues on its agenda, such as continuation of the Peninsular War, the problems of Ireland, and banking concerns.

Meanwhile, the Prince Regent continued his spendthrift ways. He prided himself on his connoisseurship; he built, remodeled, bought, collected and wasted incredible amounts of public money. However, for the remainder of the regency and his ten years as George IV, his tastes and his extravagances gave Britain a lasting legacy in the royal collections and palaces. Whether it had anything to do with his influence or not, there was a flowering of literary talent on his watch. Byron, Keats, Shelley, Austen, Scott – an endless list. And the painters Constable, Turner, Lawrence and many others were at the top of their games. Architecture, the decorative arts, and garden design developed brilliantly.

We will investigate many of these topics further over the year.

Regency Reflections: The First Regency Crisis in 1788-89

George, Princeof Wales as Prince Regent,
by Sir Thomnas Lawrence, c. 1814

This is the first of an occasional series of posts on the English Regency, which began 200 years ago.  The Regency has innumerable definitions. In the arts, architecture, society, fashion, decor, and literature, we might date the Regency as being almost the same dates as the long 18th century, from the 1660 Restoration of the monarchy to the accession of Victoria in 1837. Others shorten it to the period between the American War (1776)and/or the French Revolution (1789) to the death of George IV in 1830 and/or  William IV in 1837.  The official Regency lasted nine years, from 1811-1820, when George III died and the Prince Regent became George IV.

The Regency was many years in the making.  In the summer of 1788, King George III suffered what he called a bilious attack. After consultation with his wife, Queen Charlotte, and the royal physicians, the King and his entourage went to Cheltenham spa to take the waters. Though he had temporary relief, when he returned to Windsor in mid-August, things quickly deteriorated. Throughout the next few months, the King’s condition worsened, combining physical and mental problems.

Prim Minister William Pitt

The political world of parliamentary leaders and ministers was alive with rumors and gossip based on long-held political rivalries and ambitions. Richard Brinsley Sheridan, in the absence of Charles James Fox (touring Italy), and other Whigs who enjoyed close friendships with George, Prince of Wales  (who would be appointed as regent for his father if the regency bill was passed), were excited. The Whigs could almost taste their return to power. However, the Prime Minister William Pitt, a Tory to the core, saw the matter differently. He willed the King to recover.  While stalling for time, a bill setting the conditions and restrictions of the regency was drawn up and debated. 

Charles James Fox, Whig leader

The Prince of Wales, age 26, at first tried to stay publicly aloof from the debates. His life, which we have written about elsewhere and will no doubt write about again, was characterized by considerable conflict with his father. George III was strict with his sons, giving them an excellent education and expecting them to behave with propriety.  But like the sons of so many English kings, (see The King’s Speech for a more modern example), Prince George chose to go his own way with regard to lady friends, expensive architectural and collecting projects, and disobedience to his father’s desires.

Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Whig leader

The Prince considered himself a highly intelligent and principled connoisseur, a clever wit, and The First Gentleman of Europe. Others considered him self-indulgent, a spendthrift, and insensitive.  But like so many sons of kings, he had no real job. He wanted to participate in the wars, and envied his brothers:  Frederick’s position in the Army and William’s post in the Navy.  In 1785, George married Maria Fitzherbert in a ceremony that defied the laws requiring the monarch’ s approval, which couldn’t have been given because she was a Roman Catholic.

Thomas Rowlandson, Filial Piety (Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University)
Charles James Fox, leader of the Whigs was traveling. His leadership was assumed by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, another Whig whose amorous adventures will fill a future blog. As the months passed without improvement in the King’s health – or ultimate passage of the regency bill, the Prince of Wales began to be more obv
iously interested in his ultimate assumption of power. His interest did not escape the notice of the political satirists, such as Thomas Rowlandson. His Filial Piety, above.

Rupert Everett in The Madness of King George, 3rd from left

By February, the regency bill had passed the House of Commons and was about to be finally debated in the Lords when the King appeared to recover completely. He came back to London and the bill was taken off the Lords’ agenda. A service of Thanksgiving for the King’s Recovery was held at St. Paul’s Cathedral in April of 1789.

These are the events chronicled in the play and film The Madness of King George (1994). Above is a still from the film showing the Prince of Wales as played by Rupert Everett waiting to hear the results of a parliamentary vote. The film is quite accurate in portraying the first regency crisis and the king’s recovery.

A flattering (slimming) portrait of the Prince, c. 1782

We will investigate the next chapter in this drama soon.