King George IV of England was king for only ten years until his death in 1830, but he made a lasting impression. So much so that some have dubbed him England’s worst king. Georgie Broad explains why…
Upon the death of King George IV of England in 1830, The Times newspaper said of him “there never was an individual less regretted by his fellow creatures than the deceased king”. Hardly very complimentary, but it was a truth that was felt by the majority of English citizens during his reign and echoed by many historians today. Throughout his tempestuous and turbulent reign, George IV earned a great many enemies and was the butt of many libelous jibes and quips. But just how devastating was his rule, and should he really go down in history as one of the most dismal monarchs in British history?
Mistresses and Marriage
George’s life was not terribly rich in good relationships. He had a strained and poor relationship with his father, King George III, and these rocky relations carried on throughout his life. Even his “extra-curricular” interactions with his mistresses were dysfunctional, and they earned him a lot of unwanted attention. George IV’s father strove to cultivate an era of, as Dr. Steve Parissien puts it, “sexual respectability”, and to reinforce more traditional family values throughout the late 1700s and early 1800s. George IV was able to almost totally subvert his father’s moralistic hard work all by himself… With a little help from his litany of mistresses…
George IV acquired his first mistress at the humble age of seventeen, and was secretly (and illegally) married to one Mrs. Fitzherbert, a staunch Roman Catholic, before he married his wife Caroline of Brunswick. Through these various trysts with other women, George IV ended up fathering a considerable number of children. George did not always keep his mistresses under the radar, and allegedly connected with actresses and members of the aristocracy. This string of affairs led to something of an uncertain and tacky image of the king being created, one that did not sit well with a great many English people at the time. It also stood in stark contrast to the ideals that his father lay out before him.
After much persuasion, and due to the fact he desperately wanted to settle his debts, George married his cousin Caroline of Brunswick in 1795; however the marriage was a train wreck from its beginning to its rather prompt end after the birth of their only child, Princess Charlotte. George may have had problems, but he wasn’t the only one. Caroline rarely washed, was unfit, and so physically repulsive that George turned to copious amounts of alcohol to cope with the idea of marrying her. He was so drunk on their wedding night that he collapsed and remained in that temporary resting place until the next morning. These bad feelings about Caroline were not just confined to the king. Parliament and government disliked her too – to the extent that they offered her £50,000 to stay out of the country, which she hastily ignored before settling in London. Even so, when she was accused of having affairs, she was popular enough with various civilians that they greeted her and her carriage upon its arrival at the House of Lords.
So it seems then that among the dignitaries the marriage was not very popular, although the English people sat a little more on the fence. Alas for George, his problems didn’t confine themselves solely to the women in his life.
Regency and Rule
George IV did not walk right into his kingship. When his father was overcome by a recurrent illness, George IV stepped into the position of Prince Regent, something that allowed him rule of the country… in theory. During his regency and rule, George remained fairly disengaged with politics, instead preferring to leave such proceedings to governors and ministers. In doing so, the new ruler was taking a much less active role in government and the ruling of the country than his father before him. This once again proved quite a jarring difference between the new ruler and his father throughout the minds of the English people, and contributed to a social malaise in the country. In terms of representation throughout the United Kingdom, George IV visited Ireland and Scotland on state visits for the first time in many years. This of course promoted a sense of unity among the United Kingdom; however, in England, George IV was still leaving a lot to be desired.
Instead of looking toward the ruling of the country, George turned his attention to matters of style and culture, echoes of which can still be found in architecture today. Despite the fact that the majority of citizens disliked George IV’s reckless spending, his extravagant coronation was popular throughout the country, and helped him on his reign-long development of the more dramatic, theatrical and pageant-like side of monarchy that we can still see in the international aristocracy today. But his careless and excessive spending did not always strike such a chord in the nation…
Drinking, Debt and Dining
The aforementioned debt that drove George to marry Caroline was beyond extensive. Before he became king, his debts reached heights of £630,000 in 1795, which equates to around £55,111,000 today, according to Michael De La Noy in his Pocket Biography of the King. Although various grants were available to help George IV out of his debts, the situation did little to ameliorate his public image. He instead created an image of a lavish and wasteful big spender to add to his womanizing ways, which often left the English public cold, especially due to the less than plentiful economic position of the country at the time.
One of the main things that George liked to spend his money on was drink and good food, a trend that persisted for the entirety of his reign. Toward the end of his rule, his health deteriorated so badly that he didn’t like to make many, if any, public appearances due to the public reactions to his weight though. Not only did these health problems lead to a rapid and irreversible deterioration in George IV’s public image, but it also had severe repercussions on his health. With the litany of health problems that dogged the latter years of the monarch’s life, from gout to suspected mental instability, the king didn’t so much as go out with a royal and regal bang, but instead something of an underwhelming fizzle.
Nowadays, we often praise and venerate Georgian style, from clothes to architecture and customs; however the monarch who created many of these trends has gone down in history as one of the worst that Britain has known. Positive reviews can be found of George IV, for example those of the Duke of Wellington, crediting him as “the most accomplished man of his age”, although you need to look through a lot of negative reactions first, including another from the Duke of Wellington detailing how George IV was in fact “the worst man he ever fell in with his whole life”. Contradictory, critical and downright cruel most of the time, accounts from during and many years after the reign of George IV have perpetuated an image of a useless, lazy, and unfit king; being petulant, easily swayed and irresponsible to boot. In that light, we must re-examine George IV and ask ourselves: is it fair to go as far as dubbing him the worst King of England?
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