Month: March 2012

Prinny: such a pity

George Augustus Frederick, Prince of Wales, Prince Regent and King of England, has never been a popular figure. He is not even one of those “Marmite” Kings that people either love or hate. I have yet to hear someone say: “That George IV, he was great.” But is our longstanding mockery and contempt for this monarch entirely fair?

Let me tell you about my own experience with “Prinny”. Many years ago, I discovered a passion for Jane Austen which, combined with my love for the TV series Sharpe and Hornblower, sparked my interest in the late 18th/early 19th century. Having devoured all Austen’s novels and juvenilia, I moved onto her letters to her sister Cassandra, which is where I came across the Prince Regent for the first time.

Jane was evidently not a fan. When discussing the marital fracas between the Prince and Caroline of Brunswick, she writes: “I will stand by her, poor woman – first, because she is a woman and secondly, because I hate her husband” (this is from memory – forgive me Austenites if it is slightly off). Like a loyal fan, I let my opinion be swayed by Jane’s. I read the history with a bias against Prinny. And yet… Even towards the end of Austen’s letters, I found myself wavering. The Prince professed himself a great fan of her work and invited her to dedicate the novel Emma to him. Could a man who read – and loved- Austen novels be all bad?

My feelings were further complicated by research for my novel about Prinny’s mother, Queen Charlotte.  Although she rarely had the courage to stand up for him openly, Charlotte adored her eldest son. She was proud of his precocious wit, which showed itself from an early age, and I found many amusing examples of her secret championing of her first baby ( my favourite has to be her sneaking him into a commissioned portrait against the King’s knowledge). To write from the viewpoint of a woman who so loved the Prince, I had to start considering him in a different light.

There were many examples of his goodness before me. To his six sisters, he was something of a fairy godfather; showering them with presents and intervening with the Queen on their behalf. His sister Amelia declared he was the only one in the family who knew what feelings were – a statement that surprised me, given his almost heartless conduct during the King’s great illness of 1788-89. But when I considered further, I recalled there were extenuating circumstances. The Prince could hardly be expected to dote on a father whose treatment of him would try the patience of a saint. Indeed, many historians blame Prinny’s character flaws on the harsh upbringing and unrealistic expectations placed upon him. And was it really unusual that a young man, with the prospect of power dangled above his head, was tempted? I found I could almost forgive him.

But sadly, we can’t just see the Prince as a victim. He has to be one of the most complex characters I have ever come across.  I am now undertaking research and planning for a novel about his two wives, Maria Fitzherbert and Caroline of Brunswick, and find all my original dislike returning.  George’s vanity, melodramatics and extravagance come bounding out of every source, and the overblown style of his letters is tedious. I find I can’t blame him for his aversion to Caroline, and the initial split with Maria seems to be more her fault than his – but all the same, his conduct throughout the whole is childish. Perhaps it is lucky I feel this abhorrence, for both his wives feel it too at some point in my story. But I must also write the early part: the tale of the young Prince Maria fell in love with.

The more I plan and dwell on these chapters, the more the sadness of the situation overwhelms me. Here was a tender-hearted, clever young man, once called the first Prince in Europe. Through harsh training, bad friends and his own follies, he ended up as an obsese and laughable figure who few mourned. His daughter, Charlotte, had promised to be the best of him, but her tragic early death only sent him further into depression  and sickness. His eating increased yet again, and he died fatter than Henry VIII.

Contemporary sources suggest the Prince’s mind was “poisoned” by those around him. I am particularly looking forward to reading Charlotte Frost’s book on Sir William Knighton, who was accused of this. Prinny was certainly easy to influence, but it would be naive to blame his serious flaws and weaknesses upon others. I’m afraid to say that many of his troubles were simply his own stupid fault.

I can only hope that, whatever the truth, we can all find it in our hearts to pity George IV just a little – if only in gratitude for the fine art he added to our national collection and the improvements he made to our royal palaces.  So here’s to a man often ridiculed, but perhaps never truly understood – in his own age or ours.

“I shall always love dear little Kew for this…”

Here’s me meeting the wax torso of George III. Look at the joy on my geekish little face!  I had good reason to smile; it’s hard work finding traces of this monarch in modern England.

So far, George III has had the longest reign of any English King. While he was on the throne, America became independent, England went to war against revolutionary France and the slave trade was abolished. You’d think our museums and palaces would be full of him, but sadly this is not the case. It is as if we have continually hushed up the “shame” of a “mad” King. You can’t imagine how sad – and frustrating – this is for the Georgian junkie.

So, George never beheaded a wife. Why does this make him less interesting than Henry VIII? Did Henry ever try to climb the pagoda in Kew gardens? Did he found the Royal Academy? Did he? No. But still, every school kid knows his name, while few have any idea who George III even was. I can go to Hampton Court Palace (which I do love, by the way) or Kentwell Hall and experience a living Tudor world. I can go to Dickensian Christmas markets and even Dickens World to live the Victorian life. What do you do if you want a Georgian experience? A Jane Austen ball seems to be the only option. Now, the Regency is great, but what if I’m not very good at dancing and I prefer old school Georgian dresses with panniers? Am I to live my life skipping between Tudor and Victorian times as if there was nothing in between?

Thankfully, no. I will let my Stuart-loving friends blog about the years up until 1714, but for the years after that, there’s Kew. Kew Palace was one of the many places I visited in my research trips for God Save the King. George’s family rotated their time between Windsor, Buckingham Palace (then called Queen’s House or Buckingham House) and Kew. In fact, George can take the credit for two of these major royal residences: he purchased Buckingham Palace for Queen Charlotte and restored the neglected Windsor Castle to its former glory. As both have remained working royal households, they show few signs of the family who once lived there. George IV, with his love of interior design, started changing them pretty much straight away. The Upper Lodge and Lower Lodge where the Princesses lived at Windsor have been demolished. Frogmore, which Queen Charlotte purchased as her retreat, still exists and is open to the public about two days a year. Alas, even here, the Georgian elements are being erased. The tour guide informed me the house had been restored to the time of Queen Mary, leaving only The Green Pavillion and Charlotte Closet in their original Georgian state. Consequently, they are the only two rooms of the palace to feature in God Save the King.

That Kew Palace, or the Dutch House as it was then known, still exists is something of a miracle. One suspects if it wasn’t for the fact that William IV and Queen Victoria’s parents held their weddings in the Queen’s drawing-room, it would have met a similar fate to the other buildings. For while we still have the wonderful botanical gardens, cultivated by George III’s mother Augusta and his wife Charlotte, there are many, many fascinating areas of Kew that have been wiped out through time. We no longer have Richmond Lodge or the White House – magnificent palaces that saw so much Georgian history. What is worse, we don’t even have a known painting showing the interior of the White House. The Orangery, the Cathedral, the gothic wonders littering the park, the Castellated Palace built by George in his later years – all are gone.

But enough of what we don’t have! What we do have are two little gems: the aforementioned Dutch House and Queen Charlotte’s cottage. Historical Royal Palaces have done an excellent job restoring and maintaining these precious buildings and – what pleases me more – teaching people about George. At the front door you are greeted by a lovely young lady in a straw bonnet and left to explore the house at your leisure. Naturally, I love every square inch of the place, but here are the highlights:

  • The fetching wax torso shown above. Modelled from the life by Madame Tussaud, it is the most like-life image available to us. To make the “meeting” even more realistic, the room resounds with George’s best quotes.
  • Queen Charlotte is everywhere! You can watch a short film about her family, narrated in her “voice” in the pages dining room, listen to her complain of the cold in the boudoir and even see the chair she died in.  I have to admit I got a little choked up standing in the stillness of the room where she passed away.
  • Actual objects that belonged to Charlotte, George and their children. My favourite is the little dolls house the Princesses played with.
  • The dining room where George was “captured” by Willis in 1801.
  • The unrestored Princesses’ rooms on the second floor. There are fragments of old wallpaper, ancient witch marks on the wood and even prices still pencilled onto the panels.
  • Queen Charlotte’s cottage. The scene of many happy family picnics and decorated largely by the clever Princess Elizabeth. I wish the menagerie was still outside!

There’s probably no need for me to tell you how thrilled I am to say that, from 18 May, another part of lost Kew will be open for us to explore: the kitchens. After years of touring stately homes to see Edwardian kitchens and Victorian kitchens, I will finally get to see the scullery, bake-house, larders and stores for silver and spices of the 18th century. There’s even a rumour they’ve found George III’s old bath tub.

I might be sad to get so excited over these things, but let me urge you to go to Kew when the new display opens. As you can see from my rant, this is important history which is sadly being forgotten. Please, please support Historical Royal Palaces and the work they do to keep geeks like yours truly happy. Go on – visit Kew!

Kew Palace is open from 2 April to 30 September 2012.

Open daily 11.00 to 17.00

Last admission to the palace is at 16.15
Kew Palace tickets may be purchased in person from Kew Gardens entrance Gates or from the Welcome Centre by the Palace.

Queen Charlotte’s Cottage is open, in conjunction with the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew every weekend from April –  September
Saturday and Sunday from  11.00 to 16.00