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, 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 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.