As Prince of Wales, Prince Regent and finally King George IV, one thing was certain: George Augustus Frederick liked his women. Thanks to Cruikshank’s caricatures and popular legend, we have the image of lecherous, womanizing prince embedded in our minds. But just how many women was George – how shall we put it – intimately acquainted with? And how on earth did he avoid contracting a venereal disease with his track record?
In biographies of George, you will come across the ladies I call the big five: official mistresses who made it into the history books. Here is a summary.
1) Mary Robinson. An actress, unhappily married, who caught George’s attention playing the role of Perdita in Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale. His wild love letters to her were signed in the name of the role’s hero, Florizel. A romantic and slightly vain young lady, Mary always cherished her connection with the prince and kept his portrait into old age. But more than George himself – who she only managed to meet on a few, short, breathless occasions - Mary relished the style in which he set her up. She was shrewd and managed to make the prince come good on his promises when he finally tired of her. Her imprint on the history of George IV is mainly financial – he had to ask his father for help when he realised how much he had promised her, and she received a considerable annuity from the royal coffers for her brief “services”. There’s a lot more to Mary than her affair with the prince, however, and I would highly recommend Paula Byrne’s biography of her. In historical fiction, she has appeared in Jean Plaidy’s Perdita’s Prince and I understand Freda Lightfoot’s next book will be about her.
2) Maria Fitzherbert. I – and Maria herself – would debate the term “mistress” when it came to her relationship with George. He married her before a priest, although the ceremony was considered null and void in law due to the Royal Marriages Act. George could not marry without the permission of his father or parliament – permission which would never be granted, because the woman of his choice was Catholic. As I covered in my previous post, there were many reasons the English were adverse to Catholics near the throne, but the main obstacle in George’s case was that marriage to a person of this religion excluded him from inheriting the throne. As such, he conveniently “forgot” this marriage when it suited him. However, the Catholic church and even the Pope himself declared the union to be binding, which explains why poor Maria continually returned to George when he summoned her, despite much provocation. I don’t want to give away too much here because Maria is a heroine in A Forbidden Crown, but here is an old post about her from my early research. Two great biographies, each with a different approach to this complicated woman, were particularly helpful: one by James Munson and one by Valerie Irvine.
3) Lady Jersey As a rival to both Mrs Fitzherbert and Queen Caroline, Lady Jersey is the villain of my piece. The actual woman wasn’t all bad, but she certainly wasn’t someone I’d pick as a friend. She was famously described as a serpent, a lady who was not happy unless she had a rival to torment. Married to an older but fashionable peer, she was already a grandmother by the time she took up with George. Her influence over him was a key factor in breaking up his relationship with Mrs Fitzherbert (the first time round!) and she made Caroline’s early married life a misery. It is often said that Lady Jersey persuaded George to marry Caroline, having picked her out on purpose as a wife he would hate. Supposedly, she thought animosity towards his wife would secure her position as mistress. However, we don’t have any proof of this, or the other allegation that she helped smuggle copies of Caroline’s incriminating letters to the Queen. Whatever this fashionable beauty’s sins, she was amply punished by the hatred of the common people, who took the side of their princess. A good blog post (not mine!) on Lady Jersey can be found here.
4) Lady Hertford A haughty Tory matriarch, not much to look at, Lady Hertford seemed an unlikely match for George. But his devotion to her was undoubted, driving him to fits of tears and days locked up in his room refusing to eat when she initially rejected his advances. It has been argued that Lady Hertford probably didn’t play a sexual role in George’s life – she and her family were there as bosom buddies and companions. Whether she granted the “last favours” or not, Lady Hertford must have persuaded George she returned his love, even if her marriage prevented her acting upon it. Either way, George was obsessed with the family and unhappy when out of their company. Rather cruelly, Lady Hertford used Maria to cover her reputation, making sure she was present when they met so no gossip got out. But Maria was there under duress: Lady Hertford had it in her power to take away her adopted daughter – a thing which Maria would do anything to prevent. However, George’s continual mania for the Hertfords did eventually lead to his second and final break with his patient Catholic wife.
5) Lady Conyngham George’s last mistress made no secret of her motives – at least not to her friends. She was in it for the power and the money. As George’s health deteriorated, she found herself bored with him and is recorded as departing Windsor after his death with “wagon-loads of treasure”. However, she has often been underestimated by historians. Though she came from what was regarded a “low” background at the time, she was by no means stupid and actively pushed George towards Catholic Emancipation. George was not her first lover, but he was certainly her greatest triumph. With her ambitious husband, she managed to see many dreams come true for the family and their children thanks to her “services”. However, accounts of her time with George are tinged with sadness. We hear of him constantly kissing her, staring at her dewy-eyed all through his Coronation and other such foolish marks of devotion. He was besotted, but she was clearly indifferent. Perhaps he deserved such treatment after all the women he had disappointed over the years, but I do feel sorry for the elderly, doting George.
Although these five were the main influences in George’s life, there are countless others. He reputedly seduced one of his mother’s ladies-in-waiting, attempted to start an affair with his sisters’ subgoverness (she was far too sensible to say yes), had two affairs with Elizabeth Armistead, who was later to marry his friend Charles Fox, and nearly broke up the marriage of a foreign ambassador. Amongst his female friends, he attempted but failed to take up with the Duchess of Devonshire, her sister and Madame de Lieven in turn. He was married to Caroline and although he hated her, clearly slept with her at least once to produce his heir Princess Charlotte. In my notes I have so many names of women he dallied with: Lady Bamfylde, Mrs Clare, Lady Melbourne, Mrs Johnstone, Mrs Crouch, Lady Archer, Miss Paget, Harriet Wilson, Mrs Crole, Mrs Davies, Grace Dalrymple Eliot.
It would appear, on paper, that George was a heartless seducer. The strange thing was, he genuinely believed himself desperately in love each time over. He had frenzies over women, falling dangerously ill with despair if he couldn’t get his way. He would weep copious tears and promise them the world. With such a strange and self-destructive compulsion, his life was ultimately a very lonely one. For all the women who had been happy to take his money, none were by his death-bed; only his faithful first wife, Maria, had written to him and her letter remained under his pillow. It has been suggested that George had mother issues, which led to his preference for managing, older women. While his relationship with Queen Charlotte wasn’t easy, I don’t feel it can adequately explain his behaviour, and I will discuss this fully in a later post. But isn’t it sad to think that a young man who started out so handsome and with so much promise ended alone, discarded, having alienated all the women who had ever given him a piece of their heart? He wanted to be loved so desperately – yet he betrayed that love when he got it. He was, indeed, a complicated man to involve yourself with!