George Augustus Frederick, Prince of Wales, was heir to the throne of Great Britain but this was no guarantee of respect. He was widely loathed for his indulgent, dissolute and spendthrift ways, so different to his more down-to-earth, austere, and hard working father, King George III. Indeed, with his life mired in scandal and his marriage a public fiasco he was to become one of the most mocked, lampooned and unpopular Monarchs in British history.
As a young man he had been noted for his intelligence and razor-sharp wit. His repartee, it was said, something to behold whether drunk or sober. Unfortunately by the time he was in his early twenties he was more often the former but even so he still retained his admirers, if only for his good taste and love of fine things.
He was also physically attractive though more feminine in his features than handsome but his dissolute lifestyle was to take a rapid and heavy toll for he lived extravagantly and publicly so considering himself what we might call today a style icon. One of his closest companions was the famous dandy, Beau Brummel.
Upon turning twenty one he received an annual income from his father of £50,000 and a further grant of £60,000 from Parliament or the equivalent of £10,000,000 in today’s money. It was barely enough to cover his outgoings as he commissioned the building of Brighton Pavilion, reconstructed Windsor Castle, purchased Carlton House, held lavish parties, and lived in magnificent splendour.
It was further proof if any were needed that he was the wasteful, lazy, self-indulgent, good-for-nothing his people thought he was.
This was not how he perceived himself however, as far as he was concerned he was a Prince of Europe and the height of fashion, one of the leading men of his age. He was a man worthy of respect and if he failed to convey these qualities to the crowds who regularly jeered and verbally abused him as he rode in his carriage through the streets of London then it was not his fault.
If he was a figure of fun then he struggled to understand why.
In 1783, he met and became besotted with Maria Fitzherbert, a twice married Roman Catholic six years his senior and they very quickly became lovers. On 15 December 1786 in a private ceremony they were married.
As the heir to the throne he was barred from marrying a Roman Catholic by the Act of Settlement of 1701 and so the marriage was illegal. He was also obliged by the Royal Marriages Act of 1772, to obtain his father’s permission to wed and as he was not even on speaking terms with his father this had not even been attempted.
The marriage was hushed up and declared null and void a decision that angered Mrs Fitzherbert far more than it ever did the Prince whose debts by 1787 were such that he was forced to go cap-in-hand to Parliament who despite bailing him out on this occasion weren’t surprised that he soon found himself in similar trouble once again.
His father, despairing of his son’s indolence refused to help him unless he agreed to make a royal marriage. The Prince, who had only been kept solvent by the financial machinations of the master politician Charles James Fox who had since told him that he could do no more, was forced to reluctantly agree. The woman chosen to be his bride was Caroline of Brunswick.
Caroline’s mother was the Princess Augustus, the sister of George III, so Caroline and the Prince were first cousins but despite this they had never previously met. She had been chosen, although Brunswick was only a small German principality because Britain needed allies in her on-going rivalry with France. Prince George had only agreed because he needed the money.
On 20 November 1794, Lord Malmesbury arrived in Brunswick to escort the future Queen to England. He was not impressed by what he saw and noted in his diary that she lacked judgement, decorum, and tact, spoke her mind too readily, acted indiscreetly, and often neglected to wash or change her dirty clothes. Her father had earlier informed him that her education had been sorely neglected.
Malmesbury’s attitude toward Caroline was always ambivalent however, and he often expressed his admiration for her courage and agreed that she had a natural if not an acquired morality. Even so, he did not think she was suitable to marry the Prince and his assessment was to be borne out by events.
George was not one to hear home truths instead he thrived on flattery – he was the most handsome man in England, he was the best dressed man in Europe. This coarse tactless and plain speaking young German woman was unlikely to flatter his ego.
Caroline arrived in England on 5 April 1795, and was placed with Frances Villiers, Countess of Jersey, who had been appointed Her Lady of the Bedchamber. She was at the time one of George’s many mistresses and the Duke of Wellington was later to suggest that she had personally brought pressure to bear to ensure that Caroline was selected to be George’s prospective bride to be for only a woman of such “indelicate manners, indifferent character and not very inviting performance, from a hope that disgust with a wife would secure constancy to a mistress.”
Upon meeting his bride-to-be for the first time George was clearly disappointed and immediately ordered a large brandy. Caroline was no less disappointed and was to tell Lord Malmesbury that the Prince was very fat and nothing like as handsome as his portrait. Once the formal introductions were over and it became clear they had nothing in common they both studiously avoided each other for the rest of the evening.
Prince George and Caroline of Brunswick were married in the Chapel Royal of St James Palace on 8 April, 1795.
George, who had already decided that his wife was both unattractive and unhygienic, was drunk before the ceremony even began and Caroline was later to claim that he was so inebriated on their wedding night that he passed out in the fireplace, where she left him.
George wrote to a friend that he only ever had sexual intercourse with his wife three times, twice on the first night, and once on the second and went on: “It required no small effort on my part to conquer my aversion to her person.”
Despite their mutual loathing of one another a daughter, Princess Charlotte Augusta was born nine months later. A week after her birth George made his Will bequeathing all of his property to Maria Fitzherbert whilst making provision for his wife of just one shilling.
George and Caroline were soon living apart and only ever communicated with each other via letter. In the meantime, George tried to restrict Caroline’s access to their daughter whilst desperately seeking an annulment of the marriage.
In 1802, Caroline adopted a three month old boy named William Austin but the rumour soon began to circulate that he was in fact her illegitimate son by an unknown lover. Such rumours about Caroline were constant and in 1806, under pressure from the Prince a Commission was established in secret to investigate her behaviour but they were unable to discover anything improper in her behaviour other than in her general deportment.
By 1810, George III was once again suffering from porphyria, an illness undiagnosed at the time that made him delusional and seemingly mad. He had suffered sporadically from this illness for many years but had always previously managed to recover, but not on this occasion and so the aged King was effectively retired and George was made Prince Regent. But his closeness to the throne only polarised opinion even more.
Caroline, in the meantime, was becoming the focus of opposition to the Prince Regent’s lavish lifestyle and unlike her husband who had to endure her name being chanted at him by people as his carriage passed by she was cheered wherever she went. The people liked her lack of airs and graces, her open familiarity, and her vulgarian streak that so appalled the social elite won her an audience with the common people.
The fact that she was deprived of time with her daughter and the way the George openly flaunted his mistresses only served to reinforce her reputation as the wronged woman.
George, who had always been dismayed at his own unpopularity, was simply confounded by the love the people seemingly had for this dreadful woman and her continued presence in the country not only haunted his every waking moment but was becoming a constitutional crisis. Eventually after torturous negotiation Caroline was persuaded to leave Britain for an annual allowance of £35,000 and on 8 August 1810, she departed for the Continent.
Caroline lived for a while in a villa near Lake Como in Italy before embarking upon a Mediterranean cruise with the man who was believed to be her lover, Bartolemeo Pergami. This apparent affair caused a scandal and if it were true then it would be grounds for the divorce the Prince Regent wanted.
In her absence the villa was ransacked by the Prince’s agents but other than rumpled and dirty bedclothes they could find nothing incriminating.
In November, 1817, the Princess Charlotte Augusta died. George neglected to tell Caroline of their daughter’s death and she only found out by chance. She was devastated by the news and never forgave George for his callous disregard for her feelings.
This was a time when divorce by mutual consent was not permitted and so adultery either had to be proved or one of the parties involved had to admit to it. George through his representatives had been trying to cajole Caroline to consent to do this but there was no chance of that now.
On 29 January 1820, the aged and incapacitated George III died and now the Prince Regent would be King George IV and Caroline his Queen.
At George’s behest, Parliament now offered Caroline an increased allowance of £50,000 a year to simply stay away from the Coronation but she was determined to attend and take up her rightful role as Queen of England.
Upon Caroline’s return to England on 5 June, 1821, riots and demonstrations in her support broke out the length and breadth of the country and there were even rumours of disquiet within the army. So unpopular was the new King that the Government feared revolution.
Even so, George remained determined to obtain his divorce and the evidence of Caroline’s supposed infidelities that had been collated over the years circumstantial though it was were now brought to Westminster for further investigation.
The previous year Parliament had introduced the “Pains and Penalties Bill” which if passed would strip Caroline of her title as Queen and dissolve the marriage. The legitimate Queen of England was effectively being put on trial.
The details of her relationship with Pergami were revealed and made public as witnesses came forward to say that they had been seen kissing, that she was often in a state of undress in his presence, and that there was only one bed in the villa they shared. But the people just saw this as rank hypocrisy George’s affairs were common knowledge as were the sexual indiscretions of other prominent public figures.
The Pains and Penalties Bill passed comfortably through the House of Lords but it soon became apparent that it had no chance of passing through the House of Commons and so to save the Monarchy the humiliation of defeat it was withdrawn.
The Public Inquiry into Caroline’s private life had been a fiasco for the Government and George’s refusal to be reconciled with his wife was making a laughing stock of them all. Indeed, Caroline joked:
“I have been accused of committing adultery with the husband of Mrs Fitzherbert.”
The affair was no joke for the Monarchy as hundreds of petitions had been organised in Caroline’s support which gathered over a million signatures. She also campaigned hard on her own behalf and would address the crowds that would flock to her every public appearance telling them:
“As Queen, you will find in me a sincere friend to your liberties, and a zealous advocate of your rights.”
Despite these fine words she had secretly agreed to accept Parliaments offer of £50,000 to return abroad but only with the proviso that she be permitted to attend the Coronation and be recognised as Queen. Parliament refused.
On 19 July 1821, the Prince Regent was crowned King George IV at Westminster Abbey.
Caroline turned up as she said she would but was refused entry by the soldiers guarding the Abbey at bayonet point. The Lord Chamberlain then ordered the doors closed and bolted.
Refused entry Caroline became hysterical and began banging on the doors with her fists and screaming obscenities. The watching crowd were shocked and appalled at her behaviour and her use of profane language on such a solemn occasion, for the first time she began to lose popular support.
Later that same night she fell seriously ill and over the next three weeks her condition deteriorated rapidly until on 7 August aged just 53, she died. In a hastily convened ceremony she was buried in Brunswick where the inscription on her tomb reads, it is said at her insistence: “Here lies Caroline, the Injured Queen of England.”
The exact cause of her death remains unknown but the rumour persists that she was poisoned.
Following Caroline’s death, George IV’s own health went into steep decline. His devotion to the table saw his weight balloon and his heavy drinking led to mental decay and premature decrepitude. He found breathing difficult and would not rise from his bed for days on end. In fact, so obese was he that he rarely appeared in public unable to bear the ridicule. Instead, he lived in seclusion at Windsor Castle.
During his reign the prestige and the popularity of the Monarchy collapsed to an all-time low. The scandal of his marriage to Caroline of Brunswick was to dog him for the rest of his life and few people had a good word to say for him. Even the ultra-conservative Duke of Wellington felt moved to describe him as:
“The worst man I ever fell in with in my entire life, the most selfish, the most false, the most ill-natured, and the most entirely without one redeeming quality.”
King George IV died on 26 June, 1830, aged 67.
The Times reported:
“There never was an individual less regretted by his fellow creatures than this deceased King. What eye has wept for him? What heart has heaved one sob of un-mercenary sorrow? Selfishness is the true repellent of human sympathy. Selfishness feels no attachment, and invites none.”
He was little mourned.