1902 Encyclopedia > George IV

George IV
King of Great Britain and Ireland and of Hanover (from 1820)

GEORGE IV. {George Augustus Frederick, 1762-1830) lived long enough to strip the crown of the leadership of the nation which his father had won for it. Born on August 12, 1762, he was noted in the years of his early manhood for good looks, for ease of carriage, and gracious-ness of manner. He soon plunged into the whirl of sensual excitement. His life was passed in the grossest profligacy. He was false as well as licentious His word was never to be trusted. Not even an occasional gleam of brightness lights up the dark picture of his career. If he now and then flung to a dependant a kindly word which cost him nothing, no serious project of well-doing ever occupied his thoughts. Politics had no attraction for him except so far as changes of Government might minister to his ease, or bring him money to be squandered in some mew scheme of folly.

Such a character was probably beyond the reach of any education. But it is certain that the education which he received in the strict and formal domestic circle of his parents was only fitted to repel him from the path of virtue. His father became to him the type of uninteresting formality. He gladly sought the society of his father's Whig oppo-nents, and was initiated by Fox and Sheridan in the vices of the fashionable world. In 1783 he naturally supported, the coalition ministry which his father detested, and the coalition ministry in return proposed to raise his income from £50,000 to £100,000. The king saved the ministry from committing one more blunder in its career by refusing to sanction the proposition. In 1786 the prince's friends urged Pitt to increase the allowance, but Pitt refused to do anything of the kind. All the world knew that the money would be frittered away at the gambling table or in some other equally disreputable way. Applying to the king and getting a distinct refusal, the prince sold his horses and carriages, shut up his house, and dismissed his servants. As it was well known that these were not the expenses which had brought him to distress, he was only laughed at for his pains. A lower depth was soon reached. The prince fell in love with Mrs Fitzherbert who had been twice a widow at twenty-five. She was ready to. marry him, but she would yield to him on no other terms. She was a Roman Catholic, and a marriage by the heir of the crown with a Roman Catholic forfeited his succession by the Act of Settlement. Nor, by the Royal Marriage Act, could he legally contract marriage even with a Protestant without his father's consent, unless at the end of a year after formal notice had been given, and then only if parliament had not expressed its disapprobation. Believing truly that he could ocontract no legal marriage with Mrs Fitzherbert. he was quite ready to go through the form of marriage. Mrs Fitzherbert, holding that the performance of the ceremony by a priest of her church was of sacramental efficacy, was indifferent to the legality of the proceeding. The marriage took place. Not long afterwards, in April 1787, Alderman Newenham moved in the House of Commons for a grant in relief of the prince. In the course of debate allusion was made to a marriage which might bring in question the succession. Fox went to the prince, and was assured by him that the marriage had never even formally taken place. Fox, deceived by his apparent openness, came down to the House and assured the Commons that the whole story was a malicious falsehood. The next day a friend of Fox's opened his eyes to the trick which had been played on him. " I see by the papers, Mr Fox," he said, '* that you have denied the fact of the marriage of the prince of Wales with Mrs Fitzherbert. You have been misinformed. I was present at that marriage." The prince was not content with his original falsehood. He threw out hints to his friends that Fox had exceeded his instructions. He led Mrs Fitzherbert to believe that Foxhad uttered the denial unsuggested. " Only conceive, Maria," he said to her, " what Fox did yesterday. He went down to the House and denied that you and I were man and wife." The denial however cleared away for the moment one cause of the prince's unpopularity. With the consent of the Government he received an addition of £10,000 to his income, £161,000 to pay his debts, and £20,000 for the repairs of Carlton House. The temporary insanity of the king in 1788 again brought the prince's name promi-nently before the public. Fox maintained and Pitt denied that the prince of Wales, as the heir-apparent, had a right to assume the regency independently of any parliamentary vote. Pitt, with the support of both Houses, proposed to confer upon him the regency with certain restrictions. The recovery of the king in February 1789 put an end to the prince's hopes. During the king's illness he had been in the habit of amusing his companions by mimicry of his unfortunate father. The disgust caused by his behavioun had doubtless some part in the enthusiasm with which the king was received when he went in state to St Paul's to return thanks for his recovery. In 1795 the prince married Caroline of Brunswick, because his father would not pay his debts on any other terms. Her behaviour was light and flippant, and he was brutal and unloving. The ill-assorted pair soon parted, and soon after the birth of their only child, the Princess Charlotte, they were -formally separated. With great unwillingness the House of Com-mons voted fresh sums of money to pay the prince's debts. In 1811 the prince at last became regent in consequence of his father's definite insanity. No one doubted at that time that it was in his power to change the ministry at his pleasure. He had always lived in close connexion with the Whig opposition, and he now empowered Lord Grenville to form a ministry. There soon arose differences of opinion between them on the answer to be returned to the address of the Houses, and the prince regent then informed the prime minister, Mr Perceval, that he should continue the existing ministry in office. The ground alleged by him for this de-sertion of his friends was the fear lest his father's recovery might be rendered impossible if he should come to hear of the advent of the Opposition to power. Lord Wellesley's resignation in February 1812 made the reconstruction of the ministry inevitable. As there was no longer any hope of the king's recovery, the former objection to a Whig administration no longer existed. Instead of taking the course of inviting the Whigs to take office, he asked them to join the existing administration. The Whig leaders however refused to join, on the ground that the question of the Catholic disabilities was too important to be shelved, and that their difference of opinion with Mr Perceval was j too glaring to be ignored. The prince regent was exces- i sively angry, and continued Perceval in office till that minister's assassination on May 11, when he was succeeded by Lord Liverpool, after a negotiation in which the proposition of entering the cabinet was again made to the Whigs and rejected by them. In the military glories of the following years the prince regent had no share. When the allied sovereigns visited England in 1814, he played the part of host to perfection. So great was his unpopu-larity at home that hisses were heard in the streets as he accompanied his guests into the city. The disgust which his profligate and luxurious life caused amongst a people suffering from almost universal distress after the conclusion of the war rapidly increased. In 1817 the windows of the prince regent's carriage were broken as he was on his way to open parliament.

The death of George III. on January 29, 1820, gave to his son the title of king without in any way altering the position which he had now held for nine years. Indirectly, however, this change brought out a manifestation of popular feeling such as his father had never been subjected to even in the early days of his reign, when mobs were burning jack-boots and petticoats. The relations between the new king and his wife unavoidably became the subject of public discussion. In 1806 a charge against the princess of having given birth to an illegitimate child had beeu con-clusively disproved, and the old king had consequently re-fused to withdraw her daughter, the Princess Charlotte, from her custody. When in the regency the prince was able to interfere, and prohibited his wife from seeing her daughter more than once a fortnight. On this, in 1813, the princess addressed to her husband a letter setting forth her com-plaints, and receiving no answer published it in the Morning Chronicle. The prince regent then referred the letter, together with all papers relating to the inquiry of 1806, to a body of twenty-three privy councillors for an opinion whether it was fit that the restrictions on the inter-course between the Princess Charlotte and her mothershould continue in force. All except two answered as the regent wished them to answer. But if the official leaning was towards the husband, the leaning of the general public was towards the wife of a man whose own life had not been such as to justify him in complaining of her whom he had thrust from him without a charge of any kind. Addresses of sympathy were sent up to the princess from the city of London and other public bodies. The discord again broke out in 1814 in consequence of the exclusion of the princess from court during the visit of the allied sovereigns. In August in that year she left England, and after a little time took up her abode in Italy. The accession of George IV. brought matters to a crisis. He ordered that no prayer for his wife as queen should be admitted into the Prayer Book. She at once challenged the accusation which was implied in this omission by returning to Eng-land. On June 7 she arrived in London. Before she left the Continent she had been informed that proceedings would be taken against her for adultery if she landed in England. Two years before, in 1818, commissioners had been sent to Milan to investigate charges against her, and their report, laid before the cabinet in 1819, was made the basis of the prosecution. On the day on which she arrived in London a message was laid before both Houses recommending the criminating evidence to parliament. A secret committee in the House of Lords after considering this evidence brought in a report on which the prime minister founded a Bill of Pains and Penalties to divorce the queen and to deprive her of her royal title. The Bill passed the three readings with diminished majorities, and when on the third reading it obtained only a majority of nine, it was abandoned by the Government. The king's unpopularity, great as it had been before, was now greater than ever. Public opinion, without troubling itself to ask whether the queen was guilty or not, was roused to indignation by the spec-tacle of such a charge being brought by a husband who had thrust away his wife to fight the battle of life alone, without protection or support, and who, whilst surrounding her with spies to detect, perhaps to invent, her acts of infidelity, was himself living in notorious adultery. In the following year (1821) she attempted to force her way into Westminster Abbey to take her place at the coronation. On this occasion the popular support failed her; and her death not long afterwards relieved the king from further annoyance.

Immediately after the death of the queen, the king set out for Ireland. He remained there but a short time, and his effusive declaration that rank, station, honours, were nothing compared with the exalted happiness of living in the hearts of his Irish subjects gained him a momentary popularity which was beyond his attainment in a country where he was better known. His reception in Dublin encouraged him to attempt a visit to Edinburgh in the following year (August 1822). Since Charles II. had come to play the sorry part of a covenanting king in 1650 no sovereign of the country had set foot on Scottish soil. Sir Walter Scott took the leading part in organizing his reception. The enthusiasm with which he was received equalled, if it did not surpass, the enthusiasm with which he had been received in Dublin. But the qualities which enabled him to fix the fleeting sympathies of the moment were not such as would enable him to exercise the influ-ence in the government which had been indubitably possessed by his father. He returned from Edinburgh to face the question of the appointment of a secretary of state which had been raised by the death of Lord Londonderry, better known to the world by his earlier title of Castle-reagb. It was upon the question of the appointment of ministers that the battle between the Whigs and the king had been fought in the reign of George III. George IV. had neither the firmness nor the moral weight to hold the reins which his father had grasped. He disliked Canning for having taken his wife'sside very much as his father had dis-liked Fox for taking hisown. But Lord Liverpool insisted on Canning's admission to office, and the king gave way. Tacitly and without a struggle the constitutional victory of the last reign was surrendered. But it was not surrendered to the same foe as that from which it had been won. The coalition ministry in 1784 rested on the great landowners and the proprietors of rotten boroughs. Lord Liverpool's ministry had hitherto not been very enlightened, and it supported itself to a great extent upon a narrow constituency. But it did appeal to public opinion in a way that the coalition did not, and what it wanted itself in popular support would be supplied by its successors. What one king had gained from a clique another gave up to the nation. Once more, on Lord Liverpool's death in 1827, the same question was tried with the same result. The king not only disliked Canning personally, but he was opposed to Canning's policy. Yet after some hesitation he accepted Canning as prime minister; and when, after Canning's death and the short ministry of Lord Goderich, the king in 1828 authorized the duke of Wellington to form a ministry, he was content to lay down the principle that the members of it were not expected to be unanimous on the Catholic question. When, in 1829 the Wellington ministry unexpectedly proposed to introduce a Bill to remove the disabilities of the Catholics,, he feebly strove against the proposal and quickly withdrew his opposition. The worn-out debauchee had neither the-merit of acquiescing in the change nor the courage to resist it.

George IV. died on June 26, 1830. He had rendered to the constitution of his country the service of tacitly aban- ' doning a position which had been perhaps necessarily achieved by his father, but which it was not desirable that the sovereigns of England should permanently occupy.

His only child by his wife Queen Caroline was the Princess Charlotte Augusta, married in 1816 to Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, afterwards king of the Belgians. She died in childbirth November 6, 1817. (S. E. G.)

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