He was the ‘fop at the top’, but the Prince Regent was more than a crude caricature, says historian Dr Lucy Worsley. Well, almost …
1. They called him the Prince of Whales… Today the word ‘Regency’ sounds classy and elegant: Jane Austen, tea parties, pretty gowns and nice houses come to mind. Yet the Regent himself was a fat, drunken nincompoop, and his scandalous private life became horribly public because he had the misfortunate to live through a golden age of caricature.
Of course the Prince Regent had the great good luck in 1815 to beat Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo. It was indeed luck rather than judgement, because George stayed safely at home while the Duke of Wellington and his army got on with it without him. Later in life, George seems conveniently to have forgotten this fact, and would astonish people by talking as if he’d actually been there himself.
2. … but he loved art While we can’t fail to disparage the debts, the drinking, the mistresses and addiction to laudanum, we must admit that George did do something to help make Britain great. Through his brilliant (if profligate) patronage of the arts, his spirit still lives on today. He had the zany Indian-Chinese Royal Pavilion built to cheer up Brighton, and the skyline of Britain’s most recognisable building, Windsor Castle, is his work. He was also a terrific stage manager of grand occasions. The pageantry of the monarchy reached its high point George’s self-planned coronation service when he finally became king, and we saw the legacy of his showmanship only months ago in the magnificent procession following the Royal Wedding. In the words of his wife, George IV would have made a great hairdresser. He just wasn’t cut out to be a sovereign.
3. His marriage was the stuff of soap Another contribution that George made to national life was to give his subjects endless fodder for leering and laughing. ‘The Grand Entertainment’, they called him, as they followed the tragic-comic saga of his family life. George’s very coronation would be interrupted by his estranged wife, Caroline, banging on the door of Westminster Abbey, demanding to be let in. Caroline was a mail-order bride from the German state of Brunswick. George was extremely disappointed when he saw her in the flesh for the first time. (‘Pray get me a glass of brandy!’ were his reported words of reaction.) He was drunk at their wedding, slept that night in the fireplace, and only lived with Caroline long enough to conceive their daughter, the tragically short-lived Princess Charlotte. While one feels sorry for the rejected Caroline, she didn’t help herself by careering around Europe compromising herself with her manservant.
4. A dandy who dressed to impress The Prince Regent presided over a high society obsessed with elegance. This was the age of the dandy, which saw the birth of the dark gentleman’s business suit still worn today. The Prince Regent was in thrall to his style advisor, Beau Brummell, who spent hours each morning getting dressed before a crowd of his fellow dandies, watching intently and hoping to learn the correct way to tie a cravat.
Under Brummell’s stern direction, tailoring rather than decoration became the defining feature of a well-dressed man’s wardrobe. A sober, almost minimalist, masculine style developed: navy coat and cream breeches for day, and black coat and matching trousers for evening. If people noticed a man’s clothes, Brummell said, he was not truly well dressed. The Prince Regent, fond as he was of his gaudy and unmerited military uniforms, did not quite understand this, and failed to meet his friend’s high standards. On one occasion, when Brummell criticised the cut of his coat, the Prince Regent burst into tears.
5. The waltz and the rise of dirty dancing Another quintessential image of the Regency is the row of muslin-clad ladies, taking the hands of their gentleman in an Austen film adaptation’s obligatory ballroom scene. But this misleads us about what the best dancers in Regency Britain were really doing. This was the decade of the arrival of the new German waltz. The films usually show us the old-fashioned country dancing where you rotated through numerous partners. In the new Regency waltz, by contrast, you stayed locked in the arms of just one person. Lovers could seize the chance for private conversation, while enjoying what The Times newspaper disparaged as ‘the voluptuous intertwining of the limbs’.
6. A revolution in the arts The Regency witnessed a revolution in art of nearly every genre. Most people think of J.M. Turner as kind of proto-Impressionist, brilliant at capturing light and shade, but during the years of the Regency he also gave us a detailed, almost journalistic record of Britain through the sketches he made for the armchair traveller. John Constable captured the battlefield of Waterloo, and the opening of the commemorative Waterloo Bridge two years later. Thomas Lawrence summed up the verve of Regency high society in his portraits, and Jane Austen exposed its foibles in her novels. Lord Byron opened up the Mediterranean to the British with Childe Harolde’s Pilgrimage, while on the shores of Lake Geneva Mary Shelley wrote the horrific Frankenstein. Everyone, it seems, was challenging everything.
7. Life got faster, Britain got smaller Victory at Waterloo made Europe accessible once again after years of war, and back at home the mail coach and the canal made it much easier for people and goods to travel about Britain itself. In the Regency the most dashing people were literally dashing about – up to Edinburgh in two days instead of ten by the fastest coaches, for example. The drivers of the mail coaches, whipping along four horses, must have felt like the kings of the road as the toll gates swung open before them. Nothing must interfere with the delivery of the Royal Mail.
8. But the peasants are revolting With industrialization came social unrest. One of the Prince Regent’s most objectionable qualities was his blithe ignorance of his people’s very legitimate grievances, and his use of repression on a scale of seen more recently in the Middle East. The year 1819 saw the killing or injuring of hundreds of peaceful protestors at St Peter’s Field in Manchester; the event was dubbed ‘Peterloo’ in ironic reference to Waterloo.
It’s a bloody stain on the Prince Regent’s reputation, and nearly two hundred years later he would be voted Britain’s Most Useless Monarch in an English Heritage poll.