Article from The Sunday Express, 21 August 2011
The king ruled by his excesses. Historian Lucy Worsley examines the life of George IV, both Britain's worst monarch and the man who brought showbiz sparkle to royalty.
When English Heritage ran a poll to discover Britain's Worst Monarch, the winner was George IV. Profligate, drunken and lazy, he sets us a shining example of how not to rule Britain.
George had a long apprenticeship before becoming king. Exactly two hundred years ago, he was appointed Prince Regent when his father’s ‘madness’ made him unfit to rule. My new TV series examines George’s riotous decade as stand-in king.
For many people, the Prince Regent will always be Hugh Laurie in ‘Blackadder The Third', who was suitably twittish in the part. But the slender Laurie portrayed George in his younger years, not the mountain-sized and melancholy man of nearly fifty that he was when he officially became Regent.
The weight gain isn’t surprisingly when you hear what he ate. What do you think of his breakfast?’ wrote one astounded witness. ‘Two pigeons and three beefsteaks, three parts of a bottle of Mozelle, a glass of dry Champagne, two glasses of Port and a glass of Brandy’. As well as alcohol, George was also addicted to laudanum, a liquid form of opium. He’d take 100 drops in preparation for a public appearance, enough to knock most people senseless. There was ‘no limit to his desires, nor any restraint to his profusion’, wrote a biographer in the very year of George's death.
As a young prince, he seemed to have many gifts: intelligence, charm, and a terrific sense of style. But he had a difficult childhood. It was spent partly at isolated little Kew Palace in Kew Gardens, one of the five royal buildings looked after by the charity Historic Royal Palaces, where I am Chief Curator.
The prince’s father George III was well-intentioned, but treated his eldest son too harshly. A long day of lessons at Kew, whippings, and a strict diet were little George's lot. His family included towards fat, so he too was kept on a diet, forbidden to eat the tasty fruit filling of a pie, for example, only the boring crust. Discipline led inevitably to rebellion. It was also at Kew that George held moonlit assignations with the actress Mary Robinson (later failing to pay her the pension he'd promised).
His father also kept him unnecessarily short of cash. As a result, George constantly overspent his allowance, and had no conception of the value of money. Nor did he have much sense of right and wrong. At 23, he illegally married Mrs Maria Fitzherbert, an older, divorced Catholic. She wasn't keen to wed, but George blackmailed her with threats of suicide. But soon he got bored of her, and moved on to the Countess of Jersey. She was succeeded by a long procession of similarly middle-aged and rather motherly mistresses. George¹s subjects followed their comings and goings through the cheap satirical prints that were like the salacious tabloids of the day.
George’s enormous debts finally forced him to marry again - properly, this time. He selected a German princess, Caroline of Brunswick, hoping that Parliament would vote him a bigger income as a married man. This was a disastrous match. When he first set eyes on the boyish Caroline, George’s reported words were ‘Pray get me a glass of brandy’. He was dead-drunk on their wedding night and spent it lying unconscious in the fireplace. They finally shared a bed during their honeymoon, but he was horrified by Caroline’s poor personal hygiene, and vowed ‘never to touch her again’. George neglected their only daughter, Princess Charlotte, who died tragically young.
Caroline’s own first words on seeing her future husband had been: ‘He’s very fat, and he’s nothing like as handsome as his portrait’. Despite his obesity, George was immensely vain. He wore ‘a Bastille of whalebone’ (or corset) to pull in his stomach. High cravats helped to disguise his double chins. In his glossy chestnut wig, and with careful make-up, he could look almost handsome in the flattering portraits painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence. But another artist, Sir David Wilkie, reported that it took three hours for George to get dressed, and that laced into his corset he looked ‘like a great sausage stuffed into the covering’.
Meanwhile, George showed a regrettable lack of interest in the [roblems of his people, who were groaning under the immense strains of the Industrial Revolution. In 1819 the inhabitants of the great manufacturing city of Manchester, which had no MPs at all, made the very reasonable suggestion that a new Member should be appointed to represent them in Parliament. But a crowd of peaceful protesters gathered to call for reform were slaughtered by the authorities. The Prince Regent’s response: to thank the soldiers who’d carried out the massacre.
Does George have a single redeeming feature? While he wasn’t cut out to be a king, he could have thrived in a more creative profession. His wife said that he'd have made a great hairdresser. In architecture, he created the zany Royal Pavilion, the Indian/Chinese holiday house which still cheers up Brighton, and his changes at Windsor Castle gave it Britain’s most recognisable skyline. And the Royal Collection remains stuffed with the treasures he chose with his connoisseur’s eye.
It’s also true that his expertly stage-managed coronation was one of the greatest spectacles Westminster Abbey has ever seen. It involved magnificent and not-always-appropriate silver costumes. George himself appeared in a crown decorated with more than 12,000 hired diamonds. Despite the kitsch, everyone present was deeply impressed.
Earlier this year, we saw something of the same showmanship when the Royal Wedding brought George’s panache and pageantry back to life. Who could forget the splendid procession from the Abbey back to Buckingham Palace, another of George’s architectural masterpieces?
So despite the womanising, the drinking and the lack of diligence, I must reluctantly admit that the Prince Regent wasn’t all bad. His cultural legacy still draws tourist dollars to Britain today.
‘Elegance and Decadence, The Age of the Regency’, begins on Bank Holiday Monday, 9pm, BBC4.
© 2013 Lucy Worsley