George was born at St James’s Palace, London, on 12 August 1762, the first child of King George III of the United Kingdom and Queen Charlotte. As the eldest son of a British sovereign, he automatically became Duke of Cornwall and Duke of Rothesay at birth; he was created Prince of Wales and Earl of Chester a few days later. On 18 September of the same year, he was baptised by Thomas Secker, Archbishop of Canterbury. His godparents were the Duke of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (his maternal uncle, for whom the Duke of Devonshire, Lord Chamberlain, stood proxy), the Duke of Cumberland (his twice-paternal great-uncle) and the Dowager Princess of Wales (his paternal grandmother). George was a talented student, and quickly learned to speak French, German and Italian, in addition to his native English. At the age of 18 he was given a separate establishment, and in dramatic contrast with his prosaic, scandal-free father, threw himself with zest into a life of dissipation and wild extravagance involving heavy drinking and numerous mistresses and escapades. He was a witty conversationalist, drunk or sober, and showed good, but grossly expensive, taste in decorating his palace. The Prince turned 21 in 1783, and obtained a grant of £60,000 (equivalent to £6,451,000 today) from Parliament and an annual income of £50,000 (equivalent to £5,376,000 today) from his father. It was far too little for his needs – the stables alone cost £31,000 a year. He then established his residence in Carlton House, where he lived a profligate life. Animosity developed between the Prince and his father, who desired more frugal behaviour on the part of the heir apparent. The King, a political conservative, was also alienated by the Prince’s adherence to Charles James Fox and other radically inclined politicians.
Soon after he reached the age of 21, the Prince became infatuated with Maria Fitzherbert. She was a commoner, six years his elder, twice widowed, and a Roman Catholic. Despite her complete unsuitability, the Prince was determined to marry her. This was in spite of the Act of Settlement 1701, which barred the spouse of a Catholic from succeeding to the throne, and the Royal Marriages Act 1772, which prohibited his marriage without the consent of the King, which would never have been granted. Nevertheless, the couple went through a marriage ceremony on 15 December 1785 at her house in Park Street, Mayfair. Legally the union was void, as the King’s consent was not granted (and never even requested). However, Fitzherbert believed that she was the Prince’s canonical and true wife, holding the law of the Church to be superior to the law of the State. For political reasons, the union remained secret and Fitzherbert promised not to reveal it. The Prince was plunged into debt by his exorbitant lifestyle. His father refused to assist him, forcing him to quit Carlton House and live at Fitzherbert’s residence. In 1787, the Prince’s political allies proposed to relieve his debts with a parliamentary grant. The Prince’s relationship with Fitzherbert was suspected, and revelation of the illegal marriage would have scandalised the nation and doomed any parliamentary proposal to aid him. Acting on the Prince’s authority, the Whig leader Charles James Fox declared that the story was a calumny. Fitzherbert was not pleased with the public denial of the marriage in such vehement terms and contemplated severing her ties to the Prince. He appeased her by asking another Whig, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, to restate Fox’s forceful declaration in more careful words. Parliament, meanwhile, granted the Prince £161,000 (equivalent to £18,272,000 today) to pay his debts and £60,000 (equivalent to £6,809,000 today) for improvements to Carlton House.
In the summer of 1788 the King’s mental health deteriorated, possibly as the result of the hereditary disease porphyria. He was nonetheless able to discharge some of his duties and to declare Parliament prorogued from 25 September to 20 November. During the prorogation he became deranged, posing a threat to his own life, and when Parliament reconvened in November the King could not deliver the customary speech from the throne during the State Opening of Parliament. Parliament found itself in an untenable position: according to long-established law it could not proceed to any business until the delivery of the King’s Speech at a State Opening. Although arguably barred from doing so, Parliament began debating a Regency. In the House of Commons, Charles James Fox declared his opinion that the Prince of Wales was automatically entitled to exercise sovereignty during the King’s incapacity. A contrasting opinion was held by the Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, who argued that, in the absence of a statute to the contrary, the right to choose a Regent belonged to Parliament alone. He even stated that, without parliamentary authority “the Prince of Wales had no more right … to assume the government, than any other individual subject of the country.” Though disagreeing on the principle underlying a Regency, Pitt agreed with Fox that the Prince of Wales would be the most convenient choice for a Regent.
The Prince of Wales—though offended by Pitt’s boldness—did not lend his full support to Fox’s approach. The Prince of Wales’s brother, Prince Frederick, Duke of York, declared that George would not attempt to exercise any power without previously obtaining the consent of Parliament. Following the passage of preliminary resolutions Pitt outlined a formal plan for the Regency, suggesting that the powers of the Prince of Wales be greatly limited. Among other things, the Prince of Wales would not be able either to sell the King’s property or to grant a peerage to anyone other than a child of the King. The Prince of Wales denounced Pitt’s scheme, declaring it a “project for producing weakness, disorder, and insecurity in every branch of the administration of affairs.” In the interests of the nation, both factions agreed to compromise. A significant technical impediment to any Regency Bill involved the lack of a speech from the throne, which was necessary before Parliament could proceed to any debates or votes. The speech was normally delivered by the King, but could also be delivered by royal representatives known as Lords Commissioners; but no document could empower the Lords Commissioners to act unless the Great Seal of the Realm was affixed to it. The Seal could not be legally affixed without the prior authorisation of the Sovereign. Pitt and his fellow ministers ignored the last requirement and instructed the Lord Chancellor to affix the Great Seal without the King’s consent, as the act of affixing the Great Seal in itself gave legal force to the Bill. This legal fiction was denounced by Edmund Burke as a “glaring falsehood”, as a “palpable absurdity”, and even as a “forgery, fraud”. The Duke of York, described the plan as “unconstitutional and illegal.” Nevertheless, others in Parliament felt that such a scheme was necessary to preserve an effective government. Consequently, on 3 February 1789, more than two months after it had convened, Parliament was formally opened by an “illegal” group of Lords Commissioners. The Regency Bill was introduced, but before it could be passed the King recovered. The King declared retroactively that the instrument authorising the Lords Commissioners to act was valid.
The Prince of Wales’s debts continued to climb, and his father refused to aid him unless he married his cousin Princess Caroline of Brunswick. In 1795, the Prince acquiesced; and they were married on 8 April 1795 at the Chapel Royal, St James’s Palace. The marriage, however, was disastrous; each party was unsuited to the other. The two were formally separated after the birth of their only child, Princess Charlotte, in 1796, and remained separated thereafter. The Prince remained attached to Maria Fitzherbert for the rest of his life, despite several periods of estrangement. George’s mistresses included Mary Robinson, an actress who was bought off with a generous pension when she threatened to sell his letters to the newspapers; Grace Elliott, the divorced wife of a physician; and Frances Villiers, Countess of Jersey, who dominated his life for some years. In later life, his mistresses were the Marchioness of Hertford and the Marchioness Conyngham, who were both married to aristocrats.
George was rumoured to have fathered several illegitimate children. James Ord (born 1786)—who moved to the United States and became a Jesuit priest—was reportedly his son by Fitzherbert. The King, late in life, told a friend that he had a son who was a naval officer in the West Indies, whose identity has been tentatively established as Captain Henry A. F. Hervey (1786–1824), reportedly George’s child by the songwriter Lady Anne Lindsay (later Barnard), a daughter of the 5th Earl of Balcarres. Other reported offspring include Major George Seymour Crole, the son of theatre manager’s daughter Eliza Crole or Fox; William Hampshire, the son of publican’s daughter Sarah Brown; and Charles “Beau” Candy, the son of a Frenchwoman with that surname. Anthony Camp, Director of Research at the Society of Genealogists, has dismissed the claims that George IV was the father of Ord, Hervey, Hampshire and Candy as fictitious. The problem of the Prince of Wales’s debts, which amounted to the extraordinary sum of £630,000 (equivalent to £58,132,000 today) in 1795, was solved (at least temporarily) by Parliament. Being unwilling to make an outright grant to relieve these debts, it provided him an additional sum of £65,000 (equivalent to £5,998,000 today per annum). In 1803, a further £60,000 (equivalent to £4,894,000 today) was added, and George’s debts of 1795 were finally cleared in 1806, although the debts he had incurred since 1795 remained. In 1804, a dispute arose over the custody of Princess Charlotte, which led to her being placed in the care of the King, George III. It also led to a Parliamentary Commission of Enquiry into Princess Caroline’s conduct after the Prince of Wales accused her of having an illegitimate son. The investigation cleared Caroline of the charge but still revealed her behaviour to have been extraordinarily indiscreet.
When George III died in 1820, the Prince Regent, then aged 57, ascended the throne as George IV, with no real change in his powers. By the time of his accession, he was obese and possibly addicted to laudanum. George IV’s relationship with his wife Caroline had deteriorated by the time of his accession. They had lived separately since 1796, and both were having affairs. In 1814, Caroline left the United Kingdom for continental Europe, but she chose to return for her husband’s coronation, and to publicly assert her rights as queen consort. However, George IV refused to recognise Caroline as Queen, and commanded British ambassadors to ensure that monarchs in foreign courts did the same. By royal command, Caroline’s name was omitted from the Book of Common Prayer, the liturgy of the Church of England. The King sought a divorce, but his advisors suggested that any divorce proceedings might involve the publication of details relating to the King’s own adulterous relationships. Therefore, he requested and ensured the introduction of the Pains and Penalties Bill, under which Parliament could have imposed legal penalties without a trial in a court of law. The bill would have annulled the marriage and stripped Caroline of the title of Queen. The bill proved extremely unpopular with the public, and was withdrawn from Parliament. George IV decided, nonetheless, to exclude his wife from his coronation at Westminster Abbey, on 19 July 1821. Caroline fell ill that day and died on 7 August; during her final illness she often stated that she thought she had been poisoned. George’s coronation was a magnificent and expensive affair, costing about £243,000 (approximately £19,777,000 in 2015; for comparison, his father’s coronation had only cost about £10,000, less than a twentieth of George IV’s). Despite the enormous cost, it was a popular event. In 1821 the King became the first monarch to pay a state visit to Ireland since Richard II of England. The following year he visited Edinburgh for “one and twenty daft days”. His visit to Scotland, organised by Sir Walter Scott, was the first by a reigning British monarch since the mid-17th century.
George IV spent most of his later reign in seclusion at Windsor Castle, but he continued to intervene in politics. At first it was believed that he would support Catholic emancipation, as he had proposed a Catholic Emancipation Bill for Ireland in 1797, but his anti-Catholic views became clear in 1813 when he privately canvassed against the ultimately defeated Catholic Relief Bill of 1813. By 1824 he was denouncing Catholic emancipation in public. Having taken the coronation oath on his accession, George now argued that he had sworn to uphold the Protestant faith, and could not support any pro-Catholic measures. The influence of the Crown was so great, and the will of the Tories under Prime Minister Lord Liverpool so strong, that Catholic emancipation seemed hopeless. In 1827, however, Lord Liverpool retired, to be replaced by the pro-emancipation Tory George Canning. When Canning entered office, the King, hitherto content with privately instructing his ministers on the Catholic Question, thought it fit to make a public declaration to the effect that his sentiments on the question were those of his revered father, George III. Canning’s views on the Catholic Question were not well received by the most conservative Tories, including the Duke of Wellington. As a result, the ministry was forced to include Whigs. Canning died later in that year, leaving Frederick Robinson, 1st Viscount Goderich, to lead the tenuous Tory-Whig coalition. Lord Goderich left office in 1828, to be succeeded by the Duke of Wellington, who had by that time accepted that the denial of some measure of relief to Roman Catholics was politically untenable. George was never as friendly with Wellington as he had been with Canning and chose to annoy the Duke by pretending to have fought at Waterloo disguised as a German general. With great difficulty Wellington obtained the King’s consent to the introduction of a Catholic Relief Bill on 29 January 1829. Under pressure from his fanatically anti-Catholic brother, the Duke of Cumberland, the King withdrew his approval and in protest the Cabinet resigned en masse on 4 March. The next day the King, now under intense political pressure, reluctantly agreed to the Bill and the ministry remained in power. Royal Assent was finally granted to the Catholic Relief Act on 13 April.
George’s heavy drinking and indulgent lifestyle had taken their toll on his health by the late 1820s. Through huge banquets and copious amounts of alcohol, he had become obese, making him the target of ridicule on the rare occasions that he appeared in public. By 1797 his weight had reached 17 stone 7 pounds (111 kg; 245 lb), and by 1824 his corset was made for a waist of 50 inches (130 cm). He suffered from gout, arteriosclerosis, peripheral edema (“dropsy”), and possibly porphyria. In his last years, he spent whole days in bed and suffered spasms of breathlessness that would leave him half-asphyxiated. By December 1828, like his father, he was almost completely blind from cataracts, and was suffering from such severe gout in his right hand and arm that he could no longer sign documents. In mid-1829, Sir David Wilkie reported the King “was wasting away frightfully day after day”, and had become so obese that he looked “like a great sausage stuffed into the covering”. The King took laudanum to counteract severe bladder pains, which left him in a drugged and mentally handicapped state for days on end. In 1830 his weight was recorded to be 20 stone (130 kg; 280 lb).
By the spring of 1830, George’s imminent end was apparent. Attacks of breathlessness due to dropsy forced him to sleep upright in a chair, and doctors frequently tapped his abdomen to drain excess fluid. He was admired for clinging doggedly to life despite his obvious decline. He dictated his will in May and became very devout in his final months, confessing to an archdeacon that he repented of his early dissolute life, but hoped mercy would be shown to him as he had always tried to do the best for his subjects. At about half-past three in the morning of 26 June 1830 at Windsor Castle, he reportedly called out “Good God, what is this?”, clasped his page’s hand and said “my boy, this is death”, after which he died. An autopsy conducted by his physicians revealed he had died from upper gastrointestinal bleeding resulting from the rupture of a blood vessel in his stomach (gastric varices). A large tumour “the size of an orange” was found attached to his bladder, and he had an enlarged heart surrounded by a large fat deposit and heavily calcified heart valves. He was buried in St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, on 15 July. His only legitimate child, Princess Charlotte of Wales, had died from post-partum complications in 1817, after delivering a still-born son. The second son of George III, Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany, had died childless in 1827, so the succession passed to the third son of George III, Prince William, Duke of Clarence, who reigned as William IV.
- August, 12, 1762
- United Kingdom
- St James's Palace, London, England
- June, 26, 1830
- United Kingdom
- Windsor Castle, Berkshire, England
Cause of Death
- upper gastrointestinal bleeding
- St George's Chape
- Windsor Castle, Windsor, England
- United Kingdom