George, Prince Regent
Prince George – from 1820, George IV – was born on 12 August 1762, 11 months after his parents' wedding.
Early indiscretionsThe eldest son of George III and Queen Charlotte, he was brought up under strict discipline. However, he was a high-spirited boy, and in 1780, his father had to buy back the indiscreet letters he had written to the actress Mary 'Perdita' Robinson. George then fell in love with the widow Maria Fitzherbert and they married secretly in 1785. She was a Roman Catholic, which meant that he could not succeed to the throne as her husband. Also, the marriage was illegal under the 1772 Royal Marriages Act, which stipulated that princes under the age of 25 must have royal consent to wed.
In constant and open opposition to his father, George associated closely with the high-living and dissolute opposition Whigs, particularly Charles James Fox, whose friend he became in 1781. In 1787, George's debts were so large that he asked Parliament to pay them. But, as part of the deal, Fox had to deny rumours of his marriage in the House of Commons. George's subsequent confession of the truth – and Maria's dismissal from court – resulted in a breach with some of his Whig allies.
Whigs and a weddingWhen his father suffered his first fit of mental disturbance in 1788, the Tory William Pitt proposed that the regency vested in the prince be closely restricted, to prevent George bringing any of his Whig friends to power. Meanwhile, Fox, usually the opponent of royal prerogative, wanted the prince to have unlimited powers as regent. George III recovered before either side could succeed.
By 1793, George was once again in debt, and Parliament would only help if he married a Protestant princess to secure the succession to the throne. Two years later, he wed Caroline of Brunswick. He took a dislike to her coarse language and flighty manner and the couple separated soon afterwards. Caroline had a child nine months after the wedding, but by then George had returned to his licentious lifestyle. As for Caroline, she moved to Italy with their daughter, Charlotte Augusta. In 1816, Charlotte Augusta married Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg (later Leopold I, king of the Belgians) but died in childbirth.
PatronageIn 1810, when his father's illness became permanent, George severed his connections with the Whigs and was made prince regent. In 1811, he was struck down by abdominal pain and paralysis of the limbs, but soon recovered.
Influenced by the dandy Beau Brummell, George was addicted to the high life, fascinated by the arts – he was a fan of Jane Austen – and obsessed with building. At immense cost, he had Carlton House erected in London and the Pavilion at Brighton. Under his patronage, the Regency neo-classical style dominated British culture, and he donated his father's immense book collection to the British Library. However, he was unpopular with his subjects, who contrasted his lavish lifestyle with the famines that had struck the embattled nation.
Disappointed aspirationsWhen George IV became king in January 1820, he insisted on Caroline's name being struck from the Church liturgy. Returning to England in June, Caroline appealed to the public, claiming her rights as a queen. George's attempt to divorce her caused a public outcry and the matter was eventually dropped by Parliament: although the immorality of which he accused her did have some basis in fact, his own infidelities had been blatant. However, nothing would persuade George to allow her to attend his coronation, and on her arrival at Westminster Abbey on the big day, 19 July 1821, the doors were slammed in her face. She died at Hammersmith only 19 days later, aged 53. George was bright, witty and able, yet indolent, spoilt and dissolute. Although he badly wanted to exert authority over his ministers, he lacked political skills and was so lazy that the politicians usually got their own way. His aspirations to be a military leader came to nothing. In 1828-9, he was compelled to accept the repeal of religious discrimination against both Catholics and Dissenters. Overall, during his reign the monarchy lost a significant amount of power.
George IV died on 26 June 1830 after a series of strokes. He was succeeded by his brother William IV.