Magazine article History Today

George IV: A Sketch: Kenneth Baker Looks at the Foibles and Achievements of One of Britain's Most Controversial Monarchs through the Eyes of His Caricaturists

Magazine article History Today

George IV: A Sketch: Kenneth Baker Looks at the Foibles and Achievements of One of Britain's Most Controversial Monarchs through the Eyes of His Caricaturists

Article excerpt

ON THE SUNNY JUNE DAY in 1830 when George IV (who had been king since 1820) died, Ton] Moore, the poet, wrote:

   Never saw London so excited or lively
   ... crowds everywhere, particularly in
   St James's Street ... the whole thing
   reminded me of a passage in an old
   comedy: 'What makes him so merry?'
   'Don't you see he's in mourning?'

There was little mourning for George and within three weeks of his death The Times thundered out its verdict:

   There never was an individual less
   regretted by his fellow creatures than
   the deceased King ... an inveterate
   voluptuary ... of all known beings the
   most selfish.

This echoed the comment of Charles Greville, the Clerk to the Privy Council, who confided to his diary:

   A more contemptible, cowardly,
   selfish, unfeeling dog does not exist ...
   There have been good and wise kings
   but not many of them ... and this I
   believe to be one of the worst.

Wellington, who had served him as prime minister for two years, was more generous in his tribute in the House of Lords, describing him as 'the most accomplished man of his age' and going on to say that in dealing with his ministers the King showed 'a degree of knowledge and of talent much beyond that which could be reasonably expected of an individual holding his high station'. Privately Wellington was even more magnanimous:

   The most extraordinary compound of
   talent, wit, buffoonery', obstinacy, and
   good feeling--in short a medley of
   the most opposite qualities with a
   great preponderance of good--that I
   ever saw in any character in my life.

These are the two poles of George's reputation and all biographies since then have oscillated between them--most to condemnation and only a few to a forgiving understanding.

George's successors to the throne wanted to wipe him out of the nation's memory. His brother, William IV, sent all his clothes to be auctioned--the sale lasted three days (a similar fate awaited the dresses of Princess Diana). He also cancelled the buildings that were to flank Buckingham Palace and he pulled down most of the mock-Tudor Royal Lodge in Windsor Great Park where his brother had spent his last few years. Queen Victoria, who had been welcomed by her uncle to Windsor, never really forgave his excesses. She sold the Royal Pavilion at Brighton to the local town council, and in 1867 ordered the demolition of the little Chinese temple that George had built at Virginia Water, where she had occasionally been taken on his fishing expeditious. All wanted to forget the gaudy extravagance of his reign. In 1855 Thackeray, in his lecture on the 'Four Georges,' turned his scathing sarcasm on the King: 'This George was nothing but a coat, and a wig, and a mask smiling below it--nothing but a big simulacrum but a bow and a grin.' Max Beerbohm, though, in an essay that was published in The Yellow Book in 1894, made a spirited defence of George, attributing his reputation to the 'Non-Conformist conscience'.

There are many aspects of George's life which cannot in any way be excused. He was recklessly extravagant, running up huge debts which he expected Parliament to meet; he lived in a sumptuous way, buying anything that took his fancy, whether it was a chandelier or cloth for a new coat; and he gave expensive jewellery to his mistresses (and in some cases pensions too). He was a careless gambler, a heavy drinker, and a gourmand, who was always on the verge of becoming a glutton. He quite deliberately lived his life on a stage in the public gaze, even though he created the stage himself. The French politician Talleyrand, towards the end of a remarkable career of survival, became the ambassador in London and, remembering the ancien regime in France, he summed up what he saw rather well:

   Kings nowadays are always seeking
   popularity, a pointless pursuit. … 
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