Weekend: Books: One for the Royal Family Album; George IV. by E A Smith (Yale University Press, Pounds 25). Reviewed by Christine Barker

By Barker, Christine | The Birmingham Post (England), June 12, 1999 | Go to article overview

Weekend: Books: One for the Royal Family Album; George IV. by E A Smith (Yale University Press, Pounds 25). Reviewed by Christine Barker


Barker, Christine, The Birmingham Post (England)


When George IV was 30 - in 1792 - he sat for a portrait by the artist Richard Cosway. Elegantly dressed and cravated, with the Order of the Garter on his chest and a buckled black hat set at an elegant angle on his fairish hair, it shows us a foppish young man who looks barely 21 with the famous Hanoverian blue eyes and a rosebud mouth.

Undoubtedly it was designed to flatter. There were many sycophants at court who poured praise as thick as treacle on the young king.

But the majority of the courtiers, along with the mainstream politicians, were generally agreed that the latest sprig from the spreading Hanoverian tree was spoiled, vain, weak, self-indulgent and given to every sort of excess from womanising to profligracy. In short, not the sort of person a right-thinking England wanted on the throne at all.

Particularly after the reign of his pious and conscientious father, George III.

But George IV (he succeeded in 1820 and reigned until 1830) came to the throne at a crossroads in the continuing power and importance of the monarchy. It was George - rather more so than Victoria later - who laid the groundwork for the constitutional monarchy we still have today.

The young scion of the noblest of houses, who spent his youth sowing so many wild oats even his madcap contemporaries gasped in amazement, was not all bad, his latest biographer contends.

In this latest of Hale's much-praised series on English monarchs (it has now been 30 years in the preparation, and we have a handful of kings and queens still to come) the historian E A Smith, formerly Reader in History at the University of Reading, gives us a rather more benevolent view of the king.

As he points out in a detailed and finely researched account, George may have been in debt to the tune of almost three quarters of a million by 1795 - a vast amount of money in those days - but his encouragement of, and interest in, the entire spectrum of the arts of the early nineteenth century enhanced London in almost the way the Renaissance enhanced Florence.

But on the political side, George frequently skated on rather thin ice, Smith points out. Like so many nobly-born rebels, during his youth he tended to court politicians like Charles James Fox and other Whigs, who were firmly opposed to the policies and methods of George III.

It was all probably youthful excess, the author suggests, like his scandalous affairs, his mistresses and his generally spendthrift lifestyle. The son rebelling against the father before finally being made to settle down.

But it did lead the young prince into "marriage" in 1785 when he was just 23 to Mrs Fitzherbert, a widow and a Roman Catholic to boot. The furore surrounding that little episode was to reverberate around the kingdom for the rest of his life.

Particularly 10 years later when he entered into a second marriage with Princess Caroline of Brunswick - his "official" wife - whose fortune he needed to keep his debtors from the palace door.

What really disgusted the bridegroom was the fact that his ample and very Germanic new bride was not particularly fastidious in her personal habits. …

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