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The Prince of Wales: The Man who gave the Regency its Name

“I suppose all the World is sitting in Judgement upon the Princess of Wales’s Letter. Poor woman, I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a Woman, & because I hate her Husband — but I can hardly forgive her for calling herself ‘attached & affectionate’ to a Man whom she must detest — & the intimacy said to subsist between her & Lady Oxford is bad — I do not know what to do about it; but if I must give up the Princess, I am resolved at least always to think that she would have been respectable, if the Prince had behaved only tolerably by her at first. –”
Jane Austen,
February 16, 1813

George, the eldest son of George III and Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, was born in St James’s Palace. At his birth, he automatically became Duke of Cornwall and Duke of Rothesay; he was created Prince of Wales shortly thereafter. He was a talented student, quickly learning to speak not only English but also French, German and Italian.

The Prince of Wales turned twenty-one years old in 1783. He obtained a grant of £60,000 from Parliament, and an annual income of £50,000 from his father. The Prince of Wales established his residence in Carlton House, where he lived a profligate life. Animosity between him and his father, a monarch who desired more frugal behaviour on the part of the heir-apparent, developed. The King, a strong supporter of the Tory party, was also alienated by the Prince of Wales’s adherence to Charles James Fox and other Whigs.

Soon after he reached the age of twenty-one years, the Prince of Wales fell in love with a Roman Catholic, Maria Anne Fitzherbert. Mrs Fitzherbert was a widow; her first husband, Edward Weld died in 1775; her second husband, Thomas Fitzherbert, did the same in 1781. A marriage between the two was impeded by the Act of Settlement 1701, which declared those who married Roman Catholics ineligible to succeed to the Throne. An even more daunting barrier was the Royal Marriages Act 1772, under which the Prince of Wales could not marry without the consent of the King, which, unquestionably, would have never been granted. Nevertheless, the Prince of Wales and Mrs Fitzherbert contracted a “marriage” in 1785. Legally the union was void, for the King’s assent was never requested and received. Yet, Mrs Fitzherbert believed that she was the Prince of Wales’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 Mrs Fitzherbert promised not to publish any evidence relating to the same.

The Prince of Wales was plunged into debt by his exorbitant lifestyle. His father refused to assist him, forcing him to quit Carlton House and live in Mrs Fitzherbert’s residence. In 1787, the Prince of Wales’s allies in the House of Commons introduced a proposal to relieve his debts with a parliamentary grant. At the time, many suspected the Prince of Wales’s personal relationship with Mrs Fitzherbert. The revalation of the illegal marriage would have scandalised the nation, and would have certainly doomed any parliamentary proposal to aid the Prince of Wales to failure. Acting on the Prince’s authority, the Whig leader Charles James Fox declared that the story was a calumniation. Mrs Fitzherbert was not pleased with the public denial of the marriage in such vehement terms, and contemplated severing her ties to the Prince. The Prince of Wales propitiated his companion by requesting another Whig, Richard Brinsley Sheridan (the famous playwright), to carefully restate Fox’s forceful declaration. Parliament, in the meantime, was sufficiently pleased to grant the Prince of Wales £161,000 for the payment of his debts, in addition to £20,000 for improvements to Carlton House. The King also agreed to increase the Prince of Wales’s annual allowance by £10,000.

Regency Crisis of 1788

George III suffered from an hereditary disease known as porphyria. In the summer of 1788, the King showed severe symptoms of insanity, but was nonetheless able to discharge some of his duties. Thus, he was able to declare Parliament prorogued from 25 September to 20 November 1788. During the prorogation, however, George III became deranged, posing a threat to his own life. Thus, when Parliament reconvened in November, the King could not deliver the customary Speech from the Throne during the State Opening. Parliament found itself in an untenable position: according to long-established law, it could not proceed to any business whatsoever until the delivery of the King’s Speech at a State Opening.

Although theoretically 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 philosophy. HRH The Prince Frederick, Duke of York declared that his brother, the Prince of Wales, would not attempt to exercise any power without previously obtaining the consent of Parliament. Following the passage of a number of preliminary resolutions, William Pitt outlined a formal plan for the Regency, suggesting that the powers of the Prince of Wales be greatly limited. (Amongst other things, the Prince of Wales could neither sell the King’s property nor grant a peerage dignity to anyone other than a child of the King). The Prince of Wales denounced Pitt’s scheme, declaring it “project for producing weakness, disorder, and insecurity in every branch of the administration of affairs.” Nevertheless, in the interest 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 theoretically necessary before Parliament could proceed to any debates or votes. The Speech, it was noticed, 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; and the said 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. This course of action was denounced as a “phantom,” as a “fiction,” and even as a “forgery.” The Prince of Wales’s brother, the Duke of York, described the plan as “unconstitutional and illegal.” Nevertheless, others in Parliament felt that such a scheme was neccessary in order to preserve an effective government. Consequently, on 3 February 1789, over 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. Retroactively, the King declared that the instrument authorising the Lords Commissioners to act was valid.

Marriage

In the meantime, the Prince of Wales’s debts continued to climb; his father refused to aid him unless he married his cousin, Caroline of Brunswick. In 1795, the Prince of Wales acquiesced. The marriage, however, was disastrous; each party was completely unsuited for the other. The two were formally separated after the birth of their only child—HRH Princess Augusta—in 1796. The Prince and Princess of Wales were separated for the remainder of their lives. The Prince of Wales remained attached to Mrs Fitzherbert for the remainder of his life, despite several periods of estrangement. In the meantime, the problem of the Prince of Wales’s debts (which then amounted to an extraordinary sum, £660,000, in 1796) was solved (at least temporarily) by Parliament. Parliament was unwilling to make an outright grant to relieve them; instead, it provided him an additional sum of £65,000 per annum. In 1803, a further £60,000 was added, and the Prince of Wales’s debts were finally paid.

Regency

From 1811, his father was permanently incapacitated, and he achieved a more definite status as Prince Regent. His extravagance continued, despite the involvement of Britain in the Napoleonic Wars, and during this period, much of the city of London was redesigned—hence Regent’s Park and Regent Street. The architect, John Nash, and the dandy, Beau Brummell, were among the Regent’s best-known associates.

As can be seen from the comment above, Jane Austen held no high opinion of the Prince of Wales, though he, on the other hand, kept specially bound editons of her works in all his houses. Imagine her surprise when, in 1815, she was waited upon by his Librarian, Mr. Clarke, and invited to visit Carlton House. This honor she declined, but was unable to refuse the other he offered– that of dedicating her next book (Emma, printed in March, 1816) to His Royal Highness. How it must have rankled to pen the words:

TO
HIS ROYAL HIGHNESS
THE PRINCE REGENT,
THIS WORK IS,
BY HIS ROYAL HIGHNESS’S PERMISSION,
MOST REPECTFULLY DEDICATED,
BY HIS ROYAL HIGHNESS’S
DUTIFUL
AND OBEDIENT
HUMBLE SERVANT,
THE AUTHOR

Reign

When the king died in 1820, the Prince Regent finally ascended the throne as King George IV. He had acted conservatively as Regent and with major achievements as a collector and patron of the arts not seen in a monarch since Charles I, but by the time of his coronation he was seriously overweight and possibly addicted to laudanum as well as showing some signs of the insanity that had affected his father. The Coronation, July 19, 1821, was mounted with unparalleled magnificence, a fancy-dress occasion with a somewhat Elizabethan theme. His gold-embroidered crimson velvet and ermine coronation robe, with a 27-foot train held by sons of peers, cost 24,000 pounds. The diamonds in the crown were hired for the occasion, but the King wore the Hope Diamond (as it was soon to be called), which he had purchased the previous year. Parliament had agreed on 243,000 pounds to be spent on the Coronation. The Queen found herself unable to gain access to Westminster Abbey or the banquet at Westminmster Hall. The event was extremely popular: Sir Thomas Lawrence’s coronation portrait was multiplied in the painter’s studio and many more modest souvenirs were issued; a panorama recording the event toured the cities of England afterwards. George IV enjoyed many weeks of popularity.

In 1822 the King visited Edinburgh for “one and twenty daft days” as the first reigning monarch to visit Scotland since 1650. The visit was organised by Sir Walter Scott, who seized the opportunity to invent another splendid pageant, wherein ancient Scotland would be reborn, and the King who had been parodied in cartoons as a fat debauché would be seen as “a portly handsome man looking and moving every inch a King”. George would be presented as a new Jacobite King, with the logic that he was by bloodline as much a Stuart as Bonnie Prince Charlie had been, and would win the affections of the Scots away from radical reform. Scott had persuaded George that he was not only a Stuart prince, but also a Jacobite Highlander, and could rightly and properly swathe himself in “the garb of old Gaul”, so in July 1822 the King placed his order with George Hunter & Co., outfitters of Tokenhouse Yard, London and Princes Street, Edinburgh for £1,354 18s worth of highland outfit in bright red Royal Tartan, later known as Royal Stuart, complete with pink tights, gold chains and assorted weaponry including dirk, sword and pistols. Dressed in this “our fat friend” was hoisted onto a horse and rode triumphantly into Edinburgh for an event that made tartans and kilts fashionable and turned them into the national icons they are today.

He spent the majority of his reign in seclusion at Windsor Castle, but continued to interfere unwisely in politics, opposing social reforms such as the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829. As a result of Princess Charlotte’s death, his younger brother, Frederick, Duke of York, became heir to the throne; however, Frederick died in 1827.

King George IV died on June 26, 1830 and is buried at Windsor Castle. He was succeeded by his younger brother, as William IV.
George’s official style whilst King was, “George the Fourth, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland King, Defender of the Faith.” His arms were: Quarterly, I and IV Gules three lions passant guardant in pale Or (for England); II Or a lion rampant within a tressure flory-counter-flory Gules (for Scotland); III Azure a harp Or stringed Argent (for Ireland); overall an escutcheon tierced per pale and per chevron (for Hanover), I Gules two lions passant guardant Or (for Brunswick), II Or a semy of hearts Gules a lion rampant Azure (for Lüneburg), III Gules a horse courant Argent (for Westfalen), the whole inescutcheon surmounted by a crown.

This article incorporates text from the public domain 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica.

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