George IV of the United Kingdom (1762-1830) was Britain's first and only Prince Regent in the period 1811-1820, and later King from 1820 and until his death in 1830. George's reign was a prosperous time for Britain, and he is remembered largely for the profligate lifestyle he led and the Regency style that he helped promote.
George was born on 12 August 1762 in St. James Palace, the eldest son of George III and Charlotte Sophia of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. He was created Prince of Wales soon thereafter. George was an able child, and learned to speak four languages: his native English, French, German and Italian.
In 1783, George turned 21, receiving a grant of 60,000 pounds from Parliament, and an annual pension of 50,000 pounds from his father -- huge sums of money, at the time. He moved to Carlton House, where he began to lead an extravagant life. The money would not prove enough, and the Prince of Wales was forced into debt. In 1787, he had to move out of Carlton House to a humbler residence, and was only rescued from his financial woes by a grant from Parliament, totaling some 180,000 pounds, and an increase of his annual income by 10,000.
Relations between the King and his son were strained, as George III expected his heir to behave with more restraint and was antagonized by the latter's exorbitant spending. George III was further irritated by his son's friendship with Whig politicians, most notably Charles James Fox and Richard Brinsley Sheridan, although during his later reign, George IV would not be much less conservative than George III.
At around this time, George met and fell in love with Maria Anne Fitzherbert, a widow and Roman Catholic. Though he could not, as Prince of Wales and heir-apparent to the British throne, marry a Roman Catholic by law -- not to mention political reasons -- the two contracted a marriage of sorts in 1785. They would stay together for the next 26 years, even after George was married legally, and despite his numerous other affairs.
In 1788, George III, who suffered from a disease of the nervous system -- most commonly identified as porphyria, but which may also have been syphilis of the brain or arsenic poisoning -- lapsed into insanity and was unable to open Parliament in November 1788, without which Parliament could not proceed with any business. Although this was technically illegal, Parliament worked around the problem by having Lord Commissioners -- the King's official representatives -- deliver the opening speech instead of the King. Although this met with opposition, in particular from the Prince of Wales' younger brother, Duke Frederick of York, Parliament went ahead with the scheme, and the King, who recovered soon after, declared their actions to have been legal.
This incident sparked the first talk of a Regency, the Members of Parliament feeling that no one was better suited for the role than the Prince of Wales.
Meanwhile, life for the future George IV went on much as it had before, growing ever more extravagant. By 1795, he was in debt once again, and his father refused to aid him unless he married Caroline of Brunswick, his cousin. George agreed. However, the couple had no feelings for one another and in 1796, after the birth of their daughter Charlotte, the two were formally separated and did not reunite for the rest of their lives.
By this time, George's debts had added up to the astronomical sum of 660,000 pounds (equivalent to tens of millions today). Parliament was reluctant to pay this sum in one go, and instead they added 65,000 pounds to the Prince's annual income, effectively doubling it. A further 60,000 pounds was added in 1803.
In 1810, King George III was again stricken by his disease, never to recover. This time, Parliament did not dally and, using the precedent of 1788, had the Lord Commissioners sign into law the Regency Act of 1811. This act created the post of Prince Regent and appointed the Prince of Wales to fulfill this role. Although initially the powers of the Prince Regent were limited, the restrictions expired after a year, as it became apparent that the King might not be recovering.
The main issue facing the British government at the time was the issue of Catholic Emancipation. Many political and social restrictions had been placed on Roman Catholics living in Britain during the 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries, and now there was talk of repealing these restrictions. Though George had been friendly with the more liberal Whig politicians throughout his life up to this point, and though he was illegally married to a Catholic himself, he became much more conservative upon assumption of power.
Although promising support to the Whig party, he did not hurry to dismiss the Tory government then in power, claiming that his father the King -- who was very conservative in his politics -- would be further stricken by this change. When the House of Commons at last forced him to allow the Whigs into powers, he greatly hampered both the consequent governments, declared them to be inefficient and used this as an excuse to bring the Tories back to power.
Under the Regency, Britain took part in the Napoleonic Wars, which effected the entirety of Europe in the first two decades of the 19th Century. In 1814, Napoleon was defeated for the first time by a coalition that included Russia, Prussia, Austria, Sweden and Britain, among others. In 1815, the French Emperor staged a return, but was soon defeated by Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, at the Battle of Waterloo. That same year, the British-American War of 1812 ended indecisively, with neither side gaining anything.
The Prince Regent is probably most famous for the architectural, fashion, dance and literary style he helped introduce and popularize, often called the Regency style. It was characterized by more elegant, graceful architecture than the neo-classical style of the Georgian period, and clothes that were closer to the ideals of the middle class, than the previous pompous and somewhat pretentious fashions. George also popularized the idea of the seaside resort, developing the Royal Pavilion at Brighton into a fantastical palace, styled after the Taj Mahal, with luxurious pseudo-Oriental interiors.
George III finally died in 1820, lapsing into a coma after his madness had intensified. George IV ascended to the throne without any real change in his powers. His coronation was in 1821, and he spared nothing on it, expending the exorbitant sum of 943,000 pounds. His estranged wife, Caroline, had intended to return to England for the coronation, but George IV refused to recognize her as his queen and demanded that foreign countries do likewise. He proposed an Parliamentary Act to strip the Queen of her title, but this proved unpopular. However, Caroline's untimely death only a few weeks later resolved the issue.
In 1822, George IV visited Scotland, becoming the first British monarch to do so since 1650. He was greeted enthusiastically and the visit increased his popularity throughout the United Kingdom.
Obese and possibly addicted to laudanum, George spent most of his 10-year reign in seclusion at Windsor Castle. However, he continued to interfere actively in politics, particularly the Catholic Emancipation question. Stubbornly anti-Catholic for most of his life, he was finally persuaded to grant some measure of relief to Roman Catholics only in 1829, a year before he died.
George IV died in 1830 at Windsor Castle, where he was buried. As his only legal daughter had pre-deceased him, he was succeeded by his younger brother William.
See: John Singleton Copley. George
Thomas Gainsborough. George, Prince of Wales, Later George IV.
Sir Thomas Lawrence. King George IV. King George IV. George IV. The Prince Regent in Garter Robes. George IV. King George IV.
George Stubbs. George IV When Prince of Wales.
George IV: Inspiration of the Regency by Steven Parissien. St. Martin's Press, 2002.
George IV (The English Monarchs Series) by E.A. Smith. Yale University Press, 2001.
Maria Fitzherbert: The Secret Wife of George IV by James Munson. Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2001.
Prince of Pleasure: The Prince of Wales and the Making of the Regency by Saul David. Grove/Atlantic, 2000.
An Elegant Madness : High Society in Regency England by Venetia Murray. Penguin, 2000.