Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Prince Regent, Part 5: An Admixture of Both?

1811 saw great changes in George’s life: it was the year that he became regent for his father, who had slipped irrevocably into his final illness, and it was also the year that he and Mrs. Fitzherbert split for good. One of Maria’s friends, Isabella, Lady Hertford, had been insinuating her way into George’s life and affections over the last couple of years, and George began to ignore Maria. By mid 1811, the final separation came when George refused her a seat near him at the great party he gave ostensibly for King Louis XVIII of France but really to celebrate his becoming regent. Though they corresponded intermittently on business matters (George paid Maria a pension for the rest of her life), they were through…unless you count the fact that George was buried with a miniature of Mrs. Fitzherbert next to his heart, and that Maria refused to be made a duchess after his death and never made public any information on their life together, as a less scrupulous—or loving—person might have done.

What of his other wife, the Princess of Wales? Relations between them had progressed from bad to worse, and Caroline seems to have behaved with great indiscretion (not to mention eccentricity). Official investigations into her personal conduct followed, with George hoping that divorce might be the final result. While she was officially cleared and remained George’s wife, it’s pretty certain that she took several lovers, and once Napoleon had been defeated she left England altogether in 1814 to travel in Europe, settling in Italy and continuing in her indiscreet, eccentric habits--dyeing her hair, wearing alarming gowns, and otherwise behaving scandalously according to English travelers who met her during these years. Her part of this story ends badly: on George’s becoming king, she came back to England demanding to be acknowledged as queen…and found herself instead responding to a Parliamentary bill attempting to annul her marriage to George (a divorce case might have revealed details about George’s own life, such as his relationship with Mrs. Fitzherbert, that he did not want to have made public—or at least officially public). Though the bill was narrowly passed in the House of Lords it was thrown out. A triumphant Caroline arrived at George’s coronation six months later expecting to be crowned queen, and instead was locked out of Westminster Abbey on George’s orders. She died three weeks later.

Once consequence of George’s relationship with Lady Hertford was a shift in his political views, from the liberal Whiggish leanings of his younger days toward the more conservative Tory viewpoint. As this coincided with his finally attaining political power as regent for the king, the political and social effect was profound. His struggles with Caroline took on party significance, as most prominent Whig politicians took her part, and with her failure and death came the eclipsing of the Whig party and the causes they fought for (Catholic emancipation, expanded suffrage) for the next decade, until George’s own death.

It’s a little sad to relate the rest of George’s life—his nine years as Prince Regent and ten as King George IV. Always chubby, he grew enormously fat, and as the handsomeness of his youth faded, he took to wearing wigs and make-up to try to regain it. His behavior was sometimes erratic—in later years he managed to convince himself that he’d fought at the Battle of Waterloo (a sign of his lasting disappointment that he’d never been allowed an army career?) His last female “friend”, Lady Conyngham, didn’t help matters. This time she was actually younger than George (all his previous mistresses had been older) but still had the aura of motherliness that he always seemed drawn to. However, she and her husband were also extremely greedy, and took whatever the generous George offered in the way of jewelry, land, or office and influence. Between his own behavior and hers, George lost what little popularity he had left and was pretty universally despised. He spent much of his reign as king in seclusion at Windsor, where his niece Victoria visited her “Uncle King” as a young girl, in increasingly bad health, and died in June of 1830.

I borrowed the titles for several of these entries on the Prince Regent from the comment made about George in his youth—that he would be “either the most polished gentleman, or the most accomplished blackguard in Europe--possibly an admixture of both." I think this turned out to be a remarkably prescient observation, for Prinny was just that. Many of the patterns of his life were reactions against the strictures of his childhood: being allowed only plain and not very plentiful food as a child led to his becoming enormously fat and more or less addicted to food in adulthood; the enforced simplicity of his childhood life led to his later extravagance. And though he was probably his mother’s favorite child, Queen Charlotte was not the most demonstrative of parents, and it’s tempting to speculate that his life-long attraction to older women was a result of that. He loved Maria Fitzherbert for all of his life, yet seemed to be incapable of maintaining an actual day-to-day relationship with anyone for very long. Only his love of art never failed him, and even his enemies had to admit his exquisite taste, artistic knowledge, and love of beauty…and yet even that could be carried to gross excess.

Definitely “an admixture of both.”


QNPoohBear said...

Wow! I've read parts of the story but not all those details. It's a very sad and shocking tale. Thanks for sharing the full story with us,

Marissa Doyle said...

I wish it were the full story--there's tons that would have been fascinating to include, but I didn't want to get too long-winded. It was an interesting period of history inhabited by a lot of very interesting people, not least Prinny himself.