George IV: our most hopeless prince?

As BBC4 airs Elegance and Decadence: the Age of the Regency, Dr Lucy Worsley profiles the Prince Regent


They called him the Prince of Whales…


Today the word “Regency” sounds classy and elegant: Jane Austen, tea parties, pretty gowns and nice houses come to mind. Yet the future George IV, who became Regent in 1811, when his father, poor old George III, descended into confused senility, was a fat, drunken nincompoop, and his scandalous private life became horribly public because he had the misfortunate to live through a golden age of caricature. 

Of course, the Prince Regent had the great good luck in 1815 to defeat Napoleon at the battle of Waterloo. It was indeed luck rather than judgement, because George stayed safely at home while the Duke of Wellington and his army got on with it without him. Later in life, George seems conveniently to have forgotten this fact, and would astonish people by talking as if he’d actually been there himself.

…but he loved art

While we can’t fail to disparage the debts, the drinking, the mistresses and an addiction to laudanum, through his brilliant (if profligate) patronage of the arts, George’s spirit lives on today. He had the Indian- Chinese Royal Pavilion built to cheer up Brighton, and the skyline of one of our most recognisable buildings, Windsor Castle, is his work. He was also a terrific stage manager of grand occasions. In the words of his wife, George IV would have made a great hairdresser. He just wasn’t cut out to be a sovereign.

His marriage was the stuff of soap

Another contribution that George made to national life was to give his subjects endless fodder for leering and laughing. “The Grand Entertainment”, they called him, as they followed the tragi-comic saga of his family life. George’s coronation would be interrupted by his estranged wife, Caroline, banging on the door of Westminster Abbey, demanding to be let in. 

Caroline was a mail-order bride from the German state of Brunswick. George was extremely disappointed when he saw her in the flesh for the first time. (“Pray get me a glass of brandy,” was how his reaction was reported.) He was drunk at their wedding, slept that night in a fireplace and only lived with Caroline long enough to conceive their daughter, the tragically short-lived Princess Charlotte. While one feels sorry for the rejected Caroline, she didn’t help herself by careering around Europe compromising herself with her manservant.

A dandy who dressed to impress

The Prince Regent presided over a high society obsessed with elegance. This was the age of the dandy, which saw the birth of the dark gentleman’s business suit still worn today. The Prince Regent was in thrall to his style advisor, Beau Brummell, who spent hours each morning getting dressed before a crowd of fellow dandies.

Under Brummell’s stern direction, tailoring rather than decoration became the key to a well-dressed man’s wardrobe. If people noticed a man’s clothes, he said, he was not truly well dressed. The Prince, however, failed to meet his friend’s high standards. On one occasion, Brummell criticised the cut of his coat and he burst into tears.

The waltz and the rise of dirty dancing

Films depicting the Regency usually show oldfashioned country dancing, where you rotated through numerous partners. But with the new German waltz, by contrast, you stayed locked in the arms of just one person. Lovers could seize the chance for private conversation, while enjoying what The Times disparaged as “the voluptuous intertwining of the limbs”.

A revolution in the arts

The arts flourished in the Regency. JMW Turner gave us a detailed record of Britain through the sketches he made for the armchair traveller. Thomas Lawrence summed up the verve of Regency high society in his portraits, and Jane Austen exposed its foibles in her novels. Lord Byron opened up the Mediterranean to the British with Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, while Mary Shelley wrote the horrific Frankenstein. Everyone, it seems, was challenging everything.

Life got faster, Britain got smaller

Victory at Waterloo made Europe accessible once again after years of war, and the mail coach and the canal made it much easier for people and goods to travel around Britain itself. In the Regency the most dashing people were literally dashing about. The drivers of the mail coaches, whipping along four horses, must have felt like the kings of the road as the toll gates swung open before them. Nothing must interfere with the delivery of the Royal Mail.

But the peasants are revolting

With industrialisation came social unrest. One of the Prince Regent’s most objectionable qualities was his blithe ignorance of his people’s legitimate grievances, and his use of repression on a scale seen more recently in the Middle East. The year 1819 saw the killing or injuring of hundreds of peaceful protestors at St Peter’s Field in Manchester; the event was dubbed “Peterloo” in ironic reference to Waterloo.

It’s a bloody stain on the Prince Regent’s reputation, and nearly 200 years later he would be voted Britain’s Most Useless Monarch in an English Heritage poll.


Elegance and Decadence: the Age of the Regency starts tonight on BBC4 at 9pm