George III: A Personal Historyby Christopher Hibbert
In George III: A Personal History, British historian Christopher Hibbert reassesses the royal monarch George III (17381820). Rather than reaffirm George III’s reputation as “Mad King George,” Hibbert portrays him as not only a competent ruler during most of his reign, but also as a patron of the arts and sciences, as a man of wit/i>… See more details below
In George III: A Personal History, British historian Christopher Hibbert reassesses the royal monarch George III (17381820). Rather than reaffirm George III’s reputation as “Mad King George,” Hibbert portrays him as not only a competent ruler during most of his reign, but also as a patron of the arts and sciences, as a man of wit and intelligence, indeed, as a man who “greatly enhanced the reputation of the British monarchy” until he was finally stricken by a rare hereditary disease.Teeming with court machinations, sexual intrigues, and familial conflicts, George III opens a window on the tumultuous, rambunctious, revolutionary eighteenth century. It is sure to alter our understanding of this fascinating, complex, and very human king who so strongly shaped England’s and America’sdestiny.
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`THE GREATEST BEAST
IN THE WHOLE WORLD'
I wish the ground would open this moment and sink
the monster to the lowest hole in hell.
In the emphatic opinion of Sir Robert Walpole, King George II's First Minister, Frederick, Prince of Wales, was a `poor, weak, irresolute, false, lying, dishonest, contemptible wretch that nobody loves, that nobody believes, that nobody will trust'. The judgement, harsh, bitter and prejudiced as it was, was widely shared at the King's court, the King himself having little time for his elder son, with whom he had been at odds almost ever since 1728, when the young man had come over to England following his education in Hanover. Indeed, he generally declined to speak to him, ostentatiously ignoring his presence, and referred to him as `no true son of mine'. He must be `what in German we call a Wechselbald', the King said. `I do not know if you have a word for it in English it is not what you call a foundling, but a child put in a cradle instead of another.'
As for Prince Frederick's mother, Queen Caroline, a sensible, intelligent though sarcastic and manipulative woman, the daughter of the Margrave of Brandenburg-Ansbach, she could not bear the sight of the `avaricious, sordid monster'. He was `the greatest ass and the greatest liar and the greatest canaille and the greatest beast in the whole world', and she heartily wished he were `out of it'. One day, catching sight of the Prince from her dressing-room window, she exclaimed to Lord Hervey, Vice-Chamberlain of the Household, her face red with fury, `Look, there he goes that wretch! that villain! I wish the ground would open this moment and sink the monster to the lowest hole in hell.' None of the Prince's five sisters would have gone quite as far as this, but none of them much liked him, while one of them, Princess Amelia, said, `He was the greatest liar that ever spoke and will put one arm round anybody's neck to kiss them, and then stab them with the other if he can.'
Lord Hervey also held him in the lowest esteem, and found it no irksome task to compose, at the Queen's request, a character sketch of her son which he was asked to read to her time and again. In it he wrote of the young man's `silly pride', his extreme inconsistency, his avarice and his lewdness a lewdness `without vigour'.
Lord Hervey had reason to stress this last-mentioned fault. He was himself a spiteful, malicious, effeminate man with what the Duchess of Marlborough described as `a painted face and not a tooth in his head'. But he was witty, charming, shrewd and amoral, the father of eight children, and `a special favourite of women'. The Queen was deeply attached to him, as he was to her. He was, she said, `her child, her pupil and her charge'. It was as well, she added, that she was so much older than he was, for otherwise she would be talked about `for this creature'.
Lord Hervey had once been close to the Prince, but he had been replaced as his adviser by George Bubb Dodington, a rich, ingratiating politician of unreliable allegiances. This had rankled with Hervey; but what had annoyed him more was the Prince's having taken over his mistress, the Hon. Anne Vane, daughter of Lord Barnard, and having not only established her in Soho Square, at that time an extremely fashionable quarter, but also given her an allowance of £1,600 a year.
This was not the only woman whom the Prince had kept as a mistress. There was talk of an opera singer and of the daughters of an apothecary and of a man who played in a theatre orchestra. But, so the Prince's Privy Purse confided in Lord Egmont, he talked more `of his feats in this way' than he actually performed them. Miss Vane told her previous lover, Lord Hervey, that the Prince was `incredibly ignorant' in sexual matters; and Queen Caroline chose to believe that the baby to which Anne Vane gave birth and which was christened Cornwell Fitz-Frederick was certainly not the offspring of the supposed father, who, in her fixed opinion, was impotent. When the time came for the Prince to marry, his mother let it be known that she had no doubt that the poor bride would have a very thin time of it.
The bride had reason to fear so herself. The Prince had already been prevented by his father from marrying a Prussian cousin, and had subsequently declined to consider a Danish princess, who was reported to be both physically and mentally impaired, before causing consternation at Court by proposing to marry a commoner, Lady Diana Spencer `poor dear little Dye' as her father, the Earl of Sunderland, called her. Marriage to Lady Diana also forbidden, the Prince, with no great enthusiasm but with the hope of being granted a handsome settlement, agreed to marry a girl selected for him by his father: Princess Augusta, daughter of the Duke of Saxe-Gotha. She was rather taller than Prince Frederick, by then created Prince of Wales, would have wished, shy, reserved and a little awkward in her movements, by no means pretty, rather prim and rather boring; but it was generally agreed that she was good-natured and unaffected. Lord Waldegrave, a Lord of the Bedchamber and confidant of the King, decided that her behaviour was `most decent and prudent', while the King himself, `notwithstanding his aversion to his son, [behaved] to her not only with politeness but with the appearance of affection'.
According to Lord Hervey, the behaviour of the Prince of Wales was less seemly. He noted the Prince's nervous jocularity at dinner after the marriage ceremony in St James's Palace, his `laughing and winking at some of the servants' as he ate several glasses of jelly, his appearance in the bedchamber after the Queen had undressed the Princess and `everybody [had] passed through to see them', his absurd `nightcap which was some inches higher than any grenadier's cap in the whole army'. `There were various reports on what did and did not pass this night after the company retired,' Hervey added. `The Queen and Lord Hervey agreed that the bride looked extremely tired with the fatigues of the day, and so well refreshed next morning, that they concluded she had slept very sound.'
When it was announced that the Princess was pregnant the Queen took leave to doubt the fact, or, if it were so, to doubt that the Prince was the father. `Sir Robert,' she said to Walpole, `we shall be catched. At her labour I positively will be [present] ... I will be sure it is her child.'
Prompted by the Queen, the King had insisted that the birth should take place at Hampton Court in the presence of Their Majesties. The Prince was in no mood to obey them. He had hoped that, upon his marriage, at the age of twenty-nine, he would be granted an allowance commensurate with his expenses and his rank. As a bachelor he had received a mere £24,000 a year, with an additional £14,000 from the revenues of the Duchy of Cornwall, whereas his father as Prince of Wales had had £100,000 a year, almost three times as much. On his marriage his allowance had been increased by a mere £12,000, to £50,000 in his opinion a paltry sum which would certainly not enable him to settle his mounting debts. The Prince had therefore decided to defy his tight-fisted father by taking his grievance to Parliament. Supported by politicians eager to profit in the next reign, he contrived to have a motion introduced into the House of Commons for an address to the King on the subject of an increased allowance. The motion might well have been carried had not Sir Robert Walpole been so skilful a political manipulator. In the event Walpole ensured that his master, the King, had his way: the motion was defeated by thirty votes in the Commons and by 103 to 40 in the Lords.
Much annoyed by the number of votes in their son's favour, his parents were outraged by his next defiance of their authority, his disobedience of their order to arrange for the birth of the Princess's child to take place at Hampton Court. Determined to defy the King and Queen, the Prince decided to drive his wife away from Hampton Court as soon as the pains of childbirth came on. So, in the middle of the night of 31 July 1737, although no preparations had been made to receive them there, the Prince took his wife off to St James's Palace. The beds were damp, and the mother's only female companion, apart from two of her dressers, was Lady Archibald Hamilton, the mother of ten children, who was widely supposed to have succeeded Miss Vane as the Prince of Wales's mistress. At St James's, where Lady Archibald rushed about in search of napkins and warming-pans and tablecloths to serve as sheets, the baby, who was to be christened Augusta, was born within an hour of the mother's arrival, `a little rat of a girl', in Lord Hervey's words, `about the bigness of a good large toothpick case'. When the Queen was told how small and puny the baby was she seemed to be prepared to concede that it might be Frederick's after all. She drove to St James's to see for herself. `God bless you, you poor little creature,' she said, looking down upon the child. `You have come into a disagreeable world.'
Yet for his mother Prince Frederick's behaviour was unforgivable. It was clearly impossible for the family to remain under the same roof any longer. The Prince of Wales was told to vacate his apartments as soon as the Princess had recovered from her labour and not to presume to re-enter any part of the King's palaces. Copies of His Majesty's letter of reproof were sent to British embassies abroad as well as to foreign ambassadors in London, who were told that future visits by them to the Prince and his family would be `disagreeable to His Majesty'.
The breach between father and son was thus complete; and was even further deepened when the people made it clear where their sympathies lay, the Prince, unlike his father, going out of his way to please them. Crowds cheered the Prince when he drove away from St James's Palace; and audiences rose to applaud him upon his subsequent appearance at the theatre. When it was suggested to the Queen that it might be as well, for the sake of their own standing and that of their Ministry, for Their Majesties to appear less antagonistic to their son and heir, she burst out angrily, `My God! Popularity always makes me sick; but Fritz's popularity makes me vomit.'
Meet the Author
Christopher Hibbert has written many well-received biographies, including, most recently, Queen Victoria. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and an Honorary Doctor of Letters of Leicester University.
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