Prinny and His Pals: George IV and the Remarkable Gift of Royal Friendship

Prinny and His Pals: George IV and the Remarkable Gift of Royal Friendship

by Tom Ambrose

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From the first biography of George IV in 1831 to the last in 2001, Mad King George’s son has commonly been held up to ridicule as a weak, selfish, and incompetent spendthrift, barely tolerated by his ministers, loathed by most of his family, and dependent on the emotional support of grasping mistresses. However, acclaimed historian Tom Ambrose—author of


From the first biography of George IV in 1831 to the last in 2001, Mad King George’s son has commonly been held up to ridicule as a weak, selfish, and incompetent spendthrift, barely tolerated by his ministers, loathed by most of his family, and dependent on the emotional support of grasping mistresses. However, acclaimed historian Tom Ambrose—author of Godfather of the Revolution: The Life of Phillipe Egalité, Duc D’Orléans—has uncovered new details on "Prinny" that suggests that, for all his faults, George IV just may have been the most humane and amusing of all British monarchs, notwithstanding his love of the high life. Central to the story is the vast array of friends that populate a remarkable reign as Prince Regent and King. If Prinny, as they knew him, was so grotesquely foolish, how did he amass such a fascinating (and loyal) group of friends? Could any other British ruler count among his friends the country’s most brilliant playwright (Richard Sheridan), or the wiliest statesman (Charles Fox), or the greatest political philosopher (Edmund Burke), not to mention perhaps the biggest loveable rogues’ gallery London ever saw? The truth was that Prinny’s occasional buffoonery and imposing girth made him the perfect target for political satirists and cartoonists—at their zenith during his reign—and his high qualities have been consistently overlooked. This warm, funny, and affectionate portrait displays George at his very best: delighting some of the finest minds of his generation, easily winning over his subjects and his family as well as treating his lovers with care and concern—and roistering with all his pals.

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Owen, Peter Limited
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Prinny and His Pals

George IV and His Remarkable Gift of Friendship

By Tom Ambrose

Peter Owen Publishers

Copyright © 2009 Tom Ambrose
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7206-1793-1



APPROPRIATELY for a man who would spend the rest of his life in the public eye, Prince George Augustus made his first public appearance in the grand drawing-room at St James's Palace at the age of just two weeks. There, in late August 1762, he was put on display between the hours of one o'clock and three o'clock each day. Even at that early age he began to make friends for each afternoon curious members of the respectable classes flocked to St James's to gawp at the infant. So intrusive did the crowd become that his mother, Queen Charlotte, ordered that he be secluded in a highly ornate cradle surrounded by lattice screens decorated with Chinese designs so preventing the people from touching him. It was the perfect setting for someone who would one day create the exotic oriental interiors of Carlton House and the Brighton Pavilion. But his public appearance provoked the first of many attacks by his critics. The vitriolic biographer Robert Huish claimed that displaying the baby to the public in this vulgar manner was undoubtedly a dreadful German custom and would be deeply resented by all right-thinking British people.

That summer baby George was the greatest attraction in town, with visitors queuing to see him and to sample the delicious free refreshments thoughtfully provided in the German fashion by his mother. When news of this royal largesse spread, even more people arrived, and in the first week alone more than £500 worth of rich fruit cake was consumed and eight gallons of sweet wine drunk. After viewing the baby each visitor was encouraged to raise a glass of welcome to the little newcomer – an appropriate gesture to a prince whose own prodigious appetite for the pleasures of life would later astonish and infuriate the nation. Exactly one month after his birth George was taken out for his first airing. As his nurse wheeled him in a pram through Hyde Park an excited mob began following and jostling one another to catch a glimpse of the first royal baby for many years. Lord Bath, who accompanied the procession, was amused to hear one ruffian call out the prophetic words: 'God bless him; he is a lusty, jolly young dog truly!' Already the baby prince had been allocated a full retinue of servants, including the obligatory wet nurse, a necessary woman to change his nappies, a seamstress to supervise his clothes and two official rockers of the royal cradle. All were under the authority of the royal governess, the formidable Lady Charlotte Finch, who was described as 'a woman of remarkable sense and philosophy'. Whatever their disagreements in the years to come, Queen Charlotte was besotted with her first child and sought to preserve his image for posterity with the first of many childhood portraits. The artist chosen was Francis Cotes, who pictured him lying serenely cradled in his mother's arms. To commemorate his christening a few days later, in what some considered a singularly odd German custom, a tiny wax model of him was made and placed on a little velvet cushion under a glass bell jar. This the queen kept in her drawing-room for many years, always in position beside her like a miniature exhibit from a waxworks museum.

Surrounded by servants, courtiers and family members, George was seldom alone in those first years of life, and the busy atmosphere at St James's Palace encouraged the sociability that would enable him to form friendships easily for the rest of his life. When asked, fifty years later, by a guest at the Brighton Pavilion, what had been his first memory as a child, George replied that he distinctly recalled being picked up by his great-uncle, the infamous Duke of Cumberland, the Butcher of Culloden, who was wearing a snuff-coloured coat, and being astonished at the vast bulk of this elderly man who seemed like a giant. When it was time to begin his education, George III insisted that his son receive a course of instruction that would instil in him the same dedication to royal duties as he had himself. So, at the age of two and a half, when other children were confined to the nursery, Prince George was precociously introduced to public life. His first public engagement was to present a cheque for £100 on behalf of his father to members of a charitable institution. He did it faultlessly, behaving according to one witness 'with great propriety and suitableness of action'. This was no surprise to those around him for already he could be seen to be a bright child who responded well to his governess's innovative educational system, which included rearranging cut-up maps, an early form of the jigsaw puzzle. What impressed his instructors most was his precocious command of language, which often gave him an air of youthful pomposity. Obliged to remain in bed with the window curtains drawn after being inoculated for smallpox, he was asked by the Keeper of the Robes, Mrs Schwellenberg, if he found the experience irksome. 'Not in the least,' he replied laconically. 'I lie here and make reflections.'

Perhaps this precocity accounted for his father's odd choice of fifth-birthday present for his son, consisting of twenty miniature one-pound brass cannon, each mounted on a carriage and complete with live ammunition. This was an ironic gift considering his father's later implacable opposition to George's determination to pursue a military career. Yet, in spite of this apparent martial encouragement, George III was in all other matters anxious for his son not to show any signs of dangerous maturity. Rather, he attempted to keep him in a strange kind of enforced infancy, insisting even when the boy was ten that he continue being dressed as a young child. The cambric frocks with Valenciennes lace cuffs that he appeared in were thought by many at court to be wholly inappropriate for such a robust, intelligent and fast-growing boy. This embarrassing costume was but the first of many indignities that George III was to inflict on his eldest son, who responded with sullen resentment at what he considered a deliberate affront to his personal dignity. His later obsession with his appearance and his fixation with fashionable clothes may well have been the consequence of this early sartorial humiliation imposed on him by his father. Always sensitive to ridicule, a trait that became a serious impediment to public appearances in later life, he once caught a servant smiling mockingly at him as they passed each other in a corridor at Windsor. Catching hold of his frilly collar in childish frustration George called out to the man: 'See how I am treated!'

At first there were few other children to make friends with, but as the years passed increasing numbers of brothers and sisters were produced with remorseless efficiency by Queen Charlotte. Lacking natural good looks and possessing a harsh Germanic manner, she had little appeal for an English aristocracy that found her irredeemably dull. The wit Horace Walpole did comment, however, that after she had been in England for some time the bloom of her ugliness was beginning to wear off. The appearance of each new sibling delighted the royal couple, much as it did the little Prince of Wales, who welcomed each new addition to the family as a distraction that he hoped would divert his father's increasingly critical attention away from himself. By 1771 the rapidly expanding family was too large for either of the London palaces then available. The only alternative, the king decided, was to move them all to the more rural environment of the White House at Kew. Although barely twenty-eight, Queen Charlotte had already given birth to eight children, and even Kew Palace, as it was renamed, soon proved too small to house the still-growing family and its attendants. As the adjacent Dutch House was empty, the king decided to ease the overcrowding by sending George and his younger brother Frederick, Duke of York, to board there under their recently appointed governor, the Earl of Holderness, and his assistants Leonard Smelt and Dr William Markham.

Holderness – a man dismissed by Horace Walpole as 'a formal piece of dullness' – was a most uninspiring person, but Markham was to prove both an able tutor and a good friend to the boys. It was George's first experience of a man who had used his own natural ability rather than his connections to rise in society, and for the rest of his life George would always prize natural talent over inherited position. Markham was a typical product of the social changes that resulted from England's new prosperity in the eighteenth century. Although from a humble background he had won scholarships to Westminster School and Christ Church, Oxford. At the time of his appointment as royal tutor he had risen to be Bishop of Chester and was set for a successful career in the Church. Had George III known that Markham's outwardly pompous manner disguised an open mind and a liberal heart he might well have regretted choosing him to teach his sons. Ordered to impose a rigid system of both learning and discipline on the young princes, Markham tempered the need to instil information with a friendly and approachable manner. The boys were taught French, German and Italian as well as the more conventional Classics and English grammar. Yet it was still a hard regime for the boys as, at the king's insistence, lessons began in the early morning and continued far into the evening. With just two of them in the class, without the company of other children, they learnt quickly. They had few pleasures to enjoy other than the piece of garden they were given to cultivate. Here they were shown how to plant wheat, watch it ripen, mill the grain into flour and finally to bake bread. For George, the fascination with this process would encourage an interest in cooking that culminated in the innovative kitchens he installed at the Brighton Pavilion.

Thrown together in a form of educational adversity, George and Frederick formed an intimate bond of friendship that was to unite them, in spite of later disagreements and conflicts, for the rest of their lives. Both boys could well have excused their later dissolute ways as an inevitable reaction to a repressive upbringing that, even in eighteenth-century England, was far more rigorous in character than that endured by their aristocratic contemporaries at English public schools. Convinced that sparing the rod would certainly spoil the child, the king insisted that the slightest transgression in either boy be rigorously punished – and punished they were. One of their sisters recalled how, on a visit to the Dutch House, she had seen both boys 'held by their tutors and flogged like dogs with a long whip' for some minor wrongdoing. Neither was spared, and Prince Frederick recalled that both of them were frequently beaten about the head with a silver pencil case by one tutor, Cyril Jackson, 'until blood flowed'. As George was clearly the brighter of the two as well as heir to the throne, more attention was devoted to him, and more expected, than from his slightly dim but easygoing brother. From the start the problem with the young Prince of Wales was his quietly rebellious manner, which manifested itself as insouciance. It was this and an ill-disguised disregard for his elders' opinions that came to infuriate George III.

In response to his father's incessant bullying George began to disguise his true abilities, revealing them only to those he felt he could trust. Proof of this was a highly accomplished letter that he wrote to his great-aunt Amelia when barely ten years old. She was impressed by its maturity of expression and replied by complimenting him on his use of language that was 'far beyond what I could have expected for a prince of your age'. His father remained unaware of his son's true capabilities and continued to bombard him with demands that he should work harder. Just as annoying to the prince were the constant exhortations from both his parents and from the Earl of Holderness to behave more morally and to beware of vice, self-indulgence and dishonesty. 'Truth is the first quality of a man; the higher the rank the more to be adhered to,' Holderness sanctimoniously informed his young charge as well as exhorting him to avoid gluttony and to be wary of the flattery of false friends. Many of the supposed virtues George was advised to adopt – such as a simple lifestyle, hard work and punctuality – were not only ignored but their polar opposites rapidly adopted to become part of his own idiosyncratic lifestyle. To someone of George's innate intelligence and liberalism this attempt to suppress his natural good spirits had little effect other than to confirm his resolution to escape the moral shackles of life at the Dutch House as soon as possible.

There were other humiliations and frustrations to be endured there, the most damaging of which was George III's insistence that no adult other than their own tutors be allowed to talk to the princes for the king was convinced that their minds would be contaminated by contact with less-principled people. Again, this restriction was to prove counterproductive, making the young Prince of Wales determined to develop as wide a circle of friends as possible, drawn from as wide an intellectual and social background as possible. Unlike any other British monarch George IV would be as relaxed in the company of a boxer or coachman as he would be in the presence of the philosopher Edmund Burke or the Duke of Wellington. Men and women, he believed, should be judged by their true worth and not by the trappings of office or position. By this criterion, only Dr Markham earned his genuine respect, and when Lord Holderness resigned his governorship in May 1776 George was bold enough to ask his father to allow Markham to remain as tutor. The request was, predictably, refused on the grounds that if George got his way on this matter then he would count it as a victory over his father. Even when he had left the Dutch House Markham remained in contact with the prince, and in 1800 was still being addressed by him as 'my dear, much loved friend'. When, in 1806, Markham was appointed Archbishop of York at George's request, his old pupil was seen to fall to his knees to receive his blessing when he visited the city. Indeed, Markham was cherished by the prince as his first genuine adult friend and was held in such respect that whenever he visited London he was invited to dine at Carlton House, the prince's London home. For any pupil, least of all the heir to the throne, to remain in such close contact with a tutor was most unusual in that or any age and shows the gratitude that George held for a man who had opened his eyes to the world while showing him the respect and affection that his father consistently denied him.

(A sad postscript to George III's hostility to his eldest son occurred when the old king was dying in 1820. One evening he summoned George to St James's Palace, and they sat down to dinner alone – the first time such an event had ever happened. The king drank three glasses to wine to toast the prince's health then burst into tears and expressed his pleasure that for the first time in his life he had dined tête-à-tête with 'his beloved son'. If such affection could have been expressed years earlier perhaps the good aspects of character would have been more apparent.)

With Markham's departure life at Kew became even gloomier. There was little contact with the outside world other than the occasional visit to a concert or an opera performed for the royal family at the White House. The closest the princes came to encountering English society was on Thursdays, when they were taken up to London to attend one of their mother's formal drawing-room receptions at either St James's Palace or Buckingham House. On summer Sundays the gardens at Kew were open to the public, and parties of visitors either drove or were rowed up the river from London. On such days the princes were able to escape their father's attention and mingle with the guests largely unchaperoned. But George III's remorseless quest to exclude frivolity and drum piety and application into his eldest son continued. Suspecting that leniency had infiltrated the Dutch House, the king suddenly dismissed all the servants and tutors and replaced them with sterner men. The new governor was Richard Hurd, Bishop of Lichfield, a man of far tougher mettle than the aesthetically inclined and urbane Markham. Moral rectitude was now more than ever the order of the day, and Hurd set about instilling improving texts into the young princes with such determination that even on Sunday mornings they were forced to attend classes in the Greek Testament. Obedient to the king's wishes and a determined martinet, Hurd was held in great contempt by George, who compared him most unfavourably to his friend Markham, 'a much greater, wiser, and more learned man', who had bothered to explain difficult passages rather than resorting, like Hurd, to punishment for supposed inattention. Yet Hurd did make one highly positive contribution to the development of the prince's cultural tastes by encouraging an interest in music. A renowned cellist, John Crosdill, was hired to give George lessons on the instrument, and he was soon discussing music with the composer Johann Christian Bach, Master of Music to Queen Charlotte. The discovery that he had a fine melodic voice did much to boost the boy's battered self-esteem and provoked an interest in opera that would remain with him for the rest of his life. His guests at the Brighton Pavilion in later years might well have regretted this enthusiasm for they were often subjected to interminable after-dinner recitals of popular arias by their inebriated host.


Excerpted from Prinny and His Pals by Tom Ambrose. Copyright © 2009 Tom Ambrose. Excerpted by permission of Peter Owen Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Tom Ambrose read history at Trinity College, Dublin, and gained a postgraduate degree at University College, London. He worked in advertising in London and Dublin before switching to producing and directing television documentaries. His first book, Hitler’s Loss: What Britain and America gained from Europe’s Cultural Exiles, was widely acclaimed.

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