The New York Times Book Review
Prince of Pleasure: The Prince of Wales and the Making of the Regencyby Saul David
The Prince of Pleasure is the immaculately researched and engaging story of George IV (1762-1830), a rakish and contradictory figure who became one of the most controversial and outrageous monarchs in British history. Critically acclaimed biographer Saul David has captured the passions and foibles of this monarch -- infamous for being overweight, overdressed, and
The Prince of Pleasure is the immaculately researched and engaging story of George IV (1762-1830), a rakish and contradictory figure who became one of the most controversial and outrageous monarchs in British history. Critically acclaimed biographer Saul David has captured the passions and foibles of this monarch -- infamous for being overweight, overdressed, and oversexed -- who epitomized England's regency period. George IV was marked throughout his life by financial ruin and domestic entanglements. Though known primarily for his scandalous lifestyle, he was also a man of high intelligence with a great appreciation for art and literature. In addition to encouraging the works of both Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott, as well as purchasing the Elgin Marbles, he promoted England's Regency style of architecture. In fast-moving and incisive prose, Saul David paints a brilliantly detailed portrait of the Regency period.
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A Dissipated Youth
Queen Charlotte of England was just 18, and had been married less than a year, when she fulfilled her dynastic obligations by giving birth to as 'strong, large and pretty boy ... as ever was seen' at St James's Palace in the early evening of 12 August 1762.
Waiting anxiously in his private apartments, King George III was informed by a breathless Earl of Huntingdon, his bungling Groom of the Stole, that he was the father of a baby girl. The error was doubly unfortunate in that the 24-year-old King had promised £1,000 to the bearer of news that he had a son, but only £500 if it was a daughter. More concerned with his young wife's health than the sex of the child, however, the King hurried to the Queen's bedchamber to hear the glad tidings that both mother and son the sex of which was no longer in doubt were alive and well. The lusty infant was then taken into the ante-room and shown to an excited gathering of royal dukes, government ministers, senior peers, bishops and foreign ambassadors.
No heir had been born to a ruling monarch for almost 75 years since the 'Old Pretender', James II's son, in 1688 and 'all was joy, merriment, and gladness in London'. A procession of 'immense riches taken in a Spanish galleon', going past St James's Palace on its way to the Bank of England, gave cause for double celebration.
A month later, 'with every circumstance of splendour', the young Prince was baptised George Augustus Frederick by the Archbishop of Canterbury in theQueen's drawing-room. He had already been created Prince of Wales and Earl of Chester and, by right of birth, Duke of Cornwall, Duke of Rothesay, Earl of Carrick and Baron of Renfrew.
In 1762, the year of the Prince's birth, Britain was still on the verge of the great social and economic upheaval that came to be known as the Industrial Revolution. The population of England and Wales was steady at 6.5 million, thanks to the rate of births and deaths being similarly high. But as improvements in agriculture and medicine began to take effect and people were better fed, better clothed and less likely to catch diseases like smallpox the death rate plummeted and the population exploded, particularly after 1800. By 1831, the year after George IV's death, it had risen to 16.5 million, with urban areas the principal beneficiaries.
In 1769, however, when George III first came to the throne, the majority of Britons still lived in rural communities. Only two English cities had populations greater than 50,000: London with 750,000, and Bristol with 60,000. The rest were essentially small market towns and little ports.
Trade was the lifeblood of the nation. In 1760, at a time when total government expenditure was just £15.5 million (and that during a war year of exceptional cost), imports were worth £11 million and exports £16 million. The main imports were consumables such as wines, spirits, sugar, tea and coffee. Exports were largely textiles (woollen goods making up a quarter of the total trade), metal goods, tin, pottery and cured fish. One of the most profitable areas of trade was the Atlantic triangle. Merchants would transport manufactured goods to West Africa and exchange them for slaves who, in turn, would be taken to the West Indies and the southern colonies of North America. Sugar, tobacco and timber would be brought back to Britain.
The capital accumulated by trade ultimately helped to finance the Industrial Revolution; and though Britain in 1760 lagged behind its chief rival, France, in the production of iron, steel, coal and textiles, it was better placed to take advantage of the technical innovations to come such as the use of the first steam-loom in Manchester in 1806. Its population may have been smaller, but it was more easily reached as one market with fewer internal tolls and better communications. Most parts of the country were less than a day's journey by cart from navigable water.
The improvement of road surfaces had yet to reach its apogee with the development of Tarmac by the Scottish surveyor, John McAdam, in the early nineteenth century and the coach or wagon had replaced the pack-horse only on the major routes; from London to fashionable Bath, for example, where a service of fast coaches was already running. In Devonshire, on the other hand, roads were so bad that sledges took the place of wheeled transport; even on a turnpike stretch of the main road south from Newcastle (the future A1), broken stones competed with muddy sand as the most treacherous surface. It was not unusual for villages to be cut off from the rest of the world by mud and water during winter. Nevertheless, these roads were already the best in Europe.
However, they would soon be supplemented by the longest and most efficient canal network. The first was built in 1759 by the Duke of Bridgewater from his coalfield at Worsley to Manchester; it cost £220,000 (£13.2 million today), brought in around £100,000 a year in revenue and halved the price of coal in that area. By 1815, the modern canal system was all but complete and the cost of inland transport had been reduced by about 75 per cent.
Arable agriculture had already been revolutionised in the eastern counties of Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk by Jethro Tull's drill seed and Lord 'Turnip' Townshend's four-course crop rotation and use of marl to give the soil body. The result was a 30 per cent increase in the yield per acre of wheat, for example, during the second half of the eighteenth century. A similar improvement was made in livestock farming by men like Robert Bakewell, a Leicestershire farmer who had been experimenting with stock-breeding for 15 years when he took over his father's modest property in 1760. He replaced the old breeds of sheep, used mainly for wool and the production of manure, with new animals reared specifically for meat; shorter fleeced and more heavily jointed, they matured in two seasons instead of four. Within 50 years the average weight of sheep at Smithfield rose from 28 lb to 50 lb.
At the top of the social pyramid, immediately below the royal family, were the aristocracy; until the end of the century it was very difficult to break into this exclusive club unless you were immensely rich. As members of the House of Lords, holders of senior government office and major landowners in 1783, 28 peers possessed more than 100,000 acres of land each they were the dominant political force. The 1st Duke of Newcastle, Prime Minister (or First Lord of the Treasury as he was then known) for much of the 1750s, controlled up to 12 seats in the House of Commons.
As Horace Walpole, the younger son of Sir Robert Walpole, the first Prime Minister, so succinctly put it, 'merit is useless: it is interest alone that can push a man forward. By dint of interest one of my coach-horses might become poet-laureate, and the other, physician to the household.'
When the parliamentary session began in the autumn, society flocked to the capital. But the time spent at the Hanoverian Court could be an irksome duty; for the first three Georges were unostentatious and reserved, unsuited as leaders of English society. 'I am just come from Court,' wrote Lord Hervey in 1728, 'where I saw nothing but blue noses, pale faces, gauze heads and toupets among the younger gentry: lying smiles, forced compliments, careful brows, and made laughs amongst the elders.'
From their mansions in Bloomsbury, Soho and later Mayfair, the ruling élite would emerge to pick up the latest news and gossip in the coffee- and chocolate-houses of St James's Street and Pall Mall; in the second half of the century most evolved into clubs. The best known were White's, Boodle's and Almack's (later known as Brook's) where the main preoccupation was gambling and fantastic amounts were won and lost. At the age of 16, the future statesman Charles James Fox (in league with his elder brother) squandered £32,000 in three days.
Other entertainments included the theatre, the opera, balls, masquerades and dinner parties. All the while, enormous quantities of food and drink were being consumed. Breakfast was a light meal, usually tea and bread and butter. Dinner, the most substantial meal, was between 4 and 5 o'clock. When it was over the ladies retired while the men drank a series of toasts, pausing only to relieve themselves in a chamber-pot cunningly concealed in the sideboard drawer. Supper was taken at any time after 9 in the evening. One gargantuan supper given by the Duke of Marlborough to celebrate the birth of his fourth son included roast beef, mutton, pork, veal, chicken, duck, goose, boiled tongue, hog's head, plum pudding and apple pie.
The saying 'drunk as a lord' dates from this period and with good reason. Most of the leading politicians were heavy drinkers; not least the Earl of Northington, Lord Chancellor from 1761 to 1766, who persuaded George III to do away with the evening sessions of Chancery on Wednesdays and Fridays so that he could drink port after dinner.
When the social Season finished in early June, the magnates returned to their country seats. Fortunes were spent on their improvement in the eighteenth century. Between 1747 and 1763, for example, the 4th Duke of Bedford had Woburn Abbey completely rebuilt. Today's Georgian palace was constructed around the Stuart core. Inside were two fixed baths, one hot and one cold, the latter resembling a small swimming-pool. Cipriani painted the library ceiling, Rysbrack made the drawing-room chimney-piece. Total cost: a mere £85,000 (or £5.1 million today).
Hospitality was similarly lavish. It was said to cost £15 a night in candles to illuminate Houghton Hall, the seat of Sir Robert Walpole, Prime Minister from 1721 to 1742. 'Our company at Houghton swelled at last into so numerous a body,' wrote Lord Hervey to the Prince of Wales, father of George III, in 1731, 'that we used to sit down to dinner in a snug little party of about thirty odd, up to the chin in beef, venison, geese, turkeys, etc; and generally over the chin in claret, strong beer and punch. We had Lords spiritual and temporal, besides commoners, parsons and freeholders innumerable.'
For 21 years after the birth of the Prince of Wales, the fecund royal couple produced children at the rate of two every three years eight boys and six girls in all although one of each sex died in infancy. The nearest in age to the Prince were Frederick, later Duke of York, born in 1763; William, later Duke of Clarence and ultimately King William IV, born in 1765; Charlotte, later Queen of Württemburg, born in 1766; and Edward, later Duke of Kent and father of Queen Victoria, born in 1767. But it was with Frederick alone that the young Prince shared his nursery and formed the closest friendship. Their sizeable establishment included, at one time or another, two cradle-rockers, a wet-nurse, a dry-nurse, a sempstress and, in charge of all, a governess, Lady Charlotte Finch, the youngest daughter of the Earl of Pomfret, 'a woman of remarkable sense and philosophy'.
In the summer of 1763, the Royal Family moved into Buckingham House (not as yet a palace), a handsome red-brick mansion at the top of St James's Park which the King had bought for his wife the previous year, and henceforth known as the Queen's House. St James's Palace was now used only for official functions. But most of the Prince of Wales's early years were spent in the relatively modest setting of Richmond Lodge, formerly the Keeper's house on the edge of the great park. Of the other available royal residences, Richmond Palace and Windsor Castle had fallen into disrepair, while Hampton Court reminded George III of the strained relationship between his grandfather, George II, and his ill-fated father, Frederick, Prince of Wales.
From earliest infancy the young heir to the throne and his eldest brother were introduced to society at the Queen's Drawing-Rooms at St James's Palace every Thursday. It was soon obvious that the Prince was a singularly precocious child. At the age of four, having been inoculated for smallpox and forced to remain in bed with the curtains drawn, he was asked by Mrs Schwellenberg, one of his mother's German attendants, if he found the restriction irksome. 'Not at all,' he replied, 'I lie and make reflections.'
Created a Knight of the Garter at the age of three and a half, for his fifth birthday the Prince was given 21 brass cannon, firing 1 lb balls. Little wonder that Lady Sarah Lennox, with whom George III had once been in love, remarked that the King 'has made his brat the proudest little imp you every saw'.
But his young life was not all pomp and ceremony. Both parents were outwardly devout Protestants, determined that their children should grow up in an atmosphere of restraint and rigid application to duty. Lessons began at 7 in the morning, and continued until dinner was taken at 3 o'clock. Even birthdays were not a sufficient excuse to disrupt this monotonous schedule, and any deviation from acceptable behaviour was swiftly chastised with a beating, often administered by the King himself.
At first, such a tough regime seemed to be reaping rewards. By the age of six the Prince was reported to be making good progress with his school work, particularly writing and English grammar (although his spelling was never good). But though intelligent and 'good tempered', he was also something of a milksop, unlike his younger brothers who were 'full of courage'. Years later Joseph Farington, the diarist and Royal Academician, recalled the Prince learning to skate: '[Having] suffered a few falls he could not be induced to expose himself again to the chance of suffering for them.' Prince Frederick, on the other hand, 'did not regard the pain but persisted'.
Despite being one of the Queen's favourites, the young Prince never enjoyed a close relationship with his strait-laced mother. Brought up in the small north German duchy of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, she had led a narrow provincial existence until the unexpected offer of marriage from the King of England and Elector of Hanover. Terrified of being branded unsophisticated, she stuck rigidly to Court etiquette: her sons were rarely permitted to sit in her presence; and even when promenading with their parents, the royal children would be formed into pairs, in descending order of age. So formal was the Queen's relationship with her eldest son that for his eighth birthday she gave him a 'pocket book' (which he had asked for) and a letter containing her wishes about his 'future conduct' (which he had not):
Above all things I recommend unto you to fear God, a duty which must lead to all the rest with ease ... Abhor all vice, in private as well as in public, and look upon yourself as obliged to set good examples. Disdain all flattery; it will corrupt your manners and render you contemptible before the world. Do justice unto everybody and avoid partiality ... We are all equal and become only of consequence by setting good examples to others.
Lastly I recommend unto you the highest love, affection and duty towards the King. Look upon him as a friend, nay, as the greatest, the best, and the most deserving of all friends you can possibly find. Try to imitate his virtues, and look upon everything that is in opposition to that duty as destructive to yourself ...
Good advice, for the most part, but hardly likely to be absorbed by a wilful eight-year-old. The reference to his 'duty towards the King' was clearly an attempt to break the cycle of father-son animosity which had dogged the Hanoverians since they had succeeded to the English throne; but it was one destined to fail not least because of their innate differences in character, and the fact that the ascetic father was incapable of revealing genuine affection for his warm-hearted son.
By 1771, the Royal Family had grown to eight children five boys and three girls and Richmond Lodge was no longer big enough to accommodate them. The timely death that year of the King's mother, the dowager Princess of Wales, enabled them to move into the newly vacant White House at Kew. To house their many attendants and the various members of their Court, a number of other dwellings close by were leased or borrowed. The whole community was then fenced off, with each house given access into Kew Gardens by a separate gate.
Occupying the houses owned by the Dukes of Cambridge and Cumberland, the King's brothers, were the royal physicians:
For the Queen [wrote Mrs Papendiek, a member of the Royal Household] would have two of them always on the spot to watch the constitutions of the royal children, to eradicate, if possible, or at least to keep under, the dreadful disease, scrofula, inherited from the King. She herself saw them bathed at six every morning, attended the schoolroom of her daughters, was present at their dinner, and directed their attire, whenever these arrangements did not interfere with public duties, or any plans or wishes of the King, whom she neither contradicted nor kept waiting a moment.
After their own early dinner at 4 o'clock, 'the King and Queen would usually have their family around them,' noted Mrs Papendiek, 'at full liberty, and enjoying themselves with their attendants, and often visitors suited to their different ages. There were birthday entertainments, dances, fireworks ... and a constant variety of amusements adapted to their several tastes', the 'elder Princes and Princesses attending the small evening parties of the Queen at Kew, upon the same plan as when in London'.
But there was no slackening in their education. At Kew the Prince and his brother Frederick were removed from the royal nursery and put into separate apartments in the White House under the care of a governor. The man selected for this post was Robert D'Arcy, 4th Earl of Holdernesse, a 'formal piece of dullness', according to Horace Walpole, who had served as a Secretary of State in the recent Pelham and Newcastle administrations. He was also Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, and a year later would be accused by Colonel Luttrell in the House of Commons of using his position to smuggle 'prohibited merchandise'.
'The Prince of Wales is often at the house of the principal smuggler,' continued Luttrell, somewhat melodramatically, 'and as the mob some day or other, provoked past bearing, will indubitably attack and demolish that palace of contraband commerce, the life of the successor himself may be in danger!'
However, until ill-health forced him to spend much of his time abroad, Holdernesse took his duties remarkably seriously. 'I have devoted myself to your service,' he informed his charges in May 1772. 'I have not only given up to that sole duty my time and thoughts but even my little reputation, for if you do not turn out those aimiable Princes nature intended you to be, I shall and perhaps ought to be blamed.'
At times his pupils, the Prince of Wales in particular, were far from 'aimiable'. In July 1772, having failed to treat his governor with the proper respect, the Prince was told that he would not be received by the King until he had made an adequate apology. This was quickly forthcoming. 'Your expressing that the Prince of Wales has given you some marks of sensibility and affection this day is a great comfort to me,' the King wrote to Holdernesse, 'for if he is not susceptible to those feelings but little lasting good can be expected from him.'
Two years later, in a letter to the Prince, Holdernesse stressed the need for honesty: 'I hope you will never forget that a promise once made is sacred and must be kept. Truth is the first quality of a man; the higher the rank, the more to be adhered to.'
Again and again, in letters to or concerning the young heir to the throne, there is an implicit fear that not only would he fail to live up to the high moral standards expected by his parents, but that he might even fall short of the more modest levels expected of any gentleman. At least Holdernesse's untimely death in 1778 saved him from the realisation that his efforts, in this field at least, had failed.
The day-to-day business of educating the princes, particularly after Holdernesse first succumbed to illness in 1774, was left to the sub-governor, Leonard Smelt, and the preceptor (or chief tutor), Dr William Markham. Smelt was a talented former officer in the Royal Engineers who had fought against the French at the Battles of Dettingen and Fontenoy, and who had been sent out to survey the defences of Newfoundland. He was also an expert at sketching and plan-drawing, and had a deep knowledge of literature and art. The Prince of Wales's lifelong fascination with the military and love of the arts can be traced to Smelt's influence.
William Markham was no less learned. Of humble origins, he had risen to become the Headmaster of Westminster School by the age of 34, Dean of Christ Church 14 years later, and Bishop of Chester in 1771, just two months before his latest appointment. Jeremy Bentham, one of his former pupils at Westminster, was unimpressed, noting that 'his business was rather in courting the great than in attending to the school.'
In 1772, with more children graduating from the royal nursery and space in the White House at a premium, the Prince and his brother Frederick were given a separate establishment in the Dutch House nearby. A large three-storey, red-brick house built by a rich London merchant of Dutch descent in 1631 until recently it had been occupied by Lord Bute, the former Prime Minister. It was here that Smelt and Markham kept their charges busy from 7 in the morning to 8 at night, at which time they were allowed to join their parents for the evening parties until 10 o'clock.
The Prince acquired a good grounding in the classics finding 'great facility' in learning Greek epigrams by heart and a reasonable grasp of German, Italian and French, although he became fluent only in the latter. Of the great works of English literature, he was acquainted with Shakespeare but few others, while his father was later to complain that he had 'no insight into the springs' of ancient and modern history, nor 'any comprehensive knowledge of the Constitution, laws, finances, commerce, etc.,' of the two kingdoms he would one day reign: England and Hanover.
But the King was slow to recognise his eldest son's talents, preferring to emphasise his moral shortcomings. Laziness, rudeness and duplicity were punished by beating, although no longer by the King himself. One of the Prince's sisters recalled how she once saw him and Frederick 'held by their tutors to be flogged like dogs with a long whip'.
Fearing, rightly as it turned out, that the Prince's nature was susceptible to corrupting influences, the King tried to seclude him from the outside world as much as possible. 'It went so absurdly far,' noted Horace Walpole, that long after other children had been given more grown-up clothes, 'he was made to wear a shirt with a frilled collar like that of babies.' Taking hold of his collar one day, he exclaimed to a servant in frustration, 'See how I am treated!'
In May 1776, ten weeks before the Prince's fourteenth birthday, Lord Holdernesse resigned his position as governor. According to Horace Walpole, who heard the story second-hand from Lord Hertford, Holdernesse had returned from the south of France the previous autumn, somewhat recovered in health, to discover that 'great prejudices had been instilled in the mind of his pupils the Prince of Wales and Prince Frederick'. So bad had this become that since November they had treated 'his authority with contempt, and often ridiculed him to his face'. The chief culprit, so Holdernesse had told Lord Hertford, was Cyril Jackson, the sub-preceptor, 'a very ambitious man'. But Markham, his superior, was also suspected of undermining the governor, describing him as a 'a mere dancing-master, fit for nothing but to form a petit maître'.
The King, who was understandably distraught at discovering that his son was 'so headstrong that he has not the least authority over him', had no option but to dismiss Jackson and Markham. The Prince, who liked Markham and remained on good terms with him long after he had been appointed Archbishop of York, tried to intervene on his behalf. But the King was having none of it, not least because the Prince 'would secretly feel a kind of victory if the Bishop remained'.
He was more interested in persuading Holdernesse not to resign, and 'used all manner of entreaties' to no avail. 'This spoke the aversion of the Prince,' wrote Walpole, 'and how far he had carried his disobedience.' As Smelt had been appointed on the recommendation of Holdernesse, he too resigned.
Thus ended the so-called 'Nursery Revolution'. The new governor was the recently created Earl of Ailesbury (formerly Lord Bruce), described by Walpole as 'a formal, dull man, totally ignorant of and unversed in the world' and 'totally unfit to educate the Prince of Wales'. He had 'barely taken possession of his post, and dined once with the Prince', when he too resigned, giving as the reason his wife's ill-health. His elder brother, the Duke of Montagu, took his place, 'one of the weakest and most ignorant men living' who, according to his wife, 'was not fit for any of the great offices of State'.
Markham was succeeded as Preceptor by Dr Richard Hurd, Bishop of Lichfield and Coventry, a 'stiff and cold, but correct gentleman', who had 'acquired a great name by several works' of literary criticism and philosophy 'of slender merit'. His chaplain, the Reverend William Arnold, replaced Jackson as Sub-Preceptor, while Lieutenant-Colonel George Hotham became Sub-Governor. The replacement of all the Prince's servants who, the King felt, had become too pliable completed the 'revolution'.
Hurd's first act was to draw up his exacting Plans of Study for the Princes, which included the fields of religion, morals, government and laws, mathematics, natural philosophy, history and 'polite literature' (mainly Greek and Latin authors, but also Shakespeare, Milton and Pope). In addition, the Prince was taught to play the cello by John Crosdill, to fence and box by Henry Angelo, and to draw by Alexander Cozens. He was encouraged to appreciate fine art, and shown how to sow and harvest his own crops. He even baked his own bread. In short, he was well on his way to becoming the most versatile and cultured prince of his time.
Not to mention one of the most alluring. 'He was not so handsome as his brother,' wrote Mrs Papendiek of the Prince as he approached manhood, 'but his countenance was of a sweetness and intelligence quite irresistable. He had an elegant person, engaging and distinguished manners, added to an affectionate disposition and the cheerfulness of youth. In accomplishments the brothers were unequal, as well as in acquired knowledge, the scale turning always in favour of the Prince of Wales.'
But the Prince also had less attractive traits. For example, he was much given to thoughtless practical jokes, like the time when he served up a live rabbit to the greedy oboist, Johann Fischer; on another occasion he squeezed the frail hand of the Bishop of Winchester, his father's former tutor, so hard that it hurt him for days.
He also had a tendency to fall in with the wrong people. 'Much do I lament,' wrote Mrs Papendiek, 'that some of those about the young Princes swerved from principle, and introduced improper company when their Majesties supposed them to be at rest, and after the divines had closed their day with prayer.' The two men she blamed for introducing the two eldest princes to women and wine were their attendants, Colonels Gerard Lake and Samuel Hulse, 'the very men who should have been avoided'. However, neither the beautiful Duchess of Devonshire, a close friend of the Prince, nor the diarist Nathaniel Wraxall agreed with this condemnation of Lake, who later achieved fame as a successful general and died a viscount. The Duchess thought him a man 'such as ought to have been about the Prince, sensible, worthy and a gentleman', while Wraxall described him as a 'pleasing exception' to the Prince's list of undesirable companions.
On the threshold of manhood, the Prince was very much an enigma. Asked for an assessment of his 15-year-old pupil, Hurd replied, 'I can hardly tell. He will either be the most polished gentleman or the most accomplished blackguard in Europe, possibly an admixture of both.' It was a particularly prescient remark.'
In April 1779, the 16-year-old Prince fell in love for the first time, with 23-year-old Mary Hamilton, the great-grand-daughter of the 3rd Duke of Hamilton and his sisters' sub-governess, 'whose virtue was as unblemished as her beauty'. On 25 May, no longer able to hide his feelings, he came clean in a letter:
As you have bound yourself to me by such solemn promises of secrecy and of friendship, I dare now reveal to you the most secret thoughts of my Soul, such is the confidence I place in you. When I promised to name you the Lady, you declared you would not think the worse of me on her account, or indeed of any. Therefore trusting totally to your honour I now declare that my fair incognita is your dear, dear, dear Self. Your manners, your sentiments, the tender feelings of your heart so totally coincide with my ideas, not to mention the many advantages you have in person over many other ladies, that I not only highly esteem you, but even love you more than words or ideas can express.
Miss Hamilton's response five days later was guarded. While she could, without threat to her honour, accept his 'friendship', anything more was out of the question. She begged him not to 'offend' her 'delicacy' by sending her presents. 'Friends are not to be bought.' 'Your heart I believe is excellent,' she concluded with some perception, 'follow its dictates and you will be less likely to err than if you suffer yourself to be led away by a number of interested wretches that will surround you.'
Undeterred, the Prince wrote almost daily in the hope that Miss Hamilton would change her mind. He even threatened suicide if his love was not reciprocated. 'Think not that this is the resolution of a giddy, rash, wild young man,' he added, 'it has arisen from the long constant contemplation of a strong and sound mind.' He would, however, 'sooner go to immediate perdition' than attempt anything 'detrimental' to her 'reputation, honour and virtue'.
But Miss Hamilton would not be swayed by the passionate words of her youthful suitor. However imprudent she had been in acknowledging his 'friendship', she would never 'act so base a part as to encourage such warm declarations'. 'You fancy yourself attached. Shall I paint the Object?' she asked rhetorically. 'Inferior in Birth no beauty to attract no person to captivate possessed only of the most common accomplishments an honest heart we will allow. This may be sufficient for a Friend, but ... how disgraceful for you to pretend to feel anything more!'
Only after she had threatened to resign her duties at Court if he did not stop pestering her, did the Prince finally agree to address her 'by the endearing names of friend & Sister, & no longer with the impetuous passion of a Lover urging his Suit'.
Relieved, she continued to act as his mentor, pointing out such 'reprehensible' traits as his preference for low companions and his 'indelicate, ungentlemanlike & wicked practise ... of swearing'. He accepted the criticism, defending himself on the grounds that he had picked up the habit 'from hearing people in the Army do so', and that he had reciprocated to 'show that I was now become a Man'.
Encouraged by this climate of self-examination, in September the Prince sent Miss Hamilton an extraordinarily honest appraisal of how he saw his own nature:
His sentiments and thoughts are open and generous, above doing any thing that is mean (too susceptible, even to believing people his friends, & placing too much confidence in them ...), grateful and friendly to an excess where he finds a real friend. [He] has a strict notion of honor, rather too familiar with his inferiors, but will not suffer himself to be browbeaten or treated with haughtiness by his superiors. Now for his vices, or rather let us call them weaknesses too subject to give ... vent to his passions of every kind...., but he never bears malice or rancour in his heart ... he is rather too fond of Wine and Women but upon the whole his Character is open free and generous, susceptible of good impressions, ready to follow good advice.
The Prince was only half correct in this last assessment, for his greatest weakness was his susceptibility to people who did not have his best interests at heart. Miss Hamilton was well aware of this, noting in her reply that her 'greatest apprehension' was that 'the openness and ingenuousness' of his 'temper' would make him 'a dupe to designing, interested, artful people of both sexes'.
Had he been exposed much longer to the sensible advice of this perceptive and honourable woman, the Prince might have turned out very differently. But, as Miss Hamilton had rightly pointed out, the gap in rank between them was too great, marriage was out of the question, and it was only a matter of time before the Prince's youthful ardour was directed elsewhere.
The next object of his passion was Mary Robinson, 21, a young actress 'more admir'd for her beauty than for her talents'. Though she often hinted that she was the natural daughter of the 1st Earl of Northington, her actual father was almost certainly Nicholas Darby, a Newfoundland-born ship captain, who had abandoned his family after a failed attempt to establish a whale fishery on the coast of Labrador. Married at 15 to Thomas Robinson, an extravagant articled clerk who lived beyond his means, she had been 'driven to the stage' to make ends meet. After being released from a long spell in the Fleet debtors' prison, a mutual friend had introduced her to Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the successful playwright who had just taken over from David Garrick as the manager of the Drury Lane Theatre. Sheridan saw her potential, and in December 1776 she made her stage début as the lead in Romeo and Juliet to great acclaim. Within three years she was one of the most celebrated actresses in London, with a habit of riding about town in a carriage adorned by a fake coat of arms, dressed in an array of bizarre yet alluring costumes, and accompanied by her disreputable husband and a host of would-be lovers.
On 3 December 1779, Mrs Robinson appeared as Perdita in a Royal Command Performance of The Winter's Tale at Drury Lane, attended by the Prince of Wales. He was bewitched as William Smith, the actor playing Leontes, had predicted he would be. Unable to take his eyes off her, he made a number of flattering remarks as she stood beneath his box, overwhelming her (so she claimed) with confusion. When the performance ended, he stood up and bowed to her. 'As the curtain was falling' she recalled, 'my eyes met [his]; and with a look that I shall never forget, he gently inclined his head a second time; I felt the compliment, and blushed my gratitude.'
A couple of days later using his friend Lord Malden, the son of the Earl of Essex, as a go-between the Prince sent the first of a number of painfully sentimental letters addressed to 'Perdita' and signed 'Florizel'. One contained a lock of his hair with the promise, 'To be redeemed', another a miniature of himself and a paper heart with the motto, 'Unalterable to my Perdita through life'.
Miss Hamilton, to whom he had so recently expressed identical sentiments, was conveniently forgotten. 'Adieu, Adieu, Adieu, toujours chère,' he wrote to her on 5 December. 'Oh! Mrs. Robinson.' But she was too good a friend not to try to prevent such an unsuitable liaison. An actress like Mrs Robinson, she warned, 'has too much trick and art not to be a very dangerous object'. Details of Mary Robinson's private life followed, including the existence of her husband and child but the Prince would not be discouraged. On New Year's Eve, Miss Hamilton made one last appeal: 'For the love of Heaven, Stop, O stop my friend! and do not thus headlong plunge yourself into vice.' It fell on deaf ears.
Thus ended the brief but intense period of correspondence between the Prince and Miss Hamilton (he alone had written 75 letters). But they remained on friendly terms for many years, and one of his attendants later claimed that she was 'the only woman he ever heard the Prince speak of with proper respect, except the Queen'.
Mrs Robinson, meanwhile, was playing a clever game. She refused to agree to the Prince's suggestion that she should come to his private apartments in the Queen's House disguised as a boy because of 'the indelicacy of such a step, as well as the dangers of detection'. She later claimed that she only agreed to meet the Prince after discovering her husband in bed with one of her maids. In truth she was already a skilled courtesan, not about to let such an enviable not to say potentially lucrative prize slip from her grasp, and was merely heightening the Prince's appetite.
Their first meeting fixed for the Prince's house at Kew was postponed when Mrs Robinson's arrival by boat at the royal landing-place was interrupted by people approaching from the White House. But a subsequent tryst in June 1780 was more successful, and the relationship was consummated with mutual satisfaction. The Prince had already promised in writing to give her the enormous sum of £20,000 (the equivalent of £1 million today) once he had come of age. He now said that he would set her up in her own house if she gave up her career on the stage and became his mistress. Not surprisingly, she agreed.
Their affair was soon the talk of the town, with the papers full of speculative gossip, shop windows adorned with irreverent cartoons of 'Perdita' and 'Florizel', and Mrs Robinson 'overwhelmed by the gazing of the multitude' wherever she went. The King was horrified, but knew his son well enough not to force the issue. On 14 August, two days after the Prince's eighteenth birthday, he wrote him a long letter. 'No one feels with more pleasure than I do your nearer approach to manhood,' he began, 'but the parent's joy must be mixed with the anxiety that this period may be ill spent.'
Your own good sense must make you feel that you have not made that progress in your studies which, from the ability and assiduity of those placed for that purpose about you, I might have had reason to expect; whilst you have been out of the sight of the world ... your foibles have less been percieved than I could have expected; yet your love of dissipation has for some months been with enough ill nature trumpeted in the public papers, and there are those ready to wound me in the severest place by ripping up every error they may be able to find in you.
Other than assuring the King that 'it will be my principal object through life to merit' the 'parental attachment & kindness you profess towards me', the Prince made little effort to mend his ways. Now living with his eldest brother in apartments along the east side of Windsor Castle while the rest of the Royal Family inhabited the house of Lord Talbot opposite he would wait until the King had gone to bed before meeting his mistress.
But it was only a matter of time before the Prince tired of the eccentric Mrs Robinson. Unsavoury incidents, as when she attacked her husband in public after discovering him making love to a 'fillette' in a box at Covent Garden, hardly endeared her to her royal lover. As the year drew to its close, the Prince wrote to tell her that they must 'meet no more', citing her rudeness to a friend of his in public as the reason. Others believed the rumour that she was also sleeping with his friend Lord Malden. In any case, the Prince had fallen for another woman: the alluring Elizabeth Armistead.
When her liaison with the Prince began, Mrs Armistead was still the mistress of Lord George Cavendish, the brother of the Duke of Devonshire. One night, according to the Duchess of Devonshire, Lord George returned to Mrs Armistead's house 'rather drunk'. On entering her room, 'he perceiv'd some unaccustomed light in another, and much against her entreaties went in'. There, hiding behind the door, he discovered the Prince of Wales. In his inebriated condition, Lord George might not have been 'quite so respectable as he ought, but it had luckily another effect he burst out laughing, made [the Prince] a low bow and retired'.
However, Mrs Robinson was not prepared to be supplanted without a fight and she wrote the Prince a furious letter, railing against the 'calumnies' her enemies had fabricated. He responded with a 'most eloquent' letter, 'fully acquitting' her of 'the charges which had been propagated to destroy her'. They met once more and 'passed some hours in the most friendly and delightful conversation'. 'I began to flatter myself' wrote Mrs Robinson, 'that all our differences were adjusted. But no words can express my surprise and chagrin, when, on meeting his Royal Highness the very next day in Hyde Park, he turned his head to avoid seeing me, and even affected not to know me!'
When further attempts to see him were unsuccessful, she wrote more angry letters, accusing him of destroying her career with false promises which had left her heavily in debt. Desperate, she even resorted to blackmail:
A certain amour royal is now totally at an end [stated the Morning Herald]; a separation has taken place a thoro for more than three weeks, and a settlement worthy of such a sultana is the only thing now wanting to break off all intercourse whatever. Mrs Robinson thinking the adjustment of this part of the divorce too essential to be trifled with, has roundly written to her once ardent lover, 'That if her establishment is not duly arranged within the space of fourteen days from the commencement of the new year, his must not be surprised if he sees a full publication of all those seductory epistles which alone estranged her from virtue and the marriage vow!
The threat had the desired effect, not least because the letters contained a number of less than complimentary remarks about the King. Colonel Hotham, the Prince's Treasurer, was authorised to make a settlement with Lord Malden, Mrs Robinson's representative. After much wrangling, it was agreed that Mrs Robinson would receive a lump sum of £5,000 and an annuity of £500, half of which would continue to be paid to her daughter after her death.
The King, who was forced to go cap in hand to his Prime Minister for the money, was more determined than ever to keep his son on a tight leash. He had already, in December 1780, informed the Prince of the limitations that would accompany the retirement of his Governor and the formation of his own Establishment:
My inclination [wrote the King] is to grant you all the rational amusement I can, and keep you out of what is improper, and so to steer you, that when you arrived at the full stage of manhood, you may thank me for having made you escape evils that ill become a young man of rank, but in your exalted situation are criminal.
The Prince would be allowed to dine with his attendants in his apartments twice a week, and to attend plays, operas and balls having first informed his parents. But he would not be permitted to go to balls or assemblies in private houses 'which never has been the custom for the Prince of Wales' nor masquerades 'you already know my disapprobation of them.'
He would be expected to attend church on Sunday and the Drawing-Room at St James's when the King was present, as well as the Queen's Thursday Drawing-Room. When the King rode out of a morning, he would accompany him. If the Prince went out alone, whether on horseback or in a carriage, at least one of his attendants would go with him. For those evenings when he was not attending plays or operas, the King would invite a 'variety of company' so that he would have a choice 'of playing cards or conversing ... in the musick room'.
'Be but open with me,' the King concluded, 'and you will ever find me desirous of making you as happy as I can, but I must not forget, nor must you, that in the exalted station you are placed in, every step is of consequence, and that your future character will greatly depend in the world on the propriety of your conduct at the present period.'
Within a matter of weeks as if to ensure his future good behaviour the Prince had been deprived of his two closest friends. Frederick, his adored brother, the 'sole companion of his youth', was sent to Hanover to complete his military training. Colonel Lake, his 'best friend' and recently appointed his First Equerry, went to fight the American rebels. So upset was the Prince at being separated from his brother 'that he stood in a state of entire insensibility, totally unable to speak'. His parting from Lake was just as painful. 'You know how much I love him,' he wrote to Frederick on 20 January 1781, 'and therefore will easily conceive what a loss he is to me at the present moment, more especially as I have not you, my dear brother, with me, from whom I could always meet with disinterested advice.'
But the new restrictive regime was never likely to work. The more the King tried to curb his wayward son, the more the Prince rebelled. He was by nature a free spirit, a hedonist, and could not be expected to thrive within the narrow boundaries prescribed by a stern father he neither liked nor respected. Ironically, his separation from Prince Frederick and Colonel Lake had the opposite effect to that intended by the King. Frederick, too, had had affairs most notably with Letitia Smith, the former wife of the hanged highwayman Jack Rann, who was soon to marry the equally disreputable Sir John Lade and would continue to do so in Hanover, but he was also capable of offering useful counsel. 'For God's sake' he wrote later that year, 'do everything which you can to keep well with [the King], at least upon decent terms; consider he is vexed enough in public affairs.'
Lake was also a moderating influence, full of sensible advice. In a letter written on 23 January 1781, shortly before his departure to America, he warned the Prince that his 'great good nature' was 'liable to be imposed upon by people who have not the smallest pretensions to your civility or attention'. A 'knowledge of the world and of men' was essential, but difficult to acquire given the 'retired and private education unavoidably chalked out for a Prince' while most other young men had 'reaped the benefit of a public school'. Furthermore, because of his 'situation', many people would try to gain his 'favor' by encouraging him to do 'things that they would perhaps be the first to condemn, and when they find the world disapproving your conduct, will lay the blame entirely upon yourself'.
Involvement in politics was to be avoided at all costs. 'Your own good sense (of which no one has a greater share) if properly employed,' wrote Lake, 'will prevent your becoming the dupe of those who have no other design than to make use of you for their own advantage.' This would prevent friction within his family, for it was in his 'own interest' for them 'all to live well together'.
Lastly, he was to refrain from writing 'any more letters to a certain sort of ladies'. 'I should hope,' Lake concluded, 'that what you have already suffered will be a sufficient warning.'
But it was not. Ignoring Lake's advice, the Prince fell in with Charles Wyndham and Anthony St Leger, two young rakes notorious for their outrageous behaviour, and spent much of the early months of 1781 engaged in drunken and debauched escapades. During one particularly raucous night at the Blackheath house of Lord Chesterfield a man later described by one of the Queen's attendants as having 'as little good breeding as any man I ever met with!' they got so drunk that George Pitt, the son of Lord Rivers, tried to tear the tongue out of a fierce house-dog. The dog responded by savaging a footman's leg and Wyndham's arm. As if that was not enough, Chesterfield fell down the stairs, while the Prince was incapable of driving home and had to leave the reins of his phaeton to his disreputable uncle, the Duke of Cumberland.
It was all too much for the Prince's frail constitution. 'Drinking and living too freely,' recalled the Duchess of Devonshire, 'brought on a violent fever ... which soon however spent itself in a hideous humour in his face.' For most of March he was in the care of his physician, Sir Richard Jebb, who for two days even feared for his life. 'I remained cooped up in my bedchamber an entire fortnight' the Prince informed his eldest brother, 'without ever tasting anything but barley water or some damned wishy washy stuff of that sort.'
But having recovered, the Prince made no attempt to moderate his depraved lifestyle. In addition to Mrs Armistead, he is said to have had affairs with Mrs Grace Dalrymple Eliot, the divorced wife of a rich physician who had recently returned from France; Lady Melbourne, the famous hostess and mother of the future Prime Minister; and Elizabeth Billington, the wife of a double-bass player in the Drury Lane orchestra. Both Mrs Eliot and Lady Melbourne are reputed to have had children by the Prince: in March 1782, Mrs Eliot gave birth to a daughter and christened her Georgiana Frederica Augusta Seymour in honour of her putative father; Lady Melbourne's fourth son, George Lamb, born in July 1784, was also said to be his (Lord Minto, who met him in 1805, noted that he was 'a good-natured lad', something like the Prince of Wales). But the paternity of either is impossible to prove because both ladies had other lovers at this time.
The Prince also had an ill-advised liaison with Countess von Hardenburg, the artful wife of Count Karl who had come to London in the hope of being appointed Hanoverian Envoy. His first meeting with the Countess was at a concert in the Queen's apartment in Buckingham House during the spring of 1781. 'After having conversed with her some time I perceived that she was a very sensible, agreable, pleasant woman, but devilish severe,' he wrote to his brother Frederick in July, after the affair was over. 'I thought no more of her at that time.'
But at a second meeting at one of the Queen's card parties at Windsor, the Prince, revised his earlier opinion. She looked 'devinely pretty' and he 'could not keep' his 'eyes off her'. The fact that she, like him, was clearly bored, preferring to play cards for money, served only to increase the attraction. 'From that moment,' he wrote, 'the fatal though delightful passion arose in my bosom for her, which has made me since the most miserable and wretched of men.'
The infatuated Prince made his move soon after, during the fortnight when the Count was the hunting guest of the King at Windsor. Suggesting to the Countess that they meet alone in her husband's house in London, he was taken aback by her angry response that he had forgotten to whom he was talking, and was forced to apologise. But it was all for effect. The Countess was a capricious minx, by turns seductive and aloof, who, soon after Prince Frederick's arrival in Hanover, had tried to make love to him at a dance. When the moment proved inopportune the room to which they retired was already occupied the Countess flounced off and told an acquaintance that Prince Frederick was 'the most tiresome fellow' and 'never would leave her alone'.
The pattern of seduction used for the Prince of Wales was the reverse. For he was a greater conquest than his brother, with more influence, and needed a more subtle ensnarement. With the Prince lovesick to the point of endangering his health 'I have spit blood and am so much emaciated you would hardly know me' the Countess finally agreed to let him visit her alone at her house in Old Windsor. There she told him that she was 'very much attached' to him and loved him 'most sincerely', but that she had once been 'very much attached to another person' and did not think that a woman could truly love more than one person in her life. If, after such a declaration, he could still attach himself to her, it would be 'an additional proof' of his love.
The Prince's response was as expected. Far from lessening his affection, it had 'increased it if possible', and made him 'entertain a higher idea of her honour'. Nevertheless, it still took another two or three visits before the scheming Countess would let him make love to her. 'However,' he informed Prince Frederick, 'at last she did. O my beloved brother, I enjoyed beforehand the pleasures of Elyssium ... Thus did our connexion go forward in the most delightful manner ...'
At this stage, the only third party who knew about the affair was the Prince's equerry, Colonel Hulse. Then 'an unfortunate article' appeared in the Morning Herald, stating that the Prince's carriage was constantly to be seen at the door of a German Baroness who had taken a house next to Mrs Robinson's in Cork Street. In fact, it was the Duke of Gloucester's carriage which had been seen outside the door of a Polish Countess, but the damage had been done. Already suspicious, Count von Hardenburg now ordered his wife to write to the Prince, telling him that they could meet no more. At first she refused, denying her guilt. But so angry did the Count become that she eventually confessed that the Prince had made advances to her, though she had not succumbed. She also agreed to write to the Prince, while the Count included a suitably outraged missive of his own.
The Prince 'fell into fits' when he received the packet containing the two letters, but soon recovered enough to reply to the Count. He was indeed 'very strongly attached to his wife', but she had always treated him with the 'utmost coolness'. If anyone was at fault, it was him. At the same time, the Prince sent the Countess 'the most passionate of letters'. Next morning, having just been told by Lord Southampton, the head of his Household, that the King would not consent to let him go abroad to get over his unhappiness, the Prince received a reply from the Countess. Disowning her previous letter on the grounds that her husband had forced her to write it, she reaffirmed her love for the Prince and suggested that they elope that very night.
Torn between his passion for the Countess and the consequences of such an elopement, the Prince 'lost' his 'senses entirely' for a time. At first he agreed to go away; but the thought of the Countess 'the only woman upon earth I can and do only love' 'perishing for want' made him change his mind. In desperation, he 'threw' himself at his 'mother's feet and confessed the whole truth to her'. Having 'cried excessively' and shown herself much moved by her son's predicament, she advised him to send Hulse to tell the Countess that an 'unforeseen accident' prevented the Prince going with her. She also insisted that the King be informed.
A couple of days later, having been sent for by the King, Count von Hardenburg was on his way back to the Continent with his errant wife. For a time, he worked for the Duke of Brunswick; but his wife's increasingly loose morals eventually caused him to divorce her and join the Prussian diplomatic corps in Berlin. It was there that he eventually rose to the post of State Chancellor and achieved lasting fame as one of the 'Liberators of Europe'.
The Prince, meanwhile, was heartbroken. 'O did you but know how I adore her, how I love her, how I would sacrifice every earthly thing to her,' he wrote to Prince Frederick in July, 'by Heavens I shall go distracted: my brain will split.' But this did not last. Informed by his brother Frederick of the Countess's true nature, the Prince admitted that he had always harboured doubts about her, and that she had appeared to be 'very' capricious and very singular in some things, and very cheerful and agreeable in others'. Though he still asked after her from time to time, he had other fish to fry: Lady Augusta Campbell, the beautiful and headstrong daughter of the 5th Duke of Argyll, for one. It was generally supposed not to have been an accident, wrote the Honourable Robert Fulke Greville, the King's favourite equerry, that Lady Augusta was placed next to the Prince at a ball given by the King and Queen to celebrate his nineteenth birthday.'
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