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George IV (August 12, 1762 – June 26, 1830) was King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and King of Hanover from the death of his father, King George III, on January 29, 1820 until his own death ten years later. He had already been serving as Prince Regent since February 5, 1811, during his father’s final illness.

George IV was the eldest child of King George III and Queen Charlotte (Duchess of Mecklenburg-Strelitz). He led an extravagant lifestyle that contributed to the fashions of the Regency era. He was a patron of new forms of leisure, style and taste. He commissioned John Nash to build the Royal Pavilion in Brighton and remodel Buckingham Palace, and commissioned Jeffry Wyatville to rebuild Windsor Castle. George’s charm and culture earned him the title “the first gentleman of England.”

Prince of Wales as King George IV of the United Kingdom and Hanover

As Prince of Wales the prince became infatuated with Maria Fitzherbert at the age of 21. She was a commoner (though granddaughter of a baronet), six years his elder, twice widowed, and a Roman Catholic.
The prince was determined to marry her. This was in spite of the Act of Settlement 1701, which barred the spouse of a Catholic from succeeding to the throne, and the Royal Marriages Act 1772, which prohibited his marriage without the King’s consent.

Nevertheless, the couple went through a marriage ceremony on December 15, 1785 at her house in Park Street, Mayfair. Legally the union was void, as the King’s consent was not granted (and never even requested). However, Fitzherbert believed that she was the prince’s canonical and true wife, holding the law of the Church to be superior to the law of the State. For political reasons, the union remained secret and Fitzherbert promised not to reveal it.

Maria Fitzherbert

The prince was plunged into debt by his exorbitant lifestyle. His father refused to assist him, forcing him to quit Carlton House and live at Fitzherbert’s residence. In 1787, the prince’s political allies proposed to relieve his debts with a parliamentary grant.

The prince’s relationship with Fitzherbert was suspected, and revelation of the illegal marriage would have scandalised the nation and doomed any parliamentary proposal to aid him.

Acting on the prince’s authority, the Whig leader Charles James Fox declared that the story was a calumny. Fitzherbert was not pleased with the public denial of the marriage in such vehement terms and contemplated severing her ties to the prince.

The Prince of Wales’s debts continued to climb, and his father refused to aid him unless he married his cousin Princess Caroline of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel.

Caroline of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel (May 17, 1768 – August 7, 1821) was the daughter of Carl Wilhelm Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel and Princess Augusta of Great Britain, eldest sister of King George III.

Caroline was brought up in a difficult family situation. Her mother resented her father’s open adultery with Baroness Luise von Hertefeld, whom he had installed as his official mistress in 1777, and Caroline was later to confide to Lady Charlotte Campbell that she was often tired of being a “shuttlecock” between her parents, as whenever she was civil to one of them, she was scolded by the other.

In an arranged marriage Caroline was engaged to her cousin George in 1794, despite never having met one another.

Caroline of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel

In 1795, the prince acquiesced; and they were married on April 8, 1795 at the Chapel Royal, St James’s Palace. The marriage, however, was disastrous; each party was unsuited to the other. The two were formally separated after the birth of their only child, Princess Charlotte of Wales, in 1796, and remained separated thereafter. The Prince remained attached to Maria Fitzherbert for the rest of his life, despite several periods of estrangement.

George’s mistresses included Mary Robinson, an actress whom he paid to leave the stage; Grace Elliott, the divorced wife of a physician; and Frances Villiers, Countess of Jersey, who dominated his life for some years. In later life, George’s mistresses were the Marchioness of Hertford and the Marchioness Conyngham.

George was rumoured to have fathered several illegitimate children. James Ord (born 1786)—who moved to the United States and became a Jesuit priest—was reportedly his son by Fitzherbert. Late in life, George told a friend that he had a son who was a naval officer in the West Indies, whose identity has been tentatively established as Captain Henry A. F. Hervey (1786–1824), reportedly George’s child by the songwriter Lady Anne Lindsay (later Barnard), a daughter of James Lindsay, 5th Earl of Balcarres.

Other reported children include Major George Seymour Crole, the son of theatre manager’s daughter Eliza Crole; William Hampshire, the son of publican’s daughter Sarah Brown; and Charles “Beau” Candy, the son of a Frenchwoman with that surname. Anthony Camp, Director of Research at the Society of Genealogists, has dismissed the claims that George IV was the father of Ord, Hervey, Hampshire and Candy, as fictitious.

In 1804, a dispute arose over the custody of Princess Charlotte, which led to her being placed in the care of King George III. It also led to a Parliamentary Commission of Enquiry into Princess Caroline’s conduct after the Prince of Wales accused her of having an illegitimate son. The investigation cleared Caroline of the charge but still revealed her behaviour to have been extraordinarily indiscreet.

Despite the investigation which concluded that there was “no foundation” to the rumours, but Caroline’s access to her daughter was nonetheless restricted.

In 1814, Caroline moved to Italy, where she employed Bartolomeo Pergami as a servant. Pergami soon became Caroline’s closest companion, and it was widely assumed that they were lovers. In 1817, Caroline was devastated when Charlotte died in childbirth. She heard the news from a passing courier as George had refused to write and tell her.

In January 1820, George became King George IV of the United Kingdom and Hanover. Hewas determined to divorce Caroline, and set up a second investigation to collect evidence of her adultery.

A legal divorce was possible but difficult to obtain. Caroline returned to Britain to assert her position as queen. She was wildly popular with the British people, who sympathised with her and despised the new king for his immoral behaviour.

On the basis of the loose evidence collected against her, George attempted to divorce Caroline by introducing the Pains and Penalties Bill 1820 to Parliament, but he and the bill were so unpopular, and Caroline so popular with the masses, that it was withdrawn by the Liverpool ministry.

She fell ill in London and died three weeks later. Her funeral procession passed through London on its way to her native Braunschweig, where she was buried.