5 Times the Prince Regent, the “First Gentleman of Europe,” Was Anything But Gentlemanly

George IV was lauded as the “First Gentleman of Europe” while also mocked and viewed with contempt by his public, even before he took the throne in 1821. He accrued heavy debts from gambling, spent large sums on extravagances, and held very public and torrid affairs with dozens of women. He was seen as fat, ugly, and detestable, and his behavior was anything but gentlemanly.

1. Prinny Wouldn’t Always Pay His Mistresses – George IV tempted women into becoming his mistresses by dangling copious amounts of money before their noses, but after sleeping with them, he’d often leave them without paying a farthing. These women would come chasing after him, demanding payment, but when George IV wouldn’t budge, they’d take the matter to his father, Mad King George III. These women would get paid, but only after George IV’s father intervened. It might be surprising that the heir to the English throne was stingy towards the women in his life, but he was a heavy gambler and rarely won at the card tables. He had creditors chasing after him, as well as unpaid mistresses. 

George IV in 1814, when he was Prince Regent. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

2. He Illegally Married – At 21 years-old, George IV fell in love with Mrs. Maria Fitzherbert. She was six years older than him, twice widowed, and Catholic. She was an unsuitable choice for a bride for the future King of England, but this didn’t stop George IV from courting her for more than a year. Maria resisted his advances, but as George IV sent her suicide notes, some over 40, rambling pages, she gave in and agreed to marry him. In 1785, the two wed in secret, but the marriage was technically illegal, because the Royal Marriage Act prevented any royal family member from marrying without the king’s permission. Since George IV didn’t ask his father’s permission to marry Maria, they’d committed a crime. This caused the two to never publicly acknowledge the marriage, and they never lived together. Although, when he died in 1830, George IV was buried with a miniature portrait of her in his coffin. 

Portrait of Mrs. Maria Fitzherbert. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

3. He Married Again, And It Was A Disaster – Despite his illegal marriage, George IV married his first cousin, Caroline of Brunswick, ten years later in 1795, and it was a match made in misery. According to contemporary accounts, Caroline was short, ugly, and fat, but George IV wasn’t too handsome either. Caroline was also smelly, never changed her undergarments, and rarely bathed. George IV had to get sodden drunk to get through his wedding to Caroline, drinking brandy for three straight days up to the day he said his vows to her. Somehow, they were able to conceive a daughter on their wedding night. Princess Charlotte would be their only child. A year after the wedding, George IV wrote to Charlotte saying he’d never have “relations” with her again and saying she could do as she pleased. He wrote: “‘Our inclinations are not in our power; nor should either of us be held answerable for the other, because nature has not made us suitable to each other.”

4. He Kept Caroline From Their Daughter – After their separation, Geroge IV prevented Caroline from seeing Princess Charlotte. Caroline, without access to her daughter and free to do as she wished, she left for Italy and lived there for many years. Caroline caused scandal after scandal while in Continental Europe, which incensed George IV, so perhaps spurred by anger and revenge, he didn’t write to his wife to inform her when their daughter died in 1817 at 21 years-old. Caroline learned about her daughter’s death from a messenger passing through Italy by chance. 

Portrait of Caroline of Brunswick. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

5. He Barred His Wife From His Coronation – After George III died on January 29th, 1820, George IV ascended the throne. This changed everything for Caroline, who chose to England to pick up her royal duties as the Queen of England. The English government tried to pay her £50,000 to keep her from returning, but she refused the offer. However, George IV had a surprise waiting for her when she set foot on English soil. He tried divorcing her with claims of adultery. While in Italy, she’d been involved with an Italian named Bartolomeo Bergami. There was plentiful evidence suggesting the two had been lovers, but Caroline was beloved by the English public. George IV, on the other hand, was unpopular, seen as a fat, syphilitic king with a multitude of openly turbulent love affairs who spent too much money on extravagances. Newspapers painted Caroline as a woman wronged, and the common people sided with her. For 52 days, a mob surrounded the House of Lords while the divorce proceedings carried on. However, the Lords decided to drop the matter after Lord Brougham gave a sparkling speech in her defense. Outraged, George IV kept Caroline from being crowned alongside him as the Queen of England. When Caroline asked the Prime Minister what to wear to the coronation, she was told she wouldn’t be attending the ceremony, but this didn’t keep her from appearing at the doors of Westminster Abbey on April 29th, 1821. Unfortunately, Caroline found the doors closed to her. She wrote an angry letter to George IV demanding a coronation, but she died 19 days later without being crowned. 

Lithograph of George IV. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

George IV carried on with his reign until his death on June 26th, 1830. In an ironic twist, his undertakers were drunk at his funeral, much like how he’d been drunk during his wedding to Caroline. Nearly two centuries after his death, George IV is still often ridiculed in films, TV shows, media, and history books. He’s not an aspiring figure, despite having lived and ruled over a society that saw much social, political, and technological change. He’s called many things, but even to this day, “gentleman” is rarely amongst the adjectives applied to him. 

Further Readings:

4 Royal Scandals Juicier Than Prince Harry’s Strip Billiards by Kathy Benjamin

George IV by Mallory James

George IV: The Royal Joke? by Dr Steven Parissien

The Queen Caroline Affair

Queen Caroline of Brunswick, wife of George IV by Ben Johnson

The Two Wives of George IV by Cheryl Bolen

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