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In defence of George IV: King of the United Kingdom

Hopefully my title has alerted readers to what “George IV” I am thinking of.

George IV has got a bad press. He is thought of as a fat, drunken fool. Who was so deluded that he thought he fought at the battle of Waterloo.

His father (George III) has had his reputation defended by it being pointed out that his metal problems had a physical cause (a blood disorder made worse by arsenic poisoning from the power in his wigs and the very medical treatments he was given). Whilst in control of his body and mind, it is now accepted, that George III was a hard working and learned man who was deeply concerned by cases of individual injustice – for example a poor clock maker might be cheated of the longitude prize by all the politicians and administrators, but when George III got to hear of the case he would not rest till justice had been done.

On the other hand George IV is seen as a man whose problems were self inflected. A man unwilling to resist temptation – whether it was for women, food or booze. A man disloyal to his father (for example keen to be Regent years before his father had his final breakdown and even willing to have his father locked up for life), of hopelessly unsound political judgement (for example his connection with Charles James Fox, a politician who supported the French Revolution and never showed the understanding of either security or finance needed to be fit for high office).

And whereas George III was learned (with a great library of well used books, knowledgeable on all the main subjects of his day), George IV is presented as shallow minded and lazy – whose knowledge of even those subjects that interested him (such as architecture) was superficial.

The last point first:

George IV may indeed have had less knowledge of art and architecture than George III had. And George IV’s favoured architect (John Nash) may indeed have big gaps in his education.

However, have a look at Windsor Castle, or the Brighton Pavilion, or the area of Regents Park in London. Neither George VI nor John Nash may have had the book learning of George III – but they did not do so bad a job.

On women, food and booze: George IV had the faults that many European aristocrats (and other rich people) had in this period. That George III did not have these faults is to his credit – but it should not be used as a stick to bash his son over the head with.

Also on booze, water was unsafe to drink in the late 18th and early 19th centuries (although not as unsafe as it would be when cholera stuck Britian in the 1830’s) so becoming what we see as a drunk was quite common – even the great Pitt the Younger (the supposedly straight laced rival of the degenerate Charles James Fox) died of booze.

A man may say some very stupid things when he is drunk – even waxing on about the fighting at Waterloo – but then again people interested in military history (or military affairs in general) often see themselves at certain battles and talk in this way.

I would not like to be thought mad because I have talked of battles (as if I had been there) that occurred hundreds of miles from me, or indeed centuries ago – we armchair generals may be bores, but we are not mad. On women: George IV could not officially marry the women he loved (she was a Roman Catholic), and was pushed into marrying a women he despised. And for all the supposed ill treatment of Queen Caroline, nothing was actually done to her. She was not murdered, she was not tossed into some prison (which would have been normal in many parts of Europe) – in the end she was not even denied the title of Queen. George IV certainly neglected her and was unfaithful to her – but that was about it. Surely at least some of the fault lies with the clever men who demanded he marry Caroline in the first place?

On Politics:

George IV became King on the death of his father in 1820 and remained King till his own death in 1830.

The 1820’s are one of my favourate periods in British history. It is true that taxes (as a percentage of the economy) were not at the lowest in this period (that came in 1874), but taxes were greatly reduced over this period – and national government spending was kept under strict control.

This was the time after the post war chaos (made worse by some of the coldest winters on record). It was the time of “Prosperity Robinson” (Earl of Ripon and later Viscount Goderick) – who as Chancellor of the Exchequer and later Prime Minister rolled back taxes and held back spending (which meant that economic growth reduced the size of government).

It was the time of William Huskisson, a follower of Pitt the Younger, who as M.P. for Liverpool and President of the Board of Trade moved Britian in the direction of free trade and (along with Robinson) helped teach John Peel (the later repealer of the Corn Laws and teacher of finance to Gladstone) his business.

Peel himself may have created government police in London in 1829, but there had always been state watchmen here. There certainly was no great move to state police in Britain as a whole in the 1820’s.

Also Peel removed the vast majority of death penalty statutes that had meant (in theory at least) that a man could be killed for theft in the years before him. To Peel death was only fit for murderers and traitors – a hard view by modern standards, but an incredibly liberal (in the best sense of “liberal”) view by the standards of a few years before.

In policy concerning other lands, Canning (one of George IV Prime Ministers) supported the freeing of Greece from the Turks and of Latin American from Spain.

Things may not have turned out well in Latin America – but at the the time greater free trade and an end to slavery in such nations as Chile seemed to show a bright future to the benefit of Britain and other nations.

Slavery still existed in the British colonies (although not in Britain itself, and the Royal Navy has already begun its one hundred year war against the slave trade round the world), but pressure as rising against slavery in the colonies – and in 1833 the bill to outlaw it finally passed.

Britain also refused to be involved with the “Holy Alliance” ideas of censorship and oppression in Europe. With the benefit of hindsight it might be argued that the forces the Holy Alliance Monarchs and Ministers were fighting against were a lot more oppressive than they were – but the reasoning was sound, it is not Britain’s business to be involved in such things.

It is true that there was a heavy burden of poor rates in England (such a heavy burden partly because of the Poor Law Act of 1782 – which allowed for the subsidies to be paid to people in work, in order to build up their wages, an idea that has come back) and this led to the Act of 1834 (which may have dealt with the wage subsidy problem, but whose expansion of the workhouse system has hardly got a good press).

But this was an English problem – Scotland did not have a great poor law problem (indeed the Rev. Chalmers boasted of how even the people of the great city of Glasgow managed to look after the poor as well as any city in Europe in the 1820’s – without having a Poor Rate). And indeed many of the northern English cities managed to keep the Poor Rate under control – in cities like Leeds the Poor Rate actually went UP under the newly expanded Workhouse system of the 1834 Act. It was the Justices of the Peace in the rural areas of southern England who proved unable (or unwilling) to control the Poor Rate.

In the 1820’s even when there was a “reactionary” Prime Minister he did liberal things (Lord Liverpool had such men as Robinson and Huskinson as his ministers, the Duke of Wellington got rid of the restriction on Roman Catholic Irishmen being elected to the House of Commons). And there was a general (although not total) move towards greater liberty and prosperity.

And none of the great principles were breached. Government police were not made compulsory in every town (that did not happen till the 1850’s) local councils with the right to spend lots of money were not set up (that was 1835), nor was there the command that local authorities a spend lots of money and take over much of civil society (there were about 40 Acts of Parliament allowing local councils to do various things from the 1830’s onwards – but the command that they must do them mostly came in the great Act of 1875).

Such areas as the education of children were almost totally free of the government (the Scottish system was far more limited than is supposed and in England even a tiny government subsidy had to wait till 1833).

Nor was there a large professional bureaucracy (sadly the work of misguided Liberals later in the 19th century) or even the collection of many government stats (without statistics government finds it hard to control things – the first great move in this direction, after the census of 1801 and every ten years after, is the Birth, Marriages and Death’s Registration Act of 1836).

But how was George IV involved in any of the above? Surely the move towards greater liberty and greater prosperity in the 1820’s was nothing to do with him?

I am not sure. A King in the 1820s (indeed up to the Reform Act of 1832) controlled a large number of M.P.s in the House of Commons (he owned the seats which they represented). In the 1820’s a King directly picked ministers in a way that even Queen Victoria gradually lost the power to do.

He find it hard to believe that George IV was a total subhuman who just happened to pick lots of good ministers by chance. I suspect that some more research is needed in this area.

One can indeed say that the climate of opinion was good in the 1820’s. The works of Edward Gibbon Wakefield (which made popular the view, later taken up by Karl Marx, that markets could be saturated – leading to the need for businessmen to find virgin markets or face a falling rate of profit) were yet to be written.

In such Universities as Oxford the works of economists like Richard Whately were still dominant – Whately regarded the labour theory of value as absurd and he regarded most state intervention as harmful. The inferior works of the middle part of the century (and such works as John Stuart Mill’s “Principles of Political Economy” [1848] are inferior) were yet to be written.

But in Europe there were also many good economists (Gossen was yet to write in Germany but Rau was popular, Italy had Ferrara, France the Say family and others). and that did not stop governments being on a knife edge facing revolution form normally more statist forces.

The government of Charles X in France helped liberate Greece from Turkey and destroyed the centuries old threat of North African raiders, but this did not stop Charles X falling in 1830. The new monarchy meant more state education spending, plus government money for railways and still more trade protectionism – hardily a move to what a libertarian would call freedom

There were many revolutionary threats in the 1820’s – and George IV did not fall.

Again pure luck in the choice of his minister – or those who choose the ministers in his name?

Again I doubt it. I repeat that I think more research is needed.

13 comments to In defence of George IV: King of the United Kingdom

  • There is every reason to think that former rulers have been systematically misjudged and under- or over-rated. This has happened repeatedly with regard to American presidents, for example. (This post and comments following take up this topic.) If a leader is unpopular, in particular is not the kind of person that the opinion-leaders happen to like, his reputation will be in the garbage bin. I would have no surprise, based on this post, that Geo. IV was a better man than he is given credit for being. I hope someone will dig into the archives and report back to us. Were there published diaries of people who worked with him directly? Published volumes of letters? These more easily accessible sources could be consulted first. This is not mere antiquarianism, either. This was an era of remarkable freedom and prosperity — correctly understanding what actually happened is likely to have some value.

  • zmollusc

    Yet more evidence that power corrupts. The power companies are evil and the planet and Goya can only be saved by generating power from renewable resources such as windmills woven from natural hemp. Think of the children.

  • Julian Taylor

    One wonders what London would look like now without Prinny’s redesign of what is now central London. He, via John Nash, is responsible for Regent’s Park, the “villas” surrounding it, Regent Street and Buckingham Palace (although Nash’s plans were eventually reduced to just what is now the West wing of the palace) in addition to Carlton House Terrace (a redesign of Henry Holland’s work) and Marble Arch – it was originally going to be where Admiralty Arch is today and was moved because Nash misjudged the width of the royal coaches and made the arch too small.

    The other thing I find annoying is how come the Brighton Pavilion which I can recall, from not so long ago, originally had a magnificent white edifice but now seems to have been sprayed with some horrific dung-coloured matt paint?

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Paul, excellent article. I think Lord Liverpool’s long administration is greatly underrated. BTW, Sir Robert Peel, Huskisson, Castlereagh, Canning, etc were as talented and wise a group of political leaders we are ever likely to get. The Regency period is often dismissed as a time of frippery, but in fact it was a good period. We also supported Greek independence during this period and the Barbary piracy problem was subdued.

    Regency architecture has not been bettered, in my umble opinon.

  • Findlay Dunachie

    Remember we are talking about George IV, not his ministers. In a sense, his father’s incapacity, his own self-indulgence, irresponsibility and sheer laziness, and then his brother, William IV’s passivity all contributed to the decline in royal power and the rise of the modern Parliamentary system, which ministers of the crown, no longer chosen by the monarch, had to manage.

    The two parties, Whig and Tory, originally by turns the King’s friends or his opponents, took on lives of their own, with the King having to submit to whichever managed to gain a Parliamentary majority.

    Both parties were managed by the aristocracy which had a very small electorate to deal with, mainly by outright ownership of boroughs, or by bribery. Their younger sons or nominees sat in the Commons; they sat in the Lords. This self-confident, self-interested establishment, effectively including everyone who mattered, had little chance, and no intention of allowing itself to be toppled by a revolution. By contrast, the French aristocracy (and others) had large privileges, but little political power and were correspondingly vulnerable, together with the monarch, the single source of power.

    The British aristocracy did feel a strong sense of responsibility to run the country – very much their country – which meant looking after foreign policy. Home policy, i.e., economic policy, they left to run itself, as believers in laissez faire – a policy favoured by the middle classes, even though they were disenfranchised.

    Male dominance ensured that Victoria’s accession signalled the end of monarchical power, though it would have been interesting to know what might have happened if Prince Albert hadn’t died in 1861 after which Victoria really gave up all interest in ruling.

  • Paul Marks

    I agree about the vile colour of the Brighton Pavilion. I noticed this new colour some years ago (some years ago). So it is still not white again? Perhaps the-powers-that-be think white paint is racist. After all they have removed the colour “nigger brown” from paint catologues, and edit old films so that (for example) in films of the Battle of Britian one of the main British fighter pilots does not use his pet dog’s name.

    On all the credit for the rall back of government in the 1820’s going to the ministers – yes but who appoints the ministers (inculding the Prime Minister?).

    There were plent of statist artistocrats even then – indeed Lord Gray’s government in the 1830’s was the most artistocratic government Britian has ever seen (all the principle ministers were artistocrats, most Kings had always had some talented commoners) and that government was rather keen on government action.

    Perhaps the Reform Act of 1832 led to a different sort of person gaining power (the sort of person who could convince large numbers of people to vote for them – rather than just buy a seat in Parliament or get appointed by a person who happened to own a seat).

    In the old unreformed House of Commons there were many seats with quite a large number of voters, but there were also many seats which were under the influence (perhaps “owned” is too strong a word) of either the King or another rich landowner (perhaps the richest of all being Earl Fitzwilliam).

    But again, rich landowners who have influnce over Parliamentary seats have always included people who took a generally positive view of government action.

    As for Queen Victoria, well (of course) she did not control 50 seats in the House of Commons, but she could make here opinions felt when she wished to do so.

    Whether it was on great matters of state (such as influencing the blocking of various Irish Home Rule bills) or on matters of morality (such as the blocking of proposed laws against lesbians, on the ground that there was no such thing as lesbianism, or on the ground that Queen Victoria wished to protect some women of this preference from the law – it depends on who one believes).

  • Luniversal

    A few architectural ‘sports’ such as the Brighton Pavilion are good fun in their place– and a pleasure resort is such a place– though we can be thankful that a style so frivolous and prone to debasement, the po-mo of its day, did not become general. We do not want a rash of town halls looking like Asiatic fanes.

    Likewise Prinny was a spurt of semi-comic relief after so many decades of worthy regal stodge since Charles II, but one would not want such a man to be head of state for too long. The trouble with republicanism is that a ceremonial president is *always* a grey, worthy, inoffensive, forgettable old bore.

    We are overdue for another Merry Monarch, but the tabloids seem determined to intimidate princes into behaving better than journalists. It may be significant that George IV was the last king before the rise of The Times, the first incorruptible popular paper. It catered to the prejudices of the rising middle class whose insistence on good behaviour was entrenched by the Reform Act. Edward VII had a bash, but was not on the throne soon enough to lighten up the polity.

  • Findlay Dunachie

    I would still maintain that the period 1808 (the Regency) to 1837 (Victoria’s accession) is the tipping point to monarchical impotence. In a way it is true that George IV appointed his ministers, but he had to accept a government that commanded a majority in the House of Commons (as did his father, for that matter). He could be a nuisance – the Duke of Wellington constantly voiced his exasperation with his behaviour – but not much more. Fox, Burke and Sheridan hoped for much when he became Regent, but in fact he accepted the war policy of the government he took over as (temporary) head of State.

    Aristocratic government lasted a surprisingly long time – right through the 19th century by certain criteria. Gladstone’s last administration in 1892 had a majority of aristocrats, who held all the major posts.

    How the great landed families held onto power from the mid-16th to the 20th century is described in Elie Wasson’s interesting book, “Born to Rule”, reviewed by me and in my archive under the title “No Marx [no, not Marks!] for Historical Research” if anyone is interested.

  • Luniversal

    The Whigs’ last hurrah was 1892, partly (and ominously) because Joe Chamberlain had taken so many rising men out of the Liberal ranks towards the Tories, prophesying the leaching away of bourgeois Liberals in the inter-war years. But most of Gladstone’s last Cabinet were old-style libertarian Liberals. The Newcastle Programme of the same year, pointing the way to statist inrtervention in the economy and higher taxes for welfare, opened the door for middle class intellectuals and radical paternalist-imperialists such as Lloyd George, Masterman and Winston Churchill to set the pace, outbidding the Labour Party on their left flank. Asquith’s coalition of all the talents in 1906 was an uneasy one. As late as 1914, some functions were still being entrusted to the old aristo type (e.g. Grey at the Foreign office, traditionally the preserve of nobs) but the writing was on the wall for Whiggery and dynasty.

    It is arguable that George IV never made as important an intervention in politics as George V, whose promotion of coalition in the 1931 crisis gave Britain the best and most popular government it has enjoyed in modern times.

  • Earl of Ripon and then Viscount Goderick? Would be very odd to be appointed to or inherit a lesser title. Other way round I think, first Robinson, then Viscount Goderick then Earl of Ripon.

  • Julian Taylor

    Paul, nicely put. “Nigger” was Wing Commander Guy Gibson’s pet black labrador who was unfortunately run over by a truck hours before 617 Squadron flew off on their famous Dambuster mission. ITV insisted back in 2001 on removing the word from The Dambusters movie, under apparent orders from Frau Tessa Jawohl and her Department of Meeja, Kultur and Sport.

  • Paul Marks

    First sorry about Prosperity Robinson. Perhaps I messed up in this way – Robinson, Earl Of Ripon – oh what is this other title, shove it in anywhere……)

    So it was the Dambuster film – oh well my senile brain strikes again.

    Gladstone’s last cabinet being mostly libertarian – well more libertarian than any modern government. However, Harcourt was in charge of the Treasury and that person was certainly not a libertarian.

    The fact that the landed classes could not resist the introduction of death duties (in spite of the fact that farming was in real trouble in the late 19th century) shows how weak they were.

    Of course the short sighted “free trade in land” inverted snobs among the untilitarians had always hated big land owners – failing to see that the emotions they stired up could be directed just as well against the owners of factories.

  • asdas34454

    Geothe the rthiord ran teh highland clearances, he killed 10 million in india,. a million aussies, and million sof slaves