George IV: A Sketch

Kenneth Baker looks at the foibles and achievements of one of Britain’s most controversial monarchs through the eyes of his caricaturists.

On the sunny day in 1830 when George IV (who had been king since 1820) died, Tom Moore, the poet, wrote:

Never saw London so excited or lively ... crowds everywhere, particularly in St James’s Street ... the whole thing reminded me of a passage in an old comedy: ‘What makes him so merry?’ ‘Don’t you see he’s in mourning?’

There was little mourning for George and within three weeks of his death The Times thundered out its verdict:

There never was an individual less regretted by his fellow creatures than the deceased King ... an inveterate voluptuary ... of all known beings the most selfish.

This echoed the comment of Charles Greville, the Clerk to the Privy Council, who confided to his diary:

A more contemptible, cowardly, selfish, unfeeling dog does not exist ... There have been good and wise kings but not many of them ... and this I believe to be one of the worst.

Wellington, who had served him as prime minister for two years, was more generous in his tribute in the House of Lords, describing him as 'the most accomplished man of his age' and going on to say that in dealing with his ministers the King showed 'a degree of knowledge and of talent much beyond that which could be reasonably expected of an individual holding his high station'. Privately Wellington was even more magnanimous:

The most extraordinary compound of talent, wit, buffoonery, obstinacy, and good feeling – in short a medley of the most opposite qualities with a great preponderance of good – that I ever saw in any character in my life.

These are the two poles of George’s reputation and all biographies since then have oscillated between them – most to condemnation and only a few to a forgiving understanding.

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