On this episode of Noble Blood, host and author Dana Schwartz tells us about the wildly unpopular King George IV of England, who reigned during the Regency era of the early 1800s. When he died in 1830, he “received an infamous obituary in the Times,” Dana says. “They wrote, ‘there never was an individual less regretted by his fellow creatures than this deceased King. What eye has wept for him? What heart has heaved one throb of unmercenary sorrow? If he ever had a friend, a devoted friend, in any rank of life, we protest that the name of him or her never reached us.’" The king was famously gluttonous and womanizing, an inveterate gambler and drinker, self-centered and feckless. But during his life, he did have one great love: Maria Fitzherbert, the Catholic woman he married in secret.
While still Prince Regent, George caught sight of Maria in her carriage with her then-husband, Thomas Fitzherbert. He was immediately taken with her, even chasing her carriage down the street. But he didn’t see Maria again until a year or so later, when she was widowed, and had gone to the opera at the behest of her family and friends. George demanded an introduction. “From that meeting, a deep curtsy, a kiss on the hand, George was a man completely obsessed. He wrote letters to Maria and sent couriers to her apartment every day. He asked her to join him at dinners and parties.” But she always refused. “Even as a young man, George already had a reputation for his womanizing, but that wasn't even really the problem here. The problem was that Maria was Catholic, and there were no fewer than three laws in England at the time that explicitly prevented the heir to the throne from marrying someone like her.”
But George wasn’t going to let a little thing like the law prevent him from being with Maria, so he stabbed himself in the side and threatened to bleed to death if she didn’t agree to marry him. Maria assented, and they were wed in secret. But eventually, it all fell apart when the prince ran up enormous gambling debts that would equal tens of millions of dollars today. His father, King George III, agreed to pay off his debts, but only if he married his Protestant cousin, Caroline of Brunswick, and produced a legitimate heir to the throne. “Maria Fitzherbert received a letter informing her in curt, cold language that her relationship with George was terminated...the marriage disappeared like smoke on a cold day, evaporating into nothingness.”
George was not happy with his new wife, and after consummating the relationship once, resulting in a daughter named Charlotte, he and Caroline lived completely separate lives. He and Maria reconnected, but by then, George III’s health had severely declined, becoming “blind and deaf, speaking nonsense, and suffering from increasingly severe dementia until he completely lost track with reality.” It was time for a regime change. The newly crowned King George IV threw a party to celebrate, neglecting to set Maria a place at the table and mockingly telling her that she was merely “Mrs. Fitzherbert” and would have to sit according to her rank. “She had tolerated the affairs and the drinking, the gambling and the excessive eating,” Dana says, but that was the final straw, and she left George to his vices.
For the rest of his life, George lived alone. “His weight reached nearly 300 pounds…[he] became addicted to laudanum...taking over a hundred drops per day in order to get through his state duties.” He drank heavily, gambled more, and was generally disliked by everyone, resulting in his infamous obituary. “But the Times was wrong when it came to their claim that no one cried for him,” Dana says. “When the executor of the king’s will, the Duke of Wellington, informed Maria that the king requested he be buried with her miniature diamond portrait around his neck, she did what the Times had assumed was impossible: she wept.”
Tune in for more on King George IV’s ill-fated love, his bad behavior, and the incredible story of his legacy in the United States, on this episode of Noble Blood.
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