George III. died in 1820, and as a matter of course George IV. succeeded to the throne. The new King had ruled so long during the eclipse of his father that his formal elevation to the sovereign power did not make much change in the actual conditions. George IV. had been brought up by his father on narrow, old-fashioned, stinted principles of education. He had a greater amount of natural ability than was given to George III.; but he had not the elder King's purity of personal character. Something might have been made of George IV. under a better and more liberal sort of training in his early days; but the effort to oppress him or to coerce him into a pattern son proved, as under such conditions it must have proved, a decided failure. His instincts and inclinations were generous; and he was at least capable of understanding a better political system than that which seemed perfection to the dull eyes of George III. There must have been much charm of manner and some brilliancy in conversation and style of George IV., seeing that he became in his early days the close companion of men like Fox and Sheridan. It is out of all reason to suppose that such men as Fox and Sheridan could have clung to the companionship of a mere worthless profligate simply because he happened to be a Prince Regent Or a King.
George IV. (1762-1830).
It is certain that at one time these men and others had great hopes that the accession of George IV. would prove a blessing to the cause of progress and to the nation. The eyes of the Catholics turned to George IV. as to a man all but pledged to favour a settlement of their claims. The Irish people in general believed that he was likely to encourage some better system of government for Ireland than the mere rule of coercion laws and the stifling of every popular utterance. There were, indeed, some Englishmen of advanced opinions who never trusted him from the first; but on the whole it may be taken for granted that there was among the public in general every disposition to give him a fair chance, and to accept his coming as the hopeful indication of a better time. Of course the private life of George when Regent had been one of utter prodigality and reckless dissipation. We must not attempt to try the private life of a sovereign in those days by the standard which happily prevails in our own. It was not at that time accounted a disgrace, even to a great statesman, to be a heavy drinker of wine and a reckless gambler. Something had already been said of the immense amount of debt which George IV. incurred in his earlier days; of the scandalous manner in which the debt had been accumulated; and of the audacity with which appeal after appeal had been made to the House of Commons for its liquidation. The public in general were willing to let bygones be bygones, so far as the doings of the past were concerned, if only there could be some reasonable hope of an improved system in the future. Many men were inclined to regard George as a sort of Prince Hal, who might be counted on to redeem the errors of his youth the moment he was put into a position of genuine responsibility. They talked of him and of his companions as other men at a distant day might have talked of the wild Prince and Poins. Even after the Prince Regent's years had outgrown the limit of Prince Hal's wild-oats season, excuses were yet found for the Prince Regent, and admirers continued to look out for a brightening future. William Pitt, otherwise the most austere of men, drank heavily night after night; Charles Fox was a gambler; Sheridan was an irreclaimable spendthrift; and after all why should the Prince Regent be thought so much worse than they?
There was, however, a fatal levity about George IV. which prevented him from having any due sense of responsibility, even when the responsibility began to rest most heavily upon him. When he came to the throne he had outlived most of the friends whose influence he might, in political affairs at least, have had to guide him along the right path. Fox was long since dead; Sheridan had outlived him by a few years only, and the manner in which the Prince Regent had neglected Sheridan in the melancholy closing days of his ruined life became a new public scandal to be added to the other scandals which had accumulated round the progress of the regency. George IV. had been married, chiefly from reasons of State, to a German Princess, Caroline of Brunswick, nearly connected with the Royal Family. The marriage turned out a most unhappy alliance in every way. George soon came to detest the wife who had been to some extent imposed on him, partly by supposed State advantages, and partly because it was hoped that she might lead him into better ways. Soon it became evident that the pair could not get on together, and in fact were nearly irreconcilable. The Queen went away to the Continent, and spent her time travelling about there. George was only too well pleased to get rid of her companionship on almost any terms, and returned to his old likings and his old free-and-easy habits. It is not necessary to enter into the details of the public scandal and the public controversy which followed. It will be enough to say that the scandal and the controversy became a subject of national importance when the new King came to be proclaimed and his Queen announced her resolve to return to England and present herself in order to take her part in the ceremonies of coronation.
Queen Caroline. (1768-1821).
The whole country divided itself into two hostile camps. The conduct of the Queen abroad had been made a subject of serious charges, which it is only right to say the majority of the English people did not believe. The general tendency of public opinion was to regard her as a calumniated and injured woman; but then again there were many who held this opinion and who nevertheless did not think it right or wise or becoming on her part that she should return and endeavour to force herself into the coronation ceremonies and create an uproar and a tumult throughout the country. Probably in the history of no modern state has there ever been so curious an exhibition of domestic tumult and scandal as was afforded by this extraordinary conflict between the King and the Queen. The Queen may be said to have been almost literally ejected from Westminster Abbey. The King became odious to the population in the streets everywhere, while many of the great municipal and public bodies gave an enthusiastic welcome to his unfortunate wife. Brougham championed the cause of the Queen in Parliament and in public, as he had already done in the legal investigations. The importance of the whole controversy and the whole outrageous scandal rests for our time in the fact that it threatened for a while to throw the English monarchical institution into utter disrepute, and that yet the monarchical institution was able to survive the crisis and wait for the coming of better days, which better days soon came. There were moments during that crisis when it almost seemed as if a common watchword, or even a common catchword, among the enemies of the Monarchy, might have brought about a popular revolution; but it must be admitted that the advisers of the English people, in all ranks and classes, except among the very wildest of brawlers, were men who persistently counselled patience, good order, and a trust in the gradual development of the constitution. The King was well known, too, to be on bad terms with his daughter, and it was understood that he had made himself a domestic tyrant over her; and this but added another to the many sources of the popular odium which directed its force against him.