‘Harris, I am not well, fetch me a brandy.’ Such was George IV’s inauspicious reaction to seeing his future Queen for the first time. For her part, Princess Caroline reckoned that George was ‘very fat and nothing like as handsome as his portrait’.
At the time of their marriage in 1795, George was the Prince Regent, a 33-year-old wastrel waiting in the wings for his father Mad King George III to die so that he could succeed to the throne. His bride was his first cousin, the coarse and vulgar Princess Caroline of Brunswick.
The debt-riddled prince only married her because the British Parliament promised to increase his allowance if he did so.
Their disastrous marriage was to be the talk of European gossip columns for quarter of a century, reaching a crescendo on 7th August 1821 with the suspicious death of Queen Caroline.
When the new King commenced an 18-day visit to Ireland just days later, so the scandal-mongers of London homed in on the new leading light in His Majesty’s bedchamber – Elizabeth, Lady Conyngham, the chatelaine of Slane Castle, County Meath.
George IV is regarded as one of the idlest monarchs ever to ascend a throne. In fairness, he was a considerable patron of the arts and the Regency period was not without its golden moments, including the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo. But he was indeed a spendthrift, inclined to low company, lashings of alcohol and a series of voluptuous mistresses.
The marriage to Caroline did not slow him down. In fact, after the birth of their only child Princess Charlotte, for whom Dublin’s Charlotte Quay is named, the Royal couple separated.
The press took Caroline’s side as the wronged wife of a bullying husband. She was cheered in public while in private she was said to have enjoyed the attentions of a series of strapping young aristocrats. By 1815, she was reputedly living in sin with an Italian commoner in a villa on the Adriatic coast.
In 1818, the popular Princess Charlotte died giving birth to a stillborn son and the Royal family completely disintegrated. George instigated divorce proceedings, accusing Caroline of adultery. During a public trial that commenced after George became King in 1820, hundreds of witnesses were paraded through the courts to testify against the Queen. [i] Eventually a settlement was reached and Caroline was given £50,000 hush money.
However, when Caroline attempted to attend her husband’s lavish Coronation ceremony on 19th July 1821, she was turned away from the doors of Westminster Abbey. The crowds jeered as she left and that night the 53-year-old Queen consumed a cocktail of milk of magnesia and laudanum. She became seriously ill and died on 7th August.
Rumours that the Queen had been poisoned were quick to circulate. A riot broke out during her funeral in which two people died.
And where was her mourning monarch during the funeral? He was living it up in Ireland with his mistress.
It is certainly a lesser-known fact that within just three weeks of his ascending the throne, George IV, King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, boarded a ship and sailed across the Irish Sea to Dublin.[i.a.]
Whilst his popularity in England remained low, there was good reason to think that the new King would be a friend to Ireland’s beleaguered Catholics, still struggling under the severity of the penal laws. After all, it was well known that the King had once been married, albeit illegally, to a devout practicing Catholic called Maria Fitzherbert.
Daniel O’Connell was crucially amongst the first to extend a welcome to the monarch in the hope that it would boost the chances of his campaign for Catholic Emancipation.[ii]
Not unlike Elizabeth II’s visit in April 2011, George IV’s trip to Ireland was a carefully orchestrated public relations triumph. Every aspect of the monarchy’s Irish credentials were played up, from the King’s willingness to become Irish Viceroy in the 1790s to his genealogical connections to Ireland’s ancient royalty.
Moreover, there was good news for Irish Catholics when the King requested that Lord Forbes, the son of the Catholic Earl of Granard, be one of his aides-de-camp for the visit. He also stood as witness for the installation of the Earl of Fingall as the first Catholic member of the Order of St. Patrick.
Dublin’s tailors, seamstresses and milliners also had cause to rejoice. Business had been poorly ever since the Act of Union closed down the Irish Parliament in 1800. But when London issued a request that all those who wished to meet the King should be dressed in Irish-made attire, the city’s rag trade instantly picked up.
The King arrived in Howth on August 12th 1821, his 59th birthday, with a belly full of goose pie and Irish whiskey.[iii] An imprint of the spot where he first stumbled upon shore with his ‘sacred feet’ was later cut out by a stonemason and can be viewed to this day.
Dublin rose to the occasion with banners, flags and bunting strewn across the city in a fantastic display of Royal pageantry. By night, every public building was illuminated while fireworks exploded into the sky and the citizens guzzled hogshead after hogshead of free porter.
The King made his formal entrance into the city via Sackville (now O’Connell) Street at the head of 200 carriages, the Royal flag flapping atop of Nelson’s Pillar as he passed.[iv] Over the next 18 days, he wooed the Irish by ‘drinking toasts, shaking people by the hand, and calling them all Jack and Tom … like a popular candidate come down upon an electioneering trip.’[v]
The visit was such a triumph for goodwill that O’Connell suggested ‘every peasant’ in Ireland should contribute towards the building of a Royal palace in Dublin because ‘the joy’ of George’s visit had ‘penetrated the humblest cabin as well as the most resplendent mansion.’[vi] The subscription did not raise enough for a palace but it did pay for a new bridge across the Liffey, the present-day Seán Heuston Bridge (formerly King’s Bridge) beside Heuston Station.[vii]
The King was based at the Vice Regal Lodge (now Áras an Uachtaráin) in Phoenix Park for the duration of his stay, with visits to the Curragh Races, Powerscourt House and, most memorably, a four-night stay with his new mistress at Slane Castle.[viii]
Elizabeth, the Marchioness of Conyngham, was in her mid-50s, an ‘ample though still handsome’ banker’s daughter who had reputedly set her sights on becoming his mistress as far back as 1806. Her husband was made a Marquess in 1816 and went on to serve as Lord Steward of George IV’s Household throughout his reign.
By 1821, the mother of five had won George’s undivided attention. He adored her with a schoolboy-like crush. During his Coronation, he appalled many by openly ‘nodding and winking … and sighing and making eyes’ at her.[ix]
One commentator complained: ‘I never in my life heard of anything equal to the king's infatuation and conduct towards Lady Conyngham. She lived exclusively with him during the whole time he was in Ireland at the Phoenix Park. When he went to Slane, she received him dressed out as for a drawing-room; he saluted her, and they then retired alone to her apartments.’[x]
Legend holds that the main road from Dublin to Slane was straightened so that the King could reach his mistress at Slane Castle with greater haste.
As to what the corpulent couple got up to in private, one balladeer suggested:
‘Tis pleasant at seasons to see how they sit,
First cracking their nuts, and then cracking their wit,
Then quaffing their claret - then mingling their lips,
Or tickling the fat about each other’s hips.[xi]
The King departed from Dun Laoghaire, which was renamed Kingstown in his honour, on 3rd September. As His Majesty hauled his portly self back onto the Royal yacht, he promised that ‘Whenever an opportunity offers, wherein I can serve Ireland, I will seize it with eagerness’. Many assumed the emancipation of the Catholics would follow swift. In the end, it took eight more years, with George proving deeply reluctant to sign it.[xii]
Lady Conyngham and George moved into the Royal Pavilion in Brighton and she remained his mistress and de facto Queen until his death in 1830.[xiii] He clung to her because ‘she amused him and chased away the demon of depression’. In the early days, they would retire after dinner to a satin-canopied settee and play patience.
However, George developed chronic alcoholism and was generally incomprehensible by the time dinner was finished. The writer Charles Greveille noted that Lady Conyngham ‘looks bored to death and never speaks’.
But George was careful to keep other suitors at bay. When he heard that Lady Conyngham had fainted during an encounter with the dishy Lord Ponsonby, he took to his bed in a prolonged huff that was only quelled when his Prime Minister dispatched Ponsonby to become Ambassador to Buenos Aries.
When George IV died in 1830, The Times stated that ‘there was never an individual less regretted of his fellow creatures than the late king’. Lady Conyngham moved to Paris where she lived for some thirty years in ‘a rather obscure if wealthy retirement’.[xiv] In 1837, her son Francis, the 2nd Marquess of Conyngham, was the person who informed Victoria she was Queen and the first to address her as ‘Your Majesty.’
[i] Among them was Francis Burton, father of the explorer Sir Richard Burton, who refused to testify against the Queen and so jeopardised his military career.
[i.a.] Anticipating the Royal visit, Irish society was ‘wound up [to] a high pitch of anxiety’ as the Freeman’s Journal put it, when Queen Caroline was reported to be mortally ill. There was a widespread intake of breath as everyone prepared for the King to cancel his visit. Her death on August 7th coincided with a period of bad weather which meant the King’s arrival in Ireland was delayed until August 12th. When the Freeman’s Journal reported on her death on the morning of Monday August 13th the writer stated that he had not ‘time and temper now to calculate the political effects of this event.’
[ii] This was particularly important given that a Catholic relief bill which sought to remove some of the penal laws was rejected by the House of Lords in April 1821. The King’s public relations team were careful to distance George from the dismissal of this bill, and to play up his Irish links. Many of his friends during the Regency period had been Irish Whigs like Sheridan who supported emancipation. The Irish Parliament had actually offered him the Regency of Ireland without conditions and he subsequently sought but did not get the Irish Viceroyalty.
[iii] The visit arrived so hot on the hells of the lavish Coronation of July 19th that it appeared to almost be a sequel, in the same way that many viewed the Queen’s visit to Ireland in 2011 as part of a global love in for Royalty that commenced with Will and Kate’s wedding.
[iv] The formal entrance to Dublin actually took place on August 17th. He was clad in military uniform with the ribbons of St. Patrick fluttering on his chest for the official entry. Henry Warren, then 27-years-old, painted the King seated in a horse-drawn carriage as he was paraded past the General Post Office on O'Connell Street.
"No monarch on the earth ever received a more enthusiastic tribute of devotional attachment to the royal person than the king received from his faithful Irish people on the ever-memorable 17th August," the Freeman’s Journal declared. "The splendid ovation, the pompous triumph of ‘olden time,’ were but the shadow of a shade to the stupendous spectacle — the magnificent entry of the British Monarch into the capital of his Kingdom of Ireland. Dublin yesterday exhibited a display of pomp and pageantry, and pride, unsurpassed by anything in modern London."
When he visited Trinity College Dublin, "Many of the members of the University had the honour of kissing the king’s hand, and they departed in high admiration of the dignified deportment and lofty affability of their beloved sovereign," according to the Freeman’s Journal.
[v] ‘If, the day before he left Ireland, he had stood for Dublin, he would, I dare say, have turned out Grattan.’
As the Countess Glengall marvelled, the Irish ‘clawed and pawed him all over and called him Ethereal Majesty’. Thomas Moore was disgusted by the manner in which everyone kow-towed although he conceded that the monarch’s generous spirit could only be advantageous to Irish Catholics.
[vi] O’Connell saw the trip as an opportunity to develop his idea of a peaceful debate between supporters and opponents of Repeal and emancipation, going so far as to suggest a ‘Royal Georgian Club’ be built for the express purpose of cultivating the goodwill which the visit had generated. O’Connell decorated his home in Dublin with a bright transparency on the drawing room window, inscribed: "George IV, the only king that declared the Crown was held in trust for the good of the people. Erin go Bragh."
When O’Connell was presented to the King at a levee in Dublin Castle, the monarch apparently muttered ‘God damn him’ just loud enough for the Catholic barrister to hear - but the remark passed without response. This story appears in James H. Murphy, ‘Abject loyalty: nationalism and monarchy in Ireland during the reign of Queen Victoria’ (Catholic University of America Press, 2001).
[vii] The King’s greatest faux pas was at a dinner banquet when he told those assembled, including two senior Catholic peers, that they could have got a better deal with the Act of Union and ought to have ‘made terms as the Scotch did’. The faux pas was that many of those who signed the Act of Union did so on the basis that it would result in an abolition of the anti-Catholic penal laws and, simply put, they had been betrayed and the penal laws remained.
“The exhibitions of royal state, and the manifestations of enthusiastic homage, during his stay in Ireland, would be little worth repeating. His chief, if not only, private visit was to Slane Castle, the residence of lord Conyngham. Here he was seen in his private and social character; and it is certain that he left upon the minds of persons very competent to judge, who then conversed with him for the first time, flattering impressions both of his capacity and demeanour. Among those invited to meet him were two individuals holding office in Ireland, who had agreed in being strenuous opponents of the union, but now entertained adverse opinions on the Catholic claims. One of these, a person equally and eminently distinguished by his eloquence, wit, and personal character, sat at dinner opposite the king. Lady Conygnham whispered something in the royal ear. There was nothing extraordinary in this: but their eyes were directed to the opposite guest, who appeared somewhat disturbed by the seeming scrutiny. The king relieved him by saying : " B , you would hardly guess that lady Conyngham has been repeating to me a passage from one of your speeches against the union. My early opinion was, that your's and the 's" (referring to the other functionary present) " opposition to the measure was well-founded; and since I have seen this glorious people, and the efFects produced by it, that opinion is confirmed; but," he added, as if correcting himself, " I am sure you will agree with me in opinion that, now the measure is passed, you should both feel it your duty to oppose any attempt to repeal it with as much zeal as you originally opposed its taking place." Both bowed assent; and the king continued, — " But you all committed a great mistake: you should have made terms, as the Scotch did; and you could have got any terms." He then referred, with perfect familiarity, to the stipulations of the Scotch union. Mr. S, the anti-Catholic functionary, said — " And the Scotch further stipulated for the establishment of their national religion." " You are right," said the king ; " they secured that point also: but—no, no," (again hastily checking himself), " you must give no weight to what I have just said. It should not be supposed that I entertain an opinion from which inferences might be drawn that would lead to disappointment." Mr. S obviously meant that the Irish parliament, at the union, should have stipulated for Protestant ascendancy; but the king appeared to understand the Catholic by the national religion of Ireland, the emancipation of which should have been made a condition.”
On the other hand, the King was clever enough to blame the 1798 Rebellion on ‘misrule’.
[viii] He stayed four nights at Slane Castle from 23rd to 27th August. He also visited Powerscourt House and was exceedingly fortunate that he left without visiting the famous waterfall. A dam had been built up to ensure a good flow should the King arrive but when the water was released, it gushed out with such force that it washed away the specially constructed platform upon which His Majesty was due to stand.
Mervyn, 7th Viscount Powerscourt, recalled another anecdote about the Royal visit, which took place in the last years of the life of the 5th Viscount:
A good many of the neighbours were invited to meet the King, among others Col. Hon. Hugh Howard, who resided at Bushy Park, opposite the windows of Powerscourt House. The King, looking out the window, saw the house at Bushy, and turning to Lord Powerscourt said, “Whose house is that opposite? It ought not to be there,” meaning that it did not add to the beauty of the landscape. Col. Howard rejoined, “Oh! But your Majesty, that is my house.” The King said, “I don’t care whose house it is, it ought not to be there.”
[ix] Royal mistresses, Charles Carlton, p. 122. He had lately ditched his previous mistress Lady Hereford who was deemed too cold, too reserved and too dignified for his taste.
[x] Freemantle. The fact she joined him for so much of his trip caused little controversy in Dublin which, considering the abuse he had received in London by supporters of the late Queen Caroline, most have come as a great relief.
[xi] Lady Conyngham’s physical attributes are said to have inspired another scandal-monger:
‘Give the devil his due, she’s a prime bit if stuff,
And for flesh she’s got conscience enough,
He’ll never need pillows to keep up his head,
Whilst old Q and himself sleep and snore in one bed.’
However, this may refer to Lady Quentin, wife of Sir George Augustus Quentin of the 10th Hussars, who, as one of her descendants pointed out, was 'also rumoured to be a well-upholstered intimate of the King'.
[xii] Dr. Doyle, Catholic Bishop of Kildare & Leighlin, urged all Whiteboys and other secret agrarian societies to enter into the spirit of goodwill, applauding ‘our gracious sovereign’ and assuring his diocese that ‘mighty changes’ were ‘just approaching’. Dublin Castle responded by translating his address into ‘the language of Ireland’ and printing over 300,000 copies of it which were circulated all across the land. In November 1821, the Marquess of Wellesley, a brother of the Duke of Wellington and a supporter of emancipation, was installed as the new Viceroy.
The visit set in motion the concept of a Royal visit to Ireland although it would be more than a quarter of a century before the next monarch, George’s niece, Queen Victoria, sailed to Ireland in 1849.
[xiii] On one occasion she is literally said to have left with ‘an entire vanload’. Whenever she and the Marquess hosted a dinner party at their London townhouse, the King would insist the food be cooked at St. James’s and dispatched in tailor-made hackney coaches.
[xiv] Anthony Gary Brown, The Patrick O'Brian Muster book (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2006). Her first reaction was seemingly to purloin all the gifts he gave her lest they be reclaimed. A cartoon called ‘A Moving Scene’ reflected the public resentment when Lord Conyngham, Lord Chamberlain under George IV through his wife's influence, ‘claimed as of right of office the furnishings of his official apartment at Windsor Castle, and proceeded to remove them when he was sacked.’
With thanks to the Slanes and David Collins.
The British monarchy and Ireland: 1800 to the present, James Loughlin (Cambridge University Press, 2007)
The king's wife: George IV and Mrs Fitzherbert, by Valerie Irvine.