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George IV lived from 12 August 1762 to 26 June 1830. He was king of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and of Hanover, from 29 January 1820 until his death. From 1811 he had served as Prince Regent when his father, George III, became unable to rule through mental illness, now thought to have been porphyria. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
George's nine-year spell as Prince Regent, which started in 1811 and ended with George III's death in 1820, had proved him to be well up to the job of constitutional monarch. It had also, however, confirmed his reputation for profligate living and an extravagant lifestyle. It was said that each time he had intimate relations with a woman he would take a lock of her hair and place it in an envelope with her name on it. After his death, the story circulated that 7,000 such envelopes had been found in his rooms. This is literally incredible, and was probably intended to damage further the already extremely poor reputation of George after his death.
To a modern audience George as Prince Regent is perhaps best known through the very unflattering portrayal of him in the 1987 TV Series Blackadder the Third, with George, Prince of Wales played by Hugh Laurie and his butler Blackadder by Rowan Atkinson. The real Prince Regent would seem to have been every bit as profligate but perhaps not as stupid as portrayed in the series.
When George, Prince of Wales turned 21 in 1783, he was given a grant of £60,000 from Parliament and an annual income of £50,000 from his father, George III. Despite what, at the time, was a vast income, he rapidly began to accumulate debts. At about the same time George met and fell in love with Maria Anne Fitzherbert. Six years his senior and already twice widowed, Mrs Fitzherbert's main drawback was that she was a Roman Catholic, and marriage between them was therefore prohibited under the 1701 Act of Settlement. Despite this, the two underwent an illegal marriage ceremony on 15 December 1785, and when George's debts meant he had to give up his home, Carlton House, he moved in with Mrs Fitzherbert.
In 1787, Parliament discussed a proposal to relieve the Prince of Wales of his debts. During the debate it was alleged he was living with Mrs Fitzherbert. George's main ally and the Whig leader, Charles James Fox, responded by denying it absolutely. Mrs Fitzherbert responded by kicking George out: and Parliament responded by granting him £161,000 to pay his debts and £20,000 to renovate Carlton House. Meanwhile George III upped his annual allowance to £60,000.
By 1795, George, Prince of Wales was in severe debt again, owing the incredible sum of £660,000. His father refused to help unless George married his cousin, Caroline of Brunswick. When the Prince of Wales agreed, George III and Parliament between them helped clear the Prince of Wales' debts. But the marriage to Caroline proved a disaster and the two separated after the birth of their only child, Princess Charlotte, in 1796. It seems that George returned to the affections of Mrs Fitzherbert, and the two were to remain intermittently close for the rest of their lives. In 1820 George tried unsuccessfully to gain Parliamentary approval for a divorce from Caroline: a move that made him even more deeply unpopular across the country. And when George IV was crowned in 19 July 1821 at a lavish ceremony costing £943,000, he refused to allow Caroline to attend the coronation. He also refused to recognise her as Queen: commanding British ambassadors to ensure that monarchs in foreign courts did the same. Caroline died on 7 August 1821.
Much of George's reign was spent at Windsor Castle, though he did become involved in a number of the political issues of the time. By the mid 1820s, his lifestyle was taking a toll on his health, and he died in 1830. His daughter Princess Charlotte had already died, in childbirth, so George IV was succeeded by his eldest surviving brother, Prince William, Duke of Clarence, who became William IV.
From a Scottish perspective, George IV is the most interesting of the Hanoverians up to that time. His visit to Scotland between 15 and 29 August 1822 was the first such visit by a reigning monarch since Charles II in 1650. The visit was masterminded by Sir Walter Scott, who took the opportunity to re-invent (or in some cases simply invent) a traditional Scottish identity that, as far as it had ever existed, had been in retreat since 1603, and especially since the Act of Union in 1707, after which many had referred to Scotland simply as "North Britain".
Scott carefully planned what amounted to a vast vast pantomime of invented pageantry. Kilt and tartan, effectively outlawed since the aftermath of the 1745 rebellion and as a result only used by the army, were suddenly the romantic "heritage" that all Scots were led to believe they should aspire to. Every element was stage managed by him, including his publication of "HINTS addressed to the INHABITANTS OF EDINBURGH AND OTHERS in prospect of HIS MAJESTY'S VISIT by an old citizen" copies of which were sold in large quantities to citizens of Edinburgh for a shilling each. Meanwhile, Scott had convinced King George IV that he was every bit as much a genuine Jacobite Highland King as any of his predecessors. The King's outfit for the main ceremonies cost £1,354.90 and included a livid scarlet Royal Tartan, later to become known as Royal Stuart, plus assorted weaponry including dirk, sword and pistols. Sir David Wilkie's painting of the King wearing this outfit, above left, was an extremely flattering one, playing down both the brightness of the kilt and the rotundness of the King: and omitting altogether the pink tights the King wore covering his legs under his kilt.
It is easy to be cynical about George IV's visit to Scotland, and about Sir Walter Scott's management of it. But while it did foreshadow the plague of "tartan tat" that is all too prevalent in some of the country's tourist-traps, it also achieved two positive results, both of which resonate right down the years to today.
The first was to start to bridge the gulf of ignorance and prejudice of highlanders by lowlanders. Lowlanders might not have emerged any more accurately informed: but they started to think of the highlands as a romantic place rather than simply as the land full of savages they had believed it to be for centuries. The second result was to fix in the mind of everyone on earth the myth that today's tartans and kilts are the product of centuries of tradition: the epitome of everything that is Scottish.