Monday, 24 June 2013

The Death of King George IV, 26 June 1830


"A Voluptuary Under the Horrors of Digestion" -
A cartoon of the Prince which alludes to his
love of good food and wine, as drawn by
James Gillray, 1792.
[Source : Wikipedia]

This two part blog, which forms part of my 'trilogy' of Royal deaths, specifically looks at the death and funeral of King George IV in 1830, the latter drawing heavily on reported events as described in the black-bordered copy of 'The Edinburgh Evening Courant' newspaper in my possession, being featured below. The second part of this Blog, which features the funeral of the late King George IV, may be accessed HERE.

The reign of King George IV, as Prince Regent from 1811 and as King from 1820 until his death in 1830, is primarily remembered today for his profligate lifestyle, his secret marriage to Maria Fitzherbert, his disastrous subsequent marriage to Princess Caroline of Brunswick, the Regency on behalf of his "mad" Father King George III, the death in his lifetime of his only legitimate Daughter and heir to the throne, the well-liked Princess Charlotte of Wales after a still-birth; and his decidedly poor management of money.


"The Edinburgh Evening Courant" Newspaper,
dated Edinburgh, 15th July 1830, with black
borders in mourning for the recent death of
King George IV of Great Britain & Ireland.
[From my personal collection]

There were many who did not mourn his passing. "The Times" opined, perhaps rather harshly, that "there never was an individual less regretted by his fellow low-creatures than this deceased King". But those who were close to him or knew him well were more apt to describe him in rather more complimentary terms. The Duke of Wellington candidly [or prosaicly?] remarked that George had been "...a magnificent patron of the arts… 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."

His contribution to the Arts and to the irreplaceable Royal collection we know today along with his overall contribution to what we now term 'the Regency Age' cannot be underestimated. He also became a leader in fashion, admittedly often to suit himself, but others willingly followed his lead. He is well remembered  for being the first English Monarch to set foot on Scottish soil in 177 years, a well received visit which did much to heal lingering rifts north of the border. But coincidentally, his visit also directly led to the revival of and widespread wearing of tartan in Scotland.


A flattering portrait of King
George IV in full Highland dress
by Sir David Wilkie, 1830
[Source : The Royal Collection]  

As the caricature at the top of this page infers, George was particularly known for his love of good food and wine and his banquets were lavish affairs. This naturally led to him becoming, even by the end of the 18th century, quite rotund, and not unsurprisingly, he developed gout. The painting directly above therefore portrays the King in a decidedly flattering pose. As George became older he increasingly suffered from very serious bouts of ill-health, not being helped by his painful rheumatism, "emotional disturbances" and a self-administered addiction to laudanum.

During the Regency George already had a large medical team at his disposal, "The medical department consists of four physicians in ordinary; ten physicians extraordinary, physician to the household; and two surgeons; also ten surgeons extraordinary, surgeon dentist; a dentist; two occulists, and an occulist extraordinary; a cupper, and two apothecaries." [J.Norris Brewer, 1816]  

But by the end of his reign his heavy drinking and indulgent lifestyle had all taken their toll of his health. By 1824 his corsets had to accommodate a waist measurement of 50 inches (130 cm). He was now morbidly obese and desired not to appear in public, and on those occasions when he did he was often the target of ridicule. He naturally "evinced a great disposition to exercise of any kind".

A miniature of the young Princess Alexandrina Victoria
of Kent (the future Queen Victoria) as she appeared
 around 1826-27
[Source : The Royal Collection]

Queen Victoria recalled that as a girl of seven (around 1826) her Uncle pulled her onto his stout knee and desired to kiss her but that she found it "too disgusting as his face was covered with grease-paint". Nonetheless she still remarked on his "wonderful dignity and charm of manner".   

King George's last years were characterised by gout, rheumatism, hardening of the arteries, 'dropsy', and possibly also porphyria, being the same illness which had afflicted his late Father. While showing signs of mental instability this was less extreme than his father and could also have been due to the onset of dementia. Perceptions of the King's "madness" were not helped by a habit he developed latterly of pretending to have taken part in events which he had not, such as having fought at the Battle of Waterloo or riding a winner at the Goodwood races, tears often welling up in his eyes with emotion. Either he privately took a perverse pleasure in duping his listeners with his tall tales or in his 'insanity' he did in fact believe them to be true.  


The Lower Ward of Windsor Castle, as depicted by Joseph Nash
in 1848. The Windsor Castle we know today largely dates from the
rebuilding work commenced under King George IV in 1824.
[Source : Wikipedia]  

The Upper Ward, as depicted by Joseph Nash in 1848
[Source : The Royal Collection]

George now led a secluded life in the relative privacy of Windsor Castle and would latterly spend whole days in bed and suffered spasms of breathlessness that would leave him half-asphyxiated. By 1827 George was often having to be carried up and down stairs and "in general to be wheeled about everywhere". Thus he became more reclusive than ever. Great pains were taken at St. James's Palace to prevent the public from witnessing him being carried to and from his carriage. During the last two to three years of his life and while out in his pony-chaise in the parks around Windsor, servants stationed at various public crossing points did their best to ensure that the King would not be observed. Should anyone be observed along the usually secluded route it would be immediately altered. Such was George's well-known desire for privacy during his drives that anyone passing through the Park or Virginia Water dreaded the possibility of even coming upon him. Latterly George also became blind in one eye, most likely due to cataracts.


King George IV out in his pony-chaise, shown riding past
Sandpit Gate Lodge on his way to view his menagerie.
[From "Memoirs of George IV" by Robert Huish, 1830]

By the Spring of 1830 his "embarrassment of breathing" (as the Court Bulletins expressively described it) had become severe and sleep often alluded him, suffering also "at times great depression of spirits". He would often be found "lost in abstraction, only relieved by shedding tears". The frequent pain he suffered caused him to take enormous doses of laudanum, up to 250 drops in a 36 hour period, a low dose no longer having any effect. His Doctors often bled him and even applied leeches to his pelvis to try and effect a remedy for lower body pain. 

But still over-eating, the Duke of Wellington stated that for breakfast on the 9th April 1830 The King ate "A pigeon and beef steak pie of which he eat [sic] two pigeons and three beef-steaks, three parts of a bottle of Mozelle, a glass of dry champagne, two glasses of port [and] a glass of brandy..."


A portly King George IV at Windsor Castle.
From the engraving of E. Scriven
after George Atkinson.

Towards the end of the third week in June his team of Doctors unanimously considered that the King's health was "giving way at all points". But until the bursting of a blood vessel the day before his death, "the King did not think his case absolutely hopeless.. [and] the slightest refreshment of sleep rallied his spirits a little."

Seriously ill on the night of the 25th June 1830, the King managed to fall asleep in his specially fitted up chair as he could no longer comfortably use a bed. He would lean over onto a table placed in front of him, his forehead resting on one hand. George had dismissed his Physician, Sir Henry Halford, for the evening and sent him to bed while his pages had retired to the outer room. But George's long-term Opthalmologist and close friend, Sir Jonathan Wathen-Waller, sat up with him holding his other hand as the King required someone with him at all times for assistance or just reassurance. Waking at a quarter to two in the morning he asked for his medicine, drank a little clove tea, and thereafter again fell asleep. Just before 3am he woke again and asked for his pages to bring his night-chair. "He had instantly a purgative motion" but observed "I do not think all is right", adding an expression which he commonly used, "What shall we do next?". Waller answered "Return as soon as possible to your chair". The King did so but then felt faint so ordered the windows opened. Trying without success to drink a little sal volatile, Halford his Physician was then summoned. Then holding Waller's hand "more strongly than usual" when suddenly he looked Waller full in the face and, "with an eager eye" exclaimed "My dear boy! This is death!". George then closed his eyes and lay back in his chair. At that moment Halford entered the room. His Majesty gave him his hand but never spoke afterwards and with a few short breaths "expired exactly as the clock struck the quarter after three, June 26, 1830."  


Sir Jonathan Wathen-Waller who attended
King George IV the night he died.
[Source : Wikipedia] 

The Kings features after death "were neither drawn nor distorted, but appeared in that serene and tranquil state which would have induced the belief that his Majesty still slept... The cheeks, however, appeared somewhat sunk and the abdomen much raised".

It should be noted that various accounts of the King's last moments exist, such accounts being published as early as 1830. That a page held the King's hand during his last moments appears to be spurious. I have kept as closely possible to Christopher Hibbert's account published in 1976 as this version had been recounted by Waller himself. Hibbert also appears to have accessed the largest amount of primary resource material including undertaking considerable research in the Royal Archives.  

The second part of this Blog will detail the funeral and burial of the late King George IV.


Bibliography : 

- Various Internet resources including Wikipedia
- "George IV" by Christophet Hibbert, 1976
- "Memoirs of George the Fourth", Volume II, by Robert Huish, 1830
- "The Edinburgh Evening Courant", 15th July 1830

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