The Prince and his debts

Explaining the circumstances of Charlotte’s birth (1)

George, Prince of Wales, miniature by Richard Cosway, 1792, Public domain

Charlotte’s story begins with money – or the lack of it. Her parents would never have married if her father, George, Prince of Wales, had not needed to clear his debts.

In 1783 George had come of age and the then Whig government discussed with the Prince’s father, George III, how much income he should receive. The Whigs were the Prince’s political friends, and inclined to be generous and they suggested an annual income of £100,000 a year. The frugal King was horrified, and the amount was whittled down to £62,000 p.a (£50,000 from the Civil List and £12,000 from the Duchy of Cornwall). Persuaded by his friend, Charles James Fox, George rather sulkily agreed to accept that sum and proceeded to rebuild his residence, Carlton House, on a grand scale: a mini-Versailles that he could not afford without piling up debt upon debt.

The front of Carlton House in the early nineteenth century. Public Domain

Following his clandestine and illegal marriage to Maria Fitzherbert in 1785, George for a while lived a more domesticated life. But his debts continued to rise, and by 1786 they had reached the dizzy sum of nearly £270,000. For the first time it was suggested to him that if he wanted Parliament to clear his debts, he should marry a foreign princess. The idea horrified him so much that he closed down Carlton House, sold his racing horses and carriages and went to live with Mrs Fitzherbert in Brighton.

None of this, however, came near to clearing his debts. In April 1787 they were again raised in the House, and again the Whigs (now in opposition) came to his aid. But they paid a heavy price. Responding to rumours of the Fitzherbert marriage, Fox stood up in the Commons on 30 April and declared that he had the Prince’s ‘direct authority’ to declare that the rumour of the marriage was ‘a miserable calumny’ that did not have ‘the smallest degree of foundation’. He made this statement in good faith, and was mortified to learn that he had unwittingly told the House an untruth. But the Prince and the Whigs were political allies and had to sink or swim together. Fox was furious with the Prince, but he kept silent. Parliament voted £161,000 to pay part of his debts, £60,000 for the completion of Carlton House, which was opened up again, and a scheme to set aside a part of his income every year towards payment of the rest of his debts. The Prince then began work on his Brighton extravaganza, the Marine Pavilion.

George was now settled into a pattern of high spending, appeals to Parliament, and the settlement (or partial settlement) of his debts. On 22 October 1794 the Prime Minister, William Pitt, noted that the Prince’s debts stood at £552,000, and that if all his revenue from the Duchy of Cornwall was used to that end, repayment would take twenty-five years. This was at a time when the country was suffering great hardship because of the war with France that had broken out early in the previous year.

The Prince had painted himself into a corner. His brother, Frederick, Duke of York, had married three years earlier and been given an additional £180,000. If George married, he and his wife would then be provided with the money for a new establishment, and his money problems (he hoped). He was reckless and unhappy, immersed in self-pity, and sullenly indifferent as to who would be found for him. As he is alleged to have said, ‘Any damned German frau would do.’ The search was on for a bride.

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