October 20, 1791 — This was the day that prompted the horseracing authority in England to have an astonishing showdown with the future King George IV over allegations that his jockey had thrown a race. He responded with a royal boycott of the sport.
At the time George was the Prince of Wales and had a reputation as a fun-loving womanizer and gambler. He had over 40 horses in his stables at Newmarket, considered to be the birthplace and global centre of thoroughbred horseracing. It was established in 1636. Horses belonging to the present Queen of England are still trained there.
Back in 1791, the jockey Sam Chifney, retained by the Prince as his rider for life with generous pay of over £200 a year, rode the royal horse Escape in two races.
Chifney was the leading jockey of his day and had developed a highly successful late finishing style, known as the “Chifney rush”. He boasted: “I could ride horses in a better manner in a race to beat others than any other person ever known in my time.”
However, in the first race on Escape held on Thursday, 20 October, he came last of four despite being 2/1-on favourite. The next day, with odds of 5/1-against, Chifney rode Escape to victory, beating two horses that had finished ahead of him the previous day.
Officials of the Jockey Club, which was responsible for regulation of the sport, were highly suspicious that Chifney had pulled the horse in the first race to ensure worse odds but better winnings in the second. The jockey said simply that Escape had not had enough exercise to win the first race.
His explanation was not accepted and the President of the Jockey Club, Sir Charles Bunbury, warned the Prince of Wales that if he continued to use Chifney, “no gentleman would race against him.”
The outraged Prince responded by selling all his horses and despite the Club’s pleas, ended his connection with horseracing. He told Chifney he would be unlikely to return to ownership but that the jockey would continue to receive his annual pay.
If these were the actions of an unusual man, the Prince of Wales was certainly that.
George was a handsome and intelligent child, mastered French, German and Italian, while enjoying Shakespeare and music. He became a leading society figure and was known as the “first gentleman of Europe” for his polished and refined manners.
But before he was 20 he threw himself with enthusiasm into a life of wild extravagance involving heavy drinking, gambling and womanising. This was much to the displeasure of his censorious father, King George III, who strongly disapproved of his son’s extravagance, mounting debts and political friends. Young George in turn loathed his father and they remained at odds for life.
In 1785, at the age of 24, George was secretly “married” to his most treasured lover, twice-widowed Catholic society figure Maria Fitzherbert. The union was invalid because the legally required permission of the King had not been given – nor even requested. And the law then forbade Catholics and spouses of Catholics from becoming monarch.
George was rumoured to have fathered several illegitimate children and his highly extravagant lifestyle continued, so much so that his debts piled up to an amazing £630,000 – equivalent to about £64,000,000 today.
His father then hatched a plan for George to marry his cousin, Caroline of Brunswick, a strait-laced German princess, whom the King thought would have a steadying influence on his wayward son.
In 1795 George was forced to marry Caroline so that Parliament would pay his debts. But on first sight of his future wife he was repelled – and in a state of shock is said to have called to a servant: "Harris, I am not well. Pray get me a glass of brandy." After they were married it was reported that the distraught bridegroom spent the night lying on the bedroom floor in a drunken stupor.
The couple stayed together for an acrimonious year or two and managed to produce a daughter – Charlotte – before Caroline left George to live in Europe. She was denied any part in the raising of her daughter and was allowed to see her only occasionally. At the age of 21 newly married Charlotte lost her life in childbirth, along with her son.
King George III died in 1820 after becoming insane. (The events were told in the celebrated 1994 movie, The Madness of King George, starring Nigel Hawthorne and Helen Mirren.)
When she heard the news of the old King’s death, Caroline, who had been having affairs of her own, decided to return to England as Queen. But George was having none of it and refused to have her at his coronation as King George IV on July 19, 1821. Caroline went to attend the ceremony at Westminster Abbey, but was barred at every entrance and finally left.
George even tried to get a law passed that would have stripped Caroline of the title of Queen. The public, though, were outraged and Parliament refused to comply.
Ironically, Caroline fell ill on Coronation day and died the next month at the age of 53, possibly from bowel cancer but claiming on her deathbed that she had been poisoned.
The new King continued his heavy drinking, feasting and glutinous lifestyle to the extent that his weight reached 20 stone (127kg) and his waistline expanded to 50 inches (130cm). Highly unpopular, he died on June 26, 1830, aged 67.
Before his death a top civil servant, Charles Greville, the Clerk to the Privy Council, captured widespread feeling when he wrote privately in his diary: “A more contemptible, cowardly, selfish, unfeeling dog does not exist ... There have been good and wise kings but not many of them ... and this I believe to be one of the worst.”
A derogatory nursery rhyme became popular: “Georgie Porgie, pudding and pie, kissed the girls and made them cry. When the boys came out to play, Georgie Porgie ran away.”
The Times newspaper noted the king’s death with a blistering obituary: "There never was an individual less regretted by his fellow creatures than this deceased king. What eye has wept for him? What heart has heaved one throb of unmercenary sorrow? If he ever had a friend – a devoted friend in any rank of life – we protest that the name of him or her never reached us."
Published: September 17, 2019
King of Great Britain, Ireland and Hanover