Inside George’s Breeches: The Health of George IV

As part of the new series of talks, Pavilion Tales, I decided to find out just exactly what it was that was Inside George’s Breeches. A famously overweight king with the finest kitchens in Europe was sure to have a fascinating array of both regency delicacies and gruesome ailments. George did not disappoint.

Meg showing off George's breeches during the Pavilion Tales talk
Meg (right) showing off George’s breeches during the Pavilion Tales talk

George IV first came to Brighton as a dashing young prince, just twenty-one years of age, famous for his love of horses, women and having an altogether better time than his father George III really would have liked. He is better remembered, however, as a gluttonous, ailing monarch, riddled with gout and despised by his own people. Not only this but his behaviour was considered vulgar and unstatesmanlike. Rather than following an austere life of politics with his father in London in preparation for taking the throne, he preferred to take the six hour drive to Brighton to carouse with his fun-loving uncles, who had likewise eschewed the dour and prohibitive company of George III for a more rambunctious way of life. His very purpose in coming to Brighton then, was to escape the king’s puritanical ways, and to indulge.

 The Prince Regent is shown as an oriental potentate.

The Prince Regent is shown as an oriental potentate.

The contrast between George III’s court and his son’s lifestyle at Brighton was stark. George III placed his son on a restrictive diet early in his life, to ward off a family propensity to being overweight. It prevented the young prince from eating the filling of a fruit pie, for example, and instead he was allowed only to eat the crust. At Brighton however, George embraced the French ways of the table. George not only took his lead from the French, but his chef as well, employing Antoine Carême, the finest chef of the day, to prepare haute cuisine in George’s The Great Kitchen in Brighton. Carême only stayed in George’s employ for eight months but it was in this period that he produced the dinner service of his career; the menu for which can be seen in the kitchens at the Pavilion today. They were the most technologically advanced kitchens in Europe and George was so proud of them he would often invite guests to look around them, and on one controversial occasion, even dined there.

George IV in the kitchen of the Royal Pavilion
George IV in the kitchen of the Royal Pavilion

The spectacular kitchens were stocked in bulk at vast expense. Between the 6th of May and the 5th of June 1816, Carlton House took delivery of 5264 lbs of meat “not including sausages, pork or poultry”. And no wonder when George’s favourite breakfast consisted of two pigeons, three beefsteaks, three parts of a bottle of white wine, a glass of dry champagne, two glasses of port and a glass of brandy. It should come as no surprise then that George was indeed rather rotund in stature, although that was not necessarily such a setback in the Regency period. The sudden taste for rich and fattening food from France led to a general upward trend in corpulence in fashionable British society. Lord Byron fell afoul of fattening, French cuisine and, much chagrined, made a great show at one ball of refusing all dishes offered to him in an effort to convince the company that he was dieting. This was somewhat undercut by his appearance at a local inn, shortly after the ball ended, dining on a hearty meal. From household accounts, it would seem that George himself made an occasional attempt at dieting. Sober meals of plain boiled salmon and rice soup appeared on dinner menus but one can only assume that these half-hearted attempts at dieting failed; especially considering that alongside these dishes were the somewhat less slimming sweetbreads and lobster-au-gratin.

All in all, George was destined for greatness, literally. And it was a fact that didn’t go unnoticed. His wife Caroline, on first meeting him, commented “he is very fat and he is nothing like as handsome as his portrait”; perhaps why the famously unhappy marriage didn’t take. The Duchess of Gloucester drew the comparison between George and “a great featherbed”. It supposedly took three hours to lace the King into his girdle and whale bone corset of a morning due to all the “bulging and excresiances”. Once girdled his waist measured 55 inches, however, this feat of engineering was such that the tightness of the girdle almost caused George to faint during his own coronation and contemporaries are recorded as saying that his natural stomach hung between his knees.

George IV depicted as a whale surrounded by people including Maria Fitzherbert.
George IV depicted as a whale surrounded by people including Maria Fitzherbert.

Sir Willie, who likened him to a “great sausage stuffed into the covering”, painted his portrait during his final months and found the endeavour hard to endure. Reflecting upon the experience he remarked that it was a “most difficult and melancholy business for the man was wasting away frightfully day by day”. The weight on his chest meant that lying in bed would almost cause him to asphyxiate and so in his last few months, he was able only to sleep on a day bed, propped in an upright position and on the brief occasions that he needed to move around he used a Merlin chair. Even small tasks were an ordeal as George’s swollen limbs were often so painful with excess fluid from his dropsy that he could not get dressed. Exasperated attendants had a stamp of his signature made because the gout in his hands was so extreme he simply refused to sign legal documents. He suffered from cataracts, a common occurrence among those blighted with gout, to the extent that he was practically blind

This is a caricature from 1824 of George IV with bandaged gouty foot sits in front of mirror with images of himself in various costumes in the background.
George IV with a bandaged gouty foot sits in front of mirror with images of himself in various costumes in the background.

By the time of his death on the 26th of June, 1830 at the age of 67, he had surpassed 24 stone in weight and even in death, his sheer size caused problems. The stairs and columns which the coffin was to be carried down and past were surrounded by wood to protect them from any potential damage should the coffin go rogue. Even when the coffin was lying in state, it was supported by ironwork to prevent the table giving way. In spite of all this, it was said by Thomas Raikes: “no man clung to life with greater eagerness than George IV, or was more unwilling to hear from those about him any hint or suspicion of his apparent decay”. Stubborn and eccentric to the end, George IV was truly a larger-than-life monarch and one whose influence can be still be felt today as you wander through the rooms of his most extravagant and ambitious building project, the Royal Pavilion.

Meg Hogg, Visitor Services Officer