At no time in modern England has the court at London seen so much real splendor or such fine manners. The royalist emigres who fled from France brought with them names and pedigrees that were older than the Crusades, and many of them were received with the frankest, freest English hospitality. If here and there some marquis or baron of ancient blood was perforce content to teach music to the daughters of tradesmen in suburban schools, nevertheless they were better off than they had been in France, harried by the savage gaze-hounds of the guillotine. Afterward, in the days of the Restoration, when they came back to their estates, they had probably learned more than one lesson from the bouledogues of Merry England, who had little tact, perhaps, but who were at any rate kindly and willing to share their goods with pinched and poverty-stricken foreigners.
The court, then, as has been said, was brilliant with notables from Continental countries, and with the historic wealth of the peerage of England. Only one cloud overspread it; and that was the mental condition of the king. We have become accustomed to think of George III as a dull creature, almost always hovering on the verge of that insanity which finally swept him into a dark obscurity; but Thackeray’s picture of him is absurdly untrue to the actual facts. George III. was by no means a dullard, nor was he a sort of beefy country squire who roved about the palace gardens with his unattractive spouse.
Obstinate enough he was, and ready for a combat with the rulers of the Continent or with his self-willed sons; but he was a man of brains and power, and Lord Rosebery has rightly described him as the most striking constitutional figure of his time. Had he retained his reason, and had his erratic and self-seeking son not succeeded him during his own lifetime, Great Britain might very possibly have entered upon other ways than those which opened to her after the downfall of Napoleon.
The real center of fashionable England, however, was not George III., but rather his son, subsequently George IV., who was made Prince of Wales three days after his birth, and who became prince regent during the insanity of the king. He was the leader of the social world, the fit companion of Beau Brummel and of a choice circle of rakes and fox-hunters who drank pottle-deep. Some called him “the first gentleman of Europe.” Others, who knew him better, described him as one who never kept his word to man or woman and who lacked the most elementary virtues.
Yet it was his good luck during the first years of his regency to be popular as few English kings have ever been. To his people he typified old England against revolutionary France; and his youth and gaiety made many like him. He drank and gambled; he kept packs of hounds and strings of horses; he ran deeply into debt that he might patronize the sports of that uproarious day. He was a gallant “Corinthian,” a haunter of dens where there were prize-fights and cock-fights, and there was hardly a doubtful resort in London where his face was not familiar.