George was born at St James's Palace, London, on 12 August 1762, the first child of King George III of the United Kingdom and Queen Charlotte. As the eldest son of a British sovereign, he automatically became Duke of Cornwall and Duke of Rothesay at birth; he was created Prince of Wales and Earl of Chester a few days later. On 18 September of the same year, he was baptised by Thomas Secker, Archbishop of Canterbury. His godparents were the Duke of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (his maternal uncle, for whom the Duke of Devonshire, Lord Chamberlain, stood proxy), the Duke of Cumberland (his paternal great-uncle) and the Dowager Princess of Wales (his paternal grandmother). George was a talented student, and quickly learned to speak French, German and Italian, in addition to his native English.
At the age of 18 he was given a separate establishment, and in dramatic contrast with his prosaic, scandal-free father, threw himself with zest into a life of dissipation and wild extravagance involving heavy drinking and numerous mistresses and escapades. He was a witty conversationalist, drunk or sober, and showed good, but grossly expensive, taste in decorating his palace. The Prince of Wales turned 21 in 1783, and obtained a grant of £60,000 (equivalent to £6,514,000 today) from Parliament and an annual income of £50,000 (equivalent to £5,429,000 today) from his father. It was far too little for his needs – the stables alone cost £31,000 a year. He then established his residence in Carlton House, where he lived a profligate life. Animosity developed between the prince and his father, who desired more frugal behaviour on the part of the heir apparent. The King, a political conservative, was also alienated by the prince's adherence to Charles James Fox and other radically inclined politicians.
Soon after he reached the age of 21, the prince became infatuated with Maria Fitzherbert. She was a commoner, six years his elder, twice widowed, and a Roman Catholic. Despite her complete unsuitability, the prince was determined to marry her. This was in spite of the Act of Settlement 1701, which barred the spouse of a Catholic from succeeding to the throne, and the Royal Marriages Act 1772, which prohibited his marriage without the King's consent, which would never have been granted.
Nevertheless, the couple went through a marriage ceremony on 15 December 1785 at her house in Park Street, Mayfair. Legally the union was void, as the King's consent was not granted (and never even requested). However, Fitzherbert believed that she was the prince's canonical and true wife, holding the law of the Church to be superior to the law of the State. For political reasons, the union remained secret and Fitzherbert promised not to reveal it.
The prince was plunged into debt by his exorbitant lifestyle. His father refused to assist him, forcing him to quit Carlton House and live at Fitzherbert's residence. In 1787, the prince's political allies proposed to relieve his debts with a parliamentary grant. The prince's relationship with Fitzherbert was suspected, and revelation of the illegal marriage would have scandalised the nation and doomed any parliamentary proposal to aid him. Acting on the prince's authority, the Whig leader Charles James Fox declared that the story was a calumny. Fitzherbert was not pleased with the public denial of the marriage in such vehement terms and contemplated severing her ties to the prince. He appeased her by asking another Whig, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, to restate Fox's forceful declaration in more careful words. Parliament, meanwhile, granted the prince £161,000 (equivalent to £18,450,000 today) to pay his debts and £60,000 (equivalent to £6,876,000 today) for improvements to Carlton House.
Regency crisis of 1788
In the summer of 1788 the King's mental health deteriorated, possibly as the result of the hereditary disease porphyria. He was nonetheless able to discharge some of his duties and to declare Parliament prorogued from 25 September to 20 November. During the prorogation he became deranged, posing a threat to his own life, and when Parliament reconvened in November the King could not deliver the customary speech from the throne during the State Opening of Parliament. Parliament found itself in an untenable position: according to long-established law it could not proceed to any business until the delivery of the King's Speech at a State Opening.
Although arguably barred from doing so, Parliament began debating a regency. In the House of Commons, Charles James Fox declared his opinion that the Prince of Wales was automatically entitled to exercise sovereignty during the King's incapacity. A contrasting opinion was held by the prime minister, William Pitt the Younger, who argued that, in the absence of a statute to the contrary, the right to choose a regent belonged to Parliament alone. He even stated that, without parliamentary authority "the Prince of Wales had no more right ... to assume the government, than any other individual subject of the country." Though disagreeing on the principle underlying a regency, Pitt agreed with Fox that the Prince of Wales would be the most convenient choice for a regent.
The Prince of Wales—though offended by Pitt's boldness—did not lend his full support to Fox's approach. The Prince of Wales's brother, Prince Frederick, Duke of York, declared that George would not attempt to exercise any power without previously obtaining the consent of Parliament. Following the passage of preliminary resolutions Pitt outlined a formal plan for the regency, suggesting that the powers of the Prince of Wales be greatly limited. Among other things, the Prince of Wales would not be able either to sell the King's property or to grant a peerage to anyone other than a child of the King. The Prince of Wales denounced Pitt's scheme, declaring it a "project for producing weakness, disorder, and insecurity in every branch of the administration of affairs." In the interests of the nation, both factions agreed to compromise.
A significant technical impediment to any Regency Bill involved the lack of a speech from the throne, which was necessary before Parliament could proceed to any debates or votes. The speech was normally delivered by the King, but could also be delivered by royal representatives known as Lords Commissioners; but no document could empower the Lords Commissioners to act unless the Great Seal of the Realm was affixed to it. The seal could not be legally affixed without the prior authorisation of the sovereign. Pitt and his fellow ministers ignored the last requirement and instructed the Lord Chancellor to affix the Great Seal without the King's consent, as the act of affixing the Great Seal in itself gave legal force to the bill. This legal fiction was denounced by Edmund Burke as a "glaring falsehood", as a "palpable absurdity", and even as a "forgery, fraud". The Duke of York described the plan as "unconstitutional and illegal." Nevertheless, others in Parliament felt that such a scheme was necessary to preserve an effective government. Consequently, on 3 February 1789, more than two months after it had convened, Parliament was formally opened by an "illegal" group of Lords Commissioners. The Regency Bill was introduced, but before it could be passed the King recovered. The King declared retroactively that the instrument authorising the Lords Commissioners to act was valid.
In late 1810, George III was once again overcome by his malady following the death of his youngest daughter, Princess Amelia. Parliament agreed to follow the precedent of 1788; without the King's consent, the Lord Chancellor affixed the Great Seal of the Realm to letters patent naming Lords Commissioners. The letters patent lacked the Royal Sign Manual, but were sealed by request of resolutions passed by both Houses of Parliament. The Lords Commissioners appointed by the letters patent, in the name of the King, then signified the granting of Royal Assent to a bill that became the Regency Act of 1811. Parliament restricted some of the powers of the Prince Regent (as the Prince of Wales became known). The constraints expired one year after the passage of the Act. The Prince of Wales became Prince Regent on 5 February 1811.
The Regent let his ministers take full charge of government affairs, playing a far lesser role than his father. The principle that the prime minister was the person supported by a majority in the House of Commons, whether the king personally favoured him or not, became established. His governments, with little help from the Regent, presided over British policy. One of the most important political conflicts facing the country concerned Catholic emancipation, the movement to relieve Roman Catholics of various political disabilities. The Tories, led by the Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval, were opposed to Catholic emancipation, while the Whigs supported it. At the beginning of the Regency, the Prince of Wales was expected to support the Whig leader, William Grenville, 1st Baron Grenville. He did not, however, immediately put Lord Grenville and the Whigs into office. Influenced by his mother, he claimed that a sudden dismissal of the Tory government would exact too great a toll on the health of the King (a steadfast supporter of the Tories), thereby eliminating any chance of a recovery.
In 1812, when it appeared highly unlikely that the King would recover, the Prince of Wales again failed to appoint a new Whig administration. Instead, he asked the Whigs to join the existing ministry under Perceval. The Whigs, however, refused to co-operate because of disagreements over Catholic emancipation. Grudgingly, the Prince of Wales allowed Perceval to continue as Prime Minister.
On 10 May 1812, Perceval was assassinated by John Bellingham. The Prince Regent was prepared to reappoint all the members of the Perceval ministry under a new leader. The House of Commons formally declared its desire for a "strong and efficient administration", so the Prince Regent then offered leadership of the government to Richard Wellesley, 1st Marquess Wellesley, and afterwards to Francis Rawdon-Hastings, 2nd Earl of Moira. He doomed the attempts of both to failure, however, by forcing each to construct an all party ministry at a time when neither party wished to share power with the other. Possibly using the failure of the two peers as a pretext, the Prince Regent immediately reappointed the Perceval administration, with Robert Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool, as Prime Minister.
The Tories, unlike Whigs such as Earl Grey, sought to continue the vigorous prosecution of the war in Continental Europe against the powerful and aggressive Emperor of the French, Napoleon I. An anti-French alliance, which included Russia, Prussia, Austria, Britain and several smaller countries, defeated Napoleon in 1814. In the subsequent Congress of Vienna, it was decided that the Electorate of Hanover, a state that had shared a monarch with Britain since 1714, would be raised to a kingdom, known as the Kingdom of Hanover. On 30 December 1814, the Prince Regent signed and ratified the Treaty of Ghent which ended the War of 1812 with the United States. Napoleon returned from exile in 1815, but was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo by Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, brother of Marquess Wellesley.
During this period George took an active interest in matters of style and taste, and his associates such as the dandy Beau Brummell and the architect John Nash created the Regency style. In London Nash designed the Regency terraces of Regent's Park and Regent Street. George took up the new idea of the seaside spa and had the Brighton Pavilion developed as a fantastical seaside palace, adapted by Nash in the "Indian Gothic" style inspired loosely by the Taj Mahal, with extravagant "Indian" and "Chinese" interiors.