The Grand Carlton House Fête:   Aftermath and Ramifications

Last week, I posted here a description of the famous fête given at Carlton House in London, by the Prince Regent, on Wednesday evening, 19 June 1811. But in that article, I wrote only of the decorations and those who attended the fête that night. But the fairy-tale quality of that magical evening ended with the dawn. And soon thereafter, two of the Prince Regent’s closest relationships would collapse, yet despite some bad press, he did get a brief bump in popularity. But some poets had a field day over the fête, as did some politicians, both Tory and Whig.

This week, what happened after the fête was over, the poetry it inspired and the price the Regent paid for his final guest list and his treatment of some of those guests.

The Regent was well pleased with his first fête and decided he wished to share his grand decorations with his people. Therefore, he gave orders to keep the decorations in place and allow the public to view his palace. Apparently, this decision was made either while the fête was in progress or shortly after it ended. That morning, the servants cleared away the remains of the sumptuous meal and tidied up for this second round of guests. The public were to be admitted by ticket to walk through the state rooms and the gardens, in which all the ornate decorations had been left in place. By the time the gates were opened on the first day, it was already mid-day, and since few yet knew about this opportunity offered by the Regent, visitors came in manageable numbers. News of the spectacle to be seen within Carlton House quickly spread, and there were a great many more visitors on the second day, but the crowds were still fairly well-behaved and governable. But the visitors of the second day spread the word even further and on the third day, which was announced to be the last day the palace would be open to the public, estimates are that more than 30,000 people thronged to Carlton House, filling both Pall Mall and the Haymarket with the overflow. This large crowd became very unruly, pushing and shoving one another in an effort not to be excluded from this magnificent spectacle. There were many cries and shrieks heard, causing Lord Yarmouth, Lady Hertford’s son, to come forward and speak to the crowd to quiet them before the gates were opened. Nevertheless, many rushed forward as the gates swung open and a number of people were severely injured by the pressure of the surging crowd. Both men and women were deprived of their hats, bonnets and coats. Many women were so mauled by the densely packed mass of people that they lost their shoes, their hair was disheveled and pulled down around their shoulders. Some even had their gowns torn from their bodies, to be left in nothing but their undergarments, or less. Some of the Prince’s housemaids took pity on these women and offered them some of their own garments, or sheets or tablecloths to cover themselves so that they could make their way home with some semblance of decency. A few days later some of the London newspapers advised the public that there were great tubs at Carlton House filled with lost and discarded shoes as well as heaps of bonnets, shawls, hats and coats which had all been lost by those caught in the Carlton House crush. The Regent was horrified by this turn of events and vowed never to let such a thing happen again. At least one of his biographers believes that this marks the beginning of the Prince’s diminishing pleasure and affection for his London palace.

Fortunately for the Prince Regent, the story of the mêlée at Carlton House was soon forgotten, as the excitement over the upcoming prizefight had caught the public’s attention. This fight was to be a return match between the English champion, Tom Cribb, and the former slave, Tom Molyneaux, from Baltimore, Maryland. However, the Regent’s efforts to help British artists and craftsmen by requesting that all his guests attended the fête wearing only articles of British manufacture was very much appreciated by many people. A few nights after the fête the Prince went to Covent Garden to see John Kemble perform his famous role of Cato, in the play of the same name. During the course of the play, Kemble stepped forward to deliver the following lines from the play:

Thy virtues, prince, if I foresee aright,
Will one day make thee great.

The audience in the theatre that night erupted in a burst of spontaneous applause directed to the Prince, in his box, which went on for several minutes before the play could continue.

Despite the applause for Prinny at the theatre that night, the fête still had its detractors. Several politicians spoke against the enormous cost in Parliament, and the reformer, Sir Samuel Romilly, who had attended the fête, contrasted the "great expense" of a single evening’s entertainment with "… the misery of the starving weavers of Lancashire and Glasgow." After the grand event, the Speaker of the House of Commons, Charles Abbot, who had been one of the Prince’s guests, described the night to his friends as all "oriental and fanciful," though he found the "eager and ridiculous curiosity" of the guests not seated at the main table to be "very entertaining." George Tierney, who was also in attendance, considered the overt theatricality of the evening quite tawdry, particularly the meandering rivulet on the main table and referred to it as " … that Sadler’s Wells business." (The performances at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre at that time were often quite over the top.) The satirist and art critic, John Wolcot, who regularly targeted the royal family, writing as "Peter Pindar," published a series of satirical elegies on the event, entitled Carlton House Fête: of the Disappointed Bard. The elegies were very popular with the public and went through several printings within just a couple of years.

The Irish poet, Tom Moore, had also been invited, and found himself quite bemused by it all, staying until past six o’clock in the morning to observe the theatrical pageantry of the fête. He was almost flattering when he wrote, "Nothing was ever half so magnificent, … It was in reality all that they try to imitate in the gorgeous scenery of the theatre; and I really sat there for three quarters of an hour in the Prince’s room after supper, silently looking at the spectacle, and feeding my eyes with the assemblage of beauty, splendour, and profuse magnificence which it presented. " However, the poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, was much more severe on the subject, when he wrote to his friend, Elizabeth Hitchener:

It is said that this entertainment will cost £120,000. Nor will it be the last bauble which the nation must buy to amuse this overgrown bantling of Regency. How admirable this growing spirit of ludicrous magnificence tallies with the disgusting splendours of the stage of the Roman Empire which preceded its destruction! Yet here are a people advanced in intellectual improvement wilfully rushing to a revolution, the natural death of all great commercial empires, which must plunge them in the barbarism from which they are slowly arising.

In fact, Shelley was so disgusted by what he perceived to be the wasteful nature of the fête that he wrote a fifty line poem, On a Fête at Carlton House, which he had printed up in pamphlet form. He then amused himself on many evenings in the following weeks, tossing copies of his poem into the carriages of those who were on their way to Carlton House. Sadly, though there were many copies of this poem printed, none of them are known to survive, with the exception of a four-line fragment which Shelley had recited to one of his relatives, the Reverend Charles Grove, who happened to remember them. Years later, Grove quoted them to Richard Garnett, who wrote them down and later shared them with William Michael Rossetti, who published them in 1870.

The writer and rake, Theodore Hook, used the occasion of the fête to play a practical joke on the flamboyant actor, Romeo Coates. Hook, who was a very talented forger, got hold of one of the official invitations for the fête and used it to create a counterfeit invitation addressed to Coates, who was quite delighted to receive it. He had a glorious scarlet uniform made for himself, and on the night of the fête he dressed in his new uniform, complete with a diamond-hilted sword, and had himself driven to Carlton House in his custom-made carriage which was ornamented with a crowing cock. Hook had stationed himself at the entrance to Carlton House to watch his joke play out. Coates dismissed his carriage and was admitted into the main hall, where he had to show his invitation to the Prince’s private secretary, who immediately recognized it as a fake. Coates was politely informed of the mistake and was asked to leave. Since he had dismissed his carriage, he was then forced to walk to the nearest stand of hackney coaches, as Hook trailed him, laughing up his sleeve at Coates discomfiture. The following morning, the Prince learned what had happened and expressed his great regret that Coates had been turned away, since he was an inoffensive and amusing gentleman who would have entertained many of the guests. The Prince sent his private secretary to Coates, immediately, to apologize in person and to proffer a personal invitation from the Regent to Coates to come and view the decorations and ornamentation of the fête, which were all still in place. Coates happily accepted and received a private tour of Carlton House upon his arrival there. Whenever Hook related the story afterwards, he is said to have shown signs of remorse for the hoax he had played on Coates.

But there were also those who were officially invited, but refused to attend, and a few who were very specifically not invited. The Queen and all the Prince’s sisters were invited, but they did not attend. The Queen was very displeased and considered the whole idea of the fête unseemly when the King was so ill. But it is interesting that she allowed her servants to serve at the fête, along with those of the King. By the terms of the Regency Act, she had control of both households and could have refused to allow the servants to work for the Prince that night. However, the Queen did refuse to allow any of her five daughters, the royal princesses, to attend that evening. But she had no control over her sons, and all of the Regent’s royal brothers were in attendance at the fête. The Regent’s daughter, Princess Charlotte, was not allowed to attend, as at the age of fifteen, she was considered to be too young to be out in society. She was very disappointed at being excluded and told her close friends that she found it "very hard" that her father would not allow her to attend such an important event.

"The two wives sat at home by themselves, … " so wrote Sir George Jackson, in a letter to his mother shortly after the fête. Princess Caroline was not invited, but to drive home his insult, the Prince did invite all the members of her household. She, however, told them that they must obey the command of the Regent and accept his invitations. So that they would not feel slighted or disgraced as members of her household, she made a gift to each of them of a full suite of clothes or a new dress for the fête, and sent the ladies to Carlton House in her own carriage. She later told a friend that she was like an archbishop’s wife, who did not participate in her husband’s honors.

Mrs. Fitzherbert, the Prince’s "first" wife, did receive an invitation, but chose not to attend, when she learned that she would not be seated at the main table. Instead, she would be expected to mingle with the lesser guests and take her supper at the buffet in the garden. The fête would have been Mrs. Fitzherbert’s first public appearance at Carlton House since the Prince had become Regent. Through all their trials since their illegal marriage, she had done her best to be a good wife to him, and he had promised her that as soon as he had the power, he would make sure to put her right with the world, and show everyone that she was not merely one of his mistresses. Up to this time, he had always mandated that rank would not be observed when sitting at his table, so that she could sit with him during meals. When she first learned of the seating arrangements for the fête, she assumed there had been some mistake, and she went to Carlton House to see the Prince, asking him directly where she was to be seated. He said to her, "You know, madam, you have no place" meaning that he would not make a place for her at his table or in his new court. She was very hurt and humiliated by his response, knowing it would show the public she was indeed nothing but one of his mistresses, denying her long dedication to him as his wife. She therefore refused to attend the fête, even though he ordered her to do so and later, sent her a dress as a peace-offering. The Duke of York tried to persuade the Regent to return to his less rigid attitude and dispense with seating by rank, but the Prince refused. This was probably at the urging of his current mistress, the ultra-Protestant Lady Hertford, who wished to break the influence of the Roman Catholic Mrs. Fitzherbert over the Regent as the Catholic Emancipation issue was under discussion. The Prince, of course, only recently made Regent and with many restrictions on his power, was most certainly trying not to show any favoritism to Mrs. Fitzherbert which might once again bring public attention to their marriage and thus endanger his claim to both the regency and eventually, the crown.

A couple of weeks before the fête was to take place, Mrs. Fitzherbert wrote to the Prince, sending her excuses for not attending, reminding him of his promises to her and all that she had done and sacrificed for him since their marriage. She concluded " … I can never submit to appear in your house in any place or situation but in that where you yourself first placed me many years ago." The Regent did not reply to her letter, and though both the Duke and Duchess of York tried to convince her to attend, she steadfastly refused. In the last few days before the date of fête was finally set, it must have been quite disconcerting for her to be frequently asked to secure invitations for a number of her friends and acquaintances, when she knew she would not be attending herself. But worse was to come. The evening after the fête, there was a grand ball given at Devonshire House, which Mrs. Fitzherbert did attend. It was here that she saw the Prince for the last time in her life. He was also in attendance at the ball, along with his current favorite, Lady Hertford. The Duchess of Devonshire, who was very fond of Mrs. Fitzherbert, took her arm when she arrived and said, "You must come and see the Duke in his own room, as he is suffering from a fit of gout, but he will be glad to see an old friend." But as they passed through one of the rooms on the way to see the Duke, Mrs. Fitzherbert saw Prinny engaged in a private tête-à-tête with Lady Hertford. She nearly fainted at the sight, but the Duchess supported her and called for a glass of water to be brought immediately. After drinking the water, Mrs. Fitzherbert soon recovered her composure and passed on to see the Duke. She never set eyes on the Prince again.

Soon thereafter, Mrs. Fitzherbert contacted the Duke of York, requesting that he act as intermediary for her to arrange a formal separation from the Prince. By this time, the Duke of York, and the rest of the royal family, who had come to see Mrs. Fitzherbert as a calming and restraining influence on the Prince, understood this rift could not be mended. There are a few who think the Regent treated Mrs. Fitzherbert as he did over the fête to push her to request a separation, because he did could not bring himself to do it. But most believe he was simply too afraid of loosing his new-found power to acknowledge her publicly. He had expected her to continue to bend to his will and obey any orders he might choose to give her, staying in the shadows as she had done all the long years of their marriage. But she was tired of all the slights to which she had been subjected over the years, and had expected him to use his new power to protect her self-respect and more importantly, her honor. He did neither, and thus lost perhaps the only woman who had ever truly loved him. She never set foot in his court from that time, and her door was never again open to him. As part of the very secret separation agreement, Mrs. Fitzherbert retained the guardianship of her adopted daughter, Mary "Minney" Seymour and received an annuity of £6,000 a year, which was guaranteed by a mortgage taken on the Royal Pavilion at Brighton. Though he would take other mistresses after the private separation agreement was concluded, when he was on his deathbed, George IV was found to be wearing a miniature portrait of Mrs. Fitzherbert on a ribbon around his neck, which he requested be buried with him. It was.

The night of Wednesday, 19 June 1811, was the last time another of the Prince’s friends would set foot in one of his royal residences, and was the beginning of the two-year slide to the final termination of their friendship. George Bryan "Beau" Brummell was on the guest list for the Carlton House fête and was certainly in attendance, though he, like Mrs. Fitzherbert, was not given a place at the Prince’s table that evening. And, like Mrs. Fitzherbert, he may have felt slighted, as he was also used to Prinny’s usual casual seating arrangements, which ignored rank in favor of friendship and merit. However, unlike Mrs. Fitzherbert, he may have expected such treatment, as his relationship with the Regent had been becoming more and more strained. Though it can be said that in this case, Brummell was as much to blame as the Regent. They were temperamentally quite unsuited to one another, and Brummell, a man of great loyalty who expected constancy from his friends, was constantly disappointed by the Prince, who was quite incapable of constancy. In retaliation for the slights he frequently endured from the Prince, Brummell often let himself be goaded into making witty, if injudicious, often hurtful, remarks in return. One of the porters at Carlton House was a very large man, named Ben. On one occasion, shortly before the Regency began, in conversation with a group of friends, Brummell had referred to the Regent as "Ben" and Mrs. Fitzherbert as "Benina." The remark got back to the Prince, who, deeply sensitive about his weight, and still emotionally attached to the now very plump Mrs. Fitzherbert, was offended and deeply hurt. In another instance, not long after the Prince became Regent, Brummell threatened "to bring the old King back into fashion." The intimation being that he had made the Prince and could unmake him, should he choose to do so. Again, the Prince, his regency power still new and limited by Parliament, was highly insulted and perhaps a bit threatened by the comment. Brummell was never again invited to any of the social events held at Carlton House, or at any of the Prince’s other royal residences.

In revenge for his banishment from the Regent’s society, when Brummell and three of his dandy friends, Lord Alvanley, Henry Pierrepont and Henry Mildmay, planned a masquerade ball at the Argyle Rooms, in July of 1813, Brummell insisted that the Regent not be sent an invitation. However, when the Regent learned of the upcoming ball and wrote to announce he would attend, the organizers had no choice but to send him an invitation. On the night of the ball, the four hosts were all in the receiving line at the entrance to the Argyle Rooms when the Prince arrived. He bowed cordially to Pierrepont, then turned to see Brummell, to whom he gave the cut direct, then immediately turned back to Alvanley, who was standing next to Pierrepont. The Beau, incensed, remarked, loud enough for many of those still arriving to hear, "Ah, Alvanley, who is your fat friend?" A number of those present thought Brummell’s sharp observation was a witty and appropriate retort to extreme provocation, not an ill-mannered insult. But the Prince, still very conscious of his ever-increasing weight, was so gravely wounded by Brummell’s cutting comment that he never forgave him and they never spoke again. So was lost one of the Prince’s most significant friendships of his youth.

Though the Carlton House fête was criticized by many in Parliament, of both parties, and by a large portion of the public, as another outrageous excess by a man already deeply in debt, nothing was done to curb the Prince’s spending. Complaints of "lavish expenditure" and "the puerile taste" of a serpentine, table-top stream stocked with gold and silver fish, not to mention gilt tent ropes and indoor bowers and grottos, were bandied about for a few weeks, but eventually, all that was remembered was a glittering social event which was more splendid than any other given within living memory. All across London little else was talked of for weeks following the fête. Topics ranged from the beauty of the women, their dazzling jewels and stunning gowns, to the splendour of the decorations at Carlton House and the magnanimous royal hospitality of the Regent. The Carlton House fête set the tone for the new aesthetic spirit of the Regency, when amplified theatricality and lavish conspicuous consumption were to become hallmarks of the Regent’s reign. Though the fête did not cost quite the £120,000 which Shelley had estimated, it was still very costly, yet only bought the Prince a few short weeks of increased popularity with the people. Soon, his continued uncontrolled, extravagant spending and his selfish disregard for the well-being of his people made him one of the most despised monarchs in British history. But perhaps the highest cost of the fête to the Prince was his final break with Mrs. Fitzherbert and the continued deterioration of his relationship with Beau Brummell, both of whom had been steadfast and loyal to him for many years.

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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