Over the years, I have read a number of biographies of George IV, as well as biographies of some of those who made up his circle. There were always brief, sometimes vague, references to one shadowy member of that circle, Sir William Knighton. But the substance of the man always seemed just out of reach. I could never get a good picture of who he really was or his true position in the Regent’s household. I had the sense that Knighton may have been Prinny’s éminence grise, just as Friar Leclerc had been to Cardinal Richelieu. But there was never enough information on Knighton to know for sure. Now there is.
In 1976, Dr. William I. C. Morris, an eminent doctor and professor of obstetrics and gynecology in Manchester, wrote a brief biography of Knighton, entitled "Sir William Knighton: The Invisible Accoucheur." That article was the first, and only, biography of William Knighton written since Knighton’s death. But that article was published in the Manchester Medical Gazette, which was not widely circulated outside the medical community. Thus, there has, to all intents and purposes, been no biography of William Knighton available to scholars and those of us who are interested in Regency history, particularly of the people who surrounded the Regent himself. Until now. A few weeks ago, I received an email from Charlotte Frost, a historian who has written the first full biography of William Knighton in the nearly two centuries since his passing. She asked if I would like to review her new book, and sent me a copy when I replied that I would. Those of you who have corresponded with me privately know that I do not pull my punches regarding my opinion of Regency research materials, regardless of how I come by them, nor will I do so here.
What I think of Charlotte Frost’s new book, Sir William Knighton: The Strange Career of a Regency Physician …
I think Charlotte Frost must have the patience of a saint, and she must be deadly with jigsaw puzzles, because that is essentially what this biography of Knighton is, the painstaking piecing together of all the available details of his life from many dozens of disparate sources. Though his wife had begun a "memoir" of his life in his later years, and published it after his passing, it was written for Knighton and his contemporaries, with no intention of rocking any boats or upsetting any apple-carts with any pesky, inconvenient facts. Frost has consulted many diverse contemporary sources to glean all the information they contained on Knighton, thus allowing her to fill in the blanks and present a more fully rounded picture of his life. For those life events for which she did not have specific personal information on Knighton, such as his apprenticeship and his time at university in Edinburgh, she studied those who had similar experiences at approximately the same time and place, to provide as much detail as she could about what those experiences must have been like for Knighton.
Something I particularly appreciated about this book was Frost’s presentation of what can be considered the Dramatis personæ of her biography, in the Introduction. There were quite a number of Williams in the Knighton family; besides himself there was his grandfather, his father, his son and grandson. There was also a coterie of Dorothys and Dorotheas, including his mother, his wife and his daughter. Before the story opens, Frost explains who was who, and provides them each with a unique identifier which she uses throughout the book. She does the same with a number of the other major characters in Knighton’s life who acquired titles or for any other reason had more than one name over the course of their lives. Thus, the reader is easily able to keep track of just who is being discussed at any given time, without interrupting the flow of the narrative.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this biography is that Frost actually knows more about Knighton’s origins than he did himself. He grew up believing his father, who had died when he was very young, was an alcoholic and a failure. That belief had a powerful impact on Knighton’s personal philosophy and how he lived his life. Yet Frost’s detailed research showed that Knighton’s father was neither a wastrel nor a drunkard. In fact, William Senior was a hard-working and prosperous farmer. But believing the opposite, Knighton worked very hard to make a success of his life, apparently in order to be as unlike his mistaken perception of his father as possible. He surely succeeded beyond even his wildest dreams, becoming a physician and eventually one of the closest confidants of the man who would become King George IV of England. But was he a power-broker, the man who pulled the strings of a puppet king? Was he Prinny’s éminence grise?
In a word, no. After reading Frost’s biography, it is clear to me that Knighton was a decent, hard-working man, loyal nearly to a fault, who did his best to serve his king. Regardless of the fact that that king was a spoiled, indolent, irresponsible spendthrift and unmitigated hypochondriac. Though Knighton replaced the man who had been Prinny’s private secretary, he never held that post himself, as the position was abolished when the previous holder departed. Yet Knighton did all the work of that position and more. He often had to coax and cajole George into simply doing his duty as the head of state, reading and signing government documents, meeting with the members of his Privy Council, attending Parliament, &c. Knighton also took over and sorted out the royal finances, eventually paying off the bulk of the enormous debt George had incurred with his lavish spending. But it does not appear that Knighton tried to influence George in terms of political or governmental policy, despite what many of his rivals, adversaries, or the press, said of him. He also handled many delicate matters for George, not the least of which was Harriette Wilson‘s attempt at blackmail when her memoirs were being published. My take on reading this biography was that Knighton was more George’s fix-it man than he was a malign influence on the throne. And he did it all quietly, discreetly, protecting his monarch as much as he could, even at the cost of his own reputation, and to some extent, his health.
Frost also provides an interesting picture of Knighton’s early life, how the farmer’s son became a successful doctor in London. And it was as a doctor that he initially entered Prinny’s household. For the first few years, he did act as one of George’s physicians. It seems that the Prince Regent soon developed great confidence in Knighton’s skills. So much so that perhaps he put the life of his own daughter at risk. In his book, Charlotte & Leopold: The True Story of the Original People’s Princess, James Chambers noted that when Charlotte was expecting, Leopold was advised to have Sir William Knighton attend her, as he was acknowledged as being the best accoucheur in London. But the Regent mandated that Sir Richard Croft should attend the princess. Croft was a fashionable accoucheur, but he had significantly less real medical training than did Knighton. Did Prinny, a confirmed hypochondriac, make that decision so he could keep Knighton by his side, unwilling to be without his physician’s full-time attention? We can only wonder what the outcome might have been, had Knighton been attending Charlotte. As George came to more fully trust Knighton, he gave him more and more responsibility outside the medical sphere, though he seems never to have forgotten that Knighton was a medical man and took advantage of those skills when it suited him for as long as Knighton was in his service.
I do take mild umbrage with the characterization of the flourish on the lower-case "s" in Knighton’s handwriting as "irritating." Though I have not seen the documents myself, I suspect he was actually writing in the conventional style of his time, using the long s form, just as any of his contemporaries would have done. If he had not done so, those of his own time might have been irritated when trying to read what he had written. Beyond picking that tiny nit, I found this is a well-researched and well-written biography of an important figure in the household of George IV. A figure who, until now, has kept to the shadows, eluding the spotlight. Charlotte Frost has shone that spotlight full on him and she has revealed a man who rose from orphaned farmer’s son to become one of the closest confidants and reliable supports of the King of England. A man of natural intelligence, strong character and high morals who employed his considerable talents in the service of his king and country, even though his efforts were not appreciated by many during his lifetime. I found I liked him, very much.
There may be some scholars and academics who will disparage the lack of footnotes or end notes in this book. However, Frost refers to her sources in the text, many of which are original materials, so I did not find the lack of notes a deficiency. I was very impressed by the bibliography, which is substantial and well-organized. As a life-long bibliophile, I care a great deal about the physical aspects of books. Though Sir William Knighton: The Strange Career of a Regency Physician, is published by a small press, it is on good quality paper, and printed with a clean, legible type-face. The book is soft-bound, with a nicely designed cover. Knighton’s portrait as a man in his prime, by Thomas Lawrence, is on the front cover, and his portrait by David Wilke as an older man is on the back, both in color. Knighton was a friend of both artists, so these portraits were not just records of his appearance by disinterested painters. Both portraitists knew him, and each seems to have captured the honest, serious nature of their subject on canvas.
I enjoyed reading Charlotte Frost’s biography of Sir William Knighton, not only for the clear picture of the man she portrays, but also for the ambiance of the time which she provides. If you are interested in how a man might rise from farmer’s son to royal intimate, or you want to know more about the inner workings of the regal household, you will be very pleased with Sir William Knighton: The Strange Career of a Regency Physician. You can acquire your own copy from Authors Online, which offers the book in both hard copy and ebook formats.