There is more than one version of the story in which Beau Brummell deliberately insulted the Prince Regent, even different versions of the actual question and of whom he asked it. There are also discrepancies about when and where it actually took place. However, the preponderance of the records indicate that it occurred in July of 1813. Lamentably, none of the records tell us on which day of that month Brummell made this cutting remark, in retaliation for the Prince’s very public rudeness to him. It was this remark which irrevocably cost him the friendship and goodwill of the Regent. Without that protection and support, when his gambling losses mounted, creditors and tradesmen became increasingly demanding. Though he held them off for a time, eventually, the once nearly all-powerful Beau Brummell was forced to flee Britain to escape his tremendous debt.
Sorting the stories of the single question which was to strip Beau Brummell of his power and position …
George Bryan Brummell became known as "Beau" Brummell for his consistently elegant yet understated style of dress. He had become acquainted with the Prince of Wales in 1794, when he purchased a cornetcy in the 10th Royal Hussars, the "Prince of Wales’s Own" regiment. By 1796, Brummell had risen to the rank of captain, mostly through the Prince’s favor. He sold out in 1796, when the 10th was transferred to Manchester, as he had no desire to leave London, or his royal patron. For the next fifteen years, the "Beau" gained increasing ascendency over the Prince, who sought his advice on his clothing, his accessories, his toiletries and even his snuff. All that began to change in 1811.
By January of 1811, it was clear to everyone that King George III was not going to regain his sanity, certainly not any time soon. On 6 February 1811, the Prince of Wales became Regent of England, ruling in his father’s stead. He was forced to accept a number of limitations on his authority for the first year, but on 6 February 1812, he finally had the full power of a king. There is no doubt the Prince Regent was quite delighted with his new power, as well as the greater deference which was shown him by most of his subjects. Save one. Beau Brummell saw no reason to treat the Regent any differently than he had treated the Prince of Wales. He continued to behave as if he was still mentor to the Prince and was either unwilling or unable to accept that his former acolyte was now his sovereign. Brummell apparently also missed the signs that the Regent resented this treatment after his rise to power. He also failed to note that the Regent was slowly distancing himself from those of his acquaintance with any particular renown or influence with the public.
Relations between the two men had become somewhat strained from time to time by the first anniversary of the Regency, but they had always mended their differences and the friendship had continued. However, even then, some in the Carlton House set had noticed a growing coolness is the Regent’s attitude toward Brummell, of which they assumed the Beau was unaware. Others believed that the Beau was perfectly well aware of this change in attitude on the part of the Prince, but was not threatened by it, since he was by then the social arbiter of the haute ton and considered his position in society secure. At some point, possibly in the late spring of 1813, it was reported to the Regent that Brummell had claimed he was going to cut the Regent and bring the old King back into fashion. It seems this quite enraged the Prince, who may have begun plotting his revenge upon learning of what he considered a threat to his dignity and position.
There are claims that the Prince encountered Brummell walking along Bond Street with his good friend Lord Alvanley. There is another that Brummell was walking with his friend Jack Lee in St. James’s Street, when they met the Regent. In either case, the Regent is supposed to have cut Brummell while warmly greeting his companion. Another tale places this royal cut at Lady Cholmondeley’s ball, at which point Brummell asks the same question he is supposed to have asked of either Alvanley or Lee. In this case, Brummell turned to Lady Worcester and asked "Who is your fat friend?" However, the sources for all of these versions are unreliable and none of these reports have been substantiated.
Based on the evidence, Brummell almost certainly asked this most daring, and ultimately dangerous, question in July of 1813, at the so-called "Dandies’ Ball." In the late spring of 1813, Brummell, Alvanley, Sir Henry Mildmay and Mr. Henry Pierrepont had an extraordinary run of good luck while playing hazard and each had won a large fortune. The four of them decided that they should give a ball to celebrate their good luck. It should be noted that celebration was in the air at this time, since news of Wellington’s great victory in Spain, at Vitoria, had only recently reached England. Celebratory entertainments of all kinds were being given all over the country, especially in London. The four dandies may well have been inspired to do the same with some of their hazard winnings.
They decided their ball was to be a masquerade, for which they booked the Argyll Rooms. Once they had settled the type and location of the ball, they then began to plan their guest list. Their intention was to invite members of both the beau monde and the demi-monde who would ensure a lively and exuberant evening. The Prince Regent had never been particularly high-in-the-instep when it came to such entertainments, and had accepted invitations to similar events in the past. But both Brummell and Sir Henry had each recently quarrelled with the Prince, so they debated whether or not to send him an invitation. Mr. Pierrepont, an experienced diplomat, took on the responsibility of sounding out the Regent on the matter. His Royal Highness had already learned of the planned ball and he made it very clear he was eager to attend. It was also obvious he would have felt slighted if he were not invited. Pierrepont felt they had no choice but to send the Prince an invitation. Though both Brummell and Sir Henry still had misgivings, an invitation to the masquerade ball was sent to the Prince Regent, who accepted with alacrity.
On the night, the masquerade was well attended and the Argyll Rooms were full of costumed merry-makers. As was his habit, the Prince Regent arrived later than most of the other guests. However, the four hosts were given notice that his carriage was pulling up in front and they all grabbed up a wax light and quickly went to the main door to welcome their royal guest. In his very best manners, the so-called "First Gentleman of Europe" warmly greeted and shook hands with Lord Alvanley, Mr. Pierrepont, and even Sir Henry Mildmay, but when he came to Brummell, he looked past him as though he did not know him. In fact, he behaved as though Brummell was not even there. During the Regency, such behavior was known as the "cut direct."
The use of the cut direct in such a situation was tantamount to a bully kicking someone when they are defenseless. The Regent was well aware that the code of good manners prohibited a host from retaliating upon a guest. He therefore expected to insult Brummell with impunity. What the Prince had not expected was that Brummell would tolerate no insult and was perfectly capable of getting his own back, in spades. He had known the Prince a long time and knew precisely how to wound him most deeply. As the Regent moved away, Brummell turned to Sir Henry, and in a clear, loud, carrying drawl, asked, "Henry, who is your fat friend?"
The Prince was extremely sensitive about his increasing corpulence, and there was nothing Brummell could have said which would have distressed and embarrassed the Regent more completely. Brummell had to know that such a remark, made so very publicly, would permanently damage his relationship with the Regent. But he had a quick wit and a sharp tongue, coupled with a sense of his own social invincibility as the undisputed leader of the ton. Brummell compounded the insult because he was still so angry that he refused to accompany the Prince to the door when his royal guest was leaving the ball, a sign of respect which any host was expected to perform. Many people who were present that night considered Brummell’s remark quite a witty retort to the outrageous provocation of the Regent’s appalling lapse of good manners in cutting the host of the ball. There were those who thought that, due to in large part to the cool presumption of his delivery, it was the best thing Brummell ever said.
Those sentiments may well have reached the ears of the Regent, for a few days after the ball, he put it about that he had been testing the submissiveness of his old friend. The Prince is reported to have said, "Had Brummell taken the cut I gave him good-humouredly, I would have renewed my acquaintance with him." The Regent insinuated that if Brummell had showed him the kind of deference he wanted, their breech could have been quickly healed and their friendship restored. Those who learned of the Prince’s comments considered them just as ill-mannered and mean-spirited as had been his cut of Brummell at the masquerade ball and further evidence of his pettiness.
Brummell, never one to back down from a challenge, carried the battle further some days later. The Beau happened to be walking down Pall Mall and paused for a moment before a picture gallery which was located there. Coincidentally, at the same moment, the Regent’s carriage drew up in front of that same gallery. As the door of the carriage opened and the Prince was about to step out, the sentries on duty smartly saluted. Brummell, keeping his back to the royal carriage, doffed his hat in a gracious gesture, accepting the salute as though it had been made to him. He replaced his hat and then continued nonchalantly down Pall Mall without so much as a glance at the Regent. The Prince was outraged at what he considered an egregious slight to his august dignity and could not hide his red-faced fury from the onlookers. This tale was soon repeated around town, with most people of the opinion that Brummell had once again got the best of it.
Brummell never referred to the cut which he had received from the Regent the night of the Dandies’ Ball, and his position as social arbiter was not appreciably damaged by the event. Many people were amused to note that ever after the night of the ball, the Prince Regent took care not to risk another face-to-face encounter with Beau Brummell. This caused some headaches for hostesses planning social events from then on. It was clear that the Prince Regent could not be invited to an event to which Beau Brummell was also invited and vice versa. The most shrewd and diplomatic of the hostesses simply alternated between the two. As one social historian put it, " … Wales on Tuesday, the Leader of ton on Thursday."
There were people who took the Regent’s side, but most were in some way under obligation or accepting patronage from the Crown. The majority of the beau monde felt the Beau had been justified in his response to the Prince and continued their relationships with him. However, tradesmen and money-lenders were aware that Brummell was no longer a royal favorite, which meant they could apply more pressure for monies owed. For almost three years, Brummell was able to fund his lavish life-style on credit, supplemented by his winnings at the gambling tables, where he was usually very lucky. But his luck turned, and by the spring of 1816, he was deeply in debt, with no means by which to extricate himself. His creditors were prepared to use every means at their disposal, including imprisonment, to collect the funds owed them. Had he still been known to be a friend of the Regent, these men would have been less demanding, and he might have found a way out of his predicament. Since he could not, he fled to Calais in May of 1816.
To address some other discrepancies in the records with regard to this story. Some sources give the Hanover Square Rooms as the location for the Dandies’ Ball. However, the Hanover Square Rooms, also known as the Queen’s Concert Rooms, were used almost exclusively for musical performances. There were occasional balls held there, but most of those were benefits for a musician or musical group. None of those balls were masquerades, nor were any of the demi-monde ever invited to balls in the Hanover Square Rooms, while the Argyll Rooms were a known haunt of the demi-mondaine. Some sources state that this famous cut direct occurred at a ball for the Allied Sovereigns in 1815. It is true that the three most fashionable men’s clubs in London, White’s, Brooks’s, and Watier’s, of which Brummell was a member, did host balls for the victory celebrations attended by sovereigns of the countries which had defeated Napoleon. But those balls took place during the victory celebrations in the summer of 1814. Brummell was one of the hosts for the ball given by Watier’s, but it was held in an enormous marquee which was erected in the garden at Burlington House. It is generally believed he made himself scarce when the Regent arrived. The most likely reason that this victory ball was thought by some to be the scene of the famous cut direct is that there were also a number of victory celebrations in London in July of 1813, after the news of Wellington’s victory at Vitoria reached England. When these memoirs were set down, at the distance of some time, it would have been easy to confuse the two.
Two centuries ago, this month, Beau Brummell asked a question which many considered to be the best thing he ever said, when he inquired of his companion, "Who is your fat friend?" It actually elevated his social standing among many of the more sophisticated in society, especially those who found the Prince Regent more a self-absorbed bore at that point than a stylish trend-setter. The Beau continued as the de facto leader of society for almost three more years, while the Regent went to some lengths to avoid another encounter with him. But when the Beau’s luck at the gambling tables turned and he could no longer pay his debts, his lack of royal favor left him with no recourse but to flee to the Continent, where he would spend the rest of his life. How might his life have proceeded had he not asked that question?