Regency Bicentennial:   … Your Fat Friend?

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?

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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21 Responses to Regency Bicentennial:   … Your Fat Friend?

  1. I don’t personally think it would have made any difference to the loss of patronage and subsequent bancruptcy.
    Prinny was already thinking of dropping Brummell, or he would not have given him the cut direct in the first place; he was rather notorious for dropping those who had become for some reason inconvenient to him, after all, and I think that he would have just made it clear that Brummell was no longer a favourite. Indeed, Brummell may have prolonged his ability to lead society by making the comment, because it made him talked about, something which kept him in the public eye. And of all the things for which he was famous, that one cutting remark ensured his immortality – instead of being just a trend setter who faded into obscurity.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      An interesting take. I had not thought in terms of that question making him immortal, and yet it has done exactly that. Although, I am also personally grateful to him for his insistence on daily bathing and regular changes of linen. I believe he did much to improve the world on that front. Even if not everyone remembers it was he who did it.

      I do think you are right, Prinny would probably have dropped Brummell, since he always wanted the limelight and did not care to share, with anyone. I suspect he was also quite jealous of Brummell, who kept in shape and was always well dressed, but was never flashy. Being seen with Brummell could only contrast badly with his own rather ridiculous appearance.

      I would love to be able to travel back in time and see all of these things for myself. Heavy Sigh!!!



  2. Thank you, Kathryn, I wasn’t aware the “Who’s your fat friend”-story was followed by the “Pall Mall-incident”.
    Beau Brummell is such a difficult character: We all do love him for his style, wit and personal hygiene. Rosmary Stevens turned him into a delightful investigator in her Beau Brummell Mysteries. But after reading Ian Kelly’s entertaining biography about him, I am sure the real Mr Brummell was a rather unpleasant man who’s cutting – even bitchy – remarks embarrassed many ladies and gentlemen at the receiving end.
    With The Prince of Wales, it’s the same. Tom Ambrose may find many kind things to say about him and his gift for friendship (and forgiveness) in his book “Prinny and his pals. The life of George IV”. Yet, alas, The Prince will always be “Prinny” …

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Both Ian Kelly and Tom Ambrose were writing for the general or popular history market and there are a number of historical inaccuracies in both of their books. I would not base an opinion on Brummell by relying solely on those two sources.

      After reading the other biographies of Brummell, as well as the memoirs of those who knew him, my take is that he was an intelligent and independent-minded man, with a strong sense of himself and his personal style. He had an excellent sense of humor and a quick wit. He was loyal to those who were loyal to him and he was a staunch friend, if the relationship was reciprocal. He did not suffer fools lightly and spoke his mind as he pleased, since he had no patience with dissimulation. He was constantly bombarded with requests for this and that, typically by people who simply wanted to be noticed by the leader of the ton. He seems to have developed a public persona to enable him to deal with all of that. No doubt many people found him difficult, probably because he was usually quite frank. I think he was a fascinating, if complex man, with many dimensions, some good, some not so good. Which can be said about a great many people, even today.



  3. elfahearn says:

    I actually inserted this incident in my next book, Lord Monroe’s Dark Tower, just as a little story told in memory. Brummel’s come back is so hysterically funny, I couldn’t resist. It’s kismet that you wrote about it at this moment — my editor deleted cut ‘direct.’ Now I have proof to offer that my research was in fact, correct.
    P.S. I agree with Sarah. Prinny was already pushing the Beau out of the nest, and probably many others as well. “Who’s your fat friend?” made him a hero.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      How serendipitous! Please do post a link in a comment here when your book comes out so folks can find it.

      I confess myself shocked to know an editor, particularly of Regencies, would not know of the dreaded “cut direct.” If you want further proof of that particular social solecism, just have her Google “cut direct.” The very first search listing is for a description of it by Emily Post. The best is the article at Historical Hussies, which relates directly to the Regency. And there are many other results listed there which should give you ample “ammunition” for dealing with your editor. 😉

      In terms of Prinny distancing himself from his earlier associates, I quite agree with you. I think Brummell knew it too, which is probably why he felt he had nothing to loose when he asked that famous question. Though Brummell was not particularly political, even he could see that the Prince was becoming increasingly Tory as his Regency progressed. Brummell was conservative in his dress, but not in his thinking.

      Good Luck with your new book!!!



      • elfahearn says:

        Thanks for the good wishes, Kathryn! Are you going to the RWA National Convention in Atlanta by any chance? I’d love to meet such an astute scholar in person.

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          The budget won’t allow for any travel this year, so I will be staying home. But I hope you have a good time!


          • elfahearn says:

            These conventions do punch the wallet. If you’re interested in going to the RWANJ conference, let me know. Several of us are planning room sharing arrangements. If you’re in Boston, you could drive.

            • Kathryn Kane says:

              I appreciate the thought, but even if I had a car, I am not yet fully recovered from my injury, so driving is not an option. More importantly, time is an extremely precious commodity for me right now, and I simply have none to spare for the foreseeable future.

              But I do thank you for the offer.



              • elfahearn says:

                OM goodness, I had no idea you were injured. I won’t ask you about it on a public blog, but I’m so sorry to hear that. Hope you feel better soon, and I completely understand time constraints. How come days were so long when we were kids and lacked the resources to put those hours to good use?

              • Kathryn Kane says:

                Thank you for your good wishes.

                Hopefully, all those childhood hours were not wasted. But I think George Bernard Shaw should have said that both youth and time are wasted on the young!


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  5. Page Davis says:

    Dear Kat,

    I have been gone forever it seems from this site; but through no fault of my own. Access is increasingly difficult for me.

    I think yours is the closest thing to a true account we will ever be able to piece together of what occurred at the Dandy Ball in 1813. But there is one other element which you hinted at, that might be more important than the first-person accounts are willing to admit was present: snobbery and envy, combined and expressed in a desire by certain people to gain access to the new Regent and to control hm in a far more serious way than George Brummell ever tried to do. In his social history of the Regency “The Prince of Pleasure”, J.B. Priestley remarks that Brummell was (along with Maria Fitzherbert and Richard Brinsley Sheridan), “merely the first of an embarrassing set of associations which would now have to be abandoned” (I’m quoting from memory here). The implication is that the price for a Regency was that the Prince go Tory, stick to his own social class, and put away his Catholic wife. Mrs. Fitzherbert’s place was to be usurped by Lady Hereford, and Brummell’s by her son, who as Lord Yarmouth had been friends with the Beau, but then quickly attached himself to the Prince like a barnacle after the death of his father when he assumed the title of Lord Hereford for himself. As for Sheridan, he conveniently died in 1816, and plagued the Prince no more.

    A great deal of malicious gossip led up to the break; in exile, Brummell remarked that it was mostly lies, inclluding the “Big Ben” tale, or any insult offered to Mrs Fitzherbert. Another bizarre story had him calling out at the Carlton House dinner table, “Wales, ring the bell!” when he wanted his carriage (a nonexistent carriage, by the way, since Brummell never owned one). The real story seems to have been that a very young wannabe dandy was invited to Carlton House, plied with strong drink by his companions, and then put up to calling out, “Wales, ring the bell!” The Prince obligingly leaned over and rang the bell; when a footman arrived, he said, “Please put this drunken boy to bed!” Loud laughter, everyone goes home; and the next day the story has Brummell saying the line, and the Prince responding, “Please call a carriage for Mr. Brummell, as he has taken too much wine.” Whoever messed with this tale knew what the results were likely to be, when it got back in its mangled form to Brummell – and also to the Prince.

    As a matter of fact, there is evidence that Brummell was already having to put up with a lot from the soon-to-be Regent. At another late-night dinner party at Carlton House, the Prince began to pass around his favorite drink, a lethal concoction called Maraschino (black-cherries and cognac, I believe, but I’ve never even seen it sold in the US). Brummell declined the decanter, after the Prince had filled his own glass. The Prince said, “Everyone else has taken some, and you are going to take some too!” and threw the contents of his glass in Brummell’s face. A gasp ran round the table; then Brummell threw his own glass of wine in the face of whoever was on his other side, crying, “The Prince’s Toast – pass it around!” The idea of enduring many more such evenings, even with the man he had once considered the best of friends and most indulgent of patrons, must have got on Brummell’s nerves, to put it mildly. He may very well have realized he was trapped in a damned-if-he-did-damned-if-he-didn’t bind that was going to finish him, one way or the other, and decided to go out with a bang just for the sheer cussedness of it rather than crawl meekly away into oblivion.

    Incidentally, in a former post I mentioned there was a copy of “Male Costume” in the UNC-Chapel Hill graduate library. I roundly abused it as unworthy of having been written by Brummell. In spite of the fact that he did a very elaborate and cryptic decoupage screen for the Duchess of York while he was in exile, full of rich imagery (Byron with a wasp at his mouth and a rose covering his deformed foot), I still think the “Male Costume” book was a hoax. I returned to the library to review it this summer, and discovered that it had actually been checked out by somebody! Will wonders never cease – I thought I was the only human who had checked that book out in decades! Perhaps the posts on your site are responsible?!

    Finally, I think every book about George Brummell reveals more about the biographer than the subject. There is something sleazy about Ian Kelly and his book that I mistrust. He’s an actor, for one thing; does he aspire to play Brummell, I wonder? He doesn’t seem to know a great deal about men’s tailoring: he talks about “decorative buttons” on men’s coats, when anybody ought to know that there are no such things on bespoke suits. Therefore, when he levels such a serious accusation at Brummell as venereal disease, I would take it with a whole shakerful of salt. First, the disease ran through its stages much more quickly in the nineteenth century (think of William Randolph Churchill, who really was diagnosed with it, and was dead within fifteen years I believe). Second, such a self-centered author as Kelly, wishing more to make a name for himself than to get at the truth, would completely disregard the fact that a headlong fall, from pillar to post to debtor’s prison, would be more than enough to drive such a high-strung (and high-maintenance) man as George Brummell out of his mind – especially as the process was stretched out over years of character-busting misery. That is something which I could bring to his story now, although I doubt I shall ever be able to write it.

    At any rate, down with dysfunctional buttons (and devious biographers),

    Page Davis

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      The biography of Brummell by Ian Kelly is rather lacking in detailed references and he does seem to embroider the tale beyond what I have read in other Brummell biographies. But it was clearly written for the popular market, and such books tend to be light on scholarship.

      With regard to decorative buttons, they were very popular on men’s coats and waistcoats in the last decades of the eighteenth century. Brummell put them out of fashion with his example of wearing very plain, but well-cut and tailored garments.



      • Page Davis says:

        Dear Kat,

        I knew I was preaching to the choir, and the choir leader at that, when I dismissed Kelly’s book for its errors. I am not quite sure about this; but it’s possible there was no such thing as a “bespoke suit” (or coat, or whatever) from a professional tailor of Regency caliber before the ascendancy of George Brummell. There are some good books about the history of costume by James Laver, and I remember him saying that until the French Revolution, men’s clothes were fitted to them pretty much as women’s, with richness of fabric and trimming masking any flaws in tailoring. It became politically radical to wear plain clothes; and despite his tendency to flamboyance, nobody knew this better than the Prince of Wales. His friendship with Brummell lasted at least fifteen years, right up until the time when he was given provisional Regency powers. Until then, he seemed to have no trouble with such quotes from his satellite as, “All gentlemen are equal.”

        All the same, it will definitely be George Brummell who goes down in history as the one who gave “the cut direct” to such stuff as decorative buttons. Nothing like it was done in women’s fashion until Coco Chanel put ladies in tailored suits during the nineteen-twenties, and caused an equal sensation. Most likely, what was done by these two will never be undone – nor should it be!

        As for the politics behind the Prince’s apparent meanness, there is a cartoon from the time which shows him being pulled away from one party, in which several prominent Whigs are portrayed, into a carousing Tory rout; the hostess on the left is saying, “Well, Sir, I hope you like your new friends!” to which the Prince replies, “But I don’t like them, damme!” Even back then, the public seemed to know this new Regency was not what it seemed. As for me, I’m disappointed in the Prince; but I see him as being put in a bind as well. He was nearing fifty, and must have wondered if his mad old father would outlive him – in which case his younger brother, the Tory Duke of York, known to be his father’s favorite son, would become heir to the throne. In the meantime, the American colonies had been lost, and the war with Napoleon was not going too well either; Parliament was running the country on its own, and I think the people saw their ship of state as rudderless. I know the Regent was past his prime, when he could have made much more of a difference. But I figure he must have seen this as his last chance to make any difference at all.

        I wish I had the sources by me to reference, and was not pulling all this up from memory. Especially since I made a whopping error in misspelling the title “Hertford” in my last post! To make up for it, I’ll add that the Regent’s “new friend” is cited in numerous sources as the inspiration for the Marquis of Steyne in Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair”. The author refers to him at one point as “Lord of the Powder Closet”, which is obviously a reference to the old office of “Groom of the Stool”, as well as a comment on how he managed to achieve such access to the man who was by now King George IV.

        Tout a vous,

        Page Davis

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