Thursday, February 8, 2024

The Carlton House Fête Disaster of 1811


By Linore Rose Burkard

In January of 1811, England’s beloved King George III was deemed to be mad, and England had no choice but to appoint George Augustus Frederick, the Prince of Wales, age 48, Stto the regency. Unlike his frugal and stolidly Tory father, the prince fraternized with Whigs, and was already famous for accruing enormous debts, hosting expensive, hedonistic parties, and, most damning of all, taking an illegal, Catholic, secret wife. 

The Prince Regent

When he became Regent, the prince was delighted with his ascendancy if for no other reason than access to more money. But he could not publicly celebrate his new position due to the country’s grief for their ill King. He postponed celebrations until June of that year to hold an extravagant grand fête at his London palace, Carlton House.  It was in fact the largest celebration dinner in history, with four hundred at table, and another 1600 scattered among lavishly appointed tents on the grounds.    

Carlton House on Pall Mall. Also called Carlton Palace.

All the grand royalty and nobility of Europe were invited. In England, many in the haut ton anxiously coveted invitations. At first reserved only for the peerage and their offspring, by the time of the event, more than 2,000 invitations had been issued to all classes—but not everyone was happy to attend. The Queen, furious that her son would hold such an extravagant affair while the King suffered, refused. She wasn’t the only notable missing. Princess Charlotte, the Regent’s legal but estranged wife, was not even invited. And Mrs. Fitzherbert, his Catholic wife (not recognized by the Church of England since it was illegal for the Protestant prince to marry a Catholic), refused, like his mother, to attend, since she had not been granted a seat at the regent’s table, though his new mistress, Lady Hertford, had.

Another view of Carlton House, Pall Mall.

 Pall Mall, St. James’ Street, and Haymarket were blocked with carriages from the time the guests started arriving long before 9 a.m.  A crush was to be expected, but nothing like this had been seen in London in anyone’s memory. Neither had anything like the magnificent display inside been seen:

At the main dinner table, in which 200 lucky guests got to sit (with the Regent seated in a veritable throne at the head),  “A large silver basin filled with water fed a stream [in a ‘marble canal’] which meandered between banks of flowers and vegetation and was stocked with golden fish and silver gudgeons, reaching the whole length of the principal supper table.” 1 “At the head of the table was a large silver fountain” which released the flow of water, which ran trickling  along its length and poured into “a series of cascades into a ‘circular lake surrounded with architectural decorations, and small vases, burning perfumes.”2 It was an unprecedented display, and both amazed and perplexed the guests. 

The prince was so happy with his lavish spectacle that he wished to share it with the public, and thus the fabulous display was to last for three days in which the outdoor pavilions and ornate decorations were left standing. The first and second days, for ticketed members of the public, were fairly manageable. But word spread rapidly of the wonders to be seen. Couple that with the palace’s announcement that the third day was the last chance for anyone to admire the impressive grounds and a portion of the interior of the palace, and utter catastrophe ensued.

Unfortunately for the Regent, the furor to see it was so fierce that order could not be maintained. It was reported that more than 30,000 curious people tried to crowd their way in that day. Some were severely injured. Many more lost hats, bonnets, coats, shawls, shoes, and even underclothing. London papers afterward claimed there were great tubs at Carlton House filled with the lost items.

Contemporaries both praised and harshly criticized the affair. It was described as “an assemblage of beauty, splendor and profuse magnificence,” by admirers, but as one of the princes’ “greatest follies and extravagances,” by detractors.

In my book, Miss Tavistock’s Mistake, lovably headstrong Miss Tavistock, like most of London, determines to see Carlton House and its splendors, against the hero’s advice. She says, 
     “What should have been lovely had turned into a monstrous ordeal. She had lost Mr. Turnbull, her only protection; she had lost shoes and bonnet, her gown was torn, and her hair hung about her shoulders in disarray. Other ladies looked equally undone, and like her, staggering as if leaving a battlefield. Tears in check, she stumbled forward. She saw the much-praised and festooned marquees the regent placed for his guests, but their appearance of gaiety now seemed appalling.
     She turned toward the gate, thinking only of escape. Two young women came sobbing by, trailing torn muslin. Others passed with expressions of horror, one with arms crossed over breasts.
     Oh, why hadn’t she heeded the captain’s warnings? But thought of him sent her further into despair. Losing shoes and a bonnet were nothing—he was lost to her. An involuntary sob escaped, and then light-headedness made her stop, and she stood swaying as the world spun. And then a pair of hands, gentle hands, took her by the arms. ‘Here you are, thank God!’ a firm voice said.
     Just before everything went black, she saw the concerned face of Captain Rempeare looking down at her like an angel of light.
     ‘I’ve got you now. You’re safe,’ he said.
     She tottered against him, and then he swept her off her feet and into his arms.”
     Thank you. Let me know if it's okay now. I hope you're not having to stay at the hospital another night.
     The Carlton House Conservatory, from The History of the Royal Residences, WH Pyne, 1819, vol.3.

Notes: 1 George IV, E.A. Smith, 2 Ibid., 3Ibid

See Miss Tavistock’s Mistake Here.


Carlton House, South Front

Linore Rose Burkard is a serious watcher of period films, a Janeite and a hopeless romantic. An award-winning hybrid author, besides Regency romance, she also writes contemporary romance and, as L. R. Burkard, YA Apocalyptic suspense. A magna cum laude English Lit. graduate of CUNY, Linore now lives with her husband and five children in Ohio where she is active at church and president of the Dayton Christian Scribes, (but drops everything for Masterpiece Theatre or Mets baseball!).

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  1. Thank you for posting today and welcome to the blog! I admit to wanting to see that amazing table display!!

  2. Interesting blog, Linore. The Prince Regent sounds a bit like Louis XIV in his extravagances. I wonder if he secretly wanted to emulate and even rival him. We will probably never know.