I have a friend whose daughter will turn 21 in about a month. They’re busily planning multiple parties: one for said daughter and her friends, and a second party for the family to celebrate the event together. With all the talk about pub crawls, trips to Las Vegas, and what kind of cake goes well with Champagne, I started to wonder how people during the Regency period celebrated birthdays.
To a large extent, turning 21 was just as much of a landmark event during the Regency as it is today. It was a milestone that marked an age when a person became truly independent and was old enough to make life-altering decisions. That was true, for the most part, for the Prince of Wales.
The future King George IV was born on August 12, 1762. To an American like me, the particulars of his birth are interesting because of the number of people involved. In those days, Queens of England gave birth to a room full of witnesses. From accounts at the time, the following people were either in Queen Charlotte’s bedchamber or in the room adjoining it with the door open between:
- The Princess Dowager of Wales
- The Archbishop of Canterbury
- The Duke of Devonshire
- The Duke of Rutland
- The Lords Hardwicke, Huntingdon, Talbot, Halifax, Bute, Masham and Cantalupe
- All the ladies of the bedchamber
- The maids of honor
The only doctor present did not attend the queen. Instead, he remained in the adjoining room so he could attend to any of the witnesses who felt queasy. The future king was delivered by a midwife named Mrs. Stephen.
When the prince turned 21 in 1783, he had no official celebration. As it happened, the Prince’s mother, Queen Charlotte, had recently given birth to her fifteenth child; so while the King and the rest of the family congratulated the Prince in private (very heartily, I’m sure), there wasn’t a public commemoration.
So the Prince of Wales turned to his friends to help him celebrate, and they didn’t disappoint him. They joined together at the White Hart Tavern in Windsor. “A large turtle, of the enormous size of four hundred weight, was killed on the occasion, being a present sent to the Prince from the East Indies.” (Yes, you read that right. He killed his present and ate it. I wonder if that’s what the people of East Indies had in mind when they gave it to him?)
One account of the party hints that not all the guests had the Prince’s best interests in mind. In his book The Private Life of a King, John Banvard wrote:
Deeply did every real friend of the Prince lament that of a pernicious class some had obtained an entire ascendancy over his ingenuous mind; and that, whilst they hailed his independence with hollow congratulations, they dreaded nothing so much as for his spirit to become as independent as his circumstances, and his opinions to disdain the restraint which his person had shaken off.
In other words, John Banvard believed the Prince hung out that night with a bad crowd. There were people at his party that would have a negative influence over the prince in months and years to come; but for one night, at least, the Prince of Wales drank wine, ate turtle and partied like he just turned twenty-one.