Literature, History, Heritage

King George IV’s Visit to Holyhead

Few events produced such excitement in this little town at the edge of the Irish Sea as the first royal visit in centuries; when King George IV was delayed on his journey to Ireland in 1821.

A detailed, handcoloured engraving showing the landing of George IV in Holyhead and being greeted by Henry Paget (1768-1854), 1st Marquess of Anglesey. Source: Lyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru / National Library of Wales ~ Creator: Hugh Hughes (1790–1863) ~ Date: 1821

The day for which Holyhead had so anxiously prepared had finally arrived: newly-crowned King George IV (1820-1830) was making his first visit to Holyhead as a stop-off in his inaugural grand tour. In the early evening hours of Monday, August 6, 1821, beacons were lit around Holyhead Mountain to signal the first sighting of the royal yacht. The town responded by firing a volley of artillery from Salt Island to show their happy anticipation of the king’s presence – and then nothing happened.

Low wind and the tide prevented the yacht from entering Holyhead Bay until midnight; a serious delay in the king’s itinerary. A message from the royal yacht indicated that the king would need to proceed without visiting the town of Holyhead on this occasion. Fortunately for the king’s subjects in Holyhead, continued adverse conditions (a steady westerly breeze) did not accommodate these plans for progress; in the event, the king would be detained in the area for several days.

A lithograph showing George IV in profile in the year of his coronation in 1821. The engraving is based on an original by George Atkinson. Source: Wikimedia Commons ~ Creator: T.C.P. ~ Date: 1821

After spending the first night aboard the royal yacht in the bay, the king was persuaded to finally come ashore to Holyhead town – following some persuasion by Henry Paget, 1st Marquess of Anglesey. The Marquess additionally offered hospitality at his country seat, Plas Newydd, on the other side of Anglesey.

A portrait of the elderly Henry Paget, 1st Marquess of Anglesey, in his military uniform. Paget famously lost his leg when he was hit by a canon ball fired in the final minutes of the Battle of Waterloo. According to anecdote, he exclaimed, ‘By God, sir, I’ve lost my leg!’, to which Wellington is said to have replied, ‘By God, sir, so you have!’ Source: Wikimedia Commons ~ Creator: unknown ~ Date: 1840

George IV thus stepped foot on Holy Island on Tuesday afternoon, and was greeted with jubilation and honours. Local baron Sir John Stanley gave a grand address on behalf of the town of Holyhead and its neighbourhood. After this ceremony, the king and his entourage journeyed across Anglesey to spend the night at Plas Newydd. That same evening, a lone rider set out from London with an urgent message from the royal court.

George spent Wednesday holding court at Plas Newydd to delegations from Anglesey and Carnarvonshire. The rider’s dispatch from London arrived, heralding the death of the king’s wife, Caroline. It’s not recorded whether this dampened King George’s spirits. Considering the couple’s decades-long hostility towards another, he may have been more concerned about the inconvenience to his trip. In any case, he returned to Holyhead in the afternoon, hoping to make the trip to Ireland.

A portrait of Caroline of Brunswick, the estranged wife of George IV. Between 1814 and 1820 she practically spent her life in exile in Italy. Source: National Galleries Scotland ~ Creator: Samuel Lane (1780–1859) ~ Date: 1820

Thursday, Friday and Saturday rolled on, but still the winds detained the royal fleet. By this time the news of the Queen’s demise had spread, and journeying on with full pomp and circumstance would have been in poor taste. After all, the intention of this journey was for the king to win over his subjects, who might be persuaded to forget his party-prince, spendthrift past.

This engraving forms the title image in James Sparrow’s Biography of John MacGregor Skinner, Esq., Commander, and late captain of one of her majesty’s mail packets at Holyhead (1866). Source: Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru / National Library of Wales ~ Creator: unknown ~ Date: 1866

Notwithstanding continued westerly winds, the king eventually boarded an ordinary mailboat: the steam packet Lightning, captained by John MacGregor Skinner. They set off for Ireland on Sunday morning. When George IV then arrived in Ireland nearly a week late, there was no grand welcome for him – the first king to make a state visit since Richard II. The royal yacht and fleet remained in Holyhead, and nobody expected the king to arrive in such low-key style. Nevertheless, George appears to have appreciated the irony. He offered Captain Skinner a knighthood on the spot, which the sea captain refused. Instead, the intrepid Lightning was renamed Royal Sovereign George the Fourth.

This picture is of the King’s journey on 7 August 1822 to Dublin, off the coast of Holyhead, visible in the distance on the left. To the right of centre, in bright light, the ‘Lightning’ is depicted in starboard broadside, smoke billowing from her funnel, with the King and his entourage visible on the deck. To the left is the ‘Royal George’, still flying the ‘Royal Standard’, although the King had embarked on the steam-packet which only flies the ensign, and on the far left the other steam-packet, ‘Meteor’. Source: Wikimedia Commons ~ Creator: William John Huggins (1781–1845) ~ Date: 1822

Almost exactly two months later, the Royal Sovereign George the Fourth broke down in Dublin Bay. Her mainshaft broken and completely unmanageable, she was towed back to Holyhead.

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King George IV’s Visit to Holyhead by Rita Singer. The story was originally published on Ports, Past and Present on 9 March 2022 and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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