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Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Sir William Knighton: The Strange Career of a Regency Physician by Charlotte Frost – a review


Sir William Knighton was a man of surprisingly humble beginnings and yet he rose to become one of the most influential people in the country, as confidential advisor to King George IV. He was a figure shrouded in mystery – the secret influence behind the throne – and has been subject to suspicion and conjecture concerning the hold he had over the King.

In this biography, Frost dismisses these rumours and presents us with a hard-working and dutiful man who abandoned a lucrative medical career in order to devote himself to serving George IV.

Drawing on a wealth of new research, she presents many interesting details of Knighton’s youth and rise to fame. She shows the gradual change from the shy young doctor who would study rather accept a flattering dinner invitation, to the London physician who looked after the nobility, finally becoming the trusted advisor of the King.

Her description of Knighton’s journey to becoming a London physician shows a fascinating insight into the training then thought acceptable for a medical practitioner. Even more illuminating was the need for a London doctor to conduct himself like a fashionable gentleman.

It is intriguing to follow the path of influence, from the courtesan, Sally Douglas, to Marquess Wellesley, and so to George IV. Advancement was very much a case of who you knew, and Knighton took advantage of the opportunities offered him to gain a position of royal patronage.

Frost cleverly overcomes the possible confusion arising from multiple people of the same name within Knighton’s family by assigning them a constant designation at the start of her book. She applies the same policy to other key characters, referring to them by surname. I did not find this worked quite as well as these people are more usually referred to by their titles and I found myself constantly flitting back to the page of names to remind myself that, for example, Robert Banks Jenkinson was Lord Liverpool.

This is a comprehensive biography, crammed with details about Sir William Knighton’s life and work, which uses many original sources to present a well-rounded picture of this important Regency courtier.

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