Righting historical wrongs, one Regency at a time.

Origins of the Regency

432px-GeorgeIV1792In 1810, King George III was celebrating fifty years on the throne. At seventy-two, he remained active in day-to-day ruling. To most of his subjects, who had been born during his reign (and might have guessed they would die during it), he seemed immortal. Yet the night before his Golden Jubilee, in October 1810, he had a dream he’d had four times previously, always on the eve of a dreadful illness that would last  months, in which he suffered delusions, paranoia, and unbearable physical embarrassments.

Guests of the King and Queen Charlotte that night saw the onset of his madness in his rambling loquaciousness, rough language, and confusion. His family knew exactly what was coming next.

Most historians believe his condition was porphyria, a hereditary disease that causes extreme mental disturbances and physical discomfort. By itself a horrible affliction, his condition was exacerbated by the high levels of arsenic his physicians prescribed as remedies. In the throes of his attacks, the King was paranoid and delusional, and was kept isolated from the rest of the court.

Because the King had previously recovered from these attacks, there was no reason to suspect this recent onset would be permanent. The Tory (conservative) government loudly and publicly insisted he would recover. They had good reason to hope so, as George III’s heir, George, the Prince of Wales, was a Whig. He had turned to the opposition party in his youth as an act of rebellion against his father.

But days and weeks passed, and the King didn’t recover. As the year wound to a close, the government felt the lack of an executive, and reluctantly Prime Minister Spencer Perceval introduced a Regency bill to Parliament in December 1810. This legislation was only to last twelve months, and it gave the Prince limited powers to stand in his father’s stead as Regent. As it turned out, the Regency would last until George’s death in 1820.

After Parliamentary debate, the Regency bill passed in February 1811. To everyone’s shock (especially the Whig minority) the Prince Regent kept his father’s Tory government. He was under pressure both family and his father’s doctors, who informed him that, should George III recover, discovery that his son had dismissed his government only to replace it with men the king hated might send him into a relapse.

On June 19, 1811, to celebrate his Regency, the Prince Regent held a ball at his opulent home, Carlton House in Pall Mall. Initially the gala was confined only to men and women whose rank was that of an earl’s daughter or above, but as feelings were hurt and exceptions were made, the initial guest list of fifteen hundred soon swelled. It was a grand event, though it was a ball only in name. No one could dance because the ballroom was too packed with people.

The Regent’s love of the opulent was one of the reasons why he lent his name to the era. As a result, to understand the Regency it is important to understand the Prince Regent. In 1811, the Prince of Wales was 49, grossly overweight, sensitive, and high-strung, as well as miserably married to his cousin, Princess Caroline. He was rumored to have cried when the dandy Beau Brummel criticized his wardrobe. More likely than not, he also suffered, to a lesser degree, from the same malady that plagued his father.  He was charming and foolish, and to the glee of the British press, prone to romantic attachments to older (and often overweight) women.

The Regent had expensive tastes and crushing debts. He only married when, after racking up debts in excess of £600,000, the King volunteered to pay his debts in exchange for the Prince taking a bride. During the long wars and their aftermath, when wages were uncertain and unemployment loomed, the Regent’s excesses would add to his unpopularity.

Not that many British thought well of him to start with; he was never popular among most of his subjects, who preferred the coarse Princess Caroline, perhaps because she’d been so ill-treated by her husband. When their daughter, Princess Charlotte, died in childbirth in 1817, the nation mourned, and for a time the Regent was forgiven. However, when the Regency ended in 1820, the new George IV tried to push a divorce through Parliament; it failed, but he was freed soon after by Caroline’s death.

The Regent never returned to his Whig roots. After becoming King, he became even more resistant to reform, and began to suffer delusions (he believed he had won the critical Battle of Salamanca, when in fact, his military ribbons were purely for show). He hoarded possessions, from his pantaloons to pocketbooks (with £10,000 found inside!) along with love letters and locks of women’s hair. When George IV died in 1830, his younger brother William succeeded him.

Sources of interest:

Erickson, Carolly, Our Tempestuous Day: A History of Regency England (Morrow, 1986).

Newman, Gerald (ed). Britain in the Hanoverian Age, 1714-1837: an Encyclopedia. (Garland, 1997).

Priestly, J.B., The Prince of Pleasure and his Regency (Harper & Row, 1969).

Macalpine, Ida and Richard Hunter, George III and the Mad Business (Pantheon, 1969).

Wilson, Ben, The Making of Victorian Values: Decency and Dissent in Britain: 1789-1837 (Penguin, 2007).

3 Responses to “Origins of the Regency”

  1. Miss Givings

    Hello, I came here from Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and I love that you are devoted to what that site calls “potato rage”: hurling a book across the room in rage at an anachronistic reference to potatoes. However, are you not guilty of a small anachronism here yourself, to wit, “Prime Minister”? I believe the office was still called “First Lord of the Treasury” at this time…

    Reply
    • Queen of Hats

      Thanks for the comment! You’re right that there is a strong connection between the treasury and the office of prime minister. Prime ministers today still sit on the treasury bench when in the Commons. If you’ve watched the Prime Minister’s Questions, you’ve seen the treasury bench. (I will admit to a certain PMQ addiction when I was in college. I spent all of the Bush II administration wishing we had the same thing.)

      But do bear with me a second while I get pedantic.

      The actual term “prime minister” was in use at least as early as 1694. Swift used it in 1713 (in reference to two of Queen Anne’s most important councilors).

      That said, Sir Robert Walpole is considered the first “real” Prime Minister (and referred to as such), because of the way he restored confidence in the government and the financial markets after the South Sea Bubble — which he could do, because he was the First Lord of the Treasury, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and leader of the House of Commons, which, you have to admit, is one hell of a trifecta. If you want to get really OCD, you can dither over whether he could be said to be Prime Minister in 1721 (when he became First Lord of the Treasury) or 1730 (when he became the head of the Cabinet).

      Whichever the case, after Walpole, almost all (22 of 23 — the exception was Pitt the Elder) of the prime ministers in the Hanoverian period were First Lord of the Treasury.

      One of the more interesting things about the Regency is that it was the Regency itself that helped abrogate the power of the crown and increase the power of Parliament — and the prime minister. (It was in the reign of William IV that the king found he couldn’t impose his choice of prime minister on Parliament.) So we are all very topical here.

      To put things further back in the Regency, here are some accounts of the assassination of Spencer Perceval, the only PM to be assassinated in office, which contemporaneously refer to him as PM — in 1812.

      Reply

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