In 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).