The Regency Era: Splendid Facts About Pop Culture's Favorite Period
The Regency Era: Splendid Facts About Pop Culture’s Favorite Period

The Regency Era: Splendid Facts About Pop Culture’s Favorite Period

Larry Holzwarth - January 22, 2021

The Regency Era: Splendid Facts About Pop Culture’s Favorite Period
The first steamship to cross the Atlantic, SS Savannah, made the crossing in 1819, arriving at Liverpool. Wikimedia

12. Technology created the belief they were living in a wondrous age

In 1814 The Times, London’s most prestigious newspaper, printed each page using hand-operated presses. That year, steam-operated presses were installed. Where before they could print about 200 pages per hour, steam presses increased the rate to over 1,000 pages per hour. During the Regency steamboats and tugs began plying the rivers and canals of Britain, beginning on Scotland’s Clyde River. Burlington Arcade, built in London in 1818, became a shopping destination where the top layers of society could shop protected from both the elements and the poor who were everywhere evident. Beadles guarded the Arcade, assigned from the 10th Royal Hussars Regiment.

It was wondrous only for the wealthy and upper class of the merchants and manufacturers. The poor were everywhere, and as the Regency went on grew poorer. There were few government agencies addressing the sharp divide between the levels of society. Poverty indicated a moral failing, at least among those not counted among the poor. Jobs grew scarcer as machinery eliminated them. With the end of the Napoleonic Wars, idle sailors crowded ports and waterfronts. Former soldiers idled in the streets, unable to find work, and most were without pensions. The wealthy drank fine wines and brandies, the poor cheap beer and even cheaper gin. Meanwhile, the Prince Regent and his fellows enjoyed their palaces, pavilions, and country estates.

The Regency Era: Splendid Facts About Pop Culture’s Favorite Period
Princess Charlotte of Wales defied her father and married whom she chose, rather than enter a politically motivated marriage, Wikimedia

13. The Prince Regent pressured his only legitimate daughter to marry

Princess Charlotte of Wales, the Prince Regent’s daughter through his own forced marriage, began to feel pressure from her father to marry in 1815. The Regent’s choice for a son-in-law, Prince William of Orange (later King of the United Netherlands) was willing, but in a replay of history, his daughter was not. The Prince Regent saw the marriage as advantageous, since his daughter would inherit the throne from him. A marriage would thus unite Great Britain and the Netherlands, strengthening British influence on the continent. Charlotte reluctantly agreed, then changed her mind, announcing instead her desire to marry Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, heir to the throne of Belgium.

Her father isolated her, banishing her to Cranbourne Lodge until she came to her senses. From her isolation, she wrote the Prince Regent, “No arguments, no threats, shall ever bend me to marry this detested Dutchman”. In the end, with the support of most of the Royal family, she prevailed. Charlotte and Leopold wed in Carlton House in May, 1816, the bride wearing a £10,000 dress. She died in childbirth in November 1817, having delivered a stillborn boy. Her death caused national mourning in Great Britain, where the people had considered her potential reign as Queen hopefully. Charlotte’s death left the Prince Regent with no legitimate heir, and still in a marriage marked with mutual hatred between husband and wife.

The Regency Era: Splendid Facts About Pop Culture’s Favorite Period
A summer dress in the Empire style, popular during the Regency. Wikimedia

14. The Regency created the Regency Style

The wealthy enjoyed the new styles of dress introduced during the Regency Era. Breeches and stockings disappeared as items of a gentlemen’s attire, worn instead by footmen and other servants. Wigs also disappeared, other than among officers of the courts. Men wore high collars, cravats, and waist-length jackets with tails, adorned with beaver hats and a walking stick. Boots were more common than shoes, the dandy Beau Brummel recommended polishing them with champagne. A trim appearance for men created the wearing of male corsets. The Prince Regent had one corset with a waist measurement of fifty inches, an indication of his worsening obesity.

Women adopted a style known as the Empire Style, with high-waisted dresses which gripped the body just below the bodice. The hoops of preceding fashion trends were replaced with draped skirts which followed the line of the legs. Women of wealth wore their hair up, for the most part, adorned with tiaras or other jewels. Ladies and gentlemen of fashion changed their clothes several times a day, with some meant for business dealings, others for social calls, and still others for dining and social affairs. In a nation in which most of the lower class regarded bathing with suspicion, the upper class bathed daily, using scented soaps and perfumes in their baths. Gentlemen shaved or were shaved by servants, leaving only side-whiskers, not known as sideburns for many decades to come. Many gentlemen affected a monocle or quizzing glass, whether needed for vision or not.

The Regency Era: Splendid Facts About Pop Culture’s Favorite Period
The rookeries were slums filled with crime, hunger, violence, and despair. Wikimedia

15. The glamor surrounding the upper class obscured the sordid slums of the poor

A population boom emerged during the Regency Era, particularly among London’s poor. Several areas of the city developed what were called rookeries. These presented the most crowded and dangerous of the city’s slums. Pickpockets and cutpurses, burglars, and violent robbers crowded the rookeries, preying upon people on the streets, and then vanishing into the warrens of the slums. Many were so dangerous the constables of the London police feared entry without armed backups. Prostitutes roamed the streets, on the fringes of the rookeries, importuning their marks without fear of arrest. Some of the worst neighborhoods of the city were within sight of the domiciles of its most wealthy, and near the shops they patronized.

Gentlemen moved about the city armed with stout walking sticks – some concealing blades. Ladies were discouraged from walking in many neighborhoods alone, or even in small groups without male companions. In later works, Charles Dickens described some of the rookeries of London, with which he first became acquainted as a boy during the Regency. He wrote of “girls of fourteen or fifteen…boys of all ages…men and women, in every variety of scanty apparel, lounging, scolding, drinking, smoking, squabbling, fighting, and swearing”. London’s slums expanded during the Regency Era, as the fine architectural edifices supported by the Prince Regent rose over them. The population increased by about 25% during the period, including the subsequent reign of George IV.

The Regency Era: Splendid Facts About Pop Culture’s Favorite Period
A banqueting room in the Royal Pavilion at Brighton, one of the Prince Regent’s favorite residences. Wikimedia

16. In 1816 the British Parliament abolished the income tax

1816 was a momentous year for Britain. Beau Brummell, former close friend of the Prince, fled to France to elude his creditors. Most of the wealthy did not consider such an act to be dishonorable. Brummell though left behind unpaid gambling debts, which was. He never returned to Britain, leaving several thousand pounds of unpaid debts behind him, and fell into a period of poverty and dissolution. The Prince made him persona non grata among his associates. George Augustus by then directed his attention to the completion of the Royal Pavilion at Brighton, supervised by John Nash. Its Indian-influenced style and décor were both flamboyant and expensive, which appealed to the Prince’s taste.

The pavilion did not adopt the elegant architectural style of the period in either its exterior or interior rooms. It appeared as something out of the Arabian Nights, with onion domes and minarets visible on all sides. The interior included tapestries and paintings, gilding and friezes. Nearby stables, sufficient for 60 horses, also represented the Indian style. While the Prince Regent spent lavishly on the pavilion, Parliament abolished the income tax, which had been necessary to fund the war against Napoleon. In a letter to the Prince Regent, Lord Castlereagh informed him that revenues for the year would be less than half of expenses, driving the government yet further in debt. As in other matters regarding the government, the Prince left it up to his ministers to resolve the issue.

The Regency Era: Splendid Facts About Pop Culture’s Favorite Period
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley wrote Frankenstein while on a tour of German provinces and Switzerland during the Regency. Wikimedia

17. In 1816 climate aberrations disrupted Britain’s food supply

1816 became known as the year without a summer, with Britain suffering its coldest July ever recorded. Volcanic eruptions in Indonesia created clouds of volcanic ash which obscured the sun, drifting westward. Across Europe and North America crops failed due to heavy rains and cold temperatures. England and Ireland lost the crops of wheat, oats, and potatoes. Livestock died from lack of fodder. With little food, and that available becoming unaffordable for most people, riots occurred across Europe, Britain, and North America. Trade in grains from the United States and Canada dwindled to next to nothing. In France, food riots reached the level of violence seen in the early days of the French Revolution.

A group of British writers traveled to Switzerland that summer. They included Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, as well as his companion and future wife, Mary Wollstonecraft. In response to a challenge from Lord Byron over whom among them could write the best horror story, Mary wrote Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. Published anonymously in 1818, with an introduction by Percy Shelley, it created a sensation. In 1823 a second edition identified Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley as its author. It remains one of the most adapted and popular tales of all time, though Frankenstein is often regarded as the monster, rather than the man who created it. In Shelley’s tale, the monster had no name.

The Regency Era: Splendid Facts About Pop Culture’s Favorite Period
Queen Charlotte with her granddaughter, Princess Charlotte, in 1776. Wikimedia

18. Queen Charlotte served as the Prince Regent’s official hostess during most of the Regency

Because George Augustus remained estranged from his wife his mother, Queen Charlotte, assumed the role of his official hostess, for political and social events. Distraught at the steadily worsening condition of her husband, she resided primarily at Kew Gardens. Although popular during the reign of her husband, she found her association with the Regency detrimental to her reputation. By 1817 crowds which formerly cheered her as she rode in her carriage through London jeered her instead. In 1817 she told a hostile crowd in London that it was upsetting to be the subject of derision, and reminded them of her long service as their Queen. She retired from public appearances, and seldom visited her husband. He had grown too ill to recognize her.

The Prince Regent attended her during her last illness, and held her hand as she died at Kew Gardens in November 1817. She had been Queen Consort for 57 years and 70 days. In her will, she bequeathed most of her personal jewels to her surviving daughters. Most of her personal items, including books, art work, linens, and furnishings were also bequeathed to her daughters. Upon her death, the Prince Regent claimed most of her jewels, which represented the bulk of her estate. Most of the rest of the items were sold at auction. George III was informed of her death, but was unlikely to have recognized it, having by then lapsed into dementia. He died just over a year after his wife, and was buried alongside her at Windsor Castle.

The Regency Era: Splendid Facts About Pop Culture’s Favorite Period
The Peterloo massacre outraged reformers and radicals, though the Prince Regent congratulated the Army for its role in it. Wikimedia

19. The Peterloo Massacre resulted from demands for voting reform

During the Regency period, less than 12% of adult British males held the right to vote. In the rapidly industrializing north, the percentage was considerably lower. Coupled with economic downturns, rising food costs (largely caused by the Corn Laws, which artificially increased the price of grain), and lack of employment, pressures rose for Parliament to reform voting rights. In 1817 a petition bearing over 750,000 signatures arguing for reforms received a flat rejection. In 1819 reform leaders attempted to increase the pressure on local magistrates to in turn pressure Parliament. They organized large crowds to demonstrate. The crowds became mobs after magistrates moved to arrest their leaders.

At St. Peters Field in Manchester, in August 1819, the magistrates called on the 15th Hussars Cavalry to disperse a crowd of an estimated 60,000 men, women, and children. The Hussars charged the crowd with drawn sabers, leading to the deaths of up to 19, and injuries to possibly as many as 700. Most injuries went unreported, lest they lead to arrest. The Manchester Observer labeled the tragedy the Peterloo Massacre, in a nod to the cavalry charges at the Battle of Waterloo. In response, Parliament passed a series of measures known as the Six Acts. Rather than addressing voting reform, they instead aimed at preventing such gatherings of protestors. Several leaders of the protest were arrested, tried and imprisoned, others went to the penal colonies. In the aftermath, the Prince Regent thanked the magistrates, Yeomanry, and the army for its “preservation of the public peace”.

The Regency Era: Splendid Facts About Pop Culture’s Favorite Period
A banquet celebrating the coronation of the former Prince Regent as King George IV. Wikimedia

20. The Prince Regent spent a fortune to celebrate his own coronation in 1820

George III died on January 29, 1820. George Augustus ascended to his late father’s throne, as King George IV, though there was little change in his powers. At fifty-seven years of age, the new King was markedly obese, suffered from gout and cataracts, and was considered with contempt by most of his subjects. During the last years of the Regency, he took laudanum to ease the pain of his gout, which likely affected his judgment. Undeterred by public perception and protests from some in Parliament, he planned a lavish coronation. Upon learning that his wife returned to Britain, intent on claiming her role as Queen consort, he refused to acknowledge her. Instead, he commanded her name and title removed from the Book of Common Prayer.

His coronation, which he took a large interest in planning, occurred on July 19, 1821. It was the most lavish and expensive coronation in British history at the time. He spent the equivalent of over £22,000,000 in today’s money to celebrate his new rank. His father’s coronation had cost less than a twentieth of that amount. Before the coronation, George IV made one more attempt to rid himself of his wife through divorce. At his urging, friends in the House of Lords introduced and passed legislation allowing him to divorce. Popular outrage forced the House of Commons to fail to act, and it was withdrawn. Nonetheless, George prevented Caroline from attending the coronation at Westminster Abbey. She died less than three weeks later from a sudden illness, believing herself to have been poisoned.

The Regency Era: Splendid Facts About Pop Culture’s Favorite Period
King George IV arriving at Leith in Scotland in 1822 during a tour of Scotland. Wikimedia

21. The Duke of Wellington left a record of the King’s breakfast habits

In 1830, near the end of the reign of George IV, the Duke of Wellington attended him at breakfast. Wellington recorded the King consuming an entire pigeon and beef pie, as well as “three parts of a bottle of Mozelle, a Glass of Dry Champagne, two Glasses of Port…a Glass of Brandy”. The Duke also reported the King followed his breakfast with a large amount of laudanum. This while under the daily attendance of doctors. He grew more withdrawn than ever from the affairs of government, spending most of his time at Windsor Castle. A senior attendant to the King wrote in his diary, “A more contemptible, cowardly, selfish, unfeeling dog does not exist…”

As he grew aware of the nearness of his own end, George adopted religion. He confessed his repentance, and informed an archdeacon of his belief the Almighty would judge him for always doing his best for his subjects. He died on June 26, 1830, and was buried at Windsor Castle. His brother succeeded him as William IV. William died with no surviving legitimate children, though eight of his illegitimate children outlived him (he had ten known with a famous actress of the day). Upon his death, the throne was passed to his niece.

The Regency Era: Splendid Facts About Pop Culture’s Favorite Period
Young Queen Victoria, circa 1838, with last Monarch of the House of Hanover. Wikimedia

22. The birth of Princess Alexandrina Victoria

Possibly the most consequential event of British history to occur during the Regency, Princess Alexandrina was born on May 24, 1819. The daughter of Prince Edward, brother of George Augustus, then Prince Regent, she ascended to the throne in 1837 as Queen Victoria. Victoria used her considerable popularity to influence the governing of her subjects, though she did so privately and with discretion. Publicly she became a symbol of a morality which had been absent from the monarchy for many years.

Victoria was just 18 years of age when she became Queen. In 1840 she survived an assassination attempt, which restored her then lagging popularity. She later survived, uninjured, additional attempts on her life. Her nine children’s descendants became many of the crowned heads of Europe, including the German Kaiser and the Russian Tsar. She reigned longer than any other British monarch until surpassed by Queen Elizabeth II, her great-great-granddaughter. Victoria used her monarchy and large family to exhibit moral virtues and self-control, avoiding the scandalous behavior of her uncle George Augustus during the Regency Era.

 

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“The Regency Period Begins”. Richard Cavendish, History Today. February 2, 2011

“George III (1738-1829)”. Article, BBC History. Online

“The Rise and Fall of Beau Brummell”. Rachel Knowles, Regency History. November 14, 2012

“Spencer Perceval”. History, Past Prime Ministers. UK.gov. Online

“What the Luddites Really Fought Against”. Richard Conniff, Smithsonian Magazine. March, 2011

“The History of the Gas Light and Coke Company”. Sterling Everard. 1949

“Wellington, A Personal History”. Christopher Hibbert. 1997

“Thomas Hackworth: Locomotive Engineer”. George Turner-Smith. 2015

“Jane Austen: A Life”. Park Honan. 1989

“What was the Congress of Vienna?” Stella Ghervas, History Today. September 9, 2014. Online

“George IV: The Royal Joke?” Steven Parissien, BBC History. February 17, 2011. Online

“The Regency Period in London”. John Rabon, Londontopia. August 22, 2018. Online

“Who Was Princess Charlotte?” Article, National Trust (UK). Online

“18 Indecent Behaviors of the Regency Era”. Trista, History Collection. December 26, 2018

“Regency style”. Article, the Editors. Britannica Online

“The Rookeries of London”. Thomas Beames. 1852. Online

“The Strange and Twisted Life of ‘Frankenstein'”. Jill Lepore, The New Yorker. February 5, 2018

“Queen Charlotte”. Article and video, Frontline. PBS Online

“The Peterloo massacre: what was it and what did it mean”. Helen Pidd, The Guardian. August 16, 2019

“Coronation of George IV”. Article, Westminster Abbey Online

“Dos and Don’ts of Etiquette to Become a Lady in Regency England”. D.G. Hewitt, History Collection. May 13, 2018

“Queen Victoria”. Alan Rayburn, Carolyn Harris, The Canadian Encyclopedia. September 8, 2015. Online

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