4. The British Prime Minister was assassinated in 1812
On May 11, 1812, British Prime Minister Spencer Perceval arrived at the House of Commons minutes early for a session. As he entered the lobby a Liverpool merchant named John Bellingham walked up to the Prime Minister, drew a pistol, and shot him in the chest. He then sat on a bench in the lobby, making no attempt to flee, and awaited his fate. Perceval died moments later after being carried to the Speaker’s office. Bellingham did not have long to wait. Within a week he had been arraigned, tried, and convicted of the murder. Bellingham suffered death by hanging in Newgate Prison, London, on May 18, one week after the crime had been committed.
On June 8, nearly one month after the murder, the Prince Regent appointed Lord Liverpool to continue the Tory ministry formerly run by Perceval. The cabinet did not lean in the Tory direction and on June 23, repealed the Orders in Council which had authorized British ships to stop American vessels and search them for British sailors. The Orders in Council had been the principal reason for War Hawks in the United States demanding war with Great Britain. Its repeal came too late. The United States declared war on Great Britain on June 18. The British ship which arrived in the United States carrying news of the repeal returned to Great Britain carrying copies of the declaration of war. As of this writing, Spencer Perceval is the only British Prime Minister to have been assassinated while in office.
5. An anti-factory movement emerged in Nottingham during the Regency
As factories using machines to manufacture products grew in number, a faction emerged known as the Luddites. Named for a fictional weaver named Nathan Ludd, the Luddites feared modernized factories. They believed the new machines, particularly weaving machines, produced goods cheaply and drove skilled craftsmen out of business. The Luddites organized as a secret society, led riots in factories to destroy machines such as stocking frames and looms, and clashed with troops of the British Army. Owners of manufacturing facilities and other modernized businesses received death threats. The British economy, already strained by the long war with Napoleon, lapsed further.
The Luddites considered themselves loyal subjects of the realm, and rebelled against what they saw were threats to their livelihood. Working conditions in the newly emerging factories were harsh, with long hours and low pay. Yet the Luddites gained little sympathy from millworkers. In January 1813, following a massive Luddite riot at a mill in Rawfold the government cracked down. About 30 Luddites were convicted of various violations of the law, with some executed and others sentenced to transportation to the penal colonies in Australia. In 1813 more British troops fought with Luddite bands across England and Wales than were engaging the French armies in Spain. The term Luddite came to be used to describe those fearful of or resistant to new technology, sometimes modified in modern usage to “neo-Luddite”.
6. A new form of business began in London during the Regency
London saw the formation of the first public gas work in 1812 when the Chartered Gas Light and Coke Company opened for business. The first public gas work in the world, it supplied gas from coal and coke for heating and lighting. By the end of the Regency Era over 290 miles of underground piping crisscrossed London, and other works operated across Great Britain. The pipes supplied coal gas to over 51,000 burners. London’s famed fog found itself intensified from the residue of burning coke, coal, and coal gas. The company was run by a Board of Directors, which hired Samuel Clegg, who supervised its rapid expansion. Clegg also developed a practical gas meter to monitor usage by customers.
Clegg invented lime purifiers to cleanse coal gas of some of its impurities, producing a cleaner and brighter flame. He also erected a gasworks at the Royal Mint during the Regency, as well as in other locations in and around London. The company grew to include docks, warehouses, colliers, locomotives and rolling rail stock, horse-drawn vehicles, and barges, all for the movement of coal and coke. Clegg’s gas meter, for which he received patents in 1815 and 1818, remained the basis for measuring gas usage into the 21st century, though with many modifying improvements over the years. The Chartered Gas Light and Coke Company remained in operation until 1949. Its coal gas and coke-fueled Britain’s industrial revolution.
7. The Peninsular War reached its peak in the early years of the Regency
The British Army in Spain, under Arthur Wellesley, fought a long and difficult campaign against the French troops under several of Napoleon’s Marshals. In 1812 Napoleon embarked on his ill-fated campaign in Russia, and the tide in Spain turned in favor of the British. On July 22, 1812, a combined British-Portuguese Army under Wellesley defeated the French at the Battle of Salamanca. He received the title Earl of Wellington in acknowledgment of the decisive victory. The title later elevated to Marquess of Wellington, and after invading southern France in the spring of 1814 became acclaimed as Britain’s foremost soldier. He was elevated to Duke of Wellington following Napoleon’s first abdication.
Wellington chose that surname for his titles because the Regency already had in place a Marquess of Wellesley. His brother Richard Wellesley served the Regency as Foreign Secretary in the Cabinet of Prime Minister Spencer Perceval. Following Perceval’s assassination, he retired, in no small part because he held a perception of a lack of support from the cabinet for his brother’s conduct of the war in Spain. The Duke of Wellington became a major political figure in Britain after his final defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo. Offered command of British troops in America in 1814 (the expedition which ultimately burned Washington), he declined. He recommended instead peace be negotiated on the policy of status quo antebellum, as it was in late 1814.
8. The first successful steam locomotive in Britain ran for the first time during the Regency
As the Regency began, railways were in use, particularly in coal fields, where animal power pulled cars laden with coal. In 1812 three men developed a practical working steam locomotive to haul coal. They called the first Puffing Billy. They called it a “traveling engine” and it moved on the rails simply by the adhesion of the wheels. Puffing Billy, in comparison to later engines, had little power, and the slightest upgrade caused it difficulties, particularly when hauling a laden tram. Nonetheless, it was modified several times, including its wheel arrangement. It remained in service until its owner, Edward Blackett sent it to the Patent Office for public display in 1862. By then steam locomotives dominated the mining industry.
The earliest steam engines in America burned mainly wood, widely available in the virgin forests of the continent. British designers relied on coal. Coal smoke in industrial areas and urban concentrations emerged as a potential health problem during the Regency. Nonetheless, coal use expanded in each year of the Regency and the decades which followed. It powered ships, locomotives, and the engines of industry, and provided heat for homes and businesses. Great Britain’s coal mining industry expanded dramatically. With it came the problems of smoke and coal dust, both of which presented hazards to health and personal cleanliness.
9. Pride and Prejudice documented society of the Regency Era in novel form
In January, 1813, an advertisement appeared in The Morning Chronicle, a popular London newspaper. It announced the publication of Pride and Prejudice at a price of 18 shillings. Published in three volumes, it received mostly favorable reviews. Those and the earlier success of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility caused it to rapidly sell out, and a second edition appeared later that year. The first foreign-language edition (French) also appeared that year. Despite the impressive sales, Austen received no royalties, having sold the copyright to her publisher, Thomas Egerton, for £110 (approximately $7,200 today). Nor did Austen’s name appear in the book when it first appeared. Instead, it was attributed to “the author of Sense and Sensibility“.
The novel, of a category known as novels of manners, offers a window into British society during the Regency Era. It depicts the relationships of marriage to money, education, and the legal system of the time, in which circumstances prevented women from inheriting property. Since its publication over 20 million copies of Austen’s work have been sold. It has been adapted into films, plays, television presentations and opera. It also generated a cottage industry in its characters appearing in other works of fiction and non-fiction. The novel was influential during the Regency as well, with young opinion shapers often discussing the book. The Prince Regent kept copies of all of Austen’s works in his houses, and invited the author to visit him in London in 1815. The Austen personally detested the Prince Regent, she accepted the invitation.
10. The Congress of Vienna reshaped the map of Europe
In 1814 Napoleon abdicated and went into exile on Elba. Following his return in 1815 and defeat at Waterloo, the British urged he be exiled further from the continent. He went to the remote British-held island of St. Helena, where he lived out his days. Meanwhile, the ministers of the European governments resumed their discussions at the Congress of Vienna, interrupted during the Waterloo Campaign. Often overlooked, the Congress of Vienna was one of the most significant events in European history. The Congress, which was a series of discussions among diplomats rather than a plenary session, shaped the framework of Europe. The new map of Europe remained the same, more or less, until the arms buildup which preceded the First World War.
The five great powers, France, Austria, Russia, Prussia, and Great Britain, held sway over delegations of smaller powers, though nearly all European states and principalities were represented. Britain’s representatives were Lord Castlereagh, and subsequently the Duke of Wellington. Austria’s Prince Metternich represented his Emperor’s interests. The Russian Tsar Alexander I demanded and received most of modern Poland into his realms. Nationalism and republican interests were overruled by conservative supporters of the noble houses of Europe. France lost all of the remaining territories obtained by Napoleon, and the United Kingdom of the Netherlands emerged. The scale of warfare which involved all of Europe (and most of the globe) did not emerge again until 1914, thanks in large part to the Congress of Vienna.
11. The Prince Regent drew moral condemnation during the Regency
The Prince of Wales’s dissipated lifestyle became the subject of much conversation before the Regency. As the Prince Regent, his womanizing, drinking, and gambling continued without missing a step. Indeed, he added gluttony to his vices, all at the expense of the Royal Treasury and the British taxpayers. At all of his residences, he hosted large and expensive fetes, hunts, banquets, balls, and celebrations. He kept mistresses publicly (including Mary Fitzherbert). The Prince patronized the arts and sciences and largely ignored the duties of his office. He allowed favorites to influence his few decisions, to the dismay of many of the ministers in the cabinet. Most considered him self-absorbed, selfish, and irresponsible.
As Prince Regent, he held the seal of the Monarch, his father George III, and simply didn’t care what his ministers or subjects thought of his behavior. For most of his Regency and subsequent reign as King, Robert Banks Jenkinson, Lord Liverpool, controlled the government. Liverpool brought capable men into the government, including Castlereagh and Wellington, His most substantive contribution may have been the tact with which he restrained the excesses of the Prince Regent. The latter did not favor Liverpool as his Prime Minister. He attempts to appoint four different men to the post following Perceval’s assassination. None of them were able to form a government. The Prince Regent came to realize he needed Liverpool, though neither man trusted the other.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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