This week in history marks the end of what was called the Regency Period, the era which we relish as being best reflected by Jane Austen’s stories. King George III died on 29 January 1820, and his son, Prince George Augustus Frederick, came to the throne as George IV, bringing about the end of the Regency. George IV ruled until his death in July 1830.
Yet, the period of 1811 to 1820 was not the first crisis to mark the call for a Regent.
It is believed by many that King George III suffered from a hereditary disease known as “porphyria.” Some of you might recall the 1994 film called “The Madness of King George.” The film is a biographical and historical comedy/drama and tells the story of George III’s deteriorating mental health, as well as his strained relationship with his eldest son, Prince George, and it centers on the Regency Crisis of 1788-1789. The film depicts King George III’s bouts of “madness” that triggered a power struggle between factions of Parliament under the Tory Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger and the reformed-minded leader of the opposition in the form of Charles James Fox.
The “thing” with George III’s mental capacities, they came and went. It was said he could recall appointments to office from years past, but could not remember who within his government was friend or foe. Many of us today might consider this as the early stages of dementia.
The Mayo Clinic lists these signs of dementia:
That being said, in the summer of 1788, King George’s mental health had deteriorated. However, he managed to discharge some of his duties and to declare Parliament prorogued from 25 September to 20 November of that year. However, during Parliament’s recess, the King’s symptoms became worse, some believing he posed a threat to his own life. When Parliament reconvened in November, the King was not in a condition to deliver the ritual speech from the throne, outlining the government’s agenda and focus for the forthcoming session, during the State Opening of Parliament. According to long-established law, Parliament could not proceed without the delivery of the King’s Speech at a State Opening. [Innes, Arthur Donald (1914). A History of England and the British Empire, Vol. 3. The MacMillan Company. pp. 396–397.]
Though some questioned their right to do so, Parliament debated the necessity of forming a regency. Charles James Fox, who was a close associate with Prince George approached Parliament. In the Commons on 10 December, Fox declared it was Prince George’s right to install himself as the regent immediately. Fox declared the Prince was automatically entitled to exercise sovereignty during the King’s incapacity. Obviously, William Pitt the Younger opposed this idea. He argued, as there was an absence of a statute in the contrary, that is was the right of Parliament to choose the regent. It is said that Pitt, upon hearing Fox’s assertion, slapped his thigh in an uncharacteristic display of emotion and declared that he would “unwhig” Fox for the rest of his life. Fox’s argument did indeed seem to contradict his lifelong championing of Parliament’s rights over the Crown. Pitt pointed out that the Prince of Wales had no more right to the throne than any other Briton, though he might well have a better claim to it as the King’s firstborn son. It was Parliament’s constitutional right to decide who the monarch could be.
Prince George did not attempt to exercise any power without possessing the consent of Parliament to do so. With the consent of Parliament, Pitt outlined a formal plan for the regency in which it was suggested that the power of presented to Prince George be greatly limited. For example, the Prince would not be able to create and grant a peerage to anyone other than one of his siblings. George could also not sell any property belonging to the King. The Prince of Wales denounced Pitt’s “suggestions,” declaring it a “project for producing weakness, disorder, and insecurity in every branch of the administration of affairs.” [May, Thomas Erskine. (1896). The Constitutional History of England Since the Accession of George the Third, 1760-1860 (11th ed.) London: Longmans, Green and Co., chapter III, pp. 184-195.] A compromise was required.
Without the speech from the throne, debate on a Regency Bill before Parliament could not proceed. Such a speech had to be delivered by the ruling monarch, but it could also be delivered by royal representatives known as “Lords Commissioners.” Unfortunately the Lords Commissioners [The Lords Commissioners are Privy Counsellors appointed by the King/Queen to exercise, on his or her behalf, certain functions relating to Parliament which would otherwise require the monarch’s attendance.] could not act without the Great Seal of the Realm affixed to it, meaning the incoherent King George III would be required to legally affix the authorization of the sovereign with the Great Seal. Pitt overrode the objects and instructed the Lord Chancellor to affix the Great Seal without the King’s consent. The actions were called “forgery,” “fraud, “a glaring falsehood,” and the like. The Duke of York declared the move as “unconstitutional and illegal.” However, many in government declared the situation the only means to preserve government, as they knew it. Therefore, on 3 February 1789, an “illegal” group of Lords Commissioners opened Parliament. The Regency Bill was introduced, but before it could pass, King George III made a recovered. Ironically, the King declared the instrument authorizing the Lords Commissioners to act was valid.
In late 1810, the King was once again overcome by his malady. Therefore, Parliament agreed to follow the precedent of 1788, and, without the King’s consent, the Lord Chancellor affixed the Great Seal of the Realm to letters patent naming Lords Commissioners. Although they lacked the Royal Sign Manual, the letters patent passed both Houses of Parliament. The Lords Commissioners appointed by the letters patent acted in the name of the King. They granted Royal Assent to a bill that was later called the Regency Act 1811. Originally, Parliament restricted some of the Prince Regent’s powers, but those constraints expired one year after the passage of the act. Prince George, the Prince of Wales, became Prince Regent on 5 February 1811.
Prince George was often referred to as the “First Gentleman of England.” His style and manners were much remarked upon. He was bright, clever, and knowledgeable, speaking three languages other than his native English. His laziness and gluttony kept him from being recognized for his talents. He was, however, a leader in many ways, especially those we think of as part of the Regency era. For example, when political leaders placed a tax on wig powder, the Prince abandoned wearing a powdered wig, choosing to style his natural hair. He wore dark colored clothing because it assisted in minimizing his weight, but men in Society followed suit. He favored pantaloons and trousers over the knee to breeches, mainly because they were looser and not so binding. By the end of his reign, men had left their breeches behind. He wore elaborately-tied neck cloths to hide his double chin, and it is said that his 1822 visit to Scotland, when he was King, brought back into fashion the Scottish tartan dress, as it is know today.Titles and styles:
- 12 August 1762 – 19 August 1762: His Royal Highness The Duke of Cornwall
- 19 August 1762 – 5 February 1811: His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales
- 5 February 1811 – 29 January 1820: His Royal Highness The Prince Regent
- 29 January 1820 – 26 June 1830: His Majesty The King
At birth, he was also entitled to the dignities Prince of Great Britain and Ireland, Electoral Prince of Brunswick-Lüneburg and Duke of Rothesay. Under the Act of Parliament that instituted the regency, the prince’s formal title as regent was “Regent of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland”.