The Bicentennial of the English Regency, that is.
This coming Sunday, 6 February 2011, marks the 200th anniversary of the day on which the Prince of Wales took the oaths which made him Regent of Great Britain. The day on which the English Regency officially began. And, in large part, thanks to Georgette Heyer, for many of us, our favorite period in English history. Certainly, it is mine.
Briefly, why a regency was needed, some of the notable events which preceded its implementation and some details about the solemn ceremonies which took place on that very important day, two hundred years ago, this Sunday …
Last November, I wrote about the bicentennial of the death of Princess Amelia. A number of political events had already overburdened the fragile grasp King George III had on his sanity. The loss of his favorite daughter was the final, unendurable blow. The king, who was probably suffering from a blood disease now known as porphyria, began to slip in and out of various delusions, his symptons growing progressively worse, and lasting longer and longer as time went on. He had had a similar bout with madness in 1788, at which time a Regency was discussed, and debate begun, but he recovered before the bill could be passed in Parliament.
This time, however, by January of 1811, the king’s doctors had little hope of his full recovery. Thus, Parliament was forced to once again consider a regency bill, and as before, the regent was to be the king’s eldest son, the Prince of Wales. But unlike the previous regency debate, which was polarized by the presence of both William Pitt and Charles James Fox in Parliament, the members of this Parliament had a more concordant view of the issue. It also helped this time that the king did have very brief moments of lucidity. During one of those moments, on 29 January 1811, the Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval, met with the king and explained the need for a regency bill to provide for the kingdom and relieve the heavy burden of responsibility which was weighing on the king. Remarkably, the king agreed, but with the understanding that his son would not change the ministers and would retain the government as it was. Queen Charlotte also made it clear that she would only support the regency on those terms.
The majority of the privy councillors also favored restricting the power of the regent for the first year. The Prince of Wales strenuously opposed this measure, so much so he induced all the royal dukes to sign a letter protesting the limitations and demanding that their brother, George, be given full rights immediately upon being made regent. But by 2 February 1811, the king appeared to be making a recovery and the queen sent a letter to the Prince of Wales advising him of that fact. On 4 February 1811, the prince sent a letter, drafted by Sheridan, to Perceval, in which he assured him that, should he be made regent, he would retain his father’s government and all its ministers. He also agreed to accept retrictions on his powers for the first year of his regency. The following day, Tuesday, 5 February 1811, the contents of the letter were made known to key members of Parliament, and that evening, the Regency Act, known officially as the Care of King During his Illness, etc. Act 1811, carried through both houses and was duly passed. This act created a "temporary," limited regency, thus maintaining the pretense that there was some hope of the king’s full recovery, though few really believed it possible. There were also a number of government officials who were of the opinion that, if the members of Parliament were to simply pass a bill directing the Prince of Wales to exercise the full royal prerogatives of his father during the king’s lifetime, it would be a treasonable offence. Being politicians, they therefore crafted a bill which would protect them from such an accusation.
Technically, it could be said the Regency began on that Tuesday, 5 February 1811, since that is the date on which the act was passed. For that reason, some histories of the era give the date of the beginning of the Regency as 5 February rather than 6 February. But in actual fact, George III was still legally monarch of Great Britain on the 5th, and would remain so until the Prince of Wales had taken the necessary oaths and provided the required certificate of church service attendance and communion participation. That did not happen until the following day, Wednesday, 6 February 1811. It was only upon completion of the solemn oath-taking ceremony at Carlton House on that day that the Prince of Wales legally became the Regent of Great Britain. And that is why, by the reckoning of many historians, including myself, the official date of the beginning of the English Regency is 6 February 1811.
By the terms of what came to be known in common parlance as the "Regency Act," Prince George had the sole responsibility for governing the united kingdoms of England and Ireland in the name of his father, the king. As this act was only legal in Great Britain, George III continued as the official Elector of Hanover. There were few responsibilities within the electorate, since Napoleon had invaded and absorbed it into his empire in 1803. It was accepted that the Regent would deal with any adminstrative duties for his father. There was no need to establish a Regency Council to manage a transition of power, since the Prince of Wales was the legitimate heir to the thrones of both Britain and Hanover, and should the king die, he would automatically assume full power at that time. For the first year, the Regent was not allowed to grant peerages, with the exception of those for significant military or naval achievement. Nor could he confer any public offices, except those which must be made by law. Any places or pensions which he might grant were not for life. They were only to run for the duration of his regency, and would have to be approved and confirmed by the king, should he recover. Thus, the recovery of the king was to hang over the Regent, like the sword of Damocles, for the first year of his regency. In addition, by the provisions of the act, the Regent would have no authority over the king’s person, household or property. There were many who believed that any hope of the king’s recovery would be seriously retarded, should he discover his heir-apparent had control of his care.
The " … care of His Majesty’s person and the maintenance of the royal dignity … " was placed solely in the charge of the queen, though she would have to account to a council which included the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, as well as several high-ranking noblemen. She would have the sole right to appoint or remove members of the royal household, including the king’s doctors. In addition, the Regent was expressly forbidden from making use of any of the king’s property. All of those assets were placed in trust, under the jurisdiction of the queen, to be used solely for the benefit and care of His Majesty. On the first anniversary of his regency, the governmental restrictions on the prince were lifted. He was allowed to grant peerages on his own discretion, as well as confer lifetime offices, places and pensions. However, the queen retained the care of the king and the management of his household and property until her own death in 1819. Unfortunately, there was no protection in the Regency Act for either the Regent’s wife, Princess Caroline, or his daughter, the young Princess Charlotte, and they soon felt the full brunt of his power. The king had allowed Caroline to see her daughter whenever she liked, but once he became Regent, George limited her visits to only two per month.
The Regency Act was not passed until late on Tuesday evening, at which time an official "night summons" was issued for a Privy Council meeting at Carlton House the following day at two o’clock. Therefore, very early on that Wednesday, 6 February 1811, there was a great deal of activity at Carlton House. The servants were busy cleaning and polishing in all the public rooms in preparation for the important ceremonies which would take place there later that day. Though the Prince had agreed to retain the Tory ministers of his father, he made one small concession to the Whigs, with whom he had been allied for so long. He ordered that two magnificent busts of Charles James Fox and the 4th Duke of Bedford, which were usually displayed in his sitting-room, be moved to the head of the room in which his first Privy Council would take place, after he had sworn and signed the oaths of office.
The Prince of Wales had ordered that the same number of Yeoman of the Guard who attended upon privy council meetings should also be present at his first council meeting. Thus, six yeoman and a usher were sent to Carlton House for the ceremonies. In addition, a number of the Prince’s servants, in formal livery, lined the grand hall and the main staircase, and several Life Guardsmen, in their regimentals, were stationed in the public rooms, in a similar manner to that which was customary on court days at St. James’s Palace. At about twelve o’clock, a party of the flank-companies of the grenadiers, in full dress uniform, including long white gaiters and tall black bearskin caps, arrived in the great courtyard at Carlton House. They were accompanied by the fife and drum corps of the first regiment, also in full dress. The soldiers pitched their regimental colors in the center of the grand entrance and the band struck up the tune God Save the King. They continued to play a selection of national and martial airs until nearly five o’clock, when the oath-taking ceremonies were concluded.
The first of the privy councilors, the Duke of Montrose, arrived at Carlton House at about a quarter before two o’clock. He was followed by all six of the royal dukes, and shortly there after by the majority of the other privy councilors. In fact, every privy councilor who was in London was in attendance, totalling about one hundred. They all assembled in the long, grand Gold Room, called so because much of the ornamentation in that room was painted gold, gilt, or made of gold. At about half past two, the Earl of Moira, also a privy councillor, brought in a message from the Prince to the Earl Camden, Lord President of the Council, according to the usual form, desiring his attendance upon the Prince in the next room, officially informing the Prince of the return of the summons. The two earls went together to the Prince, to make the necessary response, then returned to the Gold Room. Soon after their return, the gathered company were very pleased to see, through the windows, the young Princess Charlotte riding through the beautiful gardens behind Carlton House, accompanied by two grooms. She was next in line to the throne and was a symbol of the continuance of the monarchy at this very trying time.
At about three o’clock, the Prince, approached the Gold Room in grand procession, preceded by the officers of his household, his royal brothers and some of his own councilors. He was dressed in full regimentals and was seen to be in excellent health and spirits. He proceeded through the length of the room, nodding regally to those assembled there, then continued on, through the Circular drawing room, into the Grand Saloon. This room was hung in scarlet drapery, the portraits of some of the most celebrated and distinguished Admirals of the Royal Navy displayed on the walls. The long table was covered with crimson velvet and upon it were set out several silver inkstands, which were said to have belonged to Queen Anne. The members of the king’s household then ranged themselves on each side of the entrance to the Saloon. The Prince seated himself at the head of the table, the royal dukes were then seated in order of seniority, followed by the ranking privy councilors. Each made their reverence to the Prince, who made a graceful and regal return to each as they took their place at the table.
When everyone was in place, His Royal Highness said, "My lords, I understand that by the act of Parliament appointing me Regent of the United Kingdom, in the name and on behalf of His Majesty, I am required to take certain oaths, and to make a declaration before your lordships, as prescribed by the said act. I am now ready to take these oaths, and to make the declaration prescribed." The Earl of Westmoreland, the Lord Privy Seal, rose, respectfully approached the Prince and laid before him three sheets of vellum upon each of which had been inscribed one of the oaths called out in the Regency Act. The Prince stood, the Lord Privy Seal then stepped to his left, as everyone else in the room came to their feet. The Lord Privy Seal read each of the oaths aloud in turn. The Prince of Wales then spoke each of them after him in a clear voice:
I do sincerely promise and swear, that I will be faithful and bear true Allegiance to his majesty, King George. So help me God.
I do solemnly promise and swear, that I will truly and faithfully execute the Office of Regent of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, according to an Act of Parliament in the Fifty-first Year of the Reign of His Majesty, King George the Third, entitled, ‘An act, &c.’ and that I will administer, according to Law, the Power and Authority vested in me by virtue of the said Act; and that I will in all things, to the utmost of My Power and Ability, consult and maintain the Safety, Honour, and Dignity of His Majesty, and the Welfare of His People. So help me God.
I do faithfully promise and swear, that I will inviolably maintain and preserve the Settlement of the true Protestant Religion with the Government, Discipline, Rights, and Privileges of the Church of Scotland, as established by Law made there in Prosecution of the Claim of Right, and particularly by an Act, entitled, An Act for securing the Protestant Religion, and Presbyterian Church Government, and by the Acts passed in the Parliament of both Kingdoms, for Union of the Two Kingdoms. So help me God.
At the end of each oath, Mr. Fawkener, the Clerk of the Council, knelt upon his knee, presenting the Gospels to the Prince, who kissed the book and returned it to the clerk. Once all the oaths had been sworn verbally, the vellum sheets were once more laid before the Regent, who signed each oath. Earl Camden, the Lord President, then laid before him the declaration from the reign of Charles II, entitled, "An act for the more effectual preserving the King’s person and government, by disabling papists from sitting in either house of Parliament." His Royal Highness repeated this oath and signed it as well. Finally, the new Regent signed at the top of a special long roll of paper, after which, the Lord President and all of the privy councilors each signed this roll as witnesses to the oath-taking ceremony. The Prince then delivered to the Lord President the certificate which verified that he had received the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper at the Chapel Royal of St. James’s, on Sunday, 27 January 1811. This certificate was countersigned by the Lord President and the Archbishop of Canterbury. All of the signed instruments of the oaths, the certificate and the witness roll were then gathered and presented to Sir Stephen Cottrell, the Keeper of the Records. He placed all of them in an official document box which had been positioned at the far end of the table.
The Lord President then approached the Regent, bent his knee and the Prince extended his hand so that the earl could kiss it. Each of the royal dukes followed suit, then the Archbishop of Canterbury, and all others present, in the order in which they were seated at the table. It is said that during the whole of this long ceremony the new Regent maintained the most graceful and dignified deportment. He was very careful not to display an indication of partiality for any particular group or faction. This long round of hand-kissing concluded the oath-taking ceremonies and the Regent then invited all those in attendance into the main drawing room for a short levée. There, he made a brief address before retiring for a private audience with Mr. Perceval. The Prince Regent then returned to the Grand Saloon for his very first meeting with his privy councilors.
The Prince of Wales was known to thoroughly enjoy ceremonies of great pomp and circumstance, so there was no doubt he was in his element during this oath-taking ceremony and his first meeting as Regent with the privy councilors. Quite probably, the most difficult part of the whole ceremony for him was trying to mask his elation at coming to power. He was forced to maintain a solemn mien throughout the afternoon, as the reason for his regency was the illness of his father, a much-beloved king, whose incapacity was the cause of great concern and sadness among the people. The Prince was seen to be in good spirits, but he managed to avoid giving the impression he was gloating over his father’s illness and reveling in his new-found power. Though he had had to make a number of concessions, including keeping his father’s government intact and accepting restrictions on his power for the first year, he had finally, at the age of forty-nine, acquired the political power he had desired for more than twenty years, since the regency crisis of 1788. He was pleased with the events of the day, even if he had had to curtail some of his plans.
There were reports in some diaries and other contemporary documents that the Royal Hanoverian Creams were being put through their paces by their grooms on the morning of 6 February 1811, with the intent that they would draw the new Regent in state through the streets of the city. But in the end, they were not to go out that day, as the ceremonies and the privy council meeting at Carlton House ran much longer than intended. But in the weeks, months and years to come, the Prince Regent seldom missed an opportunity to display his new position and power. One could argue that in his own way, he was just as delusional as his father, since he seemed to consider his position a carte blanche to the royal treasury, running up vast debts with palatial building, opulent decorating, lavish entertainments and extravagant gifts to his mistresses. But he was also known as the "First Gentleman of Europe" and he set the tone for that unique span of nine years which we know as the Regency.