1811:   The Year in Review

Many of the news programs have devoted time during their broadcasts this week to reviews of various aspects of the past year. Since this rapidly-ending year marks the bicentennial of the beginning of the Regency in England, I thought it appropriate to review some of the events of 1811 before we move on to 2012, which is, of course, the bicentennial of the second year of the Regency.

And so, some highlights of 1811 …

The year 1811 began on a Tuesday, with great concern in the halls of Parliament, as there was no appreciable sign of improvement in the mental state of the King. By the end of the month, even the most optimistic were forced to admit that there was little, if any, hope that the King would ever regain his sanity. A bill making the Prince of Wales regent for his father was passed in Parliament on 5 February 1811, known popularly as the Regency Act. The following day, in a grand and formal ceremony at Carlton House, the Prince took the oaths that made him Regent of Britain. Though he was pleased to have acquired the title, he was not at all pleased with the restrictions which were imposed on his rule for the first year. But he had agreed to accept them, rather than loose his chance at becoming Regent at all. However, he chafed under those restrictions throughout the year. No doubt, he was eagerly awaiting the arrival of February 1812, when, by the terms of the Regency Act, he would be granted full royal power.

In March, news came of the birth in France of Napoleon’s son by his new Empress, Marie Louise of Austria. The Emperor Bonaparte gave the babe the title of King of Rome, which he maintained was a courtesy title for his heir. In France, the new baby was popularly known as l’Aiglon (the Eaglet), and much was expected of this little boy, the only legitimate son of the Emperor Napoleon. The Bourbons, the displaced French royal family, many of whom were living in exile in Britain, were very concerned at this turn of events, as they believed that it would be even more difficult to remove Napoleon from the throne of France now that he had a legitimate heir with royal bloodlines.

In the Peninsula that spring, the allied army had two important, if hard-won, victories against the forces of Napoleon. In early May, a joint Portuguese and English army under the command of Lieutenant-General Viscount Wellington, prevented the French army from relieving the besieged city of Almeida in the Battle of Fuentes de Oñoro. Later that same month, Viscount Beresford, one of Wellington’s subordinates, commanded a mixed British, Portuguese and Spanish army which fought the French to a standstill at the Battle of Albuera. On 31 July 1811, Wellington was promoted to the position of full General for his efforts, which gave the British two victories after the much less successful Peninsular campaign of the previous year. Prinny, of course, was delighted with the victories, and it appears that it was at this time that Viscount Wellington first came to his attention.

This year also saw the passing of two of the important figures of George III’s government. The 3rd Duke of Grafton, who had become Prime Minister in 1768, died on 14 March. Grafton was only thirty-three when he took office, and was the youngest Prime Minister until William Pitt the Younger became Prime Minister, in 1783, at the age of twenty-four. Then, on 28 May, Henry Dundas, the 1st Viscount Melville, passed away. Another great friend of Pitt, Dundas had served as his Secretary of War during the French Revolution. When Pitt returned to office in 1804, Dundas became First Lord of the Admiralty, but was impeached for misappropriation of public funds in 1806, after Pitt’s death in office in January of that same year.

Something a contemporary year in review cannot do is to note those born in a given year who will come to fame. But hindsight of two centuries makes that possible here. The year 1811 saw the births of some important literary figures: in England, on 18 July, the author William Makepeace Thackery; in America, on 3 February, the journalist Horace Greeley; and on 14 June, the author, Harriet Beecher Stowe. In France, the journalist and art critic, Pierre Jules Théophile Gautier was born on 31 August. There was also an important birth in the world of music this year. On 22 October, the composer and pianist, Franz Liszt was born in Hungary.

THE event of the summer of 1811 was the Grand Fête which Prinny gave at Carlton House on 19 June. Ostensibly given in honor of the French royal family, it was Prinny’s chance to celebrate his new power as Regent without offending the people, who would have thought he was essentially celebrating the still very popular old king’s illness. With the French royal family as a front, the Prince Regent threw a party which was talked of for years and enjoyed himself immensely, as did most of his guests. For three days after the fête was over, the public was allowed to view the rooms of Carlton House, which retained their party decorations. There was a near-riot on the last day, which left a number of people without their hats, their shoes, and some without their clothes. The newspapers had a field day and the Regent determined never to allow the public into any of his residences ever again.

For many of us, the most important literary event of 1811 was the publication of Jane Austen’s first novel, Sense and Sensibility. Austen had reworked an earlier novel into Sense and Sensibility the previous year, and found a publisher for it late in 1810. She was living with her brother, Henry, in London, in the spring of 1811, in order to be closer to her publisher’s office so as to expedite the correcting of the galleys, or proof sheets. Jane had hoped for a June publication of her book, but such was not to be. Sense and Sensibility was not released until 31 October 1811. Fortunately for Jane, and for us, the book was a modest success. Jane had put up her own money to get the book published, and would have sustained crippling losses if it had failed. Had Sense and Sensibility failed to find favor with the public, it is unlikely that Austen would have tried to publish any of her other books. In which case, we would never have had the pleasure of reading Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park or any of her other delightful novels. Thankfully, there were many readers in 1811 who liked this novel, "by a lady," and it sold well enough to encourage Austen to continue to write. The success of her first novel also made it easier for her to find a publisher for her subsequent work.

The Industrial Revolution took a blow this year, as the Luddite uprisings began in November of 1811, in the north of England. These uprisings where characterized by the breaking of machines, in most cases the machines used to weave cloth or knit stockings. In the depressed economy during the wars with Napoleon, people were afraid they would loose what little livelihood they had to these machines. Despite the government’s harsh response, these uprisings would pop up here and there across northern England and the Midlands throughout the Regency.

1811 was also an important and successful year for the young thoroughbred colt, Copenhagen. It was in this year that the young chestnut stallion won the only two races of his career on the track. In the spring, he won a £50 match at the Newmarket Meeting, and in September, he won a sweepstakes at Huntingdon. Copenhagen would never win another race. He lost all his matches the following year, which caused his owner to terminate the colt’s racing career and sell him off as a potential cavalry horse. Copenhagen’s departure from the turf would eventually lead to his new career on the battlefield and his great fame as Wellington’s favorite warhorse.

Thus went the first year of the Regency. During this year, the Prince Regent set the tone for both his Regency and his reign as king, with extravagant spending and blatant disregard for the well-being of his subjects. In France, Napoleon finally got the legitimate son and heir he so desperately wanted, dampening the hopes of the Bourbons, who felt the birth solidified the Emperor’s hold on the French throne. There were some significant naval victories that year, but the Royal Navy was in need of men and impressment on the high seas had become routine. This hated practice outraged many, including Britain’s former colonies. Though no one yet believed it possible, Britain and her former American colonies were on the brink of war. Finally, the army in the Peninsula began to turn the tide against the French, heartening the British public. Nevertheless, gangs of Luddites were making themselves known at home, breaking textile-making machines in the night. Jane Austen saw her first book in print. A book she often referred to as her child, in letters home to Cassandra, as she labored in London to correct the proofs for the publisher. It was quite a year.

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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