A Regency Bicentennial:   Prinny Takes All!

But what did he do with it?

This coming Monday, 6 February, marks the bicentennial of the first anniversary of the inauguration of the Regency. But, for the Prince Regent, that day was not just a simple anniversary. It was a day he, and his Whig cronies, had eagerly anticipated throughout the year since he had taken the Regency oaths which had made him de facto sovereign of Great Britain.

Just what was so important about Thursday, 6 February 1812, to the Prince Regent and his political friends?

Power!

The previous year, when the Prince had been made Regent, he had only been granted limited authority. Everyone, with the exception of the Prince’s cronies, were still hoping the King might recover his sanity and once again take up the reins of power. He had done so in the midst of the Regency crisis of 1788, after several long months, becoming his old, if slightly eccentric self, thus preserving the status quo. Since the King had shown brief, but lengthening, periods of lucidity after this second bout with insanity, his ministers and his loyal subjects all fervently hoped for a similar recovery in 1811. During one of those moments of lucidity, the Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval, had met with the King to discuss the need for a Regency to relieve the burden of government until his mind was restored. The King had agreed, but with the proviso that the Prince would not replace any of the existing ministers and would make no significant changes in the government. Queen Charlotte added her own considerable influence to the support of this provision. Parliament included additional limits in the Regency Act before it was finally passed, further restricting the power of the Regent.

Though the Prince had vehemently opposed any restriction on his power, he had finally been brought to accept it by his political advisors, rather than loose his chance to become Regent. He had had to agree to retain all his father’s ministers, and to make no substantive changes in the way the government was run. He would have no authority at all over the King’s person or his property. Care of his father had been granted solely to his mother, Queen Charlotte. All the king’s assets were under the control of the Queen and a small group of noblemen over whom the Prince had no influence. The Prince also had no authority of any kind in the Electorate of Hanover, where his father continued to be the official ruler despite his mental state. However, there was little opportunity to exercise power in the electorate since it had been invaded and captured by Napoleon’s forces in 1803. In England, the Prince was expressly forbidden from granting any peerages on his own initiative. Peerages could be granted only at the direction, and with the approval, of Parliament. Nor could the Regent confer any lifetime tenures for any government offices or any lifetime pensions or annuities to any one without Parliamentary approval. Any titles, office or pensions which he might grant would be for the duration of the Regency only. They would be automatically terminated when the regency ended. If the regency was ended by the return of the King, those grants were not likely to be reinstated. However, if the regency ended with the death of the King, then the new King, George IV, would legally be able to reinstate them for life, if he chose to do so.

The first few months of his regency were particularly unsettled and uncomfortable for the new Regent and his political allies. There were periodic reports from Windsor Castle, where the King was living, that he continued to have intermittent lucid moments. They learned the King could sometimes recognize members of his family and familiar courtiers, occasionally even engaging them in rational conversation. The Prince and his Whig friends lived in ongoing, if well-concealed, anxiety that the King would once again fully recover his faculties and their slender hope of political power would be extinguished. Little did the Prince Regent’s Whig cronies realize that it was not the King who would eventually snuff out their hopes of political success.

In a sense, Parliament had done the Prince a great favor by restricting his power. He was spared the many annoying and awkward requests for titles and positions with which he would otherwise have been bombarded by the many sycophants who surrounded him. Nor did he have to put himself to the demanding, strenuous and time-consuming effort of choosing new ministers and forming a new government. Though his Whig cronies deplored the restrictions, they were willing to be patient for a year as they assumed he would make sweeping changes once he was finally in full possession of sovereign power.

On the first anniversary of his regency, the governmental restrictions on the Regent’s power were automatically lifted. The Queen still retained control over the care and management of the King and would continue to do so until her death in 1819, barely a year before the King’s own death. In addition, the council which had been appointed to manage the King’s property also retained their power, for the duration of the King’s life. This effectively denied the Regent any opportunity to increase his income with his father’s assets. However, as of 6 February 1812, the Regent did have the legal right to grant peerages at his own discretion and could confer government offices and pensions. And, from that date, all those titles were permanent and the offices and pensions which were granted were for the lifetime of the recipient unless the Regent chose that they be otherwise.

But the first anniversary of the regency brought quite a shock to the Regent’s Whig cronies. Over the course of the previous year, he had grown comfortable with his father’s ministers. And, perhaps more importantly, he had also seen close up how demanding and taxing the responsibilities of governing really were. He was more than willing to leave the daily grind of those responsibilities to his ministers. During the first Regency crisis, in 1788, the Prince of Wales had been twenty-six, with Charles James Fox his steadfast friend and advisor. The young Prince had despised his father and was eager to demonstrate his own abilities. But nearly a quarter of a century had passed since those heady days. The Prince was forty-eight when he took the Regency oaths, and he would turn fifty in August of 1812. He had lost the drive of his youth as well as his most inspirational mentor. He had become more interested in art, architecture and luxurious living than in the formidable and exhausting efforts of governing. And, having experienced a year in the role of a monarch, he had gradually adopted the much more conservative political attitudes of the Tories. On 6 February 1812, the Whigs were expecting a sweeping change in the government and positions of power for all of those close to the Regent. Instead, the government continued on just as it was and there was little, if any, preferment for those Whigs who believed themselves to be deserving of government office. And so, the Prince was to become as much a disappointment to his Whig friends as he had been to his father. He finally had the power for which the Whigs had hoped and connived for nearly twenty-five years, but by the time he got it, he had neither the desire or the will to use it to advance their cause.

Advertisements

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.
This entry was posted in Politics & Law and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to A Regency Bicentennial:   Prinny Takes All!

  1. Nicely put. Of course, the Regent had by this time also become increasingly reclusive, sluggish, ill and almost immobile because of his weight. Even in 1797, his weight had climbed to 17 stone 7 pounds (111 kg. or 245 lb.). By 1812 things were far worse. Charlotte Frost in her book on Sir William Knighton mentions that the Regent/King would have done no work at all without the constant chivvying of his secretary. Even without these effects most people move more from the political left to the right as they get older.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Good Grief!!! I had forgotten he was so big that early in his life! No wonder he had no energy. Poor Sir William Knighton must have worked very hard to get him to do anything at all.

      You are right, too, about people becoming more conservative as they get older, especially if they have power or possessions they value. We all tend to favor the status quo if we are successful and it will help us protect and maintain a lifestyle we enjoy.

      I find Prinny’s life such a tragedy. He was not a stupid man. Just imagine what he might have accomplished if his father had treated him better, had encouraged him to participate in government while he was a young man. Sadly, George III appears to have been something of a dullard and he did not appreciate his more sophisticated eldest son. What a waste!

      Thanks for stopping by,

      Kat

  2. I think what energy he did have was devoted to, ahem, non-political activities. I too wonder how he would have turned out had his intelligence been recognized and utilized when he was younger.
    I find it hard to believe however that his self-indulgence and excessive behaviour can all be blamed on a repressed childhood alone! Would he have joined the Whigs if he had been differently treated? Once he did this, by the way, the die was cast. George III spent his whole reign fighting against the whole concept of Whiggism. This is the central thrust of a forgotten book about him which you may not have come across – The Lonely Monarch by Guy Boustead (who incidentally was my 1st cousin 2x removed). It’s worth a read because of the point of view it takes.
    Thanks for posting and replying – it is always a pleasure to talk to you, Kat.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I think he might not have joined the Whigs, if his father had not denigrated and marginalized him. I suspect that he saw a father-figure in Charles Fox, though very different from his own puritanical parent. Fox was almost the exact opposite of George III, and knew how to manipulate people, so the Prince was pretty much putty in his hands. But if the King had included his son, made him feel that he was part of the family, part of the government and kept him busy with something he found worthwhile, I think Fox would have had a harder time of it. George III so openly preferred Frederick and often belittled Prince George that he drove him right into the arms of the Whigs, in the person of Fox. What a dysfunctional family they were!

      Thanks for the reference to the biography. My local library does not have a copy, but I will seek it out. I always enjoy getting other perspectives on the people and the times. A pleasure to converse with you, too, sir!

      =^..^=

  3. You may be correct about that.
    My mistake – the book is called The Lone Monarch by Guy Melvill Boustead

  4. Pingback: A Regency Bicentennial:   The Assasination of Spencer Perceval | The Regency Redingote

  5. Pingback: 1812: A Turning Point in British History by Laurie Alice Eakes | The Beau Monde

  6. Pingback: 1812:   The Year in Review | The Regency Redingote

  7. Pingback: A Regency Bicentennial:   Byron Hides Authorship of The Waltz | The Regency Redingote

  8. Pingback: Regency Bicentennial:   … Your Fat Friend? | The Regency Redingote

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s