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?
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.