This year marks the bicentennial of the second year of the English Regency. It was a momentous year for both the Regent and the country over which he ruled for his ailing father, King George III. Though there were some very sad incidents for the British in this year, there were also encouraging events in the war against Napoleon Bonaparte and France which heartened the British and much of Europe.
A review of the high-lights, and low-lights, of 1812 …
For the Prince Regent, perhaps the very best day of the year was Thursday, 6 February 1812. That date was the one-year anniversary of the beginning of his Regency, and by the terms of the Act of Regency, on that day all of the restrictions which had been placed on his powers were lifted. He was delighted, as were his Whig friends, who assumed he would use his new powers to support them. They would receive a very rude surprise in the fall. Later that same month, Lord Byron made his maiden speech in Parliament, in defense of those known as Luddites, to demand that machine-breaking not be made a capital offence, punishable by death. But he was in the minority and the law was passed.
On Tuesday, 10 March, Byron’s life was changed forever. On that day, Cantos I and II of his poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, went on sale. A run of 500 copies sold out in two days and Byron was suddenly the talk of London. Five days later, on 15 March, there was a large and well-planned Luddite attack in the West Riding of Yorkshire. This raid occurred only a couple of weeks after the law against which Byron had spoken had passed in Parliament. A number of men were captured, several of whom were executed, while others were transported.
In April, a very eccentric character who had been on the Regency London scene for a couple of years, the Baron Ferdinand de Géramb, was deported from England. But not until after he had created quite a scandal by barricading himself in his house and threatening to blow it to bits if anyone attempted to lay hands on him. Strange as it may seem, he ended his days as a devout Catholic Abbot, serving in Rome. Also in April, James Monroe, the President of the young United States of America, ordered a three-month embargo against trade with Britain. A portent of more hostility to come later in the year.
For England, there was great sadness, and a powerful wave of fear, when the Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval, was assassinated by a madman at the door to the House of Commons. Only one week later, after a trial of one day, his assassin, the deluded and mentally ill John Bellingham, was executed by hanging on the scaffold at Newgate prison.
On the 18th of June, the United States declared war on Great Britain, in what would come to be called the War of 1812. Less than a week later, Napoleon crossed the River Nieman as he marched his Grande Armée into Russia. Nearly everyone in Europe assumed the French Emperor would smash the Russian army in short order, giving him nearly complete control of the entire Continent. Many were also of the opinion that once Russia capitulated, it would only be a matter of time before Bonaparte would turn his full attention and his forces on Britain.
Then, in July, General Wellington led his troops to victory at the Battle of Salamanca. By this victory, not only did Wellington demonstrate his skill as an offensive commander, he also proved that the French could be defeated. Though the war would continue for another two years, the French would never again control the Iberian Peninsula. There were great celebrations across Britain for several weeks once the news had arrived there.
In August, Wellington and his army entered Madrid, further heartening his countrymen. But in that same month, the American Navy ship, the USS Constitution, engaged the British frigate, HMS Guerriére, off the coast of Nova Scotia. To the surprise of many, the American ship won the battle, and gained the nickname "Old Ironsides." More bad news arrived in Britain in September, when it was learned that Napoleon’s army had won the Battle of Borodino, followed by the entry of the French army into Moscow itself. It was also in September that the large blue diamond, which was all that remained of the great French Blue, surfaced in London, exactly twenty years after the statue of limitations expired on its theft from the depository of the French Crown jewels. On a Saturday in September, John Francillon drew and described this "new" blue diamond which belonged to his friend, Daniel Eliason. Not seen again for more than a century, this document came to be known as the Francillon Memo.
There was more bad news for Britain in the first weeks of October, with reports of the capture of two British warships by American naval forces, and the defeat of British troops in the Niagara campaign in Ontario, Canada, by invading United States forces. Worse still, the tall and handsome British commander, Sir Isaac Brock, known as the Hero of Upper Canada, was killed while leading a charge against the American forces. Though the news would not reach Britain until the following month, in late October, the remnants of Napoleon’s Grande Armée began its long, ignominious and deadly retreat from Russia.
On 10 November, Robert Jenkinson, Lord Liverpool, led his Tory party to victory in a general election, much to the chagrin of the Whigs, who had counted on the Regent’s support. Liverpool became Prime Minister, succeeding the assassinated Spencer Perceval. He would have the confidence of the Prince of Wales, continuing as Prime Minister for the remaining years of the Regency and through most of the reign of George IV. He finally retired in 1827, a little more than a year before his death. In December, yet another British naval ship was defeated by the USS Constitution.
With the advantage of hind-sight, we can also take note of the births in 1812 of people who would come to fame in later years. Curiously, all of the births of which we take note occurred in the first half of the year. Charles Dickens was born on 7 February, just one day after the Regent gained his full powers. In the United States, the jeweler, Charles Lewis Tiffany, was born in Connecticut, on 15 February. The architect, Augustus Pugin, son of Auguste Pugin, the well-known draughtsman and architectural historian, was born on 1 March. There were two notable births in May, on the 7th the poet Robert Browning was born, and on the 12th, another poet and author, Edward Lear, was born.
Sadly, 1812 was a year of much conflict and loss. America declared war on Britain, which resulted in British defeats on land and sea. Hundreds of thousands of men died in the tragic retreat of Bonaparte’s Grande Armée from Russia, though the Emperor had deserted them long before the chilling end. Spencer Perceval, the Prime Minister, was assassinated, in the very heart of Westminster. But Wellington had soundly defeated a combined French Army on the Peninsula, demonstrating the French were not invincible. After that, the British and their allies had a real hope that they could drive the French out of the Peninsula, where previously they believed they were only able to wage a defensive campaign by which to delay their advance.
The Prince Regent was given full monarchical powers in February, to which he believed he had every right. The Whigs assumed he would finally turn to them and give them the assistance they needed to come to power and control the government. Using the excuse that allowing a Whig take-over would upset his mentally-ill father, whose condition was believed to be very fragile, the Regent continued his support for the Tories. Without the Regent’s support, the Whigs lost the general election in November and the Tories remained in power, with Lord Liverpool as the new Prime Minister. Though Liverpool was known for a series of repressive measures during his tenure, he was able to maintain social order and the continuity and stability of government during the tempestuous years of the Regency. In February of 1812, Lord Byron took his seat in the House of Lords and made his maiden speech, showing himself to be liberal-minded and concerned for those who were loosing their livelihoods to the Industrial Revolution. Had he continued his involvement in politics, there is little doubt Byron and Liverpool would have butted heads sooner or later.
However, it was also in 1812 that Byron began his shocking and very public affair with Lady Caroline Lamb, whom he first met at Holland House. His involvement with the woman who called him "mad, bad and dangerous to know," appears to have distracted him from his interest in politics. Another major distraction was the fact that the first two cantos of his poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, were published on 10 March 1812. The first run of 500 copies sold out within two days, and John Murray, his publisher, ordered 3,000 more copies to meet the ongoing demand. It was at this time that Byron is reported to have said, "I awoke one morning and found myself famous." That fame would change his life and Byron would become the first true celebrity in the modern sense, due to the overwhelming success of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and his scandalous affair with Lady Caroline. Lord Byron made only two more speeches before the House of Lords, both in 1812, then ceased his political activities in favor of his other interests.
Also during this year, Jane Austen was hard at work preparing her next novel for publication, following her modest success with Sense and Sensibility, in 1811. First written in 1796, and entitled First Impressions, when it was published in 1813, the revised novel, retitled Pride and Prejudice, would soon become, and remains to this day, one of the most popular novels in the English language. But in was in 1812 that Jane Austen honed her original story into the delightful tale so many of us enjoy today. Two hundred years ago, the year 1812 saw the occurrence of a number of significant events, both dire and felicitous, which shaped the Regency. Some of them continue to have consequence even in our own times.