This coming Sunday marks the two hundredth anniversary of the dissolution of the Fifth Imperial Parliament. This was only the second dissolution of Parliament during the Regency and it would be the last during the life of King George III. It was also the first time the monarch had come to the Houses of Parliament in person to dissolve that body in almost a hundred and fifty years. Of course, the Prince Regent made sure his visit was surrounded with as much pomp and circumstance as possible and there were a number of important personages who viewed the spectacle from the gallery.
When the Prince Regent dissolved Parliament . . .
The Prince of Wales, who later became Prince Regent, had been affiliated with the Whig party for most of his life, in opposition to his father, King George III. Yet, the Tory party was in control of Parliament throughout the Regency, as it had been during the reign of George III. In 1811, when the Prince of Wales was made Regent, due to his father’s mental incapacity, Parliament was in the hands of the Tory party. The Prince was unwilling to rock the political boat, no matter how much he was urged to do so by his Whig cronies. Spencer Perceval was the Prime Minister when the Prince became Regent and had been since 1809. However, in May of 1812, Spencer Perceval was assassinated in Westminster Hall, just as he was about to enter the House of Commons. Upon the death of the sitting Prime Minister, the Fourth Parliament was automatically dissolved and it was necessary to call for a general election.
The general election for the next Parliament, the Fifth Parliament, ran from 5 October to 6 November 1812 and the first session opened on 24 November 1812. Though the Whigs gained a few more seats by that election, the Tories once again had a majority in Parliament. Robert Jenkinson, the Second Earl of Liverpool, became the Prime Minister. Though the Prince Regent did not particularly like Lord Liverpool, he had to accept him as Prime Minister, as there was no other politician on the scene with the skill and determination to hold together the liberal and conservative wings of the Tory party in order to maintain a coalition government. With the Napoleonic Wars still raging, it was necessary to have a strong Prime Minster and a unified Parliament.
So long as Britain was at war, the members of Parliament on both sides of the aisle generally worked together to ensure the successful functioning of the government. However, after the victory at Waterloo, with Britain, and Europe, safe from the predations of Napoleon, that cooperative spirt between the more disparate MPs began to lag. Even before the end of 1817, a growing impasse was developing between the Tories and the Whigs which even Lord Liverpool could not overcome. In the early months of 1818, it had become obvious even to the Prince Regent that Parliament had become a completly disfunctional body which could no longer successfully govern the country. The Fifth Parliament would have to be dissolved and elections held.
By the terms of the Septennial Act, passed by Parliament in 1716, the maximum length of a Parliament had been extended from three to seven years. This had been done in large part to save money by reducing the frequency of parliamentary elections. However, the Septennial Act did not require that any Parliament run for a full seven years, it simply put a maximum limit on its term. Any Parliament could be dissolved by the sovereign at any time it should become necessary. The fact that the Fifth Parliament was totally gridlocked and incapable of functioning by the spring of 1818 made it necessary to dissolve that Parliment and hold elections. The date for the official dissolution of the Fifth Parliament was set for Wednesday, 10 June 1818.
Most working sessions of Parliament during the Regency, and for centuries before, were typically called to order at about four o’clock in the afternoon. That would allow members who had other governmental responsibilities to meet their obligations during the day, and still be able to take their seats in Parliament during the evening. However, the session set for Wednesday, 10 June 1818, would be a special session and it was scheduled to be called to order at twelve o’clock Noon. In fact, this would be quite an historic event, since it was publicly known that the Prince Regent would be coming in person to Westminster specifically to dissolve Parliament. The sovereign had not been personally present at the dissolution of any Parliament since March of 1681, when King Charles II had been the last British monarch to come to Westminster in order to dissolve Parliament in person.
The dissolution of Parliament, in June of 1818, became quite the glittering social occasion. The newlywed Duke and Duchess of Cambridge would be in attendance. The Duke of Cambridge, like all the other unmarried royal dukes, had sought out a royal bride after the death of Princess Charlotte. This event would be one of the first public appearances of the new Duchess of Cambridge. Nearly all of the members of both the House of Lords and the House of Commons would be present. Nearly all of the peeresses whose husbands sat in the House of Lords had seats in the galleries that day. It is not clear how many of the wives of the members who sat in the House of Commons were present, or how they were accomodated. Many other members of the ton were also present at Westminster that day, both men and women, even those with little interest in politics, becuase this was an historic state occasion. In addition, the Grand Duke Michael Pavlovich, of Russia, who was visiting Britain at the time, would be present, along with a number of European foreign ministers and other dignitaries. In fact, the majority of regular folks living in London also tried to get a seat in the galleries of Parliament on that day. Those that could not get a seat inside lined the streets outside Westminster.
There were some final some parliamentary details which had to be addressed on 10 June 1818, so the official dissolution was not the first order of business. The session was called to order shortly after twelve o’clock, and the members worked through their abbreviated agenda, which took about two hours. Shortly after two o’clock, two volleys of artillery sounded outside Westminster to announce the arrival of the Prince Regent. As was the practice for the opening of Parliament, the Regent then retired to the robing room, where he donned his ceremonial robes and the Imperial State Crown. When the Prince was ready to enter the House of Lords, the Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, preceded him in the procession, carrying the Sword of State. After processing through the House of Lords, the Regent took his seat on the Throne, with his ministers, the senior officers of his household and other important attendants ranked behind him.
One of those in attendance on the Regent was Sir Thomas Tyrwhitt, the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod. The Regent ordered Black Rod to proceed to the House of Commons and demand their attendance upon him. Again, as was the ritual during the State Opening of Parliament, carrying his staff of office, Black Rod went to the doors of the House of Commons, at which point, the doors were slammed in his face. This act had long symbolized the fact that the members of the House of Commons considered themselves independent of the sovereign. Black Rod then struck the closed doors three times with his staff, after which he was admitted and issued his summons to attend the Regent in the House of Lords. The members of the House of Commons then left their chamber and proceeded into the House of Lords.
Once all the members of the Commons were in the chamber, Charles Manners-Sutton, the Speaker of the House of Commons, stood and delivered a speech to the Prince Regent. Manners-Sutton noted that the finances of the country were gradually improving and presented a bill which would expand the number of houses of public worship available in the kingdom. The Regent then responded with a speech of his own. He reported, "with deep regret" that there had been no change with regard to "his Majesty’s lamented indisposition." He went on to assure the gathered body that he had received many assurances from foreign powers that they all wished "to maintain the general tranquility." He next thanked them for their efforts to increase the number of places of public worship, assuring them that he was confident this measure would "be productive of the most beneficial effects on the religion and moral habits of the people." Finally, he thanked them for their service and informed them that it was his intention to dissolve the present Parliament and call for new elections. But that was not the end of the Regent’s speech. He then took some time to pontificate on the successful defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte and the restoration of peace in Europe.
Once the Regent concluded his remarks, the Lord Chancellor, the Earl of Eldon, proclaimed to the gathered body, "It is the will and pleasure of His Royal Highness the Prince Regent, acting in the name and on behalf of His Majesty, that this Parliament be now dissolved; and this Parliament is dissolved accordingly." The new Parliament was summoned to meet for the first time on Tuesday, 4 August 1818. The Regent then rose from the Throne and in procession with his attendants, he made a stately exit from the House of Lords, just as he had entered it. Once the Regent had departed the chamber, the Speaker of the House and the members of the House of Commons left, followed by the members of the House of Lords. The majority of the spectators remained until all of the parliamentarians had departed the chamber, they then began to stream away from Westminster.
Some of those who left Westminster after the dissolution was officially announced met with friends and associates to begin planning their campaigns for the parliamentary elections. Those campaigns would begin almost immediately, since the general elections began on Wednesday, 17 June and ended on Saturday, 18 July 1818. Though the Sixth Parliament did meet for the first time on 4 August 1818, it was then prorogued until 14 January 1819. In the end, the Sixth Parliament lasted only a little over a year, since it was dissolved on 29 February 1820, soon after the death of King George III. However, the new king, George IV, did not personally attend Parliament on that day.
Dear Regency Authors, might the dissolution of Parliament, in June of 1818, be incorporated into the plot of an upcoming tale of romance? Will the heroine attend as a spectator, seated in one of the galleries, perhaps to see the hero, an MP, at work? Or, might the hero be an agent of the Crown who is charged with the protection of the very unpopular Prince Regent as the Prince travels to and from Westminster? Will the hero be travelling with the Regent, or will he employ other tactics to protect the detested Prince? Perhaps some characters attend, or throw, a party to celebrate the dissolution of Parliament. Will those characters be Whigs, hoping to gain seats in Parliament, or Tories, who need to defend their majority? How else might the dissolution of Parliament, or the pomp and circumstance surrounding it, play a part in a Regency romance?