Robert Petre, 9th Baron Petre

From The Letter-bag of Lady Elizabeth Spencer-Stanhope

March 1st. (1805)

“Your father is very well. He was sorry for the fate of the Slave Trade Bill last night. The Elopement and distress in the House of Petre has been the chief subject of conversation for the last few days. Miss Petre  made her escape from her father’s house in Norfolk with her Brothers’ tutor on Monday last. It is said they are at Worcester and married only by a Catholic Priest. However, Lord and Lady P. are gone there and it is expected she will be brought back to-night. They can do nothing but get her married to the man at Church. She is 18, he 30, and no Gentleman. She was advertised and 20 guineas reward offered to anyone who could give an account of the stray sheep. It is a sad History. What misery this idle girl has caused her parents, and probably ensured her own for life.

Marianne Stanhope to John Spencer Stanhope.

March 3rd. (1805)
“You have doubtless read in the papers the account of Miss Petre’s elopement with her brother’s tutor, Mr Philips. He is a very low man, quite another class, always dined with the children, never associated the least with the family, a sort of upper servant. Lady Petre thought him rather forward, he was to have left them at Easter. She had seen her daughter at twelve the night before, and only missed her at breakfast . Her clothes were all gone. A friend of his, a brandy merchant, accompanied her in the chaise, the tutor rode first. A clergyman refused to marry them some time ago at Lambeth, but they have since been married at Oxford by a Mr. Leslie, a Catholic priest, which is not enough. They are not yet discovered.”

The Miss Petre referred to above was Maria Juliana, daughter of Robert Edward, 9th Baron Petre. She was born 22 January 1787, married on 30th April 1805, to Stephen Philips, Esq., and died 27th January 1824. I have been unable to find much else concerning her life, but here is her obituary, as it appeared in The Catholic Spectator: “The Hon. Mrs. Philips, wife of Stephen Philips, Esq. of H. M. Customs, and eldest daughter of the late Rt. Hon. Edw. Lord Petre, and Lady Mary, surviving,  of a decline, aged 37. To the ardent and unremitting zeal of this Lady, in her personal and most charitable attentions to the Female Catholic Charity School, at Stratford, Essex, may principally be attributed her lamented and premature decease. She has left five children and a husband to deplore the loss of a model for the Christian wife and mother.”

However shocking his daughter’s elopement may have been for Lord Petre, there was more disappointment ahead. Like many other aristocrats before and after, Lord Petre’s home, Thornton Hall, was chosen as a base for a royal visit in October of 1778 by King George III and Queen Charlotte. And, like others, Lord Petre went to great expense to prepare for his royal guests. We have the following account of the preparations and the visit from Reminiscences For My Children by Catharine Mary Howard (1838) –

General Lord Amherst

September 22nd—General Lord Amherst was commanded by his Majesty to inform Lord Petre, that he was graciously pleased to accept of his offer to make Thorndon his residence, during his intended review of the troops encamped on Warley Common, on or about the 5th of October. Lord Petre, anxious to receive his sovereign with every mark of respect, duty, and affection, becoming an attached and loyal subject, set about immediately making every necessary preparation for his entertainment, which the vicinity of Thorndon to the capital enabled him to do with more expedition. His lordship sent for Mr. Bracken, his upholsterer, and asked him whether it was possible, in so short a time, to re-furnish the drawing-rooms, the state bed-room, and dressing-rooms —the drawing-room being forty feet by twenty-five, and twenty-three feet high, which is the height of all the rooms on the first floor. He replied, it might be done if a sufficient quantity of damask, of English manufacture, (as was ordered,) could be procured to cover those spacious apartments. Among other things ordered, were fifty tabourets to be covered with damask, as only kings and queens upon such occasions sit upon chairs. In a few hours he sent down patterns, of which a beautiful light green was chosen for the drawing-rooms and the King’s dressing-room, and a red and white damask for the state bed-room and the Queen’s dressing-room.


“Mr. Davy, the house-steward, was despatched the next day to town, to procure trades-people of every description, who arrived at Thorndon in various conveyances, both public and private, amounting to one hundred, and who were all lodged and fed in the house. He was also daily employed in providing every luxury for the King’s table; and was empowered by Lord Petre to order a service of gold, in addition to the family plate, which was very considerable. Much, also, was hired, and a quantity borrowed from the Duke of Norfolk, assisted by some families in the neighbourhood— Lord Waldegrave, Lady Mildemay, and Mr. Conyers. Every thing went on briskly, but no decided day had been named for the King’s arrival.

“October 3rd—An express came from Lord Amherst, to announce that his Majesty would not be at Thorndon before the 19th instant. The cooks and confectioners were therefore sent back to London; and three large dinners were given to the neighbours, to which the officers and their ladies were invited, who partook of the good things that had already been prepared, while the workpeople went on more leisurely, and with less fatigue.

“On the 15th, the fourteen additional men-cooks and confectioners returned, and re-commenced their culinary labours with great spirit, so that all was in readiness, in every department, by the 18th October.

George III, Queen Charlotte and their six eldest children by Johan Zoffany

“October 19th, three o’clock Behold! in the avenue, the finest sight of the kind that ever was seen !—The sun bright—troops drawn up on each side—innumerable people—the King and Queen appearing with their numerous equipages, horse guards, attendants, etc. and numberless horsemen sent by Lord Petre to meet them, headed by his land-steward, with all the people he could collect— the park of artillery saluting, which was re-echoed in the woods with the shouts of the people—the rapidity with which the King’s chaise ran on, scarcely five minutes having elapsed, from the time of its appearance at the top of the rising avenue, (a full mile and a half from the house,) to their Majesties coming up to the door—the lawn in one instant covered with horsemen—and the horses panting—all contributed to resemble the work of enchantment! From Brentwood, a double row of carriages had placed themselves behind the troops, the horses being taken off to prevent accidents.

“Lord and Lady Petre received their Royal Visitors at the door. Lord Petre handed the Queen up stairs, while the King, with Lady Petre, walked on together through the entrance-hall— carpeted for the occasion up to the carriage-door— towards the first drawing-room, into the great drawing-room, which shall henceforth be designated by the presence-chamber, where two state chairs were placed on a raised platform. Lord and Lady Petre then kissed their Majesties’ hands, who soon shook off all form by their easy manner. They asked directly to see the house, and, followed by their suite, went through all the different apartments. On their return to the presence-chamber, the King desired to see Miss Petre, whom he played with, and afterwards took a great deal of notice of.


King George III by Ramsay

“At four o’clock, dinner was announced, when Lord Petre handed the Queen to the dining-room. Her chair alone was placed at the table, but her Majesty desired the ladies to sit down; and tabourets were immediately brought forward for Lady Egremont, lady of the bed-chamber, Lady Amherst, and Lady Petre. On no other occasion excepting at commerce, were they asked to sit down.

“His Majesty dined in the great hall, a couvert being laid only for him. He also desired the gentlemen to sit down; and stools were immediately placed near the table for Lord Lothian, gold stick, Lord Carmarthen, chamberlain to the Queen, General Carpenter, equerry to the King, Colonel Harcourt and Colonel St. John, aides-decamp, Lord Amherst, General Pearson, Majorgeneral Sir David Lindsay, as commanding officer of the day, Major-general Morrison, and Majorgeneral Fawcett. Lord Petre sat on the left hand of the King, and acted as cup-bearer. After the first glass was drunk, his Majesty ordered the wine round to his right, that he might not take the trouble to get up again.

Queen Charlotte 1779

“. . . . . In rising from table at eight o’clock, Lord Petre poured rose-water upon his Majesty’s hands, from a golden ewer and basin which were given by Mary, Queen of Scots, to the Earl of Derwentwater, his maternal grandfather. He then conducted his Majesty to the presence-chamber, bearing lights before him.

“After coffee, the King conversed for half an hour with the gentlemen in the outer drawingroom, to whom he talked of the army, and, with Lord Petre, chiefly about the camp. All the company then took their departure, leaving only the attendants.

“The King immediately proposed playing at commerce, and made the following party:—Lady Egremont, Lady Amherst, Lady Petre, Lord Lothian, Lord Carmarthen, Colonel St. John, and Colonel Harcourt. The latter won the first pool, and Lord Petre the second.

“Supper was prepared in the great hall at twelve o’clock. The Queen only sat down to supper, around whose chair the King, with the gentlemen, and a great number of attendants, stood at the bottom of the table. At one o’clock, their Majesties retired. Lord Petre carried lights before the King, and Lady Petre before the Queen, to their apartments.

“Here a little occurrence caused some disappointment. As their Majesties always carried their own little beds with them, the state bed had to be removed to make place for them, from within the gilt-iron guard that surrounded it. Fortunately, the tester was fastened from above, with the curtains, independent of the bedstead, and remained to form a stately awning to the two ordinary red and white check tent-beds.

“The next morning their Majesties breakfasted alone in the presence-chamber. Between nine and ten o’clock, they sent for Lord and Lady Petre, with whom they walked about the house, and up and down the south portico of the great saloon, until the carriages were ready to convey them to Warley Common. Here Lord Petre had prepared a stand, tacked and furnished in a very sumptuous manner, which was placed in the most advantageous position for seeing the sham-fight and the military movements, with which the King expressed his approbation in the strongest terms, but which were reported in the Gazette in an ordinary style.

“All passed on in the same manner as on the preceding day, excepting that the peers, and colonels of the regiments encamped at Warley, were asked to dine at the King’s table, making a party of thirty. One hundred and thirty dishes were served up, besides high ornamental decorations in the centre. Among the dainties gathered from all parts of England, I observed in the poulterer’s bill, a bustard, marked five guineas.

“His Majesty was in high spirits, conversed with cheerfulness and freedom, and did not rise from table till ten o’clock ; after which he proposed another pool at commerce, which his Majesty won, and in the course of the game drew kings twice. The second time he threw them on the table, he said, `Here are these things again, here are these things again.’

“At twelve, their Majesties retired to rest; and next morning they breakfasted in the presencechamber, as they had done on the preceding day. At ten o’clock, Lord and Lady Petre, with their little daughter, were sent for by the King, who throwing open one of the windows, that the whole party might be seen by the populace, who had collected from all parts in great crowds in front of the house, remained a considerable time—the King holding Miss Petre before him, and Lord Petre standing on his right, with Lady Petre on the left of the Queen. Their Majesties then, in the most obliging manner, expressed their thanks for the kind and handsome reception they had met with at Thorndon, which they condescendingly repeated several times.

“Lord and Lady Petre had the honour to kiss their Majesties’ hands, as they had done on their arrival. Lord Petre then handed the King and Queen into their carriage—drawn by six beautiful greys—who drove off for Navestock, to dine with Lord and Lady Waldegrave, where Lord and Lady Petre were commanded to meet their Majesties; and they went up to town the following day, to attend the drawing-room at St. James’s.

“As vails were not then abolished, the King left a hundred guineas for the servants, as also money for the poor.”

And so he might in return for such lavish entertainments. The People’s History of Essex by  Duffield William Coller (1861) provides further details into the entertainments organized for the King: “The street and roadway from the London entrance of the town, down to the park gate, a distance of nearly two miles, were lined with soldiery; and the royal pair passed beneath a triumphal arch to the hull door, where they were received by Lord and Lady Petre. A royal levee, a grand dinner party, a concert, and a display of fireworks, filled the roll of festivity at the baronial hall; while the loyalty of Brentwood blazed forth at night in a general illumination, as brilliant as it could be made at a time when gas as yet lay slumbering undiscovered in its heap of coal dust. The following day his Majesty reviewed the little army which lay encamped at Warley, and afterwards held a levee upon the ground for the reception of the military officers and county gentry. While this was passing upon the green turf of the common—while the cannon were thundering out in mimic fight, troops of horse flying across the plain, and columns of infantry crashing through the neighbouring woods to show royalty how a battle was lost and won—a fairy-like surprise was preparing at Thorndon Hall. At the west end of the magnificent dining-room, a noble orchestra rose as if by magic. On the front was emblazoned the royal arms, with Fame sounding her trumpet, and underneath, in large characters, were the words —” Vivant Bex et Regina.” On each side were finely-executed portraits of their Majesties, and guardian angels crowning them with laurel. The orchestra itself was filled with artists of firstrate talent The whole was carefully concealed till the royal party and the other guests were seated, and the course had been served, when on the first flourish of the royal fork, the screen was suddenly removed. The fine strains of ” God save the King” bursting out from the midst of this flash of light and these things of beauty, gave it the air of an enchanted scene; and general expressions of delight greeted the noble host.”

We now return to Reminiscences For My Children for the sorry aftermath of the Royal visit and to learn what Lord Petre, who had spent so much, on so many levels, received for his pains.

“From that period no particular mark of attention in any manner was ever shown to Lord and Lady Petre, by their Majesties King George III. and Queen Charlotte. On the contrary, they were not even asked to the Queen’s concerts or private parties the following winter, or to any other entertainment ever after, solely on the plea of their religion (they were Catholics); and in 1798, his Majesty refused to sign Lord Petre’s son’s commission to a volunteer corps he had raised, because, his Majesty said, he could not help being aware that he was a Roman Catholic, having been in the chapel at Thorndon House.”

It seems odd that the King should claim to only have discovered that Lord Petre was a Catholic after his visit, as Lord Petre had been a force in the move for Catholic Emancipation, all neatly laid out in this entry from Wikipedia.

As a side note, the Thorndon Hall website relates the following: “At the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 Lord William Petre (11th Baron 1793 to 1850) is said to have captured Marengo, the grey Arabian horse of Napoleon I of France, although in talking with his decendent the current Lord Petre he does not believe that his ancestor would have been at the battle being a Catholic. However whether or not the Baron was present at the battlefield it is believed that he acquired the horse and brought it back to the Thorndon Hall,  later selling it to Lieutenant-Colonel Angerstein of the Grenadier Guards for stud. Marengo lived on for another 11 years and died at the age of 38. The horse’s skeleton was preserved and is now on display at the National Army Museum in Chelsea, London.”


Victoria here. 2014 marks several significant historical anniversaries.  One hundred years ago, the world became embroiled in the Great War, known nowadays as World War I. Two hundred years ago the Allies triumphed over Napoleon, sent him into exile on Elba, then celebrated their grand victory with a series of London extravaganzas before settling into the Congress of Vienna where they argued over the fate of a non-Napoleonic Europe.

Kensington Palace

Three hundred years ago in 1714, the Hanoverians became Kings of England, when King George I took the throne left vacant by the death of Queen Anne (1665-1714) in August 1714. Anne’s several children had predeceased her and at her death, Great Britain was left without a successor as monarch. A few years earlier, after the death of her one child who lived to the age of eleven (William, Duke of Gloucester, 1689-1700), the English Parliament struggled to find a successor to the Queen, a successor who would not restore Roman Catholicism.  The Act of Settlement of 1701 gave the crown, assuming no further children were born to Anne, to Sophia, Electress of Hanover, and her Protestant descendants.  She was a granddaughter of James I, and though dozens of Catholic family members had closer ties to Anne, all but Protestants were precluded from the succession.  Sophia, the Electress, had died just two months before Queen Anne’s passing; thus, her eldest son was Elector and became British King.

Studio of Sir Godfrey Kneller,  George I, c. 1714 

Georg Ludwig (1660-1727) was 54, the Elector of Hanover, when he became the King of Great Britain and Ireland.  George had married Sophia Dorothea of Celle in 1682. The marriage, though it resulted in two children, was never happy.  When he came to London to receive the British crown, Sophia remained behind in Germany, more or less a prisoner. for the rest of her life. When George I was crowned in Westminster Abbey in October, 1714, there was widespread rioting in opposition to his rule.

However, the politically powerful, mainly the Whigs, kept him in power, even though he never learned to speak English. During his reign, Sir Robert Walpole, first real prime minister, truly ran the government. Many historians see George I’s time as big jump in shift of power from the crown to Parliament.

Thomas Hudson: George II, 1744

George II succeeded his father in October, 1727, as the last King of Britain born elsewhere; he also had the distinction of being the last British king to lead his armies in battle during the War of Austrian Succession 1743. He’d had a contentious relationship with his father, and the same could be said of his dealings with his son and heir, Prince Frederick.  But Frederick died before his father and thus the third Hanoverian to wear the British crown was George II’s grandson George III, who succeeded in 1760 at the age of 22.

Allan Ramsay, George III, 1762

This year, Historic Royal Palaces celebrate the Hanoverians at three of their popular sites. At Hampton Court, events will center around George I and his reign. You’ll meet the Court of George II at the newly renovated Kensington Palace, soon also to be the home of the latest George, Prince George of Cambridge, and his parents Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and Her Grace, Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge.  Kew Palace in Kew Gardens will host events centering on the family of George III, the first of the Hanoverian kings actually to be born in England. 

Hampton Court Palace
There will be a large number of events at all three locations, from scholarly meetings to family activities.  Learn more here.

Join our blogger pal Madame Guillotine as she learns about the Glorious Georges here.   

The Queen’s Gallery
 © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
Until October 2014, the Queen’s Gallery in Buckingham Palace is presenting an exhibition of treasures from the Royal Collection: The 1st Georgians: Art & Monarchy 1714-1760Click here for more information.


The Victoria and Albert Museum will also mark the early Georgian period with its exhibition
William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain, on display until July 13, 2014.  Click here for more information.

Kristine visited this exhibition earlier this year when it was shown in NYC by the co-organizer, the Bard Graduate Center.  See her report here.



Regency Reflections: On 5 February, 1811, the Regency Begins…

By February 5, 1811, both houses of Parliament had passed the Regency Act, making George, Prince of Wales, the Regent for his incapacitated father, George III, who was under doctors’ care at Windsor Castle. The Prince took the royal oath on February 6, 1811.

He was 48 years old. He had a legal wife, Princess Caroline, whom he despised, and from whom he had been estranged since shortly after the wedding.  Their daughter, Princess Charlotte of Wales, was 15 years old, and suffered from the great inconsistencies in her father’s attention and attitude.  She was most often ignored by him, but occasionally she was flaunted before the public, which adored her and loathed him.

Princess Charlotte by Richard Woodman,
1816,  NPG
Charlotte was a lively girl who had limited contact with both her mother and father.  She was often with her aunts, the Princesses, and her grandmother, Queen Charlotte, and only rarely with girls of her own age. From time to time, the Prince spent time with her, but he complained that her looks reminded him, painfully, of his wife.  Little wonder she had the German/Hanoverian stamp, since her George and Caroline were first cousins, both grandchildren of Frederick, Prince of Wales (1707-1751), the son of George II.
Princess Charlotte led a lonely life, though surrounded at all times by attendants and court-appointed companions.

Caroline,  Princess of Wales
by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1798, VandA

Caroline, by 1811, had set up a separate establishment where she entertained and socialized. Some of her behavior was reported to be scandalous, and her access to her daughter was often restricted. Caroline enjoyed — and often flaunted — her personal popularity with the people. She resented her position as a cast-aside wife with little or no access to court and none of the honors due her. Little wonder that there were constant rumors  circulating in London society.



Mrs. Fitzherbert by Gainsborough, 1787

Prince George had another wife, Maria Fitzherbert, though the union was not legal according to the requirements of the laws regarding royal marriages. Maria put up with a lot of misbehavior from George too. He left her not only for a legal wife, however temporarily, but also had numerous mistresses while he was associating with her. Like Caroline, Maria loved children; both women adopted other children on whom they poured their maternal love. One hopes that all three of these women – Maria, Caroline and Charlotte – managed some degree of happiness in their lives as they were consistently disappointed by the whims and caprices of George, Prince of Wales.

 Prince George resided at Carlton House in London, a building he had turned into a palace filled with magnificent art works and sumptuous furnishings. Typical of his over-indulgence in all matters, as King, George IV had Carlton House demolished in 1825 for a new plan to enhance the new Regent Street. Meanwhile, he turned his Marine Pavilion in Brighton, from  the tasteful building completed by Henry Holland in 1787, below, into a fantastical building in which the interior is Chinese style while the exterior is Indian-Mughal, whatever that is. Rev. Sydney Smith remarked upon seeing the Pavilion, “It looks like St. Paul’s Cathedral came down and pupped.”

The Marine Pavilion, Brighton
 Henry Holland, Architect, 1787

 Brighton Pavilion, as remodeled by John Nash, after 1811

England at the beginning of 1811 had been at war with France on and off for decades. British armies were fighting in the Peninsular Wars in Portugal and Spain. Shifting alliances among the continental European powers kept Britain’s diplomats busy negotiating and re-negotiating treaties and mutual support pacts.  The Prince Regent left the hard jobs to his ministers while he concentrated on his social life, his collections, his designs for army uniforms, and other even more trivial matters.  We will dip further into some of these in future posts.  

But George never was very popular. Sometimes the press was full of praise, but between the essayists, satirists and artists of caricatures, the Regent took his full share of criticism.
Here is a fragment of the praiseful poem published by the Morning Post newspaper in honor of the new Prince Regent:

Adonis! In thy shape and face,
A liberal heart and Princely grace
In thee are seen combined …

But Leigh Hunt and his brother John, editor of a literary magazine called the Examiner, published a different view:
“… An Adonis of 50 … a violator of his word, a libertine over head and ears in debt and disgrace, a despiser of domestic ties, the companion of gamblers and demi-reps, a man without a single claim to the gratitude of his country or the respect of posterity …”

Though many hailed them as heroes for their position, the Hunts were sued for and convicted of libel and served time in jail. Among the visitors to Leigh Hunt in prison were the poet Lord Byron, Lord Brougham, and essayist Charles Lamb.

Leigh Hunt, essayist and critic, 1784-1859

“The Prince of Whales, or The Fisherman at Anchor:
George Cruikshank,  1812

We will look at the Prince, or Prinny as many called him, and his reign many times in the upcoming months.  It was a time of excess in many ways, and he certainly led the pack. We will see many more caricatures — they were in their glory in those days — and we will look at the real achievements of the Prince, particularly in assembling his collections of art and decorative arts.

At his Pavilion in Brighton, a new exhibition is about to open: Dress for Excess, Fashion in Regency England.  suitable title, don’t you agree?  It will include the magnificent Coronation Robe worn by the Prince as he became George IV in 1921. Below, the King’s portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence (who else?).

Regency Reflections: Leading up to the Regency of Prince George, 1811

George III, c.1809; studio of Sir William Beechey, NPG

After the first regency crisis in 1788-89, George III had occasional relapses of illness and mental incapacity. However, each time he would gradually recover, and he retained the powers of his office for more than two decades.

George, Prince of Wales, bided his time, indulging in his characteristic excesses. He was not esteemed by the common people. He complained that he was not given an important post in the Army, like his brother Frederick, Duke of York, or in the Navy like his brother William, Duke of Clarence. This is how he was caricatured by James Gillray (1757-1815) in 1792 as A Voluptuary Under the Horrors of Digestion.

James Gillray, 1792
Caroline, Princess of Wales by Lawrence

Acceding to his father’s and Parliament’s wishes, and to pay his debts,  in 1795 he married his cousin Caroline of Brunswick, a marriage which lasted only a few days or weeks before they were effectively estranged forever. Nevertheless, a child was born nine months after the ceremonies, Princess Charlotte. At last there was a legitimate grandchild who could inherit the throne.

Marriage did nothing to improve Prince George; in fact it may have increased his reckless behavior.

Princess Amelia, Hoppner, 1785

The leaders of both political parties died in 1806, William Pitt, the Tory Prime Minister in January and Whig leader Charles James Fox in September, leaving a new cast of characters to assess the need for a regency.

Princess Amelia, 1783-1810, by William Beechey

 The British people had grown fond of their old king and his jubilee, celebrating 50 years on the throne, was widely acclaimed in 1809. The next year, King George III’s madness recurred. He was much distressed by the fatal illness of his youngest daughter, Princess Amelia. Though she chafed at the strictness of her parents and her virtual imprisonment at Windsor, she loved her father. Anticipating her death, she had a special jewel set for him including a lock of her hair. The very sight of it caused him tears.

The Prime Minister in 1810-11 was Spencer Perceval (1762-1812), who presided over a fractious set of ministers. Perceval, who called himself “not a Tory but a follower of Pitt”, did not like the Prince. The feeling was mutual. Perceval had taken the side of Caroline, Princess of Wales, in her disputes with her husband, and George was not a forgiving man.

But after much discussion and examination of the King by doctors and politicians alike, Perceval told the Prince that the Parliament would discuss a bill to establish a regency. George was to be ruler in the name of his father. The prince was not pleased with the restrictions placed on his actions by the bill, which was very similar to the one passed by Commons and almost passed by the House of Lords in 1789. These restrictions had mainly to do with the creations of peerages and other offices, awards and pensions. The Queen would be responsible for the care of the King.

For some of the members of both Commons and Lords, the bill gave too much power to the Prince. But despite the bill’s shortcomings, it passed in early February, 1811, and the Regency was established. The Prince took the Royal Oath on February 6.

To the surprise of almost everyone, the Prince Regent did not choose new ministers from his close friends, the Whigs. The Parliament had many issues on its agenda, such as continuation of the Peninsular War, the problems of Ireland, and banking concerns.

Meanwhile, the Prince Regent continued his spendthrift ways. He prided himself on his connoisseurship; he built, remodeled, bought, collected and wasted incredible amounts of public money. However, for the remainder of the regency and his ten years as George IV, his tastes and his extravagances gave Britain a lasting legacy in the royal collections and palaces. Whether it had anything to do with his influence or not, there was a flowering of literary talent on his watch. Byron, Keats, Shelley, Austen, Scott – an endless list. And the painters Constable, Turner, Lawrence and many others were at the top of their games. Architecture, the decorative arts, and garden design developed brilliantly.

We will investigate many of these topics further over the year.

Regency Reflections: The First Regency Crisis in 1788-89

George, Princeof Wales as Prince Regent,
by Sir Thomnas Lawrence, c. 1814

This is the first of an occasional series of posts on the English Regency, which began 200 years ago.  The Regency has innumerable definitions. In the arts, architecture, society, fashion, decor, and literature, we might date the Regency as being almost the same dates as the long 18th century, from the 1660 Restoration of the monarchy to the accession of Victoria in 1837. Others shorten it to the period between the American War (1776)and/or the French Revolution (1789) to the death of George IV in 1830 and/or  William IV in 1837.  The official Regency lasted nine years, from 1811-1820, when George III died and the Prince Regent became George IV.

The Regency was many years in the making.  In the summer of 1788, King George III suffered what he called a bilious attack. After consultation with his wife, Queen Charlotte, and the royal physicians, the King and his entourage went to Cheltenham spa to take the waters. Though he had temporary relief, when he returned to Windsor in mid-August, things quickly deteriorated. Throughout the next few months, the King’s condition worsened, combining physical and mental problems.

Prim Minister William Pitt

The political world of parliamentary leaders and ministers was alive with rumors and gossip based on long-held political rivalries and ambitions. Richard Brinsley Sheridan, in the absence of Charles James Fox (touring Italy), and other Whigs who enjoyed close friendships with George, Prince of Wales  (who would be appointed as regent for his father if the regency bill was passed), were excited. The Whigs could almost taste their return to power. However, the Prime Minister William Pitt, a Tory to the core, saw the matter differently. He willed the King to recover.  While stalling for time, a bill setting the conditions and restrictions of the regency was drawn up and debated. 

Charles James Fox, Whig leader

The Prince of Wales, age 26, at first tried to stay publicly aloof from the debates. His life, which we have written about elsewhere and will no doubt write about again, was characterized by considerable conflict with his father. George III was strict with his sons, giving them an excellent education and expecting them to behave with propriety.  But like the sons of so many English kings, (see The King’s Speech for a more modern example), Prince George chose to go his own way with regard to lady friends, expensive architectural and collecting projects, and disobedience to his father’s desires.

Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Whig leader

The Prince considered himself a highly intelligent and principled connoisseur, a clever wit, and The First Gentleman of Europe. Others considered him self-indulgent, a spendthrift, and insensitive.  But like so many sons of kings, he had no real job. He wanted to participate in the wars, and envied his brothers:  Frederick’s position in the Army and William’s post in the Navy.  In 1785, George married Maria Fitzherbert in a ceremony that defied the laws requiring the monarch’ s approval, which couldn’t have been given because she was a Roman Catholic.

Thomas Rowlandson, Filial Piety (Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University)
Charles James Fox, leader of the Whigs was traveling. His leadership was assumed by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, another Whig whose amorous adventures will fill a future blog. As the months passed without improvement in the King’s health – or ultimate passage of the regency bill, the Prince of Wales began to be more obv
iously interested in his ultimate assumption of power. His interest did not escape the notice of the political satirists, such as Thomas Rowlandson. His Filial Piety, above.

Rupert Everett in The Madness of King George, 3rd from left

By February, the regency bill had passed the House of Commons and was about to be finally debated in the Lords when the King appeared to recover completely. He came back to London and the bill was taken off the Lords’ agenda. A service of Thanksgiving for the King’s Recovery was held at St. Paul’s Cathedral in April of 1789.

These are the events chronicled in the play and film The Madness of King George (1994). Above is a still from the film showing the Prince of Wales as played by Rupert Everett waiting to hear the results of a parliamentary vote. The film is quite accurate in portraying the first regency crisis and the king’s recovery.

A flattering (slimming) portrait of the Prince, c. 1782

We will investigate the next chapter in this drama soon.