Wot, Wot? Why the British Regency?

Portrait of King George IV, painted by Sir Tho...
Portrait of George IV of the United Kingdom in the robes of the Order of the Garter as Prince Regent, 1816, by Sir Thomas Laurence. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you’re here you probably love Regency Romance. But unless you took European or British history, or are familiar with the movie, THE MADNESS OF KING GEORGE, you may have no idea why such a period existed (I didn’t). The Regent of the Regency Period was the Prince of Wales, who became George IV after the death of his father George III. All I learned in school, not having studied much in the way of world history in college, was that King George III was the one against whom the American Colonists revolted.

In general a regent is  “one invested with vicarious authority:  one who governs a kingdom in the minority, absence, or disability of the sovereign.” (Merriam-Webster Online) Another example of a regent is Mary of Guise, who ruled Scotland as regent for Mary Stuart when she was too young to act as queen.

A prince regent, or prince-regent, is a prince who rules a monarchy as regent instead of a monarch, e.g., as a result of the Sovereign’s incapacity (minority or illness) or absence (remoteness, such as exile or long voyage, or simply no incumbent).  Wikipedia

The Regency period in England, however, occurred when King George III was deemed unable to rule due to insanity.  At the time, there was little understanding of the causes or treatments of mental illness and they were often considered willful or caused due to moral insufficiency.

I love the period for many reasons, but is absolutely fascinating to me that this entire period and it’s lasting political and cultural effects came about because of an illness, whether or not it was the supposed porphyria.

 

In the English language the title Prince Regent is most commonly associated with George IV, who held the style HRH The Prince Regent during the incapacity, by dint of mental illness, of his father, George III (see Regent for other regents). Regent’s Park, Regent Street and Regent’s Canal(which he commissioned) in London where all named in honour of him.

This period is known as the British Regency, or just the Regency.

The title was conferred by the Regency Act on February 5, 1811. Subject to certain limitations for a period, the Prince Regent was able to exercise the full powers of the King. The precedent of the Regency Crisis of 1788 (from which George III recovered before it was necessary to appoint a Regent) was followed. The Prince of Wales continued as regent until his father’s death in 1820, when he became George IV.  (Wikipedia)

In the case of the British Regency,  King George III’s insanity is thought to [possibly] have been caused by and a rare inherited metabolic disorder known as Porphyria

According to the American Porphyria Foundation:

Porphyria is not a single disease but a group of at least eight disorders that differ considerably from each other. A common feature in all porphyrias is the accumulation in the body of porphyrins or porphyrin precursors. Although these are normal body chemicals, they normally do not accumulate. Precisely which of these chemicals builds up depends on the type of porphyria.

The terms porphyrin and porphyria are derived from the Greek word porphyrus, meaning purple. Urine from some porphyria patients may be reddish in color due to the presence of excess porphyrins and related substances in the urine, and the urine may darken after exposure to light. American Porphyria Foundation

 

Another site explains the disease:

Each type of porphyria is determined by deficiency of a different enzyme. These enzyme deficiencies are usually inherited. Symptoms of the disease can include (but are not limited to) photosensitivity, strong abdominal pain, port wine-colored urine, muscle weakness or paralysis in the arms and legs, and behavioral changes including anxiety, irritability, and confusion. The interruption of nerve impulses to the brain can cause the development of psychiatric symptoms such as depression or delirium.

George III had a particularly severe form of porphyria. His first attack occurred in 1765, four years after his marriage to Queen Charlotte. Further signs of the disease showed up in 1788-1789. From 1811 to the time of his death in 1820 the royal patient became progressively insane and blind. He was nursed in isolation, and kept in straight jackets and behind bars in his private apartments at Windsor Castle.

Other members of the far-flung royal family who suffered from this hereditary disease were Queen Anne of Great Britain; Frederic the Great of Germany; George IV of Great Britain–son of George III; and George IV’s daughter, Princess Charlotte, who died during childbirth of complications of the disease.

THE REGENCY RING a web-ring on Virginia.edu

 

King George IV; King George III; Frederick, Du...
King George IV; King George III; Frederick, Duke of York and Albany, by Charles Tomkins. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to Wikipedia the formal period of the regency of HRH George, Prince of Wales was 1811 when  he was appointed Regent, and 1820 when he succeeded King George III and became HRH King George IV, but considered mre widely for stylistic and social influences it is often thought of as the period bridging the functional years of George III and the Victorian period, or about 1795 through 1837:

The period between 1795 and 1837 (the latter part of the reign of George III and the reigns of his sons George IV, as Prince Regent and King, and William IV) was characterized by distinctive trends in British architecture, literature, fashions, politics, and culture. Wikipedia, Regency Era

 

It is perhaps this aspect, as well as the UK’s politics of the period, that we speak and think of as most significant about the era, and which gives it a prominent place in our collective attention. Where George III’s court was serious, duty-driven and straitlaced, George IV was more extravagant,  and:

 

He had become by age 17, as he said, “rather too fond of women and wine.” His way of life and his close friendship with Charles James Fox and other loose-living Whig politicians caused his father to regard him with contempt. In 1784 the prince met the only woman whom he ever deeply loved, Maria Fitzherbert, whom he married secretly on Dec. 15, 1785. The marriage, however, was invalid: members of the royal family under the age of 25 were forbidden to marry without the king’s consent.

On April 8, 1795, in order to induce Parliament to pay his debts, the prince contracted a loveless marriage with his cousin Caroline, daughter of the Duke of Brunswick and of George III’s sister Augusta. A few weeks after the birth of their only child, Princess Charlotte (1796–1817), the couple separated.
Encyclopedia Britanica via URSUS This link is probably not directly accessible – you may need to go through your public or state library subscription.

 

 

George IV when Prince of Wales 1791
George IV when Prince of Wales 1791 by John Russell

It seems that while his father became insane, during his functional years he was more duty-driven and well-intentioned and applied himself to his role diligently if not perfectly. But George IV is more remembered for his extravagance, his marital situation, and his important influences on,, and support of the the arts. I quote the article on Wikipedia a lot because it is a well-researched and easily read:

The Regency is noted for its elegance and achievements in the fine arts and architecture. This era encompassed a time of great social, political, and even economic change. War was waged with Napoleon and on other fronts, affecting commerce both at home and internationally as well as politics. Despite the bloodshed and warfare the Regency was also a period of great refinement and cultural achievement, shaping and altering the societal structure of Britain as a whole.

One of the greatest patrons of the arts and architecture was the Prince Regent himself (the future George IV). Upper class society flourished in a sort of mini-Renaissance of culture and refinement. As one of the greatest patrons of the arts, the Prince Regent ordered the costly building and refurbishing of the beautiful and exotic Brighton Pavilion, the ornate Carlton House, as well as many other public works and architecture (See John Nash). Naturally, this required dipping into the treasury and the Regent, and later, King’s exuberance often outstripped his pocket, at the people’s expense.[1]

Society was also considerably stratified. In many ways there was a dark side to the beauty and fashion in England at this time: in the dingier, less affluent areas of London, thievery, womanizing, gambling, the existence of rookeries, and constant drinking ran rampant. Wikipedia

Cartoon unfavorably featuring the Prince Regent 1816
Cartoon unfavorably featuring the Prince Regent 1816

 

It may very well be the juxtaposition of style, elegance and refinement, and the poverty, inequality and the “dingier aspects” of the period that make it such a magnet for novels; themselves having llong been seen as appealing to the romantic sensibilities. It was during this period that the novel itself became a more legitimate form of entertainment.  In addition the period bridged two periods wherein duty and morality were emphasized by the monarchs themselves and were not just cultural ideals.  Although if you read the novels from the period, such as those of Jane Austen, or what we cal Regency Romance, it seems there were two standards at work, roughly divided by gender and position.  Women of the period, particularly of the monied and noble classes, were expected to be virtuous and sheltered. Men, however, had much more latitude for acceptable behavior, to a point. Jane Austen wrote in a letter that she had sympathy for the Prince’s wife due to his mistreatment of her.

While the Prince Regent was noted for his extravagance and excesses, the period became known for its style and elegance.  It marked an important changes in thinking, government, society and scientific methods and study became much more prevalent.  It was also a time of great economic stratification in society. But whatever it is it has had a truly lasting impact in arts and literature and captures the imagination with its romantic appeal.

 

If you have not seen this it is available on Amazon (click the cover):

Cover of "The Madness of King George"
Cover of The Madness of King George