Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Happy 200th, Prinny!

Happy New Year, dear readers! Regina and I hope your end-of-year holidays were full of fun and light, and that you’re ready for a new year full of history geekiness, new books, and general merriment.

Speaking of new years, 2011 marks an important anniversary to those of us with an obsession with interest in early 19th century history—tomorrow, January 5, is the 200th anniversary of the start of the Regency.

When we hear the word Regency most of us think of graceful, high-waisted dresses and exquisitely tied cravats and coats (preferably worn by a Colin Firth look-alike), classically-inspired furniture, brilliant and witty society, and Jane Austen. The Regency period is synonymous with a certain elegance and grace in the decorative arts, in manners, in fashion, and in literature--more sophisticated and somehow more modern-feeling than the Victorian period that followed it.

It is all those things...but most importantly, the Regency was the period from 1811 to 1820 when King George III still sat on the British throne but due to insanity and ill health was unable to rule. Instead, his eldest son the Prince of Wales (later King George IV) reigned in his name as Prince Regent.

So how did the Regency happen, anyway? Hmm…I think I feel a history lesson coming on…

King George III came to the throne in 1760 at the age of 22, succeeding his grandfather, George II (his father, Prince Frederick, was already dead). Young George was nothing if not dutiful, and one of his first duties as king, as he saw it, was to marry and provide for the succession. So within a year of becoming king, he married Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (a German province north of Berlin), and within a year of marrying, was the proud papa of a bouncing boy. So dutiful was King George, in fact, that fourteen more children followed (and oh my goodness, don’t you feel sorry for poor Queen Charlotte?)

George’s reign was, of course, not a quiet one: the 1770s and early 1780s saw the American Revolution and the start of years of war with France which would run, on and off, until 1815. And despite his fondness for his large family, he was not the most effective parent: his sons ran wild and were incredibly spendthrift, while his daughters were forced to live an almost nun-like existence (the first of them allowed to marry didn’t do so till her late thirties). But 1788 saw an event unprecedented in English history: the King went mad.

It’s now thought that George III was not insane but suffered from a (possibly) inherited metabolic disease called porphyria, a disorder of the body’s ability to regulate hemoglobin levels (it’s also suspected that mercury poisoning—mercury was commonly used in everyday remedies—may have exacerbated the condition). But what his family and ministers saw was increasingly erratic and manic behavior from him in the late summer and fall of 1788; despite a visit to the resort town of Cheltenham to drink its waters, he grew worse. When by November the poor man had to be forcibly restrained, a political crisis ensued: Parliament could not officially begin its business until the King formally opened it, which meant that virtually nothing could happen. The possibility of appointing a regent to rule for him was discussed, but the King’s recovery early the following spring made a regency unnecessary.

Unfortunately, this wasn't the last episode of madness the poor King suffered. Other brief periods of illness occurred, especially in 1804; in addition, encroaching old age and cataracts troubled George’s health and comfort. But he managed to hold on until November 1810, when tragedy struck: his youngest and favorite daughter, the Princess Amelia, died of consumption after a lingering and painful final illness. For the poor old King, it was the last straw: all his old symptoms returned with a vengeance and this time, did not subside. He remained ill until his death in January of 1820, at which time the Prince Regent ("Prinny" to his friends) became king in name as well as fact.

So who is this Prinny guy, anyway? Next week we'll begin a multi-part series on the man whom his tutor once predicted would be "either the most polished gentleman, or the most accomplished blackguard in Europe--possibly an admixture of both."


QNPoohBear said...

Happy New Year! Glad you're back. Your posts are always fun as well as informative.

Marissa Doyle said...

Thank you, QnPoohbear! It's nice to get back into the groove again, and I'm looking forward to this series on Prinny. Definitely qualifies as a "weird history story"!

Kathryn Kane said...

I hope you will not be too disappointed to learn that the source from which you got the date of 5 January 1811 for the anniversary of the Regency was in error. There are a couple of sources which do give that date, but it appears to have been a mis-print.

The bicentennial of the start of the Regency is actually this weekend. The Regency Act was passed on 5 February and Prinny took his oaths of office the next day, the 6th of February 1811.