Sunday, May 29, 2011

Why I Love the British Regency, Part One

To begin, a little order of business: I apologize for my lengthy absence from the blog-o-world. The month of May has zipped by with nary a post at the Ball. I was busy helping my mother spruce up her cavern of a kitchen. I found myself composing blog posts in my head while up to my elbows in old wallpaper and wood filler, but never quite made it to the keyboard to type them up. But I'm back now. Hooray!

On to the topic at hand.

You've probably heard the homily, "Write what you know." This is terrible advice. Banish it from your mind at once. My advice to writers would be, "Write your passion."

The British Regency (1811-1820) is my passion. But why? It certainly isn't anything I would know.... or is it? As it turns out, this particular period in British history has a great deal in common with our own time, in areas ranging from politics and economics, to fashion, to celebrity culture. I absolutely love delving into the history of this era. The more I learn, the more I appreciate another proverb: "There is nothing new under the sun." Let's explore, shall we?


Much like our own time, the British Regency was a time of political and social unrest. The regency itself created an air of uncertainty. The king, George III, was unfit to rule due to a debilitating mental illness. Parliament passed a Regency Act allowing his son, George, Prince of Wales (later George IV, following the death of George III in 1820) to act as Regent. George III was politically conservative, while the Prince of Wales was known to hold more liberal views. Which way would the political winds blow? The Whig party expected the Regent to champion their reform causes in Parliament, while the Tories hoped the son would uphold the establishment created by the father. Politicians found themselves walking a tightrope, trying to feel out the new order.

As it happened, the Prince Regent maintained the status quo in the form of retaining many of his father's appointed ministers and advisors. The Whigs didn't have the reform champion they'd hoped for. Sound familiar at all? Maybe? Anyway, the Regent also lived an extravagant lifestyle. On the taxpayer's dime (or shilling, as the case may be), he built the ostentatious Royal Pavilion in Brighton, and renovated Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle, among other little home improvement projects. As expected, this did not go over very well with your average Nigel Taxpayer, who struggled to buy bread thanks to the disastrous Corn Laws, among other things. While his father had little use for the arts, the Prince Regent led the way in patronizing British architects, fashion, theater, and artists.

He was really a visionary, you guys, thinking ahead to tourism dollars. Sound investment in retrospect, amiright?

The Georgian Period (of which the Regency was a smaller part), was also marked by political buzzwords. On the top of the list is one you might have noticed on our own broadsheets newspapers from time to time:


I'm not even kidding. The fear of terrorism was a driving political motivator during the Regency. From whence did the British expect terrorists to spring? Not from far-flung foreign shores, but from within their own populace. You see, British aristocrats and politicians lived in fear of a little kerfuffle that had recently taken place across the Channel, The French Revolution. Or, as it was known in polite circles, THE TERROR. You may recall how the heads of a few aristocrats--and maybe a monarch or two--parted ways with their bodies in the streets of Paris. The French Revolution wasn't over until 1799. This was still very recent news in the early 1800's, and the British aristocracy absolutely feared having a similar situation explode in London.

England in 1800 was not always the idyllic place we like to imagine of simple times and strong moral values and a bounteous countryside. Land ownership was still very much feudal, with the Lords of the Manors raking in the riches from the labors of their tenant farmers. The aforementioned Corn Laws created an environment in which farmers couldn't afford to buy the very grain they grew in their fields. The common people had no political voice in Parliament, as corruption was rife in elections to the House of Commons. The economy was in the tank. Industrialization was in its infancy, and workers started losing their jobs to machines, thanks to the introduction of automated textile looms. (Seriously, I hope you are seeing some commonalities to our own time without my having to make this any longer than it already is.)

Trying to redefine "marriage" to include
two Catholics. Perverts.

Furthermore, there was an oppressed minority in England, a group that was a political hot button topic for decades: Catholics. Under British law, Catholics were barred from holding public office. They could not hold a seat in either the Lords or the Commons. Catholics could not own property, inherit land, or join the military. A Catholic marriage ceremony was not legally valid. A civil ceremony had to take place for the... union... to be recognized by the state. 

In the late eighteenth century, reform issues related to land ownership, voting rights, and Catholic Emancipation began to pick up the pace. The Terror brought all of that to a screeching halt. The aristocracy feared giving an inch to those pesky poor people and Catholics, because LOOK what happens when they begin to aim above their station in life! They start calling each other Citizen and creating republics. Madness!

The French Revolution effectively shut down the issue of Catholic Emancipation in England until well past the end of the Regency. In 1829, the Catholic Relief Act was finally passed, which lifted many of the restrictions on British Catholics.

Phew! This post has gone on way longer than I had planned for it to, and I have only scratched the surface, so this has just become a Part One. I'll shelve more lighthearted issues like fashion and celebrity gossip for another post. I hope you've enjoyed this little jaunt into Regency politics!