The Regency era of British history officially spanned the years 1811 to 1820, though the term is commonly applied to the longer period between c. 1795 and 1837. King George III succumbed to mental illness in late 1810 and, by the Regency Act 1811, his eldest son George, Prince of Wales, was appointed Prince Regent to discharge royal functions. When George III died in 1820, the Prince Regent succeeded him as George IV. In terms of periodisation, the longer timespan is roughly the final third of the Georgian era (1714–1837), encompassing the last 25 years or so of George III's reign, including the official Regency, and the complete reigns of both George IV and his brother William IV. It ends with the accession of Queen Victoria in May 1837 and is followed by the Victorian era (1837–1901).
|c. 1811 – 1820 (1837)|
|Leader(s)||George, Prince Regent|
Although the Regency era is remembered as a time of refinement and culture, that was the preserve of the wealthy few, especially those in the Prince Regent's own social circle. For the masses, poverty was rampant and most town and city dwellers lived in slums, a state of affairs severely aggravated by the combined impact of war, economic collapse, mass unemployment, a bad harvest in 1816 (the "Year Without a Summer") and an ongoing population boom. Political response to the crisis included the Corn Laws, the Peterloo Massacre and the Representation of the People Act 1832. Led by William Wilberforce, there was increasing support for the abolitionist cause during the Regency era, culminating in passage of the Slave Trade Act 1807 and the Slavery Abolition Act 1833.
The longer timespan recognises the wider social and cultural aspects of the Regency era, characterised by the distinctive fashions, architecture and style of the period. The first 20 years to 1815 were overshadowed by the Napoleonic Wars. Throughout the whole period, the Industrial Revolution gathered pace and achieved significant progress by the coming of the railways and the growth of the factory system. The Regency era overlapped with Romanticism and many of the major artists, musicians, novelists and poets of the Romantic movement were prominent Regency figures such as Jane Austen, William Blake, Lord Byron, John Constable, John Keats, John Nash, Ann Radcliffe, Walter Scott, Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley, J. M. W. Turner and William Wordsworth.
George III (1738–1820) became King of Great Britain on 25 October 1760 when he was 22 years old, succeeding his grandfather George II. George III had himself been the subject of legislation to provide for a regency when Parliament passed the Minority of Successor to Crown Act 1751 following the death of his father Frederick, Prince of Wales, on 31 March 1751. George became heir apparent at the age of 12 and he would have succeeded as a minor if his grandfather had died before 4 June 1756, George's 18th birthday. As a contingency, the Act provided for his mother, Augusta, Dowager Princess of Wales, to be appointed regent and discharge most but not all royal functions.
In 1761, George III married Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz and they had 15 children (nine sons and six daughters). The eldest was Prince George, born on 12 August 1762 as heir apparent. He was named Prince of Wales soon after his birth. By 1765, three infant children led the order of succession and Parliament again passed a Regency Act as contingency. The Minority of Heir to the Crown Act 1765 provided for either Queen Charlotte or Princess Augusta to act as regent if necessary. George III had a long episode of mental illness in the summer of 1788. Parliament proposed the Regency Bill 1789 which was passed by the House of Commons. Before the House of Lords could debate it, the King recovered and the Bill was withdrawn. Had it been passed into law, the Prince of Wales would have become the regent in 1789.
The King's mental health continued to be a matter of concern but, whenever he was of sound mind, he opposed any further moves to implement a Regency Act. Finally, following the death on 2 November 1810 of his youngest daughter, Princess Amelia, he became permanently insane. Parliament passed the Care of King During his Illness, etc. Act 1811, commonly known as the Regency Act 1811. The King was suspended from his duties as head of state and the Prince of Wales assumed office as Prince Regent on 5 February 1811. At first, Parliament restricted some of the Regent's powers, but the constraints expired one year after the passage of the Act. The Regency ended when George III died on 29 January 1820 and the Prince Regent succeeded him as George IV.
After George IV died in 1830, a further Regency Act was passed by Parliament. George IV was succeeded by his brother William IV. His wife, Queen Adelaide, was 37 and there were no surviving legitimate children. The heir apparent was Princess Victoria of Kent, aged eleven. The new Act provided for her mother, Victoria, Duchess of Kent to become regent in the event of William's death before 24 May 1837, the young Victoria's 18th birthday. The Act made allowance for Adelaide having another child, either before or after William's death. If the latter scenario had arisen, Victoria would have become Queen only temporarily until the new monarch was born. Adelaide had no more children and, as it happened, William died on 20 June 1837, just four weeks after Victoria was 18.
Officially, the Regency began on 5 February 1811 and ended on 29 January 1820 but the "Regency Era", as such, is generally perceived to have been much longer. The term is commonly, though loosely, applied to the period from c. 1795 until the accession of Queen Victoria on 20 June 1837. The Regency Era is a sub-period of the longer Georgian Era (1714–1837), both of which were followed by the Victorian Era (1837–1901). The latter term had contemporaneous usage although some historians give it an earlier startpoint, typically the enactment of the Great Reform Act on 7 June 1832.
The Prince Regent himself was one of the leading patrons of the arts and architecture. He ordered the costly building and refurbishing of the exotic Brighton Pavilion, the ornate Carlton House, and many other public works and architecture. This all required considerable expense which neither the Regent himself nor HM Treasury could afford. The Regent's extravagance was pursued at the expense of the common people.
While the Regency is noted for its elegance and achievements in the fine arts and architecture, there was a concurrent need for social, political and economic change. The country was enveloped in the Napoleonic Wars until June 1815 and the conflict heavily impacted commerce at home and internationally. There was mass unemployment and, in 1816, an exceptionally bad harvest. In addition, the country underwent a population boom and the combination of these factors resulted in rampant poverty. Apart from the national unity government led by William Grenville from February 1806 to March 1807, all governments from December 1783 to November 1830 were formed and led by Tories. Their responses to the national crisis included the Peterloo Massacre in 1819 and the various Corn Laws. The Whig government of Earl Grey passed the Great Reform Act in 1832.
Essentially, England during the Regency era was a stratified society in which political power and influence lay in the hands of the landed class. Their fashionable locales were worlds apart from the slums in which the majority of people existed. The slum districts were known as rookeries, a notorious example being St Giles in London. These were places where alcoholism, gambling, prostitution, thievery and violence prevailed. The population boom, comprising an increase from just under a million in 1801 to one and a quarter million by 1820, heightened the crisis. Robert Southey drew a comparison between the squalor of the slums and the glamour of the Regent's circle:
The squalor that existed beneath the glamour and gloss of Regency society provided sharp contrast to the Prince Regent's social circle. Poverty was addressed only marginally. The formation of the Regency after the retirement of George III saw the end of a more pious and reserved society, and gave birth of a more frivolous, ostentatious one. This change was influenced by the Regent himself, who was kept entirely removed from the machinations of politics and military exploits. This did nothing to channel his energies in a more positive direction, thereby leaving him with the pursuit of pleasure as his only outlet, as well as his sole form of rebellion against what he saw as disapproval and censure in the form of his father.
In the 1810s, the Prince Regent proposed the conversion of crown land in Marylebone and St Pancras into a pleasure garden. The design work was initially assigned to the architect John Nash but it was the father and son partnership of James and Decimus Burton who had the majority of input to the project. Landscaping continued through the 1820s and Regent's Park was finally opened to the public in 1841.
The Zoological Society of London (ZSL) was founded in 1826 by Sir Stamford Raffles and Sir Humphry Davy. They obtained land alongside the route of the Regent's Canal through the northern perimeter of Regent's Park, between the City of Westminster and the London Borough of Camden. Following the death of Raffles soon afterwards, the 3rd Marquess of Lansdowne assumed responsibility for the project and supervised construction of the first animal houses. At first, the zoo was used for scientific purposes only with admittance restricted to Fellows of the ZSL which, in 1829, was granted a Royal Charter by George IV. The zoo was not opened to the public until 1847, after it became necessary to raise funds.
Wealthy households staged their own music events by relying on family members who could sing or play an instrument. For the vast majority of people, street performers provided their sole access to music of any kind.
Among the popular newspapers, pamphlets and other publications of the era were:
In 1814, The Times adopted steam printing. Using this method, it could print 1,100 sheets every hour, five and a half times the prior rate of 200 per hour. The faster speed of printing enabled the rise of the "silver fork novels" which depicted the lives of the rich and aristocratic. Publishers used these as a way of spreading gossip and scandal, often clearly hinting at identities. The novels were popular during the later years of the Regency era.
During the Regency era and well into the succeeding Victorian era, society women were discouraged from exertion although many did take the opportunity to pursue activities such as dancing, riding and walking that were recreational rather than competitive. In Pride and Prejudice, the Bennet sisters are frequently out walking and it is at a ball where Elizabeth meets Mr Darcy. There was a contemporary belief that people had limited energy levels with women, as the "weaker sex", being most at risk of over-exertion because their menstruation cycles caused periodic energy reductions.
Bare-knuckle boxing, also known as prizefighting, was a popular sport through the 18th and 19th centuries. The Regency era has been called "the peak of British boxing" because the champion fighter in Britain was also, in effect, the world champion. Britain’s only potential rival was the United States, where organised boxing began c. 1800. Boxing was in fact illegal but local authorities, who were often involved on the gambling side of the sport, would turn a blind eye. In any case, the huge crowds that attended championship bouts were almost impossible to police. Like cricket and horse racing, boxing attracted gamblers. The sport needed the investment provided by gambling, but there was a seamier side in that many fights were fixed.
At one time, prizefighting was "anything goes" but the champion boxer Jack Broughton proposed a set of rules in 1743 that were observed throughout the Regency era until they were superseded by the London Prize Ring Rules in 1838. Broughton's rules were a reaction to "bar room brawling" as they restricted fighters to use of the fists only. A round ended when a fighter was grounded and the rules prohibited the hitting of a downed opponent. He was helped to his corner and then had thirty seconds in which to "step up to the mark", which was a line drawn for that purpose so that the fighters squared off less than a yard apart. The next round would then begin. A fighter who failed to step up and square off was declared the loser. Contests continued until one fighter could not step up.
There were no weight divisions and so a heavyweight always had a natural advantage over smaller fighters. Even so, the first British champion of the Regency era was Daniel Mendoza, a middleweight who had successfully claimed the vacant title in 1792. He held it until he was defeated by the heavyweight Gentleman John Jackson in April 1795. Other Regency era champions were famous fighters like Jem Belcher, Hen Pearce, John Gully, Tom Cribb, Tom Spring, Jem Ward and James Burke. Gully went on to become a successful racehorse owner and, representing the Pontefract constituency, a Member of the first post-Reform Parliament from December 1832 to July 1837. Cribb was the first fighter to be acclaimed world champion after he twice defeated the American Tom Molineaux in 1811.
Marylebone Cricket Club, widely known as MCC, was founded in 1787 and became cricket's governing body. In 1788, the club drafted and published a revised version of the sport's rules. MCC had considerable influence throughout the Regency era and its ground, Lord's, became cricket's premier venue. There were in fact three Lord's grounds. The first, opened in 1787 when the club was formed, was on the site of Dorset Square in Marylebone, hence the name of the club. The lease was terminated in 1811 because of a rental dispute and the club took temporary lease of a second ground in St John's Wood. This was in use for only three seasons until the land was requisitioned because it was on the proposed route of the Regent's Canal. MCC moved to a nearby site on which they established their present ground.
Lord's staged the first Gentlemen v Players match in 1806. This fixture provides another illustration of the class divide in Regency society as it matched a team of well-to-do amateurs (Gentlemen) against a team of working-class professionals (Players). The first match featured Billy Beldham and William Lambert, who have been recognised as the outstanding professionals of the period, and Lord Frederick Beauclerk as the outstanding amateur player. The 1821 match ended prematurely after the Gentlemen team, well behind in the contest, conceded defeat. This had been billed as the "Coronation Match" because it celebrated the accession of the Prince Regent as King George IV and the outcome was described by the sports historian Sir Derek Birley as "a suitably murky affair".
Football in Great Britain had long been a no-holds-barred pastime with an unlimited number of players on opposing teams which might comprise whole parishes or villages. The playing area was an undefined stretch of land between the two places. The ball, as such, was often a pig's bladder that had been inflated and the object of the exercise was to move the ball by any means possible to a distant target such as a church in the opposing village. The contests were typically arranged to take place on feast days like Shrove Tuesday. By the beginning of the 19th century, efforts were being made in the English public schools to transform this mob football into an organised team sport. The earliest known versions of football code rules were written at Eton College (1815) and Aldenham School (1825).
Horse racing had been very popular since the years after the Restoration when Charles II was a frequent visitor to Newmarket Racecourse. In the Regency era, the five classic races had all been inaugurated and have been run annually since 1814. These races are the St Leger Stakes (first run in 1776), The Oaks (1779), the Epsom Derby (1780), the 2,000 Guineas Stakes (1809) and the 1,000 Guineas Stakes (1814).
National Hunt racing began in 18th century Ireland and developed in England through the Regency era. There are tentative references to races held between 1792 and 1810. The first definitely recorded hurdle race took place on Durdham Down, near Bristol, in 1821. The first officially recognised steeplechase was over a cross-country route in Bedfordshire on 8 March 1830.
Aintree Racecourse held its first meeting on 7 July 1829. On 29 February 1836, a race called the Grand Liverpool Steeplechase was held. One of its organisers was Captain Martin Becher who rode The Duke to victory. The infamous sixth fence at Aintree is called Becher's Brook. The 1836 race, which became an annual event, is recognised by some as the first Grand National, but there are historical uncertainties about the three races between 1836 and 1838 so they are officially regarded as precursors to the Grand National. Some sources insist they were held on Old Racecourse Farm in nearby Maghull but this is impossible as that course closed in 1835. The first official Grand National was the 1839 race.
Rowing and sailing had become popular pastimes among the wealthier citizens. The Boat Race, a rowing event between the Cambridge University Boat Club and the Oxford University Boat Club, was first held in 1829 at the instigation of Charles Merivale and Charles Wordsworth, who were students at Cambridge and Oxford respectively. Wordsworth was a nephew of William Wordsworth. The first race was at Henley-on-Thames and the contest later became an annual event on the River Thames in London. In sailing, the first Cowes Week regatta was held on the Solent in August 1826.
Track and field competitions in the modern sense were first recorded in the early 19th century. They are known to have been held by schools, colleges, army and navy bases, social clubs and the like, often as a challenge to a rival establishment. In the public schools, athletics competitions were conceived as human equivalents of horse racing or fox hunting with runners known as "hounds" and named as if they were racehorses. The Royal Shrewsbury School Hunt, established in 1819, is the world's oldest running club. The school organised paper chase races in which the hounds followed a trail of paper shreds left by two "foxes". The oldest running race of the modern era is Shrewsbury's Annual Steeplechase (cross-country), first definitely recorded in 1834.
The following is a list of places associated with the Regency era:
For more names see Newman (1997).
Astley's Amphitheatre, 1808-1811
Brighton Pavilion, 1826
Carlton House, Pall Mall London.
Vauxhall Gardens, 1808–1811
Church of All Souls, architect John Nash, 1823
Regent's Canal, Limehouse, 1823
Frost Fair, Thames River, 1814
The Piccadilly entrance to the Burlington Arcade, 1819
Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales and Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, 1817
Morning dress, Ackermann, 1820
Water at Wentworth, Humphry Repton, 1752–1818
Hanover Square, Horwood Map, 1819
Beau Brummell, 1805
Battle of Waterloo, 1815
Almack's Assembly Room, 1805–1825
Balloon ascent, James Sadler, 1811
The Anatomist, Thomas Rowlandson, 1811
Regent's Park, Schmollinger map, 1833
100 Pall Mall, former location of National Gallery, 1824–1834
Cognocenti, Gillray Cartoon, 1801
Custom Office, London Docks, 1811-1843
Custom and Excise, London Docks, 1820
Mail coach, 1827
Assassination of Spencer Perceval, 1812
The pillory at Charing Cross, Ackermann's Microcosm of London, 1808–11
Covent Garden Theatre, 1827–28