Uncertainty and unrest: the madness of the Regency period

In February 1811, Prince George became the Regent in place of his insane father, George III. Stella Tillyard looks beyond the romanticised Regency world of Jane Austen novels and finds a time of unrest and uncertainty

George III at the end of his reign. He "represented the uncontrollable aspects of humanity that the Enlightenment could not explain," says Stella Tillyard. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

This article first appeared in the February 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine

His hair was left uncut and combed over his shoulders, he was dressed in a simple cotton shift as if it was always bedtime; he was a flute and harpsichord player who sometimes sat and hammered out well-known tunes, but often lapsed into melancholy silence, sometimes raved and sometimes wept at the sadness of the world. He was the king of England, 72 years old, mad, and all-but abandoned by his family. At the end of 1810, George III was declared insane. On 5 February 1811 a Bill “for the care of the king during his illness” was enacted, and George’s son, the Prince of Wales, declared Regent. Until George III died on 29 January 1820, the prince ruled as Regent; thereafter he became George IV and ruled as king until his own death in 1830.
When we think of the Regency that King George III’s madness made necessary, we seldom think of the old king, unhappy and alone, without whom it would not have happened. We think of the Regent, dissipated and bonhomous, a corpulent bon viveur slumped over cards at Brighton. Just as likely, these days, we think of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, Mr Willoughby in his curricle, Becky Sharp and Richard Sharpe, the Waterloo Ball, slippers and chestnut boots, cut-away coats, phaetons, waltzes, duels, gallantry, boxing and Lord Byron.
Historians have, until recently, neglected the Regency and the period that it fits into, between the French revolution in 1789 and the end of the Georgian era in 1830. In the absence of much recent historical debate, the Regency, from a perspective that is, above all, literary and, now, cinematic and televisual, seems a period of elegance and excess, of the curve of Regent’s Street and bow-windows, Nash’s villas and terraces round Regent’s Park. Brighton Pavilion, with its bulges and domes, is for many the quintessential building of the period, and sums up its extravagance and eccentricity.
But look again, and the moral certainties and neat endings of Jane Austen’s novels dissolve. The Regency seems to me an altogether stranger time than we might think, haunted by the madness of the king, shadowed by war, and wracked with uncertainty about the future. Neither Pride and Prejudice (which was conceived and substantially written in 1796–97, though not published until 1813), nor Emma, published in 1815 and dedicated to the Regent, now appear its most characteristic literary productions. Poetry was the medium in which readers sought a picture of their age, and if there is a novel that captures its anxious and enquiring spirit it must be Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, published in 1818.
Above all it seems to me fruitful to regard the Regency as the period in which the certainties of the Enlightenment, already undermined by the French revolution, gave way. George III, locked away in his madness, represented the uncontrollable aspects of humanity that the Enlightenment could not explain. He was the nation’s secret and nightmare, England’s own madman in the attic. Thirty five years before Charlotte Brontë created Mrs Rochester in Jane Eyre and 100 years before Freud gave a name to the dark forces within humanity, the king’s madness made the unconscious real. In the Regency, these forces were evident in new anxieties about morality that surfaced in the scandal of Lord Byron; about science and about democracy, as successive waves of industrial unrest swept the country, culminating in the Peterloo Massacre in 1819.
Victory at Waterloo in 1815, which finally saw off Napoleon, marked the political high point of the Regency. The groundwork for that victory had been laid years before, however, in the naval rout of Trafalgar in 1805, and in Napoleon’s disastrous decision to invade Russia in 1812, which began his long defeat. The Napoleonic wars, described by the Whig historian William Napier in his great history as a victory for monarchy and aristocracy against the forces of democracy, put back on their thrones a generation of European monarchs ousted by Napoleon. In Britain, victory at Waterloo, together with the Regent’s decision, when he came to power in 1811, to maintain the Tory party in power, put paid to any hopes of active parliamentary reform. Recent excellent scholarship about Regency taste for bawdy and satire must therefore be set against the prevailing tone of the age, which was conservative, cautious and evangelical.

French influence

Everything that happened in the second decade of the 19th century must be set against the background of the French revolution and the wars to which it gave rise. The growth of evangelicalism, the changes in morality and in the nation’s self-definition were all, in large part, reactions to a notion of Frenchness and revolutionary France that Britain, or more particularly, England, wished to define itself against.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the field of conduct. In 1807 William Wilberforce’s campaign to abolish the slave trade was finally successful. More than any universalist arguments derived from the Enlightenment, it was evangelical Christian principles that finally made slavery repugnant. Yet the same principles, turned on British society, had less benign consequences. Before the French revolution, George Selwyn, a necrophiliac, gay transvestite, sat mute, loved and undisturbed in the House of Commons for 44 years. The case of Lord Byron, however, shows that by the Regency any hint of sexual deviancy could destroy a man.
Byron was not silent like Selwyn, of course. On the contrary, his (rather dull) epic poem Childe Harold, published in 1812, made him a much-quoted and voluble celebrity, feted in London drawing rooms, from where he limped and flirted his way into the newspapers. He was also a Whig, a throwback in temperament and politics to the more tolerant years of the 18th century, who, in his maiden speech in the House of Lords, opposed the introduction of the death penalty for machine-breakers, men he had seen, he said, “meagre with famine, sullen with despair, careless of… life”.
Byron carried a whiff of scandal from his Cambridge days and Albanian travels about with him, but after his marriage to Annabella Milbanke in January 1815, it came to a head. Accused by inference of both incest and homosexuality, he left Britain in April 1816, never to return. That England’s most famous poet could fall foul of the forces of evangelical Puritanism and political conservatism signalled a shift in social and political attitudes that held sway until the 1960s.
The Luddites whom Byron championed were the first organised actors in a growing movement of violent protest against rapid industrialisation and the poverty caused by an unbalanced wartime economy, poor harvests and high commodity prices. Machine-smashing had social and economic motives in 1811–13; by 1816, when riots spread from the north to the textile towns of East Anglia, these grievances had been hardened by the passage of the first Corn Law in 1815, which introduced tariffs on imported grain and raised the already high price of bread.
In the years that followed, political and economic anger came together, and culminated in a mass gathering on St Peter’s Field in Manchester on 16 August 1819 to call for parliamentary reform and the repeal of the Corn Laws and listen to the rabble-rousing orator Henry Hunt. The authorities, and the local militia, over-reacted, and sent in the cavalry. Although fewer than two dozen people were killed, hundreds were injured in what was seen as a domestic counterpart to the battle of Waterloo and quickly called the Peterloo Massacre. Many saw in Peterloo democracy, that monstrous child of the French revolution, in action; its immediate result was harsher legislation.
Yet for radicals like the poet Shelley, who remembered the event in his sonnet England in 1819, Peterloo was a graveyard from which democracy would rise up, “a glorious Phantom… to illume our tempestuous day”.
England in 1819 is a messianic poem in which Shelley looked forward to the future of Chartism and parliamentary reform. Yet remarkably, it was Shelley’s teenaged wife, Mary, whose work best captured the spirit of the Regency. Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, written in 1816 and published two years later, reflected both the Regency fascination with science and discovery and the fear that man might be destroyed by his own creations. The scientist Victor Frankenstein creates a monster who becomes vengeful as a result of neglect and loneliness. Maddened by his inability to inspire love, the monster turns on his creator, and wreaks a terrible vengeance.
Frankenstein certainly captured the era’s ambivalence towards its own scientific progress. But Shelley’s monster represents more than the perils of rationality and hubris. He is also the unconscious itself, all the unknown, terrifying forces that lurk beneath man’s conscious mind and threaten all the time to burst out and destroy the family and society. “There is something at work in my soul which I do not understand,” says Robert Walton, the book’s narrator, who thus makes clear that the monster could be in every one of us.
The Regency uncertainty that Frankenstein so well expresses was born out of years of war with France, rapid industrial change and the economic doubts that followed the end of the long boom of the second half of the 18th century. If it seems suddenly a relevant period of British history, it is surely because we too are now beginning a period of turbulence and uncertainty. The economic boom that began in 1992 fed a fascination with the 18th century and Enlightenment certainties, with the lives of wealthy Georgians and with domesticity. Now, faith has come centre-stage once more and reason appears again to be an inadequate epistemological tool.

8 moments of consternation and amazement

11 May 1812: Prime minister Spencer Perceval is assassinated, becoming the only senior British politician to be murdered in the modern age. Perceval was shot in the House of Commons by John Bellingham, a ruined merchant. A month later, to the consternation of the Whigs, the Regent appointed Lord Liverpool prime minister. The Tories ruled until 1830.
1811–12: Luddite riots sweep throughout industrial towns in the Midlands and north of England. 
7 September 1812: The battle of Borodino sees Napoleon defeating the Russian army and forcing the Russians back on Moscow. Though it was not apparent at the time, Borodino marked the end of French expansion, and the beginning of Napoleon’s retrenchment.

26 Jan 1814: Napoleon escapes from the island of Elba. When Napoleon abdicated in April 1814, peace was declared and celebrated throughout Europe. But eight months later Napoleon was on the loose and war began again.

Want to read more?

Become a BBC History Magazine subscriber today to unlock all premium articles in The Library

Unlock now