The Regency era in the United Kingdom is the period between 1811 — when King George III was deemed unfit to rule and his son, the Prince of Wales, ruled as his proxy as Prince Regent — and 1820, when the Prince Regent became George IV on the death of his father. The term Regency era sometimes refers to a more extended time frame than the decade of the formal Regency. 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.
If Regency era is being used to describe the transition between Georgian and Victorian eras, the focus is on the pre-Victorian period from 1811, when the formal Regency began, through 1837 when Queen Victoria succeeded William IV. If, however, Regency era is being contrasted with the Eighteenth century, then the period includes the later French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars. The era was a time of excess for the aristocracy: for example, it was during this time that the Prince Regent built the Brighton Pavilion. However, it was also an era of uncertainty caused by several factors including the Napoleonic wars, periodic riots, and the concern (threat to some, hope to others) that the British people might imitate the upheavals of the French Revolution.
The Regency was noted in history[by whom?] 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. Headed by the widely popular Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, the nobility sought to out do one another in any way — extravagance, pomp, and circumstance, albeit of a shallow nature. 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 peoples' expense. The famed poet of the time Shelley observed after a particularly ostentatious festivity held by the Regent that,
this entertainment will cost 120,000 pounds. Nor will it be the last bauble which
the nation must buy to amuse this overgrown bantling of Regency—David, Saul
the nation must buy to amuse this overgrown bantling of Regency—David, Saul
Not only was society marked by excessive spending on the part of the Prince Regent, it was also highly stratified, and 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. This combined with the massive population boom, which had leapt from just under a million in 1801 to one and a quarter million by 1820 created a wild, roiling, volatile, and vibrant scene. Indeed so vast was the difference between the levels of society that they developed nearly wholly different existences, as characterized by Robert Southey who stated that,
The inhabitants of this great city seem to be divided into two distinct
casts,— the Solar and the Lunar races...
Thus beneath the glamour and gloss of Regency society there existed levels of such squalor as to form an extreme contrast to that of the Prince Regent's social circle. Poverty was a major issue and one that was addressed only marginally. In many ways the retirement of George III and the formation of the Regency saw the death of a more pious and reserved society and the birth of a more frivolous, ostentatious one, largely due to the character of the Regent, himself. One can blame the profligate nature of the Prince Regent on the fact that the policy of the time was to keep the heir apparent entirely removed from the machinations of politics and military exploits, which 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.
It was not only money and rebellious pampered youth that fuelled these changes but also significant technological advancements. In 1814, The Times adopted steam printing thereby increasing production capabilities, along with demand tenfold (printing 1100 sheets per hour versus the previous 200 per hour). This development brought about the rise of the wildly popular fashionable novels in which publishers spread the stories, rumours, and flaunting of the rich and aristocratic, not so secretly hinting at the specific identity of these individuals. The gap in the hierarchy of society was so great that those of the upper classes could be viewed by those below as wondrous and fantastical fiction, something entirely out of reach yet tangibly there.
Timeline of the formal Regency
1811: George, Prince of Wales begins his nine-year tenure as regent and becomes known as The Prince Regent. This sub-period
of the Georgian era begins the formal Regency. The Duke of Wellington holds off the French at Fuentes d'Onoro and Albuhera in the Peninsular War. The Prince Regent holds a fete at nine p.m. June 19, 1811 at Carlton House in celebration of his assumption of the Regency. Luddite uprisings. Glasgow weavers riot.
1812: Spencer Perceval assassinated in the House of Commons. Final shipment of the Elgin Marbles arrives in England. Sarah Siddons retires from the stage. Shipping and territory disputes start the War of 1812 between England and the United States. The British are victorious over French armies at the Battle of Salamanca. The waltz is introduced from Europe into England. Gas company (Gas Light and Coke Company) founded.
1813: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen is published. William Hedley's Puffing Billy, the first steam locomotive, runs on smooth rails. Quaker prison reformer Elizabeth Fry starts her ministry at Newgate Prison. Robert Southey becomes Poet Laureate.
1814: Invasion of France by allies leads to the Treaty of Paris, ending one of the Napoleonic Wars. Napoleon abdicates and is exiled to Elba. The Duke of Wellington is honored at Burlington House in London. British soldiers burn the White House. Last River Thames Frost Fair is held, which was the last time the river froze. Gas lighting introduced in London streets.
1815: Napoleon I of France defeated by the Seventh Coalition at the Battle of Waterloo. Napoleon is exiled to St. Helena. The English Corn Laws restrict corn imports. Sir Humphry Davy patents the miners' safety lamp. John Loudon Macadam's road construction method adopted.
1816: Income tax abolished. A "year without a summer" follows a volcanic eruption in Indonesia. Mary Shelley writes Frankenstein. William Cobbett publishes his newspaper as a pamphlet. The British return Indonesia to the Dutch. Regent's Canal, London, phase one of construction. Beau Brummell escapes his creditors by fleeing to France.
1817: Antonin Carême creates a spectacular feast for the Prince Regent at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton. The death of Princess Charlotte from complications of childbirth changes obstetrical practices. Elgin Marbles shown at the British Museum. Captain Bligh dies.
1818: Queen Charlotte dies at Kew. Manchester cotton spinners' strike. Riot in Stanhope between lead miners and the Bishop of Durham's men over Weardale gaming rights. Piccadilly Circus constructed in London.
1819: Peterloo Massacre. Princess Alexandrina Victoria (future Queen Victoria) is christened in Kensington Palace. Ivanhoe by
Walter Scott is published. Sir Stamford Raffles, a British administrator, founds Singapore. First steam-propelled vessel (The Savannah) crosses the Atlantic and arrives in Liverpool from Savannah, Georgia.
1820: Death of George III. Accession of The Prince Regent as George IV. The House of Commons and House of Lords pass a bill to grant George IV a divorce from Queen Caroline, but due to public pressure the bill is dropped, John Constable begins work on The Hay Wain. Cato Street Conspiracy fails. Royal Astronomical Society founded. Venus de Milo discovered.