Thursday, 29 March 2018

Queen and and George I: how they were related

This article on the History of Parliament blog neatly demolishes the often repeated story (which I've repeated myself many times!) that there were more than forty people with a better claim to the throne than George, Elector of Hanover. 

Monday, 13 March 2017

Caroline: unruly queen

Caroline of Brunswick (1804)
by Sir Thomas Lawrence
Public Domain

The essayist William Hazlitt described the Queen Caroline affair as 
‘the only question I have ever known that excited a thorough popular feeling. It struck its roots into the heart of the nation; it took possession of every house and cottage in the Kingdom.’

Caroline Amelia of Brunswick-Wolfenb├╝ttel was born on 17 May 1768, the second daughter of Duke Charles William Ferdinand of Brunswick-Wolfenb├╝ttel, a small vassal state of Prussia in north Germany, and his wife, Princess Augusta, daughter of Frederick Prince of Wales and elder sister of George III.  The marriage was unhappy. Caroline’s father said,  
‘Only private persons can live happily married because they choose their mates. Royalty must make marriages of convenience, which seldom result in happiness.’ 
Caroline had a restricted education, her only skill being playing the harpsichord. At the age of fifteen, she was unable to spell or punctuate. By her twenties she had a reputation as a flirt and was notorious for her unbridled, often indecent conversation. Yet her mother was desperate for her to make a good marriage into her brother’s family.

In the summer of 1794 arrangements were made for Caroline to marry her cousin, George, Prince of Wales.  There were many reasons for the marriage: 

  1. There was the need for an heir – the Duke of York’s marriage was childless. 
  2. Caroline was a close relative and thought to be safe. She was also the requisite Protestant princess. 
  3. The prince needed to settle his debts, which were over £½ million. Parliament decreed that if he married, his income was to be raised from £60,000 to £125,000, plus £26,000 for the completion of Carlton House.

On the other hand, the Prince had a skeleton in his cupboard, his secret marriage to Maria Fitzherbert, which had taken place in December 1785. Though valid in canon law, the marriage was illegal on two counts. In marrying without his father’s permission, the Prince had violated the Royal Marriages Act of 1772; and in marrying a Roman Catholic he had given up his right to the throne. For this reason, though an open secret, the marriage was never made public.   

Monday, 6 March 2017

Radicalism and the French Revolution

Thomas Muir
Radical Scottish lawyer
Public Domain

A threat of revolution?

From 1 February 1793 Britain and France were at war. The threat from France was obviously real, but Pitt’s government was equally fearful of home-grown revolutionary insurrection. In the mid-1790s there was what Boyd Hilton has described as ‘a significant increase in the coercive powers of the state’. (A Mad, Bad and Dangerous People? Oxford, 2007) But were the fears justified? The Home Office files for the last months of 1792 show that alarmist reports were being received of Frenchmen armed with daggers on the road from Harwich to London, and of a disturbance in Dundee where the liberty tree was planted. Did the government manipulate the information for its own purposes? (Hilton). Or did it show a reasonable reaction to what it thought was a genuine threat? (See Edward Royle, Revolutionary Britannia? Manchester, 2000) 

The reforming societies

The winter of 1791/2 had witnessed a new development in extra-parliamentary politics with the foundation of a series of radical reform clubs organised by working men. The membership of these clubs consisted mainly of artisans, journeymen, mechanics, small shopkeepers and tradesmen. The subscription rate was low - a penny a week. One of the first of these societies the Sheffield Society for Constitutional Information, established late in 1791, soon had more than two thousand members. 

Monday, 27 February 2017

The French Revolution: the British debate

Britain in 1789

At the time of the fall of the Bastille, Britain was preoccupied with domestic politics. The Prime Minister, William Pitt, had survived the Regency Crisis, and the Foxite Opposition were more divided than ever. With a Commons majority and the support of the king he appeared safe.

However, he did not have it all his own way. Since the Wilkite agitations of the 1760s various reforming movements - some more radical than others - had sprung up. From 1787 a campaign to give full civil rights to Dissenters by repealing the Test and Corporation Acts  had got underway. It was spearheaded by 'Rational Dissenters' (later to be called Unitarians) like the ministers, Joseph Priestley and Richard Price, together with well-to-do manufacturers, merchants, professional men, in both London and the provinces. The campaign was supported by Fox, but with the government opposed, it had no hope of getting through Parliament.

Richard Price
Dissenting Minister
National Library of Wales
Public Domain

The Anglican monopoly of political power was safe for the time being, but there was a great deal of bad feeling between the Church and the Dissenters. 

The Centenary celebrations

Many of the characteristics of 1790s politics were already in place before the French Revolution: the parliamentary duel between Pitt and Fox, provincial movements for parliamentary reform, the grievances of the Dissenters. The events of 1788 added a further ingredient when the centenary of the Glorious Revolution was celebrated with bonfires, revolution dinners, and balls. The tone of the celebrations was largely self-congratulatory, but in  towns such as Birmingham, Derby, Newcastle, Norwich and Sheffield, Whigs and Dissenters made common cause, toasting ‘Equal liberty to all mankind’ and the end of slavery. The radical Revolution Society toasted: 
‘May the dawn of liberty on the continent be soon succeeded by the bright sunshine of personal and mental freedom.’

Monday, 20 February 2017

The Regency crisis: or, the madness of King George

The White House at Kew, where George III became ill
(now demolished). Public Domain

The dilemmas of the Opposition

By the end of the 1780s the Prime Minister, Pitt the Younger, felt himself to be in a strong position. His economic policies were bearing fruit: the national debt had been cut and the navy improved after its poor showing in the American War. His political opponents, the Foxites, were fewer than 200 in a House of 558, and the king’s favour consolidated his position. Pitt and George III were never close but they knew they needed each other. This left the Foxites impotent in opposition, deeply loathing Pitt but powerless to hurt him. Politically they depended on the Prince of Wales and hoped desperately that the king would die

The Fitzherbert marriage

Maria Fitzherbert (1756-1837)
by Sir JoshuaReynolds. 
Public Domain

On 15 December 1785 the prince had secretly marred the widowed Catholic Maria, Fitzherbert, whom he had met the previous year. The marriage was illegal according to three acts: the Act of Settlement (1701), the Act of Union (1707), both of which excluded a prince or princess married to a Catholic from succeeding to the throne, and to the Royal Marriages Act (1772). Though the couple initially kept separate establishments, the marriage was an open secret in London society, where they were constantly seen together. However the king and queen were ignorant of it.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

More on the Georgian papers

Here is an American take on the Georgian papers online project. The material is coming as a particular surprise to many Americans, who have grown up with the somewhat simplistic idea that the King was a tyrant. 

Burke and the American Revolution

Edmund Burke has always been a puzzle to historians - the man who so passionately supported the American Revolution and was equally passionately opposed to the French Revolution. This blog post by a distinguished historian, the editor of the latest volume of Burke's writings and speeches, analyses the contradiction.