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.

Monday, 6 February 2017

George III and the politicians (3): the victory of Pitt the Younger

William Pitt the Younger
Public Domain

The Rockingham administration

On 27 March 1782 Lord Rockingham became Prime Minister for the second time, following North’s resignation and the Earl of Shelburne’s inability to form a government. After 16 years in the political wilderness, his moment had come. Rockingham was First Lord of the Treasury, and Shelburne and Charles James Fox Secretaries of State. Shelburne was responsible for colonial affairs, Fox for foreign affairs – making him Britain's first Foreign Secretary. Burke had to content himself with the non-Cabinet job of Paymaster of the Forces. 

The new government brought in some important reforms, most notably Burke’s Civil Establishment Bill removing 134 royal household officers, twenty-two of them coming with a seat in Parliament and to restrict the Civil List to £900,000 per annum. It was a major achievement to carry this measure in the face of the court’s hostility and it helped to weaken the influence of the monarchy. 

The Rockingham government was always potentially unstable, because of the King’s hostility and because of divisions within the government. In particular, Fox and Shelburne disliked each other intensely and Fox and Rockingham believed that Shelburne was the king’s spy in the government.

Ministers quarrelled over the peace negotiations. As Foreign Secretary, Fox was negotiating a treaty with France and Spain, while Shelburne dealt with America. This proved a powerful source of conflict. Fox wished to give unconditional independence to the Americans, Shelburne wanted more favourable terms for Britain.

Matters came to a head at a cabinet meeting on 30 June when Fox gave notice that he would resign if the Americans were not granted independence unconditionally in advance of the peace treaty. This move would have put the peace negotiations squarely within his department. This might not, on its own, have led to a crisis, but the moment of decision was forced on the government by the death of Rockingham the next day.

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

George III and the politicians (2): the Whig opposition

Charles James Fox, by Sir Joshua Reynolds
Public Domain

The movement for reform

John Wilkes was not really a radical, but his career energised those who were critical of the political system. The demand grew for shorter parliaments and a redistribution of seats away from the boroughs that could be managed by powerful patrons and towards the more ‘independent’ counties. Opposition politicians were increasingly appropriating the name ‘Whig’ and pursuing an agenda of limiting the power of the Crown. Their parliamentary leader was the Marquess of Rockingham, who had been briefly Prime Minister 1765-6. 

Edmund Burke

The Irishman, Edmund Burke, emerged as the most eloquent spokesman for the Whigs. Unlike most of his fellow-Whigs he came from a middle-class background, and this made him something of an outsider. He had come to London to study for the bar, but he wanted a political career. In July 1765 he became private secretary to Lord Rockingham. In 1766, thanks to the influence of Lord Verney, he was elected for the borough of Wendover. 

Edmund Burke, by Sir Joshua Reynolds
Public Domain

In May 1770, with Lord North now Prime Minister, Burke published Thoughts on the Cause of the Present DiscontentsIt was a defence of the Whigs and an attack on the growth of a court party which undermined successive ministries. In contrast to the prevailing view that party was ‘faction’, Burke saw it as the means of restoring integrity to public life because it would allow policy to be moulded by convictions and ideals:

‘Party is a body of men united for promoting by their joining endeavours the national interest, upon some particular principle on which they are all agreed.’
He also declared, in a now frequently misquoted statement: ‘
When bad men combine, the good men must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.’
In 1774 Burke was elected MP for Bristol, a freeman borough and the Empire’s second city. The Tories were in disarray, the Whigs were looking for a candidate, and Burke fitted the bill. His ‘Address to the Electors of Bristol’, delivered in November after he had been elected, expounded the now widely quoted principle of representative government. (This principle was to be tested to destruction when he fell out with his constituents over America.)

Monday, 23 January 2017

George III and the politicians (1): John Wilkes

The new king

George III in his coronation robes
by Allan Ramsay
Public domain

George III succeeded his grandfather, George II, on 25 October 1760, aged twenty-two. Politics immediately took a new turn. George had hated his grandfather and was determined to reverse his policies. His grandfather’s ministers were invited and the proscriptions on the Tories were lifted. In one of his first public announcements, he stated that ‘he gloried in the name of Briton’ (meaning wasn't a German!) and was determined to be a ‘Patriot King’.  By this he meant that he wished to govern above party - unlike his grandfather who (he believed) had been a prisoner of the Whigs.

Since 1714 the Tories had been the opposition party. Now that they had lost this role, they seemed to lack purpose. Furthermore, there was no adult heir to the throne to be the focus of opposition to the monarch and his ministers. Faced with these new circumstances, the Tory party disintegrated. Politics became factionalised and everything depended on the King’s choice of minister. This inevitably put a new emphasis on this aspect of the royal prerogative.

The old guard gone

George III succeeded to the throne during the Seven Years’ War with France. He saw the war as his grandfather's war, and he wished to end it as quickly as possible. In 1761 Pitt the Elder, the Secretary of State, resigned from the government. In May 1762 the Prime Minister, the Duke of Newcastle, was forced to resign. George had got rid of the administration that had seen the greatest series of victories in British history. He could now be his own man. Or could he?

Friday, 20 January 2017

Coming soon from the Royal Archives

The digitisation of historical documents is changing the way we teach and study history. I envy the students at King's College, London, who'll be studying digital images from the reign of George III that are being released by the Royal Archives at Windsor. See here for the details of this exciting project.

Monday, 16 January 2017

Politics, Georgian style

Karl Anton Hickel William Pitt the Younger addressing the
House of Commons on the outbreak of war with France
Wikimedia Commons

The multi-volume and very comprehensive History of Parliament is now online and this post is very much indebted to its research.

'The King in Parliament'

Eighteenth-century Britain was not a democracy. Power rested with the landed elites who controlled Parliament and local government. The monarch had considerable prerogative powers. He summoned and dissolved Parliament and appointed ministers, peers and bishops. No prime minister could remain long in office without the support of the King.

However, following the Glorious Revolution of 1688-9, the King could not rule without Parliament, which, after 1716 had to be summoned every seven years. He could not hold on to a Prime Minister who did not have the support of the Commons. The great mass of the public did not have the right to vote, but public opinion could not be ignored.  The press was (largely) free and the judiciary was independent. The building-blocks of democracy had been put in place. 

Local government was in the hands of the aristocracy (200 families) and the country gentry (12, 00-13, 00 families). The nobility sat in the Lords and controlled many Commons seats. The upper gentry were knights of the shire; the middling gentry were JPs. National politics was controlled by the great political families, who filled government posts and had considerable powers of patronage. 

Because the monarch retained the right to appoint ministers, no government could be stable without his approval. Stable ministers required the support of both king and Parliament. Because the Commons controlled finance and taxation, it had an ultimate sanction over ministers and the Crown.