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.

The prince further embarrassed the Opposition by his debts, which were over a quarter of a million pounds. Some caused by his extravagant rebuilding of Carlton House. The king refused to relieve him without a promise that he would be less extravagant in the future. It was hinted to the prince that his father would be more amenable if he married and if he abandoned Fox. The Prince refused to do either.

In April 1787 Parliament debated the prince’s debts. One backbencher hinted that a question was involved ‘which went immediately to affect our constitution in Church and State’ - an oblique reference to the Fitzherbert marriage. The prince wrote to Fox that ‘there never was any ground for those reports ... so malevolently circulated’. (To the end of his life he consistently denied the marriage.) Believing the prince, Fox spoke to a crowded Commons on 30 April, denying the
‘monstrous report of a fact which had not the smallest degree of foundation ... a low malicious falsehood’,
and said that he had ‘His Royal Highness’s direct authority’ for his declaration. (After this Mrs Fitzherbert developed a lasting hostility to Fox.)

On arriving at Brooks’s Club, where the Whigs hung out, Fox met one of his friends who told him he had been present at the marriage. He then realised that he had been lied to and had unintentionally misled the House. For a year he did his best to avoid the prince, but they had to resume their alliance, because they needed each other.

The Regency crisis

Compared with his son’s the king’s life was a model of rectitude and frugality. After a difficult start to his reign he was becoming popular and an assassination attempt in 1786 only increased his popularity.

The crisis began quietly. On 11 June 1788 at Kew the king suffered a ‘spasmodic bilious attack’, and was ill for several days. In July, on the advice of the doctors, the royal family spent a month at Cheltenham. This was the first royal holiday and their activities were extensively reported. The family returned to Windsor on 16 August. 

At Kew on 17 October the king had a second attack, coupled with severe abdominal pains and discoloured urine. This was coupled with what was described as ‘agitation’, and ‘flurry of spirits’,  uncontrollable gabbling and mental confusion. From the 1960s it has been argued that he was suffering from porphyria, but modern medical opinion is more inclined to believe that he suffered from bipolar disorder. 

The symptoms worsened. On 25 October the family returned to Windsor. The novelist, Fanny Burney, then in the service of Queen Charlotte, described Wednesday 5 November as a 'dreadful day', when the king's eyes were like 'blackcurrant jelly' and he foamed at the mouth. 

Over-riding Queen Charlotte's wishes, the Prince of Wales took over the royal household and called in his own doctor, Dr Richard
'Dr Richard Warren', by
Public Domain
Warren. The king, who had always disliked Warren because of his connection with the Whigs, refused to see him. On 12 November from hearsay Warren told the Whig peeress Lady Spencer, ‘Rex noster insanit’.  He was telling the Whigs what they wanted to hear. The prince was already in communication with the Opposition in the person of the Whig MP and playwright, Richard Brinsley Sheridan (Fox was in Italy with his mistress, Mrs Armistead).

The king’s condition fluctuated throughout the whole of November. Various remedies were tired, such as blistering and hot baths - sadistic as well as useless. On 18-19 November, after only two hours’ sleep, he talked for nineteen hours. On 23 November, he uncharacteristically spoke ‘indecencies’.

The Opposition were convinced that a regency would be needed, which would put them in government. Fox hurried back from Italy. On 28 November the Whiggish Morning Post published a list of ministers who would be in the new government. The atmosphere at Brooks’s was buoyant, but fears of Pitt’s dismissal caused a two-point falling stocks.

However in late November the atmosphere began to change. The physician, Dr Anthony Addington, one-time consultant to the Pitt family and the former keeper of a madhouse, encouraged Pitt to think that the king might recover. He recommended a move to Kew - away from the prying spectators at Windsor. When taken there under false pretences, George was denied permission to see his wife and daughters. The prince allocated the rooms, chalking the names of the occupants on the doors.

'Dr Francis Willis', by John Russell
Wikimedia Creative Commons
On 5 December Parliament opened. On the same day Dr Francis Willis, a seventy-year-old clergyman and the keeper of a private asylum in Lincolnshire, arrived at Kew, armed with a straitjacket and three strong assistants. This was a new, and arguably very cruel, way to deal with the king, but Willis introduced order and a sense of optimism that made him trusted. 

In December and January, Parliament debated a regency. On 10 December one of the epic debates in the Pitt/Fox relationship took place. Pitt played for time by moving the appointment of a committee to examine precedents. Fox argued that this was a delaying tactic, as there were no precedents, and asserted that it was necessary to give the prince ‘full powers to act as a sovereign immediately'. This betrayal of the fundamental Whig principle of limited monarchy gave a delighted Pitt the opportunity to ‘unwhig’ Fox.

The Whigs were now quarrelling among themselves, with Fox and Sheridan were at odds. On 16 December the government motion for a restricted regency (not one that would give the prince full powers) was carried 268/204.

However the king was still ill, and the prince was doing nothing to discourage the scurrilous attacks on the queen in the opposition press. In the parliamentary debates the rival diagnoses of Willis and Warren were hurled across the floor of the Commons. Pitt was refusing the play the one card he knew would utterly discredit the prince - the secret marriage. Because the prince had denied the marriage, exposure would show him to be a liar and discredit the monarchy. Instead, he would rely on his good parliamentary majority - and hope that the king recovered.

On 5 February Pitt introduced the first reading of the Regency Bill, which passed the Commons a week later:
  • The Regent was to have no power to create peers (though in the debates Pitt conceded that he would have this right after three years).
  • He would only to have a limited right to grant offices, salaries, or pensions.
  • He would have no jurisdiction over the king’s lands or property.
  • The care of the king was to be in the hands of the queen
However, George was now beginning to recover - even though on 2 February he chased Fanny Burney, but when he caught up with her she found him quite rational.

On 16 February, the bill was ready to go to the Lords. On 19 February, the Lord Chancellor informed the Lords that the king was convalescing and was inquiring about parliamentary business. On 24 February Pitt travelled to Kew and found the king lucid - he told Pitt that if the bill had gone through he would have retired to Hanover. But he had recovered and the bill was dead. And as he approached his 30th birthday, Pitt seemed stronger than ever.

'Queen Charlotte' by Sir
Thomas Lawrence
painted in September 1789.
Public Domain
The strains of the Regency Crisis
show very clearly on the Queen's face

The aftermath of the recovery

On St George’s Day 1789 a triumphant grand thanksgiving service was held at St Paul’s. The prince chatted throughout the service and the press attacks showed how much he had lost popularity. The Opposition was now in further disarray, with Burke and Sheridan extremely hostile to each other. Had the old Rockingham party begun to disintegrate?

In the summer the king made a triumphant journey to Weymouth, where he was greeted by rapturous crowds. While the royal family were there, the Bastille fell.

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