Some General Historical Background
At the time of the Memoirs
The time period at which Clorinda’s memoirs are set is shortly after the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, i.e the Regency. The King is George III, by now completely mad. His son George, Prince of Wales, has been Regent since 1811, eventually succeeding to the throne in 1820. His dissolute lifestyle, and that of his brothers, brings the monarchy into considerable disrepute. He married Caroline of Brunswick, even though he had previously been through a marriage ceremony with Maria Fitzherbert, a Roman Catholic (thus forbidden for him to marry) widow, in 1795. The marriage was a disaster and they lived separately after the birth of their daughter, Princess Charlotte, in 1796. The latter dies in childbirth in 1817, creating a constitutional crisis and causing the Regent’s brothers to discard the mistresses they had been living with for years and marry eligible princesses in order to beget legitimate heirs to the throne. Following his daughter’s death, desperate for a divorce so that he might remarry, the Regent seeks evidence for his wife’s adultery. The Government, anxious to avoid scandal, endeavours to negotiate a separation. In 1820 George III dies and George IV succeeds. He makes stringent and unpopular efforts to exclude any mention of the Queen, e.g. from the routine prayers for the Royal Family. When the Queen arrives in England in June 1820 a Bill is shortly afterwards put before the House of Lords to dissolve the marriage, but is eventually abandoned due to the ‘state of public feeling’ in her favour, and against the King. Nonetheless, she is excluded from the Coronation and dies shortly afterwards.
Queen Charlotte dies in 1818. Those functions that would have been performed by the queen are thereafter undertaken by the royal princesses – e.g.
presentations at Court.
In Parliament the Tory Party is in power and will remain in power until 1830. The Whig opposition is disunited. There is a small and powerless radical group. The House of Commons fails to represent a changing nation: large areas of the country, including the new industrial regions, have no members in Parliament, while there are numerous ‘pocket’ and ‘rotten’ boroughs where there are so few voters that elections are bought and sold, either for money, or, more likely, for political patronage. Government offices are filled via patronage.
Between the massive upheavals caused by the social changes brought about by the agricultural and industrial revolutions, the impact of the war and its cessation, and the adverse effects of extreme weather events attributed to the eruption of Mount Tambora, Indonesia, in April 1815, continuing for several years, there is a great deal of misery and suffering among the populace. A poor relief system set up in the Tudor period is no longer entirely fit for purpose under these new conditions. While there are a great number of philanthropic enterprises, and local improvement initiatives, these are no substitute for coordinated and coherent action.
Unfortunately, because of the French Revolution and its outcome in the rise of Napoleon and European war, there is a great fear in Britain of riot and revolution and manifestations of discontent are put down with a heavy hand, perhaps most notoriously at the Peterloo Massacre in1819.
On the European front, there is a great desire to maintain the Balance of Power in its current state of (conservative, even reactionary) equilibrium as established by the Congress of Vienna at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Germany and Italy are ‘geographical expressions’: in spite of any common elements of language, culture, and religion they are composed of different states under different rulers.
There have been significant changes by the time of those volumes in Clorinda Cathcart’s Circle which deal with events Twenty-plus years after the Memoirs.
1822: Richard Martin’s Act to Prevent the Cruel and Improper Treatment of Cattle was passed, the first Parliamentary legislation for animal welfare in the world.
In 1824 the Combination Act forbidding workers to organise for obtaining higher wages or improving conditions was repealed. A new Combination Act in 1825 severely curtailed union activities, but they were no longer completely illegal.
In 1830 George IV was succeeded by his brother William IV, and in the same year a Whig government came to power under Earl Grey with a commitment to bringing about the reforms of Parliament for which there had been considerable agitation and which even elements in the Tory party were coming to consider desirable. The result was the Reform Act 1832. Further reforms immediately followed which included the Slavery Abolition Act 1833; the Factory Act 1833 to regulate conditions in factories, which although it was not the first, was the first to have a mechanism of inspection and implementation; the Municipal Corporations Act 1835; the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 (the effects of which led to much criticism for their punitive nature).
Intriguing questions about the actual involvement of MPs in the political process: how often did they actually attend, speak, vote?
1835: The Protection of Animals Act made bull, bear and badger baiting, as well as cock and dog fighting, illegal.
In 1837 Queen Victoria succeeds to the throne at the age of 18. She marries her cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha in 1840.
Chartism was a response to the very limited gains made by the Reform Act in terms of extending the suffrage and making Parliament more representative.
The Corn Laws and the Anti-Corn Law League.
The Irish Question and Home Rule and the Irish Potato Famine
The Penny Post 1840
‘Railway Mania’ - passenger lines had been gradually developing during the 1830s but the 1840s saw a ‘bubble’ of reckless over-investment leading to a crash.
The Great Exhibition 1851.
The Saint Helena Act 1833 aka the Government of India Act 1833 or the Charter Act 1833: ended the activities of the British East India Company as a commercial body so that it became a purely administrative body; along with other provisions.
Rebellions of 1837–1838 in Lower and Upper Canada followed by Lord Durham’s Report recommending unifying the two provinces, and instituting self-governance. Substantial immigration to Canada took place especially from Highland Scotland as a result of the Clearances, and from Ireland as a result of the Famine.
Treaty of Waitangi and the New Zealand Wars.
The First Opium War.
The First Afghan War: ’ one of the worst military disasters of the 19th century’.
First Sikh War and Second Sikh War.
Sir Harry Smith as Governor of Cape Colony: the Cape had been principally considered important for its strategic location on the route to India.
‘The Great Game’: Russia was expanding its land empire into Central Asia, bringing it into potential conflict with British interests in the East.
Events in Europe:
The ‘Balance of Power’ was rocked by a revolutionary wave in 1830. This led to the establishment of ‘popular’, constitutional monarchies in France and Belgium. However, an uprising in Italy in favour of reunification was crushed by Austria, and the November Uprising in Poland against Russia put down by the Tsar’s forces. In Switzerland there was an orderly movement towards the amendment of cantonal constititions in a more representative direction.
A further revolutionary wave broke in 1848, with mixed outcomes. In France the monarchy was overthrown and replaced by the Second Republic; several countries achieved reforms in the direction of more democratic and representative institutions; serfdom was abolished in Austria and Hungary. However in other areas early gains were suppressed by repressive reaction, as in the restoration of Bourbon rule in the Two Sicilies. A good and very thorough overview is Mike Rapport’s 1848: Year of Revolution (2008).
The Schleswig-Holstein Question: produced by the complicated relations of two duchies, Schleswig and Holstein, to the Danish crown, to the German Confederation, and to each other. The First Schleswig War was in progress 1848-51 between Denmark and the Prussian Army.
L.A. Hall, FRHistS