Some General Historical Background

The time period at which these 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. 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 in 1819.

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.

Friday 29th December 2017

L.A. Hall, FRHistS