What exactly is the Regency, anyway?

I don’t know why it is, but I seem to be writing a lot about things about which I had vowed never to mention. 

Like recently I broke my promise to myself that I would never ever write about the Prince Regent.  But there I was a few months ago typey-tapping out a post on what a wild sexy young thing he’d been when in his late teens and early twenties. 

(I know!  What came over me?) 

And now this…this term, the Regency. 

You see, the thing is, I loathe the inexact, twee use of this word.  It makes me want to thrash my laptop with a riding crop.  Or beat my head against the desk.  Or both.  Together or separately, I don’t much mind which.  And there is so much misleading, misguided misinformation out there about it that…well, we’re back to the laptop or my head taking a pasting…

So, I shall clear up the whole weebley conundrum for once and for all.  Now.  Today. 

The Regency…Well, to begin with, there are actually two Regencies in English history. 

The first happened when Henry V stuck in his spoon in the wall in 1422, leaving behind his infant son, Henry VI, to rule.  But obviously since the new king was a baby, someone had to do the ruling for him. 

The second Regency is an early 19th century occurrence and it’s to this that most people are generally referring when using the word.  But even online encyclopaedias have been known give all sorts of dates (randomly pulled out of a hat as far as I can tell) for when it started and they use it as an adjective for all sorts of things which…well, let’s just examine the situation, shall we? 

In order to have a Regency a country needs a Regent.  And one only has a Regent if the reigning monarch is somehow unable to govern.   (In the case of Henry VI, the reason why is obvious…) 

Equally, in order for Great Britain to have a Regent, an Act of Parliament had to be passed by both Houses, creating the position and designating the Regent.

George III was king from 1760-1820, during which time he suffered from the hereditary disease, porphyria. (If you’ve seen the film, The Madness of King George, you’ll be familiar with the disease and how it was treated.)

His first bout with it was in the summer of 1762, shortly before the birth of the Prince of Wales, and he suffered bouts again in 1765 and 1766.  These bouts included such symptoms as abdominal colic, a fast pulse, fatigue or painful weakness of the limbs and fever.  (Seriously not nice.)

During the summer of 1788 and into the autumn, the king suffered his worst attack ever, with symptoms of mental derangement this time.

By 8 November, George, the Prince of Wales, had taken the government into his own hands (he was desperate for power!) and was already making secret deals to form a new government after his own liking from amongst his gambling and drinking companions, the Whigs. 

By December, however, physicians were telling Parliament that they did not believe the king’s ‘derangement’ permanent.  And although Parliament reconvened, they adjourned for a fortnight to allow the king to recover. 

Then on 10 December, there was a huge row in Parliament between the Prime Minister, William Pitt, and Charles James Fox speaking for the Whigs.  Which argument Fox lost.  Badly.  (Pitt even called him a traitor before the whole House.)

By the new year, it was clear the king was improving.  So, although a Bill for a restricted Regency was brought before the House in early February 1789, Pitt spun out the debate to give the king time to recover. Which he did. 

When the House of Lords met to hear the third and final reading of the Regency Bill, it was announced that with the king’s health on the mend, ‘it would be indecent and improper to go ahead with the proceedings.’

The country rejoiced.  (I mean that.)  And King George returned to work as full of rigour and opinions as ever. 

It wasn’t until twenty years later, in October 1810, when the 72-year old king was blind and going deaf, and his youngest daughter dying, that the bouts of madness or mental derangement returned and there was no hope of recovery.  Still, Parliament being what it is, the Bill creating the Regency was not passed until 5 February 1811.

And curiously, though he had for years made promises of political position to his drinking and gaming companions, the Whigs, giving them positions of power is exactly what the new Prince Regent did not do. He retained the Tory government, with Sir Spencer Perceval as Prime Minister.

Moreover, the British during the first decade of the 19th century, were profoundly loyal to the old, blind king to whom they referred as Farmer George. He was their talisman against the ungodly forces of Napoleon.

So…the Regency?  A nine-year period, lasting from 5 February 1811 to 29 January 1820, when George III at last passed away and the Prince of Wales became George IV.  (The nickname ‘Prinny’ derives from his title as the Prince of Wales, not from Prince R_____.)

Which is all very well, but…what is one meant to call those frocks which all the Jane Austen heroines wear, with their bosoms hoicked up to their ears–since they’re not strictly speaking, Regency?  The fact is, I don’t know.  Because that style of dresses isn’t even English.   

It’s French. 

So, Napoleonic?  Not really.  He was 5’2″, had sallow, acne-scarred skin and skanky hair.  Not precisely a fashion icon.

Empire?  Closer.  But the little Corsican upstart didn’t crown himself Emperor of the French until 2 December 1804.  (And the Empire ended with his abdication in April 1814.)

Yet these fashions first appear somewhere between 1795-1796, in the aftermath of the end of the Reign of Terror which had seen over 40,000 people guillotined across France and some 200,000-250,000 men, women and children slaughtered in the Vendee.  And the fall of the National Convention which had been the government during this period and its replacement by the Directory in 1795-96 brought forth all sorts of excessive behaviour and fashion. 

Wild parties, orgies, silly clothes, exaggerated manners, they’re all part of it.  And in the case of the fashions, the men who wore them were known as incroyables and the women as merveilleuses.  (Some day some psychologist is going to explain to me that it was a mass display of PTSD or something.) 

Of course, during the period the English hated the French more than ever (Frog-face being a perennially favoured insult).  But that never stopped them taking up the latest French fashions as if they were manna from heaven, war or no war. 

Hence, those high-waisted frocks made of muslin aren’t Regency as they certainly pre-date it by some fifteen years.  Ehem.

And the laundered and starched white cravats which also are usually termed Regency?  Er…well, men had worn linen cravats in the 18th century, though these were worn without stiffening of any kind and bagging out in front. 

In the piccies of the incroyables, one can see they were busy wadding all sorts of things well up over their chins in Paris. 

But the cravat which one associates with the Regency–that starched column of pristine perfection knotted discreetly at the base of the throat–that’s the work of George Brummell, who introduced it to London society by turning up thus attired at his club sometime after 1799 and before 1801.  (Still well before the Regency came into being in 1811.) 

So now you know. 

As to what to call all this other stuff, I haven’t a clue. 

Early 19th century?  So clunky, isn’t it?

Georgian?  They didn’t consider themselves ‘Georgians’ at the time.  Indeed, they had no reason to define themselves as anything but English.  They couldn’t conceive of a time when they wouldn’t be ruled by a direct heir of George III who would change their world, so the word was meaningless to them.

Nevertheless, from henceforth and forevermore, everyone is going to know exactly what these terms mean, even if it proves impossible to use them correctly within the strictest sense.  (And my laptop is going to heave a sigh of relief that it’s not in immanent danger of an encounter with a schooling whip…)  Is that not right?

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20 comments on “What exactly is the Regency, anyway?

  1. Well done, MM! As clear an explanation as ever I’ve seen.

  2. Noelle says:

    Informative, as always…though I did know that the Regency ended in 1820. Wasn’t sure when the start date was, but after checking against your dates, I’m safe. All my stories are after 1811. The trouble is what term *to* use for any earlier settings. For my post 1820-set books, I use “post-Regency” because it’s not yet the Edwardian or Victorian eras, either. And “Georgian” implies the 1700s, even though the Regent was a George, too. In the meantime, I will happily describe knots and colors and fabric textures, without worrying about naming them in terms of style. That should cover my bases. 😀

    • M M Bennetts says:

      It is completely tricky! And because there’s this gap in knowledge that the Regency ended in 1820, but that the late Georgian period went on for another seventeen years (!), nobody has a clue how to describe it. I mean you can say William IV chest of drawers and sound like you’re on a telly antiques programme, but nobody knows what you’re talking about. And yes, say Georgian and people assume you’re writing about powdered wigs and full satin coats and diamond-heeled shoes. I don’t know the answer…

  3. Debra Brown says:

    Yes, but WE call it Georgian. You see? But if we called the dresses Georgian, we would be marked as ignorant, for everyone knows that Georgian dresses were brocades, etc. So you have taken our name for the dresses away from us and given us nothing.

    In the ’60s, yes, I was a teenager, we wore them for a couple of months and they were called Empire dresses. Not that I had any clue what that meant at the time. I bought mine when they went on sale, and wore it proudly, finally, to a party so I could fit in and look like everyone else, but they’d gone out of style and it was only me, the laughingstock.

    We need a proposal from you now that you have taken the name away.

    • I am laughing very hard at this (and being before eleven it’s way too early in the morning for that kind of thing…)

      I know the frocks you mean. I believe they may have called them baby-doll over here. Or something.

      And yes, that high-waist is still called Empire and that is probably the best term for it because the spread of its popularity does have a great deal to do with–not so much Napoleon, for I don’t believe there’s any record of him wearing them–but certainly with Josephine, his wife, wearing them. And she was a fashion icon, (as were her circle of friends) she spent lavish amounts of money on her clothes and on her Kashmir shawls…

      But I did say it’s a rubbishy situation, this, didn’t I? Early 19th century (which is what I often use) is frightfully clunky as a description.

  4. J.A. Beard says:

    The first sentence of my first Regency tour was thus:

    “Today, we’re going to start off with something deceptively simple: What is the Regency?”

    At first after explaining stuff, I explicitly said I would be using Regency to mean “late Georgian” but pretty much every post I have I tend to say “late Georgian/Regency” anyway because I’m assuming fewer and fewer people have actually bothered to read the first post.

    So darn clunky.

    • I know. And I’m working on a cunning plan…(No, I’m not. I haven’t got a clue what to do about it, frankly…)

    • Debra Brown says:

      I suppose we can’t say Williamian because it is like chewing gristley steak.

      • M M Bennetts says:

        Ha ha ha. It’d be Latinised over here anyway, were they to use it. Trying to think what that would be…

        One could use the term Hanoverian and that would certainly pertain to everyone from George I to William…So late Hanoverian…(any takers?)

  5. Excellent blog post and I’m happy to say it didn’t totally shock me which means I’m not such an ignoramus as I at first appear…. But I think Debra is right – What to call it? You have stolen our word for all that…’stuff’….. perhaps empire is the way to go unless we want clunky which I’m not at all up for.

  6. Is neo-classical too early a period for this fashion? Possibly, yes but I believe the dresses were supposed to hark back to classical Greek statuary, which is why the women wore their hair in a similar fashion too.

    Obviously this isn’t my period at all and so I’m stabbing in the dark.

    Great Blog post, though.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Neo-classical is correct as far as fashion is concerned. You’re absolutely right! Napoleon’s little Empire was the new Rome and all that (in his own mind…) The problem is though, what do you call the Brits with their fine tailoring which lacks the garishness and gaud of Napoleonic fancy-dress?

  7. […] blog on the subject where I discussed the actual dates of the Regency, in my so aptly titled blog, What exactly is the Regency, anyway?   And you would have thought that would be the end of […]

  8. […] Defining the Regency period 2 […]

  9. […] Devonshire set–in moves designed to set his parents’ teeth on edge…but the Regency crisis changed all […]

  10. […] therefore I would contend that in order to truly understand the period–which some call the Regency (though that’s far from strictly accurate)–one must view it not through a rose-tinted […]

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