A word or two about the British monarchy…

One of the things that I kept sensing during the various discussions engendered by my last blog about the Regency was at root a thing about the monarchy.

It’s something in the way some non-Brits write about the monarchy, putting a spin on British history that we simply lack here.  Like, I’m not convinced they get it.

Because here’s the thing–with the exception of a small rump of media types and political republicans here (as opposed to monarchists), we don’t feel there’s anything inherently unequal about having a monarch–a person whom we refer to as His or Her Majesty.  We don’t bristle over that.

We don’t regard it as a slight on our equality in the eyes of God or the law or anything. We don’t regard it as a slap in the face to our personal freedoms.

Some monarchs are more popular than others.  Some were considered useless.  Some are utterly brilliant.  Some go in and out of popularity.

edward-viiEdward VII, for all that the press racked up more salacious stories about him than just about anyone under the sun, was surprisingly popular and it was he who turned the Victorian monarchy into the vibrant modern institution it is today–he it was who got out in his car and drove about, meeting and greeting his subjects.  And he was round and fat and jolly, just like them, and they were quite fond of him for just those reasons. (Though if you read some biogs of the poor fellow, you’d not know this…)

Anyway, as I’ve mulled over this little problem, I’ve become convinced it has something to do with sentiments of the American Revolution, and a misplaced conviction that we must have felt that way too, only we lacked to gumption to throw off those chains of tyranny or something.

So I thought I’d deal talk about that–rather than the news about Richard III.

To begin with, late 18th century Englishmen did not believe they were suffering under any tyrant’s boot.

They thought the opposite–they knew they lived in the freest society on earth.  They believed that to the core of their beings.  They had freedom of speech, freedom of the press and no need even for a police force to patrol them.

(Yes, yes, yes, there were some rabble-rousers like young Tom Paine–but have you read him?  Actually read him?  I mean the guy was as nuts as any bag of squirrel food!)

Ehem…

Indeed, by the late 18th century, British men were firm in their belief that the political vicissitudes inherent in a tyrannical system had been dealt with the abolition of the Star Chamber under Charles I’s rule, and subsequently, with the disposal of Oliver Cromwell, the republic’s dictator.

And it’s important too to remember that it was an Act of Parliament which invited Charles II back to England to sit on the throne.  He was there by populist choice–he wasn’t imposed on us.

And even when his younger brother, James II, proved such a kingly disaster, it wasn’t the monarchy that the people wished to get rid of, it was James.  I mean, they didn’t say, “Oi, this king business is rubbish, let’s have an anarcho-syndacalist commune” instead, did they?

No, they just opted to get rid of James and get in someone more to their taste.

And again, it was Parliament who wrote to William of Orange inviting him to come and be king here.  He ruled by popular consent.  And that is a significant point.  It’s also significant that after 1689, it is always a limited monarchy that is being spoken of–not an absolute monarchy as in France or Russia or Spain…

Also, Britain already had separation of the legislative and executive going back at least as far as Elizabeth–she couldn’t raise her own taxes, for example.

Robert Walpole was the first MP to use the title of Prime Minister–he took office in 1721–and he held that position until 1742–a period of unprecedented peace.  This is also the point at which the political power shifts from the head of state to the head of government.  Thus, Walpole was de facto head of the executive while the head of state was the absentee king, George I.

And–again, important to note–this was an elected government.  And whilst one might say it’s not democracy as we know democracy–they had rotten boroughs and all that–I’d just like to point out what was happening to our nearest neighbour–that would be the reign of Louis XV.  Ehem.

So, skipping along to George III…

imagesFrom the outset, he was immensely popular.  He had everything going for him.  For the first time in several generations, he, the king, had been born here in England.  English was his native language.  He looked and spoke like an English country gentleman.  And they loved him for it.

He married and was devoted to his wife.  He adored his children.

Indeed–though one frequently hears commentary to suggest that Albert and Victoria invented the image of the happy royal family and all that Victorian ideal–the fact is George III was the inventor of the modern family.

George played with his children, he was devoted to them, they were often seen with him in the carriage, or held high in his arms, and it was clear from his every movement and every word, that he sincerely loved them.  And this was a new thing–this engagement with one’s children.  And the people loved him for it.

He was also a tremendous patron of the arts, of manufacture and industry, of scientific study and invention.  A few years ago at the Queen’s Gallery, there was an exhibition showcasing his patronage of the arts and manufacture–and what an exhibition it was!  The range of scientific experimentation and instrument manufacture that had come about because of his support was jaw-dropping.

This was a guy who was constantly on the look-out for ingenuity and advancement, and when he found it, he threw the whole of his weight behind it.  He invited the author/inventor to come talk about it.  He commissioned a fancy prototype for himself.  And when he got hold of it, he shewed it to everybody at court and got them to invest in it…If George III took you up, you were made!  And they loved him for it.

He was like that about the agricultural revolution then sweeping England as well.  His letters to Coke of Norfolk and others are copious, and well-informed.  So the farmers of England (and that’s just about everyone) thought he was pretty sound too.

Then came the American Revolution–and this is a curious thing–because when encountering the colonial complaints and their cries of tyranny, the English living in England didn’t actually know what to make of it.  For a start, they couldn’t figure out what the colonials were talking about.

The cries about the tyrant who imposed unfair taxes, without representation, didn’t even make sense to an 18th century Englishman, because he knew that the king had no say over taxation.  The king didn’t and couldn’t raise taxes–he had nothing to say to the matter one way or another.

(And George III was remarkably frugal.  [There’s another word for it, and that would be nip-farthing…ehem…another reason his British subjects liked him…])

He didn’t have executive power either as stated previously.  So all that George III is a tyrant stuff–that was lost on us.

Anyway.

In the wake of the American Revolution, George III’s reputation did suffer–people here thought that he really should have sent over lots more troops and kicked some sense into the fractious colonials.

But, he and his ministers knew something too (had known something for some time)–and that is that the American Revolution had been paid for by the French crown; the American troops had been led by French officers, their food supplies sent from France, along with all their uniforms, their munitions, etc.

(For a detailed account of the French crown’s investment and Congress’s subsequent reneging of those massive loans–which incidentally caused France’s bankruptcy and hence its slide into Revolution–see Maurice Lever’s three volume biography of Beaumarchais, who in addition to being the author of The Marriage of Figaro, was Louis XVI’s agent in the affair.)

And once the Revolution was over in 1783, and British attention refocused on matters closer to home–as in across the Channel where Englishmen did a lot of their business–George’s reputation recovered.

Then came the first Regency crisis…

Prinny RussellUntil that point, Prince George had been your average rebellious prince, playing around with the naughty crowd–the Devonshire set–in moves designed to set his parents’ teeth on edge…but the Regency crisis changed all that.

And when George III recovered his wits, (just as the French Revolution was about to kick off…) there was more than a whiff of bad odour about the business.

There were, and there had been, echoes of Henry IV’s rage over Prince Hal’s ‘trying on the crown’ in the air (see Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part Two).

Prince George had been far too eager for power…And that was felt to be truly offensive…And I think it’s safe to say their relationship never really recovered.

Meanwhile, George III went back to kinging, to supporting the arts and manufacture, to farming which was his passion.  He may still have felt the loss of the colonies most keenly, but as the French Revolution unfolded and the genocidal violence reached its nadir, old George–devoted to his country, his family, his farm and his people–looked better and better.

He became a symbol of stability, of the English nation that would not bow to the tyrannical violence and bloodshed of Republican France.  Once Napoleon came on the scene and with his military might swallowed up most of Europe, George’s reputation smelled rosier and rosier.

As he aged–and soldiered on on their behalf–he was regarded with great affection by his subjects.  They truly loved him and truly felt great empathy for his physical sufferings and his final descent into blindness, deafness and madness caused by porphyria.

As for George IV, his reputation never did recover.  A disloyal child–to the Georgian mind–was one of the great banes of existence.   There were scores of disinherited children during this period… And George had crossed that line and was perceived as disloyal to his father and disloyal to the king and therefore to the country.

But what’s curious though is that whilst George IV, both as Regent and King, was hated–certainly by the London press–no move was ever made to get rid of him.

(Again, no suggestions of an anarcho-syndacalist commune…and this is important, because often when one considers the history of a place or period, what’s missing is as significant as what’s there…)

And had the problem been with the concept of monarchy, as some people imagine it must have been, Parliament might have stepped in.  They’d done it before…

But they didn’t.

And for all that the newspapers and cartoonists of the day loathed and mocked Prinny, what’s peculiar is the grounds for their so-called hatred:  his licentiousness and profligacy.  Because here’s the thing–as I’ve mentioned earlier, there are more saucy stories about Edward VII than about nearly everyone else put together.  But that doesn’t seem to have bothered either the press or the populace.  By comparison to Edward, Prinny was an amateur, a kindergartner…

And he did a number of quite innovative and good things.

He insisted that Britain should NOT participate in the art-grab when the allies were breaking up the vast collection of artwork in the Louvre, pillaged from all over Europe.  He wouldn’t accept any of those pillaged treasures as gifts either.  He was a patron of the arts and letters–particularly letters–his patronage meant a great deal to Sir Walter Scott and did much to transform the anti-Scottish sentiment which had been the norm in England.

He was the first British monarch since the 17th century to visit Scotland and he loved it there and did everything he could to promote it–so those kudos do not belong to Victoria and Albert either–George IV had already begun the work.

He was also the first monarch to appear in tartan dress.  (Yes, I know that a regular kilt requires 14 yards of fabric, and one for a chap with a 50″ waist just makes my eyes pop…but, well, he probably kept at least one tartan weaver in work for over year…)

When he died, he wasn’t mourned particularly.  The people had loved his daughter, Charlotte…But George IV’s brother, William IV, was much loved too.  He drank too much–they all did–but he was regarded with genuine affection.  And his reign had seen the beginning of many of the reforms that Victoria is often credited with…

And now?  Now we regard the monarchy and our dear Queen with affection and appreciation–probably just as his subjects regarded George III–so my advice to those writing about Britain–don’t infer that we regard our kings or queens with anything other than full-hearted gratitude.  Regardless of what the press are blabbing about.  And many of us sing with full gusto every time we hear the music, those famous strains of Handel’s coronation anthem:  “Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet anointed Solomon king.  And all the people rejoiced and said, God save the King!  Long live the King.  May the King live forever.  Alleluia!  Alleluia…Amen.”

And we mean it.  Every word of it.

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What the Regency is and is not…

I know, I know…why am I returning to this old chestnut?  You wish to read something new, entertaining, disgusting and/or engaging… (And where have I been for the last month, anyway, slacker that I am?)

(Off for the holidays, since you ask.  Followed by a vicious bout of manflu.  So much so that I can now say, with absolute conviction than manflu is not a weenie version of influenza but was in fact the secret biological weapon of the Spanish Inquisition or possibly of Dr. John Dee working undercover as a Tudor torturer in the Tower of London…)

But back to this Regency business…

I have, in fact, already attempted to herd the fantasists into some verisimilitude of historical accuracy or other in my previous 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 it. 

Well, if you thought that, you’d be wrong. 

Now I hear–courtesy of the ubiquitous grapevine that is the internet–that one or other or several of our charming colonial cousins are insisting at some length and indeed volume that the Regency actually started in the late 18th century and that history isn’t the only criterion.  Or something. 

(I don’t know–I could have heard that wrong or I may have had a bit of fluff in my ear…)

To which I feel forced to ask, therefore, how are you defining the word Regency?  What does the word, in fact, mean, when you’re using it? 

Are you using it in reference to a period of time during which George III had been found to have lost his senses, irreparably impairing his ability to govern and his son and heir was made acting head of state, aka the Regent? 

Then you would be talking, as I have outlined, of a period beginning 5 February 1811 when the Regency Act became law and the death of the king in 1820. 

Or, you could stretch the point and date it slightly earlier, beginning-ish a year or so earlier, when George III’s mental health began to deteriorate as it had previously and his son and heir stepped in ex officio to keep things ticking over and running smoothly–it was a time of war, with all the matters of state that entails–until such time as his father recovered or his condition stabilised. 

But what if you don’t care a jot about history?  Fair enough.  Are you speaking culturally?  What if you’re talking about architecture?  Or furniture design?  Or when Napoleon was gallivanting about the Continent calling himself Emperor?

blokeWhat if, indeed, when you say Regency you’re actually picturing in your mind a chappie with his hair cropped and unpowdered, wearing a high white cravat constructed of heavily starched linen about his neck, a high crowned bevor on his head (which looks quite similar to our top hats), a tightly fitted tailored wool coat, a plain waistcoat and very tight buckskin breeches?  What if that’s what Regency means to you? 

Well, that definition of Regency would date the beginning of said period with the arrival of Mr. George Brummell in London and his appearance–which shocked his fellow members at White’s, particularly those of an older generation than himself–dressed as above. 

copy-of-beau-bonhamsBrummell bought his house in Chesterfield Street in 1799.  He also became a member of White’s Club in that year.  Though it wasn’t until 1802-3 that Londoners were treated to the first public appearance of the strangulation device known as the starched cravat.  He had also cropped his hair by that point.  And like many of his generation, he was no longer using powder–which was then heavily taxed to pay for the already long war with France. 

1802-3 is also the year that the French Empire waist made a strong showing in ladies wear, here in England.  The Peace of Amiens with France meant that travel was briefly possibly for those of means and what they did was pop over to France for a spot of shopping. 

The fashion for dressing in white muslin was not new–Marie Antoinette had swathed herself in layers of white muslin–but the simpler silhouette we associate with the early 19th century was. 

If you’re talking about furniture design, well, again the dates aren’t what you’d expect.  We associate the designs of Thomas Sheraton with the best of the period, yet his famous book of designs was not published until 1812 and it was published posthumously. 

HoratioNelsonThere’s quite a lot of gilded furniture about at the time too–all those gold leaf porpoises are furniture for the Age of Nelson–who was the great Naval hero.  Was he a Regency gentleman?  He wore his hair in a queue, and powdered, and had he been asked, would have told you and with some passion that he served George III and his country.  He was no “Regency gentleman”.  He died in 1805, well before George III’s descent into blindness, deafness and madness…

If you’re talking about the delicious interiors of Robert Adam, such as at Osterley Park, home of Lady Sally Jersey (absolutely gorgeous–a most lust-worthy residence!) you’d actually be talking about the 1780s when Adam and his rival James Wyatt were at the height of their powers and popularity…

pittWas William Pitt a Regency gentleman?  He was Prime Minister (until his death in 1806) during all the early years of the wars with France and Napoleon, yet while he lived and worked, George III retained a firm grip on the reins of government. 

Viscount Castlereagh, husband to one of Almack’s Lady Patronesses, and a political force of incalculable stature powdered his hair all his life.  And he didn’t drink to excess.  He hardly drank at all and he never drank spirits, though he was one person the Prince Regent considered a close and trusted friend.  Not what one would expect necessarily, is it?

(Almack’s Assembly Rooms themselves had opened in 1764…)

Or perhaps the word Regency indicates to you a certain sexual license and profligacy as exemplified by the Prince of Wales and frequently lampooned in the London newspapers and cartoons of the era.  Hmn.  

I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings and all that, but the previous generation’s morals, particularly those of the Whig aristocracy, were a great deal more…ah…exciting than those of the Prince Regent.  Check out the doings at Chatsworth when Prinny was yet a spotty adolescent living at Kew, if you doubt me–they make the poor man appear positively staid. 

Moreover, yes, I know that the Prince was considered universally unpopular and that is the picture one will arrive at if one relies solely on the London media–which was Radical and libellous by any standard.  

alexander 1814But here’s the thing–I was recently reading about a trip the Tsar and the Prince Regent made to Oxford during the summer of 1814.  Anyway, the Tsar left the dinner and parties early and flounced back to London (yes, it was rude–he was good at that!) because what he particularly liked was fawning adulation and the applause of the crowds–and he loved London for that.  The London crowds adored him and booed the Prince Regent. 

Yet in Oxford, the crowds were wild in their support for…yes, you guessed it…the Prince Regent, and loudly cheered him wherever he went, even as they ignored the Tsar.  And the Tsar didn’t like that. 

Which begs the question–did the London journalists and satirists actually speak for and reflect public opinion at the time or did they just shout the loudest and longest, drowning out all other voices?  And was there such a thing as public opinion in the early 19th century, anyway?

I could, of course, list dozens of more anomalies…and I’m happy to do so…but I think what I’m most trying to say is that for all that the word Regency is today used quite loosely to designate a period of time-ish, historical reality isn’t like that. 

Nothing happens all at once–and certainly not in a neatly contained box with dated end-papers put there for the convenience of later generations’ school essays.  Change occurs gradually and often generationally. 

Beau Brummell may have introduced his version of menswear and its astonishing wonder of the clean world, the cravat, in 1802, but not everybody hopped on the bandwagon and suddenly dressed like that. 

The elder generations thought he looked like a numpty and certainly didn’t ape him–to them, he probably appeared as the first Goth appeared in the 1980s–equal parts shocking, daft, foppish and unBritish or some such thing.  Those who did take up his lead initially were only a handful of young men from a tiny coterie of very rich and very aristocratic families.  (And it’s doubtful their parents approved.) 

Equally, in 1802, the majority hadn’t the means in that time of inflation and war to throw out their serviceable clothing in favour of what was new from London or from Paris.  Nor did they chuck out their serviceable chairs and tables the second the new catalogue came out from Ikea in 1812…

As the old was worn out, it was replaced with the new–the new cut, the new fashion in colours, the new fabrics from wherever.  Just as there came a time when the older generation was comprised of men and women who’d grown up thinking that Brummell dressed as a gentleman should dress, who had no personal memory of the old mad king, and believed that bagwigs belonged in the prop cupboard for family theatricals.  But this all requires the passage of unminuted time…

So, back to the definition?  Is that any clearer?  I don’t know…I hope so. 

Prinny RussellBut I will tell you one more thing.  Regardless of what they may wish had happened, the United States did not have a Regency period.  And do you know why?  Because in order to have a Regency, you require a king or an emperor kind of person who is in need of someone to run things for him while he’s not of age or of mental ability…and a king is one thing America did not have–they’d taken care of that by 1783. 

(Instead, the Americans had Thomas Jefferson and his rabid Anglo-phobia…to be followed by James Madison and his rabid Anglo-phobic policies which culminated in a declaration of war in 1812…And I’m fairly certain that did not stem from any desire to rejoin the Mother Country and share once more in the joys and privileges of having a Prince Regent…Ehem.)

Yes, I’m ranting…

Yes, I am ranting.  Rant, rant, rant

And I’ll tell you why.  Because of the internet. 

Because it makes me crazy and because so many misstatements of fact, so many bare-faced lies, and so much misinformed drivel is trotted out as fact on all the various blogs that clot up the blogosphere that it makes me absobloominglutely crazy. 

So there I was today, reading along in my quaint little Englishey fashion, when I came upon a blog about George Brummell–or Beau Brummell, if you prefer.  Whatever. 

And within two paragraphs, I was swearing.  Expleting.  Using the full-force of my extensive vocabulary in three languages! 

(It’s at times like this that I hate being an expert.  I hate, hate, hate it.  I want to be a nice person, you see.  I want to be supportive and lovely and charming and say things like, “That’s utterly fab!” and “I think you’ve done a smashing job…” 

I do not, not, not want to be known as that wild-eyed, wilder-haired semi-lunatic professor who throws chalk [hard] with unerring accuracy at his students and hits them smack in the forehead when they get their Latin verbs wrong!  [I had a professor like that once.  He was utterly brilliant.  Terrifying.  But brilliant.])

Also, please understand that I don’t really have an interest in Brummell one way or another.  I mean, I know lots about the fellow, because I read and research bloody everything, but knowing about him doesn’t get me firing on all cylinders like say the Russian light cavalry or formation of the Landwehr in 1813 does, or anything.  I mean, I’m sure he was perfectly delightful but…

But, okay, back to this blog…Because the first thing that set my teeth on edge was a bit about Brummell going to Eton where he ‘got to rub shoulders with the aristocracy’ as if it’s some sort of rare privilege accorded to a special few and we should all genuflect or something. 

So let me be perfectly clear here:  I am friends with several members of the aristocracy.  Get over it. 

In fact, until her death, my very dearest friend in all the world had a title–an ancient one.  And do you know what?  She was brilliant.  She was smashing.  She was the very least up-herself, stand-on-ceremony, proud or arrogant person in the entire world.  And I loved her dearly.  And I miss her like stink. 

But I’ll tell you something else.  She had to brush her teeth.  Just like everyone else.  And when she didn’t, she got cavities.  Just like everyone else. 

But back to Brummell. 

The thing about that statement–besides the obvious aristophilia issue which has me splenetically croaking–is that the author had just finished telling us that Brummell was born at 10 Downing Street where his father lived because he was the private secretary to Lord North.  Who was the Prime Minister under George III.  And who had, clearly, a title. 

And in and out of the front door of Downing Street, handing Billy Brummell (young George’s father) the requisite sweeteners to ensure that they could get in to see the Prime Minister were half the aristocratic heads in the kingdom.  Because that’s how politics worked in those days.  

So, young George would have been ‘rubbing shoulders’ with the aristocracy from the day he was born–or any time he wasn’t in the nursery…

Okay.  (Breathing in.  Breathing out.)  So then I skipped a bit, because there wasn’t a wall close enough at hand against which I could bang my head.  Hard…

And then I came across the statement that the thingie that’s called a Bow-window is called that because Beau Brummell used to sit in White’s bow window overlooking St. James’s Street.  What? 

Has no one but me heard of that superlative set of volumes known as the Oxford English Dictionary????  The repository of all the most wonderful information and the definitive authority on how and when words came into use in English?  And there’s no bally excuse for not using it because it’s now ON-LINE!

And had the author of this blog bothered to check any of her facts in that fine and noble work, she would know that it was Samuel Richardson who first used the word ‘bow-window’ in print in the year 1753. 

That’s 25 years before George Brummell made his appearance in Downing Street as a squalling brat. 

Later, Repton uses in in a discourse on gardens and conservatories or something.  And Austen used it in 1816 in Emma.  It had nothing to do with Brummell or his soubriquet.

[I have–since yesterday–refered to the index in my copy of Ian Kelly’s biography, Beau Brummell, The Ultimate Dandy, and have found that Kelly does indeed refer to this thrice between pages 245-46.  He writes:  “The facade of White’s clubhouse…was remodelled during the second half of the eighteenth century, and a little later a bay window was added over a former doorway that became a landmark on St. James’s Street.  Here Brummell held court in the afternoons, in a bow window that became known as the Beau Window…The men of the Dandiacal Body…’mustered in force’ around Brummel’s chair in the Beau Window, watching the world go by and telling jokes.”  I, therefore, stand corrected on this point.]

Pause for more of that breathing manoeuvre…

So then, I skipped along and discovered the startling information that [allegedly] Brummell contracted the syphilis from which he died in 1840 in the last years of the 18th century, when he was stationed in Brighton with the Prince’s own 10th Regiment of Light Dragoons. 

Hello? 

The only problem with that bijou fact-ette is that it’s impossible–which she would have known had the author bothered to read the whole of the Kelly biography that she cited in her footnotes. 

Because syphilis was a fast-working killer in those days and as Brummell was clearly suffering the torments of tertiary syphilis in the 1820s and 30’s, he had to have contracted the disease in London, at the height of his fame and popularity.  So around 1811. 

Because by 1816, he’d shaved off his hair to combat the baldness that was a side-effect of the mercury treatment.

Had he contracted the disease in Brighton before 1797 as she averred, he would have been bald and losing his teeth by 1803–the very time he was introducing the starched cravat of folded linen to the gentlemen of White’s Club! 

And the thing that really vexes me and peeves me in all this is that now this blog with all this rot is out there.  You know?  And some perfectly charming little person, having read a Georgette Heyer novel or something, will think, “Oooh Beau Brummell, I should google him…”  

But instead of coming across a piece that will enlighten her and give her an insight into the early 19th century mindset and provide some useful historical context, instead of all that, this charming little person will get regurgitated sancitmonious Victorian de-sexualising b*ll*cks. 

Because that’s what happened!  By the time Gronow and his mateys were writing this pap about Brummell, Victoria was on the throne, Wellington–another quite the virile man about town–was a staid, elderly statesman, and all that naughty Regency stuff had to be white-washed–and for heaven’s sake, no one mention Harriette Wilson (Brummell’s close confidante and Wellington’s former mistress).  And to say they messed with their facts doesn’t even get warm!

The very worst I ever read of that stuff was one late Victorian biog of Brummell which simpered on about his mincing walk which was like he was tiptoeing around the raindrops. 

Ya, right.  A chappie who was a cavalry officer–think boots, well-built shoulders, hard-drinking, hard-swearing, hard-riding, manly man, a fellow who spent 4-5 hours in the saddle every day–is supposed to have tippy-toed around the raindrops.  I don’t think so.

Oh–and another thing.  Brummell broke his nose when meeting face-to-face with a cobblestone.  On account of his horse having shied and spooked. 

Ehem. 

I also have met with the ground, nose to nose, as it were, pretty much in the same way.  Fortunately, it wasn’t a cobblestone, it was a hummock on the South Downs, so my nose does not have an interesting tilt to one side.  However…It’s not Romantic.  It’s just what happens…

And I’d also like to add that that prissy little picture of him isn’t Brummell.  The most likely candidate for an accurate picture of him is this one with the broken nose…

So what was Brummell then, if he wasn’t this prissy sissy clothes-horse? 

He was a man’s man.  A very well educated man who wrote rather spiffing epigrams in Latin (most Eton boys did so–they’d been writing plays in Latin or Greek since they were about 14.)  He loved dogs.  And dogs loved him.  He didn’t wear perfume or scented after-shave–he said a man should smell like clean, country-washed linen and nothing else.

And he most especially loved fabric.  Not in a girlie kind of way–but more in the way I conjecture someone like Karl Lagerfeld or Yves St. Laurent loves fabric.  He loved the weaves.  He was passionate about the depth of colour in a good English wool.  He loved how the cut of a coat could show off the fabric. 

And the early 19th century was a great time for English wool–the new mechanised looms were producing some fantastic weaves and blends…and he loved them all.  They set him alight.  And his enthusiasm for the cut of the fabric and for the design that would emphasise that changed English menswear forever. 

He was a dandy when the word didn’t mean some bloke who wears all different colours at one go and has floppy hair. 

A dandy as he lived it [dandy in those days was defined as the opposite of a bore–work that out…] wore perfect tailoring in subtle and dark colours–dark blue or dark green jackets with buff coloured breeches for daytime and for evening black breeches (later pantaloons) with a well-cut black or navy coat.  All of which sounds very contemporary, very button-down, very elegant.  No? 

Oh, and he had a great sense of humour–and played lots of practical jokes.  A lot like Oscar Wilde from what I can tell…

He was seriously addicted to gambling.  Compulsively.  Obsessively.  And it was this which destroyed him.  He gambled away millions.  And his addiction destroyed all his relationships–just as any addiction if left untreated will do–obliterated all other interests.  It left the friends who lent him money to pay off his debts seriously up against it. 

And in the end, he had no choice but to face the bailiffs or scarper off to Calais.  Which is what he chose to do.  In disgrace and ignominy. 

As for this other stuff, well…I think what I need to say is, People, do your research.  Do it properly.  Check everything.  Don’t present yourself as an expert if you’re not.  And don’t even think about blagging it.  

If only because I’m sick of knocking my head against the wall because you can’t be bothered.  

Otherwise, shut the **** up.

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. Continue reading

Regency exotica and other noggin-bangers…

I’ve just come away from watching the second of the BBC’s three-parter about the Regency. 

(Okay, yes, I’ve stopped to triple check a couple of facts, because if I’m going to throw stones, I like to use a class-a catapult to ensure maximum effect.)

And may I say, with the BBC’s level of resources and their access to expertise, there’s simply no excuse for some of the lazy errors made in this series. 

The most glaring came in the first four minutes when the presenter told us that three million people died in the Napoleonic Wars.  Er…at the very least five million, though historians from Adam Zamoyski to David A. Bell to Robert Harvey have all raised that estimate upward toward six million and beyond as more and more information is found in Russia and eastern Europe confirming higher civilian losses than anyone previously guessed (or the French admitted to). Continue reading

A few words about the Prince Regent

I know, I know…I never talk about the Prince Regent.  I make it a point not to.

However, last night I watched the first of a three-part series on the English Regency.  And while there was some good stuff there, as well as a number of elements which deserve criticism–and while I equally feel that the controller of BBC4 deserves a good kicking for the infantilisation of history-documentaries in general–there’s one tendency which was abundantly on display in Elegance and Decadance that I cannot let pass. 

It’s the creation of a wrong impression by failing to tell the whole story or failing to place an event or artefact in context.

From the off, we were into ‘wrong impression’ territory.  The presenter showed the camera a corset that the young Prince George (born 1762) had worn as a child which was meant to help him grow up straight and tall.  This corset was, of course, presented as restrictive and unfeelingly strict.  Which I suppose it was. 

But what the viewer wasn’t told was that the young Prince George wasn’t alone in wearing a corset like this.  In that era, it was normal.  The disease of rickets was every 18th century parent’s nightmare–they didn’t know it was caused by a vitamin deficiency.  So they corseted young children in the belief that they were supporting correct growth.

(And this was the future King of England for heaven’s sake–he had to grow up straight and tall.  He couldn’t be a hunchback–that would have had overtones of Richard III…)  All of a sudden, that corset doesn’t look quite so much like child cruelty, does it?  But without context, the unwary non-historian is led to a false conclusion.

Then of course, there was the fact that the Regency officially began in February 1811 and lasted until 1820, which is strictly true, but not the full story–as anyone who has seen Alan Bennett’s The Madness of King George might tell you.  Because George III didn’t just have one lapse into madness in 1810 which proved permanent–he’d been dodging in and out of lucidity for quite a long time as a result of the disease porphyria. 

So although there hadn’t been an Act of Parliament making Prince George the Regent before 1811, they’d come awfully close to it on a previous occasion; then the king had recovered his wits, so they didn’t.  

There’s another thing.  We hear all the time in the press and elsewhere about the need to look beyond the surface of a situation to discover the root causes–for instance to look beneath the surface of sudden teenage rebellion to find perhaps troubled family relationships or family alcoholism or maybe bullying…something.  But when too many historians look at past lives, the insights into emotional cause and effect or troubled relationships and context just evaporate. 

Poof.  It’s gone. 

And we’re left with the same old “he was hated…he was fat…he was…”

Now I’m not going to insist that Prince George was likeable or even lovable.  I’m sure he had his share of faults and vices, and then some.  But I do know this:  he was young once.  He wasn’t always a grotesque, leering caricature poured into too-tight clothes. 

And when he was young, he was something!  Tall, good-looking, dashing, sexy…the public and press adored him.  He was the Brad Pitt of his day.  He hung out with the fastest crowd–the Devonshire set (as in Amanda Foreman’s biography, Georgiana)–and they were daring, energetic, wild and witty, they rejected the stuffiness of the staid court of his father, they embraced the ideals of the French philosophes and the French Revolution in its early stages.  And he was at the centre of it. 

As a series of acts of filial rebellion, it was superb.  And that’s what it was.  

And it was more than that.  Because Prince George was Prince of Wales, the heir to the throne. 

Now I am a fan of George III.  But on the subject of raising children, he was just a tad on the controlling side.  Okay, I’m lying–he was controlling to the point of unreasonableness.  He simply could not be brought to allow Prince George even a hint of freedom or responsibility.  The Prince’s younger brother had been sent to North America with the navy during the Wars of Independence, ostensibly as a young officer, but actually to spy for his father and conduct secret negotiations. 

But for the Prince of Wales, nothing.  His father wouldn’t allow him a place in the army nor the navy, wouldn’t let him to travel outside of England.  Wouldn’t even give him his own estate or household to manage.  He was the heir to the throne and his person could not be exposed to any danger.  Not any.   

And given that, it’s not perhaps surprising that when finally he did escape from his father’s control, when he finally did get out into the world, young George kicked over the traces–he got himself the most beautiful girlfriends, he stayed up all night gambling and drinking, he rode hard, he swore, he hunted, he wore clothes to wind his father up, he did it all. 

The press loved it!  They revelled in using the spectacle of his wild and pleasure-seeking life as a stick with which to beat his father, the King, who was none too popular at the time, due to the loss of those pesky American colonies.  And it drove the straight-laced King potty.  (Who says James Dean invented teenage rebellion?)

But, he was the Prince of Wales, the heir to the throne.  And as that he had only one job:  waiting.  That’s it.  Waiting to be King.  Nothing else.  And his father kept the reins of government, such as they were, firmly in his own hands.  No sharing. 

And despite the image we have of fat, stupid, lazy…Prince George was not stupid.  He was rather intelligent, in fact, with a lifelong love of Greek and Latin literature.  He was a singer with an impressive bass voice, and a sublime cellist–he possessed a deep musicality.  But with that intelligence, with that musicality, he was allowed to do nothing.  So, (in today’s parlance) he channelled his boredom and frustration into what he could do, what he could control, what would irritate his parent–spending money, living garishly and wildly.  In short, into anything that would define him as the opposite of his father. 

Eventually the excesses and mass executions of the French Revolution made Whiggism privately impossible for him–those aristocrats and crowned heads they guillotined in France, those were his friends and cousins, in some cases, so their loss was personal and he grieved for them. (The Duchess of Devonshire was a close friend and correspondent of Marie Antoinette and her ladies in waiting…) Still, by then, rebellion, wildness, fecklessness had become his default setting.  And an arranged marriage to a young woman with a serious hygiene deficiency (his closest friend, Brummell, was the instigator of the daily bath, remember) did nothing to improve the situation.

Which somehow makes him rather understandable–not lovable perhaps–but definitely human. 

Another small point.  The presenter of the series brought up George’s love of uniforms and the number of these in his wardrobe as well as showing us many portraits of him in different military uniforms.  She also derided his habit in later life of recounting the Battle of Salamanca as if he’d been there; ditto his belief that he’d been at Waterloo.

Now, I’m not saying that fashion was kind to the Prince.  It wasn’t.  Skin-tight trousers do not sit well on a fellow of late middle age with a 50″ waistline. 

However, Prince George had grown up and lived in an era of military heroes.  In the 18th century, the ideal of a true gentleman, a true nobleman, was a fellow who dodged bullets as the bravest soldier during the day and then spent his evenings and nights making passionate and delicious love to the ladies.  (I’m not making this up.)

Admiral Lord Nelson had been loved, adored and idolised by the press and public.  He was the kind of military hero who had his arm shot off, the skin blown off his forehead and down into his face, who went down to the surgeon to be patched up and then came back up for more.  He led his men into battle from the front and he was lionised for it.

He may have been the enemy, but Napoleon Bonaparte was a military leader who had won a crown, a country and an empire through military prowess.   His court was that of a military state and he the premier soldier of the age, the head of the French army.

Tsar Alexander and the Prussian King, Frederick William, were both present at many of the battles in which their armies fought (not always with positive results).  It’s what kings did.

Seen in this contextual light, George is no different from his fellow monarchs…he didn’t get to go to war, his father and Parliament wouldn’t allow it.  But kings wore the uniforms of their armed forces, it was part of the job.  And if George wanted some of the adulation which Nelson received, if he thought the uniform would help…well, I fancy one can see his reasoning.

Anything else?  Well, I dare say there is.  But I can’t think of it right now.  No doubt it’ll come to me…

Regency Rollicking

This one’s been bothering me for a long time. 

It’s the generally perceived notion that the Regency was a period entirely given over to riotous living, debauched sex, feckless, foolish gambling and drinking and every conceivable excess.  And as proof of the profligacy of the period, a few names are always trotted out:  Lady Caroline Lamb, Lord Byron, and of course, the Prince Regent…I say the names, the reader gets the images.  

But hang on a tick, say I.  That’s only three people.  That’s hardly representative of a population of 11 million.  And what were the rest of them doing?  And who were these three and how did they become emblematic? 

Well, the Prince Regent obviously gave his title to the period, which officially lasts from February 1811 until his father’s death in 1820.  He had also stepped in as regent before this on the grounds of his father, George III’s diminishing mental capacities, due to the porphyria from which he suffered. 

But by 1811, in many ways, the Prince Regent was a non-force.  He was immensely unpopular and for so many reasons:  his profligacy on every level; his architectural and sartorial extravagance; his gargantuan size and his hypochondria; his treatment of his estranged wife, Princess Caroline; his disloyalty to his father; his mistresses…So he wasn’t precisely someone whom people were eager to emulate. 

Lady Caroline Lamb.  Another interesting figure–iconic to us, perhaps.  But not, I think, to them.  Her father was a violent alcoholic, her mother almost certainly used a great deal of opium and drank excessively, so it would be surprising if there were not ante-natal damage to the child. 

Her father also beat her mother nearly to death–she was whisked out of the country by her sister, the Duchess of Devonshire, so that if she did die, the husband wouldn’t hang for it.  And Caroline was subsequently bounced from household to household–spending much of her childhood in the home of her uncle, the Duke of Devonshire, at Chatsworth.  Nor was that household in any way ‘normal’.  Devonshire had a menage a trois, with his wife and his mistress, Lady Bess Foster, and all their combined children.  Caroline’s cousins didn’t like her at all–she was known to be an attention seeker as a child.  But who could blame her in the midst of all that? 

She married young, it was a political marriage to Lord William Lamb, and within a short time, she was openly involved with Sir George Webster.  A state of affairs which shocked even her mother-in-law, the famously unfaithful Lady Melbourne, not just because of the indiscretion and openness of the affaire, but because Caroline had not yet produced an heir and to spare–thus ensuring the children’s paternity. 

And then comes her affaire with Byron.  Or not affaire.  Certainly she carried on openly with him, but sources close to him insist theirs was not a sexual relationship.  So more attention seeking? 

In any event, he was having an affaire with Caroline’s mother-in-law at the same time.  Caroline eventually went on, following Byron’s public ‘dumping’ of her, to do her best to gain even more attention by allegedly drinking crushed glass at a ball.  Among other things.  And eventually, she was incarcerated for her own safety.  

Was she chronically depressed?  A self-harmer?  Maybe.  Probably.  A victim of generations of alcoholism?  Almost certainly.  All tabloid headline-grabbing stuff!  But was she typical of the Regency?  Er…no. 

So who were the people who were typical and who are these others?  The answer, I believe, often lies along political lines. 

The Devonshires, the Melbournes, all these families from whom are drawn these images of Regency rakes and gamblers and scantily clad, sexually voracious women, belong to the Whig aristocracy.   Who, curiously enough, despite Devonshire owning enough pocket boroughs to steal more than his share of an election, were never in power during the period. 

The electorate of the country didn’t trust them enough to vote them into power.

Those who did hold the power were the Tories.  And the stories about them, by comparison, well, they’re actually quite boring. 

There’s Sir Spencer Perceval–the first and only Prime Minister ever to be assassinated.  He was a successful lawyer, educated at Cambridge, married with twelve children; he became Chancellor of the Exchequer in1807 and Prime Minister in 1809.  Never did a scandalous or a headline-grabbing thing in his life, except die rather dramatically at the hand of a schizophrenic assassin, John Bellingham.

There’s Viscount Castlereagh, the Foreign Secretary, married to one of the Patronesses of Almack’s.  They had no children, but we know from their letters that they were wholly devoted to each other–we even have his letters telling her about all the shopping he was doing for her when he was in Europe in 1814.  He was farmer, forever going on about the rearing and improvement of his herd of merino sheep.  He was a fine cellist, and had a fondness for plum-coloured coats, as well as being Leader of the House of Commons from 1812 until his death. 

There’s William Pitt, Prime Minister until his death in 1806.  Yes, he drank.  Excessively.  But with the streak of chronic and terrible depression running through his family, it’s entirely probable that he was, as we might say today, self-medicating.  It could also probably be said that he worked himself to death.  He was unmarried, but utterly devoted to his family, to his nieces and their interests. 

Or Lord Liverpool, married twice (his first wife died), devoted to his wives, Prime Minister from 1812…

All these men were also society figures.  They were members of the landed gentry and arisotocracy…they turned up at balls, they danced, probably even well–it was expected that a gentleman would do so.   If they gambled, it tended to be modestly.  They married, settled down with their wives, had children, worked hard on their estates managing the land through a period of inflation and seriously bad harvests and therefore local unrest. 

Castlereagh frequently played the cello in chamber works with his friends, and had, with his wife, a menagerie of wild and exotic animals down at their farm… 

And in their spare time these men did things like pass legislation abolishing the slave trade, improving prisons, improving the treatment of working children, outlawing the pillory for women, separating felons from debtors in the prisons, and families from felons… Oh, and pursued the war against the greatest dictator of the greatest military state the world has ever seen–first through naval might and derring-do, and then, militarily under the direction of the Duke of Wellington, first in Spain and then at Waterloo. 

That, to me, is the real Regency.  They did all that:  they had homes which they didn’t gamble away, they had children, they read Romantic poetry, they listened to the premiers of Beethoven’s music, possibly even played it from first editions, they ran the country surprisingly well, sitting through Parliamentary debates that often lasted more than 24 hours, their sons went to fight against Napoleon, and often they died and the families grieved terribly. 

But yes, they danced well at Almack’s too.