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What was the Regency Era?

Updated on December 28, 2012

Regency Fashion

Neoclassical styles characterised the early Regency period
Neoclassical styles characterised the early Regency period | Source

The Regency Period in the United Kingdom

It's a period of time beloved of romantic novelists and hotel owners but what was the Regency era? Just when and why did it happen? If you've read a Jane Austen novel or watched a screen adaptation of one of her works, you'll have a pretty good idea of what the Regency period may have looked like: men in tight trousers and long boots squiring ladies in high-waisted gowns to balls in Bath. What you may have missed is the broader picture of what was happening the Britain at the time. Here's an overview of Britain's Regency period.

The Royal Pavilion at Brighton

The Prince Regent's fantasy palace at the seaside.
The Prince Regent's fantasy palace at the seaside. | Source

The Time Period of the Regency

Between the restored Stuart monarchy and the Victorian era sat the Georgian monarchs. The Regency happened during the reign of George III and, strictly speaking, lasted for the final nine years of the King's life (1811 - 1820). However, the Regency is often regarded as more than the shift of power from the King to the Prince Regent and there is a view that the Regency era in art and literature lasted longer than the formal political regency. Taking this broader view, the Regency Era can be said to last from around 1790 to 1837.

George III in Later Life

An engraving showing George III in 1818.  By this time he was insane, almost completely blind and living in seclusion at Windsor.
An engraving showing George III in 1818. By this time he was insane, almost completely blind and living in seclusion at Windsor. | Source

The Formal Cause of the Regency

George III was one of Britain's longest serving monarchs, but sadly his reign was marred by mental illness. The King had suffered at least two bouts of insanity before the Regency. After a particularly bad period in the late 1780s, a Regency Bill was drawn up in 1789, but the King recovered his wits and the Bill was withdrawn before it passed through Parliament.

The King endured more short bouts of illness until he finally lost his health permanently in 1810 when his youngest and favourite daughter, Princess Amelia, died at the age of 27. George would weep and wail for his lost daughter, then at other times delude himself that she was an immortal, living in Hanover with a family of her own.

When it became clear that the King would not recover, an Act was passed naming the Prince of Wales as Regent for his father. The Regency began on 5 February 1811.

Prince George, Prince Regent

The Prince Regent painted around 1814.
The Prince Regent painted around 1814. | Source

Regency Facts

During the Regency:

  • Spencer Perceval, Britain's only Prime Minister to be assassinated , was shot on 11 May 1812.
  • Pride and Prejudice published in 1813
  • Gas lighting used on London streets for the first time in 1814.
  • Napoleon defeated at the Battle of Waterloo 1815.
  • Queen Victoria born on 26 May 1819.
  • First steamship crosses the Atlantic in 1819.

The Prince Regent and King George III

George Augustus Frederick was the eldest son of King George III and his wife Queen Charlotte. He was born on 12 August 1762. The young Prince of Wales had several good qualities, including an aptitude for languages. As he grew older he developed into a fine conversationalist and had a keen eye for design. Sadly, he also had a taste for over-indulgence that extended into all aspects of his life; he had a great many mistresses, ran up huge debts in funding his lavish lifestyle and grew obese.

George III was essentially a simple man, known as "Farmer George" to his subjects. Unusually for a King, he appears to have enjoyed a happy and loving marriage with his Queen. There were no mistresses for George III and he spent most of his life in and around London, surrounded by his family. He was not impressed by the profligacy of his son and refused to bail the Prince of Wales out of debt (not unreasonable since between Parliament and the King, he had an annual income which would amount to around £10 million today). The contrast between father and son could not have been more marked.

George III did finally relent and offer to help his son out of debt (he eventually amassed an outrageous debt that would today amount to around £48 million) but on the condition that he married a cousin, Princess Caroline of Brunswick. The King and Queen no doubt imagined that marriage would help the Prince to settle down; in the event, it was a disaster. The couple detested each other and the Prince only got through the ceremony with a combination of Dutch courage and remonstrations from his father. He spent the wedding night drunk on the floor of his new wife's bedroom. By the time he became Regent, the couple were living apart and the King had custody of their daughter.

Regent's Street and Regent's Park

Regent's Street, London:
Regent Street, City of Westminster, London, UK

get directions

Regent's Park, London:
Regent's Park, Regent's Park, London NW1 4RY, UK

get directions

Carlton House, St James:
Carlton House Terrace, James's, City of Westminster, SW1Y, UK

get directions

Prince Regent, Patron of the Arts

Although the Prince Regent was an adulterous, politically meddlesome drunk, he was also a lover of the arts. According to his friend Beau Brummell, the Prince loved music and "played the cello better than any prince in Europe". Of course, more than music, he loved fashion, hence his patronage of Brummell. The Prince indulged his vanity by ordering costumes of all sorts and having himself painted in various guises, from Field Marshall to Hussar. Whether he followed Brummell's habit of cleaning his boots only with champagne is unknown!

George was keen to leave his mark for posterity and set about building. Regent's Park and Regent's Street were part of a scheme devised by the Regent and John Nash. Regent Street runs from Carlton House, the Prince Regent's London home through central London up to Regent's Park. Originally the Prince envisaged a new palace for himself in the Park, but this was dropped.

The Prince's residence at Carlton House was more than a house, it was just about a palace. However, once George became King he wanted something grander. He had Carlton House demolished in 1825 and a terrace of houses was built instead. The money from the leases of the houses was put towards building Buckingham Palace.

The Poor in the Regency

Whilst the aristocracy were living in a rarefied world, beneath them was a seething mass of poor. London was full of "rookeries" or slums, consisting of poorly built houses, crammed together and between which there were narrow slime-filled alleys frequented by thieves and thugs. In the rookeries men and women didn't drink for pleasure, as the Prince Regent did; they drank to forget their misery.

Regency Writers and Poets

In popular culture, one of the writers most identified with the Regency is Jane Austen. Her novels provide a window into Regency society and allow us to visit the great and the good of the time. Other notable writers and poets include:

  • Mary Shelley
  • Percy Bysshe Shelley
  • William Wordsworth
  • Lord Byron
  • John Keats
  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge

From Regency to Victorian

A satirical cartoon of 1857
A satirical cartoon of 1857 | Source

The End of the Regency

George's regency ended on 29 January 1820 when his father died and he ascended the throne. He was 57 years old, obese and ruined by drink and possibly laundanum. He had his wife barred from his coronation.

Due to ill health, George IV was often incapacitated and, like his father, spent a good deal of time secluded at Windsor Castle. His reign lasted 10 years. His only child, Princess Charlotte, had died in childbirth in 1817, so the throne passed to his brother William IV. The excesses of the Regency slipped away and, particularly once Queen Victoria ascended the throne, a far more sedate era followed.


Submit a Comment
  • Kristen Howe profile image

    Kristen Howe 

    5 years ago from Northeast Ohio

    My pleasure Judy. It was real interesting to read and know.

  • Judi Bee profile imageAUTHOR

    Judi Brown 

    5 years ago from UK

    Thanks for reading,l sharing and voting Kristen - glad you enjoyed the hub :-)

  • Kristen Howe profile image

    Kristen Howe 

    5 years ago from Northeast Ohio

    Judi, this was an interesting hub on Prince George. Thanks for sharing and voted up.

  • Judi Bee profile imageAUTHOR

    Judi Brown 

    7 years ago from UK

    Hi RonElFran - glad you found this hub interesting. Thanks very much for taking the time to leave a comment, I appreciate it.

  • RonElFran profile image

    Ronald E Franklin 

    7 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

    Interesting hub. The term "regency period" is familiar to me, but I didn't realize until reading this just how little I knew about it. Thanks!

  • Judi Bee profile imageAUTHOR

    Judi Brown 

    7 years ago from UK

    Hi shiningirisheyes - so pleased you found this interesting and that I included Keats and Mary Shelley. I know more about Mary's mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, as I studied her life and work as part of a Women's Rights module at college - interesting and enlightened woman.

    Thanks very much for commenting, always great to hear from you.

  • shiningirisheyes profile image

    Shining Irish Eyes 

    7 years ago from Upstate, New York

    Judi - Very interesting subject. I also thank youf or including two of my favorites - Keats and Mary Shelley.

  • Judi Bee profile imageAUTHOR

    Judi Brown 

    7 years ago from UK

    Hi GoodLady - I suppose it all just looks so pretty, doesn't it - and of course Jane Austen made it sound so very genteel too, so we tend to gloss over the ugly truth that hundreds of thousands were living in grinding poverty. Still, looked at through a rose-coloured telescope, I can see why romance writers love it so much.

    Thanks very much for your comments, appreciated as always.

  • GoodLady profile image

    Penelope Hart 

    7 years ago from Rome, Italy

    As others have commented, I come away having learned so much more about the Regency period, the royalty - the bigger picture before the more sedate Victorian times. Until reading this fascinating hub I was so enamored of the stylishness and the great English writers works, I hadn't considered what it could have been like to live in the reign of two unstable monarchs. What an eccentric country we are. On the one hand we have doped kings and on the other we have doped poets and between them millions doping on misery. How could I have ever thought it was all so glamorous?

    Superb hub - as always. You really should write a book!

  • Judi Bee profile imageAUTHOR

    Judi Brown 

    7 years ago from UK

    Hi wilderness - I love writing history hubs, glad you enjoyed reading this one. Thanks very much for taking the time to comment, much appreciated.

  • wilderness profile image

    Dan Harmon 

    7 years ago from Boise, Idaho

    A fascinating hub, Judi. We so often forget our past history, but you bring it back to life for us.

  • Judi Bee profile imageAUTHOR

    Judi Brown 

    7 years ago from UK

    Hi Imogen - I loved Hugh Laurie's "Prinny"! From what I remember about the film The Madness of King George, it dealt with his 1788 madness - it was a great film!

    Thanks very much for taking the time to comment, always appreciated.

  • Imogen French profile image

    Imogen French 

    7 years ago from Southwest England

    Another very interesting hub, Judi. Despite being English and having read most of Jane Austen's novels I have to admit I am pretty ignorant about the political and historical details of that period.

    My picture of King George was very much coloured by the film "The Madness of King George", and also Prince George as played by Hugh Laurie in the "Blackadder" series. It's always good to learn something new and separate the fact from the fiction :)

  • Judi Bee profile imageAUTHOR

    Judi Brown 

    7 years ago from UK

    Hi Bill - I love writing them, just relieved that someone likes reading them :)

    Wishing you a good weekend and Happy Christmas too.

  • billybuc profile image

    Bill Holland 

    7 years ago from Olympia, WA

    Very interesting Judi. You always do such a great job on these historical hubs, and I always come away knowing more than when I started. Have a great weekend and Merry Christmas.

  • Judi Bee profile imageAUTHOR

    Judi Brown 

    7 years ago from UK

    Hi David - thank you, that's very encouraging. I've been fitting in the writing of this between Christmas preparations, so good that to hear that it makes sense! The regency was interesting, such marked contrasts.

    Thanks very much for your comments, always great to hear from you.

  • UnnamedHarald profile image

    David Hunt 

    7 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

    What a great read! This is a subject I knew little about. Your description is terrific. It kind of makes you wonder how the country managed during all that madness and debauchery, but it certainly did-- even thriving. Very interesting!


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