The Age of George III

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The attack on the Prince Regent, 28 January 1817

After the end of the French Wars, it became increasingly clear that England was suffering from great social, economic and political upheavals. These problems collectively became known as the 'Condition of England Question'. Many of these problems would have occurred eventually but had been speeded up by the effects of the French Wars on the country. Most of the major changes were the direct result of the French Wars. Others came from natural growth and change. The distress and discontent caused by these enormous changes were manifested in a series of events in the period 1811-19. One of these was the attack on the Prince Regent.

George,the Prince Regent, was perhaps one of the least liked members of the royal family. In 1817 he was 56 years old, corpulent and self-indulgent at a time when thousands of ordinary people were on the verge of starvation. The prince's dissipated lifestyle, his illegal marriage to the Roman Catholic widow, Maria Fitzherbert, his disastrous official marriage to Princess Caroline of Brunswick and his low level of morality made him a laughing stock throughout the country.

The Prince Regent

Hot on the heels of the Spa Fields riots, the provincial radicals decided to hold a meeting at the Crown and Anchor on 22 January 1817. Few of the delegates were aware of the change of mood in London so they arrived full of faith in the powers of parliament and hope for the future. Some of those who attended went on to become members of subsequent working-class movements: Samuel Bamford, William Benbow, Henry Hunt, William Cobbett, Sir Francis Burdett.

The meeting convened but Burdett was noticeable by his absence: this was a blow because he was not only a radical MP but was Chairman of the Hampden Club. The delegates voted to support a petition for universal suffrage, despite the leaders wanting to press only for household suffrage. The delegates cheered as their representatives left for parliament, Lord Cochrane carrying the petition that had been signed by half a million people.

That same morning, the Prince Regent had been driven to Westminster to open the new session of parliament. Unfortunately, on his way there, his carriage had been mobbed and either a stone or a bullet (it was never identified precisely) had broken the glass of his coach window. The debate in the House of Commons was interrupted when the news of the attack was taken there from the House of Lords. Parliament adjourned after sending loyal messages to the Prince.

Parliament moved quickly, re-enacting Pitt's repressive legislation of the 1790s in what became known as the Gag Acts. On 4 March 1817, Habeas Corpus was suspended; the suspension was not lifted until January 1818. The Seditious Meetings Act was passed and continued in force until 24 July 1818: it was designed to ensure that all reforming 'Societies and Clubs ... should be utterly suppressed and prohibited as unlawful combinations and confederacies'. No meeting of more than fifty persons could be held without the prior consent of the magistrates.

At the same time, Sidmouth sent out a Home Office circular informing magistrates of their powers to arrest persons suspected of disseminating seditious libel. He ordered the Lords Lieutenant to apprehend all printers of seditious and blasphemous materials, all writers of the same, and demagogues. However, he failed with the attempt to prosecute the writers and printers because of Fox's 1792 Libel Act; only one printer was convicted. However, there is a definite parallel here with the 1794 Treason Trials.

In the face of discontent, economic distress and government repression, the March of the Blanketeers took place in March 1817.

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Last modified 12 January, 2016

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