The Age of George III

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The 1789 Regency Crisis

Pitt the Younger faced many problems when he took office in 1783. Although he dealt with many of them, he faced problems because of George III's recurrent illness. One such period was between November 1788 and March 1789. George III became seriously ill in November. His health deteriorated and his mind became unbalanced. 'Remedies' such as purging, bleeding, blistering and the consumption of laudanum and quinine proved useless. The king's doctors were unable to agree on either the cause or the cure of the illness. It seemed likely that Prince George would take over and Pitt be dismissed, so Pitt played for time in order to prevent establishment of a Regency.

Fox and the Whigs wanted a Regency to get into power after five years of opposition: Fox was a friend of Prince George (who was known to his friends as 'Prinny') and, should Fox take office, many rewards were likely for him. Fox blundered by asserting 'Prinny's' right to assume power: Fox was defending and advocating Royal Prerogative, which he had attached for years. He seems to have expected parliament to ratify it passively.

Pitt also wanted a Regency, otherwise he would have to resign, but insisted that Prince George could only take over with the consent of parliament and subject to conditions set out by parliament. Precedent allowed this and had been used before, especially in the reign of Henry VI between 1454-6. Parliament would thus have control over the Regent, who could not dismiss Pitt and put Fox in power.

This was a total role reversal for Fox and Pitt. Pitt stood up for parliamentary power and supremacy; Fox defended royal prerogative and lost more support.

In January 1789: Regency Bill was passed by the Commons and clearly was intended to deprive the Prince of Wales of power: the Bill said that

The need for Royal Assent to the legislation was by-passed by invoking the authority held to reside in the Great Seal as the instrument of authority. By mid February, the Regency Bill was ready to go to the Lords but never got there because by 1 March, George III had recovered.

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Last modified 12 January, 2016

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