High waisted dresses, country dances and, of course, romance fill Regency era books and movies. In fact, the Regency era sets the scene for all of Jane Austen’s amazing works, including Pride and Prejudice. Who wouldn’t want to be Elizabeth Bennet and live in a world of Mr Darcies and country walks?
But wait… what is the Regency era? How did it get its name? And what is so special about it?
Those are great questions. Let’s answer them.
So what is the Regency era? In short, it is a time period in English history that lasted from 1795 to 1837.
To better understand this time period, let’s answer these two basic questions about it:
- Why was it called the Regency Era?
- What defined the era as special?
Why was it called the Regency Era?
Historians have divided English history into time periods. They name these eras after the monarchs that ruled during those years. Usually these time periods also have distinct cultural markers, such as politics, clothes, etc.
For example, they have named the Elizabethan Era after Queen Elizabeth I. Elizabethan courtiers had a very specific style of dress. We especially see this when comparing it to clothing from the Victorian Era, named after Queen Victoria.
So, who was the Regency era named after? Was there a King named Regency in the early 1800s? If so, what were his parents thinking?
Well, no. There was not King Regency. In fact, during the start of the Regency Era, the King was named George III.
If you are from America, you might recognize King George III as the guy from history class who wouldn’t let America become independent in the American Revolutionary War.
However, George the III had problems other than his rebelling American subjects. He suffered from a mental illness that ran in his family and that often lead him to have breaks with reality. Which is very sad, but also rather dangerous in a King.
He struggled with this condition for years, which often brought worry to his advisors. Yet, he continue to rule.
However, when his favorite daughter, Princess Amelia died in 1810 he finally had a relapse into insanity so severe that the British Parliament decided that George III could no longer rule as King.
But with an unfit King, who will rule the country?
What is a Regent?
Basically, the parliament appoints someone to rule on behalf of a Monarch who cannot rule. This person is called a regent.
There are several reasons a monarch may need a regent to rule for them. First, it could be due to illness, such as in the case of George III. Second, the King or Queen might be too young to rule yet and someone needs to handle the job for them until they come of age. Third, the monarch might have left the country for extended periods of time, perhaps while leading the crusades.
But, basically, whatever the case, a regent takes over when the monarch can’t rule.
In George III’s case, the Act of Regency of 1811 appointed the crown prince and next in line to the throne at the time as Regent for his father. Called the Prince Regent, because he was a prince as well as the regent, we know him today as the eventual King George IV.
George the IV served as Prince Regent from 1811 to his father’s death in 1820, when he became King himself and ruled for a further ten years.
So where did the Regency era get its name? From the King needing his son to serve as Prince Regent.
However, the regency era in it’s cultural context lasted much longer than the 9 years that George IV served as Prince Regent. It’s generally thought to have begun during the later part of the George the III’s reign and spans the reigns of his sons George IV and William IV.
After William IV, Queen Victoria came to the throne and ended the Regency Era by beginning the Victorian Era in 1837.
What defined the Regency era as special?
I best understand the Regency Era when contrasting it to the Victorian Era that follows it. Under Queen Victoria the British Empire expanded across the globe, people flocked into overcrowded cities, social reformers challenged conventions, industrialization flourished along with severe poverty and horrible working conditions, and scientific advancement took center stage. Steel, cities, factories and smoke defined this era.
Meanwhile the Regency era remained more country based, simpler and truer to the traditions and mindset that ruled in England for centuries. It represents a more innocent time right before society took a giant leap off the diving board of change, headlong into the industrial revolution.
Jane Austen provides an excellent snapshot of that more innocent time in her works. Not only did she write about the Regency Era, she lived it. She wrote what she saw, what she did, what she knew first hand. This was an era of manners and drawing rooms and visits to the seaside.
While not the rapidly changing like the Victoria Era, the Regency era still did have a lot of change happening.
It began right after the dramatic political shifts of the American and French Revolutions. Regency dwellers, like Austen, lived under the threat of invasion by Napoleon and they idolized the war heroes of Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington.
Also, while Jane Austen gives us great insight into the drawing rooms of the privileged, the poor crowded the streets of London. Poverty ran rampant and the poor’s living conditions were about to go from bad to even worse.
Meanwhile the wealthy lived well, very well in fact. The Prince Regent himself had expensive tastes and he sunk a lot of money into the arts and architecture. My favorite depiction of the Prince Regent is in the 1982 adaptation of The Scarlet Pimpernel. If you haven’t watched that movie yet, I would strongly recommend it. Also, ironically, the Prince Regent actually loved Jane Austen’s books, but because of his terrible moral reputation she did not like him.
So what is the Regency era? It’s a time period in English history from 1785 to 1837 named after the fact that King George III became ill and had his son rule for him as Prince Regent.
But, truly, what is the regency era to us today? It’s home to Elizabeth Bennet, Mr Darcy and a world literary characters that millions of readers have come to love.