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Why Was The Regency Crisis A Crisis History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

In 1788 the King of Britain fell ill to an unknown illness spreading panic among country’s leaders. This essay will look into the Regency Crisis in order to answer the question ‘Why was the Regency Crisis a crisis?’ In order to answer this question first we will have to draw a clear definition of what a crisis is, as well as find out how the British parliament worked in the XVIII century. The Regency Crisis was a struggle for power between the Government and opposition of Great Britain between the years 1788 and 1789, and therefore a crisis that could have changed Britain from the way we know it now. The Regency crisis of 1788/89 precisely exemplifies the workings of XVIII century politics, especially the working of reversionary factor.

For this essay to be easy to follow we will first define the meaning of the word crisis. The Farlex online dictionary defines ‘Crisis’ as a crucial or decisive point or situation. It is also defined as an unstable condition, as in political, social, or economic affairs, involving an impending abrupt or decisive change [1] . This second definition is very relevant to the problem in question, as it is related to an unstable political condition in the XVIII century Britain.

To see why the Regency Crisis was a crisis we will also have to look at the British Parliament at the time of the crisis. The Parliament of Great Britain which was operational during 1788/89 was created in 1707 following the agreement of the Acts of Union by both the Parliament of England and Parliament of Scotland; this was during the reign of Queen Anne [2] . The acts created a new Kingdom of Great Britain and disbanded the separate English and Scottish parliaments in favor of a single parliament. It consisted of a Lower House also known as the House of Commons and the Upper house, also known as the House of Lords. This Parliament lasted until 1800, just after the crisis of 1788. Important events that have to be noted happened during 1714, when George I began to shift the power of the Throne away from the Monarchy [3] . George I entrusted his power to a group of ministers, while he was attempting to take over Europe. These ministers were in charge of making decisions in the name of the King, and thus running the country. Even though Britain has had a parliament for a while at this stage, the Power of the Parliament had never been more significant [4] . It was this crucial error that gave British Parliament the power that in 1788 led to the Regency Crisis. It was George III that attempted to return Royal supremacy, but by the time his reign as King was coming towards the end, position of the ministers in the parliament was already well cemented, and thus George III would have to rely on support from the Parliament in order be able to stay in control of the country [5] . The parliament was dominated by English aristocracy and by patronage, but by the end of the XVIII century King George III still had significant influence [6] . King George III used this influence in the House of Lords to defeat a Bill to reform the British East India Company. When the Bill was dismissed the government with great influence from the King appointed William Pitt the Younger as the Prime Minister [7] . The opposition in the House of Commons was the Kings arch adversary Charles James Fox, one of the leaders of the Whigs [8] . During these years the House of Commons was referred to as the house of lazy time saves, corrupt placeman and government agents [9] . It was when the King got ill that the British Parliament caused a crisis.

In 1788 King George III became seriously ill. This illness referred to as madness; now identified as Porphyry, which caused blindness and senility; incapacitated the King for the period between October 1788 and February 1789 [10] . Kings many doctors or physicians could not explain his illness; this caused stories about his illness to spread among the populace. One of the stories that had since been proven to be false was that the King was mad and that he mistook a tree for the King of Prussia [11] . These stories had a negative effect on the populace with the stock market falling two percent. The market fell another ten percent when Sir. George Baker a physician treating the King decided to sell £18,000 worth of stock, causing wide spread panic [12] . This illness also meant that the Parliament could not proceed with any business because according to the long established law the King had to deliver a speech at a state opening [13] . Therefore if the King was not there to open the Parliament, it meant that the Parliament could not meet and run the country. Although it seemed illegitimate for the Parliament to do so they held meetings in order to figure out what to do. The King attempted to stop the rumors mentioned above and any further stock market drops by attending a Levee, but due to his illness his valiant effort had the worst possible effect [14] . This instability in the Stock Market as well as the populace in panic is one of the reasons that the Regency Crisis of 1788/89 was a crisis.

Kings illness was a major political crisis. If the King was truly mad, Regency would most certainly be necessary. It was Charles James Fox that first sought after Regency [15] . It seemed logical that the Prince of Wales the Kings eldest son be named the Regent, debated Fox [16] . While Pitt stated that any citizen of Britain had an equal right to be named Regent [17] . Pitt claimed this because he knew that the Prince was always a supporter of Fox and the opposition. This meant that if Prince of Wales was named the Regent, Pitt and the current government would be dismissed and Fox and the opposition installed in their position [18] . It is because there would be a new government installed, without the approval of the reigning King, against the approval of the general populace and the members of the Parliament that were selected and approved on by the King, that would have almost certainly changed the way the country ran that the Regency crisis of 1788/89 was an actual crisis.

William Pitt the Younger, the Prime Minister of Britain had only one choice and that was to stall the decision to appoint a Regent [19] . He could only hope that the King would recover and thus prevent a need for the Regency. While Mr. Pitt was stalling, Fox would do anything he could in order to prove that there was no way the King would ever recover. This meant that both sides of the Parliament sent their own physicians to examine the King [20] . This meant that not all physicians actually wanted the King to recover, as each of the physicians supported either the government or the opposition. With the Parliament still operating illegitimately William Pitt the Younger claimed that the Prince could only be named Regent if he would accept limited Regency decided on by the Parliament [21] . This would mean that the Prince would not have full power that his father held. This is due to the chance that the King George III would still recover, and the Prince would only be there in order to have a legitimate Parliament until the recovery of the King. This limitation would also prevent the Price from dismissing the current government and installing the opposition as the powers of patronage would be restricted [22] . This did not pass by Fox because as he claimed the Parliament did not have the power to decide which powers of the Monarch could be passed onto the regent, the Parliament only had the power to name a Regent [23] . These are the same powers the Parliament has if the King passes away. After the Parliament has named a Regent, it is only then that the Parliament would be functioning legitimately and could decide which powers are to be passed on [24] . Although this would not happen as no one doubted that the Prince would immediately dismiss Pitt and the government by use of the Royal Patronage, everyone knew that this would make Fox’s position impregnable. It now seemed that both the Government and the Opposition agreed that the Prince of Wales was the only suitable candidate as a Regent [25] , but now the debate had turned towards the powers of the Regent. It has to be noted that the Prince was married to a Roman Catholic, and it was well known that King George III believed that the Prince disinherited himself by marriage [26] . The King could never bear Roman Catholics. The populace was not fond of the Prince for this reason as well.

This led to a heated debate about limited regency. Pitt argued that while the King was alive the Prince of Wales could only become Regent on the invitation of the House of Lords and the House of Commons, who would decide what powers, were necessary to keep the parliament running [27] , [28] . Fox argued that the two houses without the King had no legal right or authority whatsoever, this is as mentioned above because unless the King is not dead, he is needed at the State opening [29] . Fox also claimed that the Parliaments powers without the King were so limited that they couldn’t even make a turnpike act. These were acts passed on to certain regions to control road development [30] . This therefore meant that the only legal outcome would be that the King be pronounced insane or dead and the Prince would need to be named Regent with full power [31] . In this instance it would seem that Fox had the better case, but this did not change the fact that the Government would be dismissed and the King never declared sane to challenge the operation of the Parliament without his approval. These debates lasted for weeks, this was what Pitt was aiming for, and it was the only thing that could be done by the government until King George III recovered [32] .

While these debates were going on the King was examined by Dr. Warren a general practitioner appointed by the Prince of Wales, Dr. Warren was appointed after Sir George Baker wrote to Mr. Pitt of the madness of the King, and after he failed to treat the King’s illness [33] . Dr. Warren first insisted that the King would never live to be declared a lunatic, thus meaning that the King was to pass away at any time. Although as the Kings health was not changing Dr. Warren changed his statement to the one where he believed that the king would never be cured [34] . The Queen did not agree with this, so she insisted that Dr. Francis Willis and his son Dr. John treat the King. Dr. Willis had experience treating the insane, and he was an owner of a private mad house [35] . The difference between Dr. Warren and Dr. Willis was the Dr. Willis guaranteed to cure the king, while Dr. Warren never actually wanted to cure the King [36] . If the Prince was to take full Regal power he would have certainly dismissed Dr. Willis, this meant that by now it was not a question of whether the King would recover, but rather if the King would be allowed to recover. To prevent this Chancellor suggested that the Queen be charged with the care of the King, but both of the Kings sons refused, telling that the Queen is as mad as the King if she thinks she can take care of the King [37] . It can be said that the Regency Crisis of 1788/89 was a crisis because the wellness of the much loved Monarch was put under jeopardy because of attempts for personal gains. It can be seen that Doctors played an important role in the Regency Crisis of 1788/89.

The doctors who treated King George III gave evidence of the Kings chance of recovery in a Parliamentary committee called several times. The committee and the investigation was called in order to see if the King would ever recover. If the Doctors declared that the King would not indeed recover this would help the opposition and thus end up in the naming of the Prince of Wales as the Regent [38] . The difference in view from the doctors depended on by who they were appointed to care for the King. Mr. Pitts physicians claimed to be able to cure the King, while the physicians appointed by Fox claimed that the King would not recover, after a while Dr. Warren appointed by the Prince with visible doubt and reluctance said that the King would probably get well, but neither he nor Dr. Willis could say when [39] . At this time Dr. Willis had taken firm charge of the King. This was not in favor by the opposition who claimed not to be able to have their physicians properly examine the King. So instead the opposition invented cruel tales of the treatment of the King by Dr. Willis. These methods seemed to be working with Dr. Willis being able to at times draw the King into rational conversation. Dr. John once stated his disgust with Dr. Warren who claimed the King could not be cured, because Dr. Warren who would only see the King one hour every day could not have more knowledge of the Kings illness than the Willis’s who spent every hour of the day with the King [40] . The whole Regency debate and the outcome depended on the fierce battle between Dr Warren and the Willis’s. The advantage was on the side of the Willis’s because they had more understanding of the King’s illness than Dr. Warren. In the ending months of 1788 the King seemed to be recovering, and by New Year the King was eating, sleeping and talking rationally. On December 7th the King with rational mind decided to dismiss Dr. Warren. In early January 1789 the King had a slight relapse that was kept quiet [41] . There was more than one examination of the physicians by the Parliament, because Fox was not happy with how the previous committees went, Pitt once again agreed to have the committee question the doctors as he was once again just stalling, even after the King had recovered and Fox was at a verge of a mental breakdown most likely caused by the stress over the past few months, he never believed that the King fully recovered and claimed he would relapsed again for good. Mr. Pitt offered limited regency to the Prince of Wales in December 1788, and the Prince accepted. This limitation included the Kings household and person being entrusted to the queen. In February 1789, the Regency Bill was written, authorizing the Prince of Wales to act as Prince Regent [42] . As there was no King to give Royal Assent, the parliament decided to have the Lord Chancellor approve the Bill by fixing the Great Seal of the Realm.The Bill was introduced and passed in the House of Commons, but before it could be passed by the House of Lords King George III fully recovered and prevented the Bill from being approved [43] .

The Regency Crisis of 1788/89 was a crisis because the future of the country was hanging on the opinions of physicians who had their own personal agendas. Neither of the physicians knew how to cure the illness that the King had, as they had no understanding what the illness actually was. Therefore the decision whether a regent would be installed or not was pending on the opinion of physicians who made their decisions based on who they supported, the opposition and Mr. Fox, or the current government and Mr. Pitt. This was a major political error that was caused by an unstable condition in the Parliament, that could have led the country into ruins, and it was one of the reasons that the Regency Crisis of 1788/89 was a crisis.

Another reason the Regency Crisis of 1788/89 was a crisis is because of the way Payne was dealing with the illness of the King. Payne was the man on whom the opposition relied for their information. He created rumors that included the one of the King mistaking a tree for the King of Prussia, among other unreliable stories about the king. He was doing so because he was devoted to the Prince of Wales, this was because the Prince promised to make him a Lord of the Admiralty. It can be said that his rumors about the extreme madness of the King created a panic among the populace. The Duke of York, Kings second son talked about a chance of a civil war braking out [44] . Payne was plotting a Coup D’état [45] . He wanted to call up the armed forces and by force place the Prince as the new leader of the nation, but the Prince declined and recalled Payne. If the King was well this would have never happened and with a slight sign of this Payne would most likely be imprisoned if not executed. This was another reason that the Regency Crisis was a crisis, if the King was well no one would ever consider taking the government by force.

In conclusion the Regency Crisis of 1788/89 was a major political crisis because it was an unstable political condition, as it was a struggle for power between the Government and the opposition. It is because of the Regency Crisis that the stock market fell twelve percent and spread panic among the populace. As said by the Duke of York there was a chance of a civil war as well as Payne plotting a Coup. The main reason Regency Crisis of 1788/89 was a crisis is because if the Prince was named a Regent, the opposition and the man a King did not like would have come in power, after the dismissal of the government that was supported by the King and the populace. This would have changed the way Britain was run and created an unfavorable Government.


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