The Enlightenment, Austen, and the Regent

Historians are nothing if not epochal creatures. We divide time into epochs and apply catchy names—The Golden Age, The Dark Ages, the Renaissance, and so on. Some span centuries, some only decades. Their kinship rests in that each marks moments—long or short—when everything changed.

Such is the case of that ninety-year revolution we call The Enlightenment. The Age of Exploration confirmed that our planet was a globe in the 1490s-1520s. A few years later, Copernicus posited that the Sun was at the center of our solar system. Those revelations certainly shook the control of the Church over knowledge. However, the bonds of religion and power were not so easily broken. In the early Seventeenth Century, Galileo published proof that what the Church had been asserting as dogma since the 400s was a myth. His observations of the moons of Jupiter through his telescope trumped all “I have God’s blessing to rule because he spoke to me…” assertions. The explosion of human observational understanding removed equally human-asserted divine influence from the control of knowledge and, thus, power.

The men of the Church convicted him of heresy and almost sent him to the stake. Galileo spent the last years of his life under house arrest, closely watched by those men who found him an intolerable threat.

By 1648, the Treaty of Westphalia ended the Thirty Years War and created what we now refer to as the modern nation-state, a power unto itself, not contingent upon allegiance to Rome or the embodiment of an individual leader. A simple reduction of this is the idea that it was no longer King Louis’ (pick the number) domain but rather France. Of course, this did take the French until 1871 to figure that out. Westphalia, though, is where the concept of nationalism—where individuals identified with state structures rather than family or clan—truly found its footing.

The treaty also removed the monarch’s power to decide his subjects’ religious faith. The English took this to heart when they first eliminated Cromwell’s Protestant dictatorship in 1660 and then, after twenty-five years of the Stuart Restoration, kicked out James II when he sought to install Catholic primacy driven by a divinely-ordained monarchy in 1688’s Glorious Revolution, which established the constitutional monarchy. The English parliamentary system’s roots dug deep into the nation’s soil.

Two years later, John Locke wrote his earth-shattering Treatise on Reason which overthrew the underlying conceit of the wealthy that they were rich and deserved to rule because their birth conferred inherent superior qualities. He asserts in one of his most famous theses that the human mind at birth is a tabula rasa, a blank slate. There is no innate knowledge, only that which someone experiences through life and education. In essence, a butcher’s son can become a King’s Minister through his own effort and ability to learn.

Thus began The Enlightenment. Throughout the first ninety years of the Eighteenth Century, every preconceived notion in society came under the philosophe’s microscope. Everything from politics (Montesquieu’s Persian Letters) and religion (Voltaire’s Candide) to education (Rousseau’s Emile) and women’s rights (Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women) was subjected to Lockean observation.

 Jane Austen, born barely three weeks before the publication of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (the Enlightenment document that crystallized the ideas of the American Revolution for the masses), was most assuredly a child of the Enlightenment. Even though she was a vicar’s child—and thus imbued with the established hierarchy—we can sense radical views on the roles of women, land, trade, and money coming through her work. The world into which her parents were born was already vanishing by the time of Miss Austen’s death in 1817.

George Augustus Frederick, the eldest child of George III, was also a child of the Enlightenment. He was born in 1762, when his tutors would have been well-versed in the philosophical discourses flowing through the Enlightenment. He would have learned the thinking of Locke, Hume, and Montesquieu. Voltaire and Rousseau may have been too radical.

The Enlightenment embodied the hatred of the capricious rule by monarchs who were loyal to themselves and their families. Look at how the English viewed the succession of George of Hanover to the throne following the death of Queen Anne in 1714. This first George was not English! Nor was his son, George II. As late as 1840, the potential marriage of Victoria to Albert raised concerns about non-English influence.

George III was British but fought bouts of madness from 1765 onward. His masters were trained in the old, pre-Enlightenment ways. His ministers were the same. Well, maybe not Pitt the Younger.

With his father’s final descent into madness in 1811, Crown Prince George became the Regent. He ruled in his own right from 1820-30.

The epitome of the Enlightenment view of civil government would have been the evolving British Parliamentary system, especially after 1811. The Regent let his ministers take full charge of government affairs, playing a far lesser role than his father. Whether the king personally favored him or not, the principle that the prime minister commanded a majority in the House of Commons became firmly established under the Prince Regent. 

His ministers were unquestionably giants: Liverpool and Canning. The great Castlereagh managed foreign policy. Even Wellington played a role in successive governments. Each of these leaders established the nation’s domestic and foreign policy. All we have to do is look at how Britain prosecuted the war against Napoleon after 1811 in an almost monomaniacal manner to the point where the government was willing to open a new war with the United States in 1812.

George also saw the necessity of binding together the entire nation, putting an end to the English primacy in the United Kingdom. His 1822 tour of Scotland was tacit acceptance of the nothern land into the fold after the Jacobite heresy.

Janites tend to view the Regent as influential in the style and fashion of the times. George and his clique were larger than life, from Beau Brummel and John Nash to the goings-on of the Carlton House set. However, despite how Austen immortalized the Regency in the arts, those factors were not George’s lasting legacies.

Instead, in his willingness to allow Parliamentary government to flourish even in times of existential crisis, the Regent brought about the modern British state. He set the stage for the political and economic reforms necessary to cope with the influence of the Industrial Revolution.

His legacy, largely ignored, was the establishment of a more egalitarian Great Britain. By the 1830s, having roots in trade was no longer sneer-worthy. The modern liberal/laissez-faire economy exploded under the Regent. Factories became the engines of wealth and political power. In its way, the Regency and reign were the beginnings of “The Sun never sets on the British Empire”—that construct can fuel another post. In the end, all we have to do is consider why Britain did not experience a Revolution after 1815 to see the greatness of the Prince Regent and King George IV.


Please enjoy this excerpt from Volume One of the Bennet Wardrobe, The Keeper: Mary Bennet’s Extraordinary Journey.

This excerpt is © 2016 by Donald P. Jacobson. Reproduction is prohibited.

Chapter 43

Manchester City, August 16, 1819

The day promised to be typical of a Manchester summer—sunny, hot, and clear. The crowd covering the acres of St. Peter’s Field reminded Mary of a giant tapestry flecked with clumps of color. Nearly 80,000 men, women, and children had gathered to hear the great Henry Hunt speak on the demand for parliamentary reform. There was a calm and peaceful atmosphere freighted with anticipation, much like one of those revival meetings so favored by Americans.

Near midday, the Lambton Female Reform Society members had clustered at the edge of the mass of humanity, chatting amongst themselves. The contingent—twelve women, four adolescent girls, and four gentlemen—had left Lambton in three wagons on Saturday afternoon. Overnighting in homes around Buxton, they had celebrated Sunday services in the open air under Edward’s leadership. Then, eschewing the upper-class injunction against Sunday travel, they, people of trade, continued onward. By late Sunday, the caravan had arrived at Stockport. Shortly after daybreak on Monday, all the Lambton men and women had dressed in their Sunday best, the women sporting a white satin sash draped across their torsos. The men wore either a white hatband or an armband. Joining the river of thousands of protestors, the small Derbyshire troupe walked the last few miles into the bustling city. Some tunesmiths in the crowd began to strike up the old Wesleyan hymn “Soldiers of Christ, Arise.”

SOLDIERS of Christ, arise,
And put your armour on,
Strong in the strength which God supplies
Through his eternal Son;
Strong in the Lord of hosts,
And in his mighty power,
Who in the strength of Jesus trusts
Is more than conqueror.[i]

Martha Smithvale and Mrs. Tilson struggled to manage the group’s green silk banner that proclaimed in bright yellow stitching “Equal Rights for All Englishmen—Fair Elections for a Fair Parliament.” While both were worthies in their own right, they had spent their lives either as a gentlewoman schoolteacher or as a seamstress hunched over a lady’s ball gown rather than hoisting loads over their heads. Mary mused that the spread of tasseled silk acted like a topgallant on Captain Rochet’s battleship Nelson, catching the slightest breeze. Lydia Wickham and two of the group’s male members dashed to their sides and quickly rescued them.

Speaking of men, Mary turned to find the other two in the party—her husband and Richard Fitzwilliam. They were in conference. As the nominal leaders of the group—although neither would ever suggest that anyone but Mary Benton was the heart and soul of the Society along with her chief lieutenant, Lydia Wickham—they had assumed responsibility for the wellbeing of the women. Both wore concerned looks as they scanned the crowd. Mary joined their conversation.

“All right Edward, Richard…what has you bothered? The crowd seems quite peaceful, and the air is festive. Tell me, gentlemen, what do your informed eyes see that my weak uncorrected ones cannot?” Mary asked in a light teasing tone.

Edward rolled his eyes and responded to her remark with a light shot of his own. “Really my dear, do not go, ‘Oh poor little me.’ Lizzy told me that you never needed the spectacles you abandoned eight years ago. You can see just as clearly as we can that this field has a limited number of exits. If people need to leave, either slowly or, worse, quickly, there could be serious trouble.”

Richard added. “And, cousin, I have heard rumblings that the militia and yeomanry, made up of a few fools and a greater proportion of coxcombs, who imagine they acquire considerable importance by wearing regimentals,[ii] are on hand to arrest Hunt and his comrades. Those poorly trained hussars are the most dangerous men. They wish to show off for their masters, the rich and the powerful. The problem is they are armed with sabers and lances.”

Mary turned to look over her shoulder toward Dickinson Street where she could see the huddled infantry of the 88th regiment. She could not see the horse, however, and made that fact known.

The general, dressed in mufti for the meeting, nodded. “But they are not too far away. If I were positioning ’em, I would keep ’em out of sight so the horses would stay calm. Also, the streets are less busy away from the field, so when the order to move comes down, they can pick up speed before they hit the crowd.”

Mary was flabbergasted. “Hmmpf. What are they thinking? There are thousands of people here. If they are attacked, probably more will die in the stampede than from sword or ball.”

Every fiber in her soul rebelled at the idea that a modern government would be so ready to spill the blood of its own people. She could not contain her outrage.

“Is this the fifteenth century when aristocrats fought over the wealth produced at harvest by tolls on bridges or rents generated from tenants? My God, we are forty years into an industrial revolution. Factory owners may treat their workers like cogs in a machine, but we are not the powerless cattle we used to be. Just look at this crowd!”

“Exactly, my love, look at the crowd through the eyes of Reverend Hay or Colonel Fletcher,” Edward noted. “Neither are particularly imaginative men.[iii] They know who their betters are and what they want. The factory owners need docile men too frightened to raise their voices. The landowners seek to preserve their power by perpetuating the rotten borough.[iv]

“They will react as those with power have always reacted. If they cannot buy compliance, they will not hesitate to gain it by force.”

Mary worriedly gazed at her clutch of seamstresses and shop girls. How would they fare against cavalry, artillery, and infantry?

“But nobody wants violence. They are acting like they are at church,” Mary lamented, realizing that what seemed so logical in Lambton with masters like Darcy and Bingley would be thought treasonous radicalism by others more protective of their own self-interest and less inclined toward the welfare of the people.

PLUG Something.

[i] Accessed 2/4/16.

[ii]Francis A. Bruton, The Story of Peterloo (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1919), P. 14. Quoting The Manchester Observer.

[iii] Hay and Fletcher were Manchester City Magistrates empowered “to keep order.”

[iv] “In 1819, Lancashire was represented by two Members of Parliament (MPs). Voting was restricted to the adult male owners of freehold land with an annual rental value of 40 shillings or more – the equivalent of about £80 in 2008[1] –. Constituency boundaries were out of date, and the so-called rotten boroughs had a hugely disproportionate influence on the membership of the Parliament of the United Kingdom compared to the size of their populations: Old Sarum in Wiltshire, with one voter, elected two MPs,[2] as did Dunwich in Suffolk, which by the early 19th century had almost completely disappeared into the sea.[3] The major urban centers of Manchester, Salford, Bolton, Blackburn, Rochdale, Ashton-under-Lyne, Oldham and Stockport, with a combined population of almost one million, were represented by either the two county MPs for Lancashire, or the two for Cheshire in the case of Stockport.” From Accessed 2/4/16.

2 responses to “The Enlightenment, Austen, and the Regent”

  1. Regina Jeffers Avatar

    I wrote the scene of the Peterloo massacre from a different perspective in one of my Regency tales. The hero was attempting to reach his family (his three children and the woman he wishes to marry) who were on the other side of the field, near the grandstand. The book is called “His Irish Eve” and features my go-to character, Adam Lawrence, who appeared in 12 of my novels (some walk throughs and often a minor character). The heroine’s name Irish and is “Aoife.” The English version of the name is “Eve.” Get it? Adam and Eve. LOL! Sorry, I digress. Writing that scene was so difficult for I had to bring him through first one wave of humanity after another. I spent hours and hours researching the major people and their views and accounts of the day for a scene which takes up about half a chapter in the book.
    Thanks for the additional information on the time and George IV. It was a great read. I love hearing others’ thoughts on the time period and the key players.

  2. cindie snyder Avatar
    cindie snyder

    Interesting post! Love the excerpt!

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