The Georgian Age (1714 - 1830)

by Jo Beverley (a 1998 Write Byte) and TJ

This section courtesy of TJ, and is concerned with the overall geopolitical structure of the time:

Monarchs:

After the reign of Anne, the Stuart family had no direct Protestant heirs. The throne had to go to the German George I, Elector of Hanover, a great-grandson of James I in 1714. Thus begins the Hanoverian or Georgian Era. There were five Hanoverian kings, but for this section, we will concern ourselves with the first three:

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  • George I (1714-1727)
  • George II (1727-1760)
  • George III (1760-1820)
  • George IV (1820-1830)
  • William IV (1830-1837)
Important Developments:

From 1713, England enjoyed the commercial expansion. Parliament, with the death of Anne in 1714, brought George I from Germany. George spoke no English, and he spent most of time in Germany. He was never popular in England, and Parliament regarded him as a political convenience, nothing more. (Actually, they ridiculed him, but that's another story.) During his reign, Parliament gained more power.

After 1714, the government and the Anglican bishops who were close to the government became Whigs. Those suspicious of Whigs became Tory. Tories, Non-Jurors, and Scots wanted James II's son back. Such people were called Jacobus, the Latin for James. They called James II's son James III, while others called him the Pretender. The Jacobus decided that if James III/the Pretender gave up his religion, he could be the rightful king of England. The Whigs didn't want that, of course. The restoration of the Stuarts represented undoing the Glorious Revolution -- limited monarchy, constitutionalism, parliamentary supremacy, the law, the toleration of dissenting Protestants.

In 1715, the Pretender landed in Scotland. But the Jacobite leaders failed. Later in 1745, the Pretender's son, "Bonnie Prince Charlie" or the "Younger Pretender" landed in Scotland again and started a rebellion. It again failed, after which England decided to break up the clan system of Scotland. The social system of the Highlands was wiped out.

In 1720, South Sea Bubble occurred in England. It's a bit like the stock-market crash we had, except that it wasn't as serious as the stock-market crash we had in 20th century which caused the Great Depression. The English panicked, and Parliament passed the "Bubble Act", which forbade all companies except those chartered by the government to raise capital by the sale of stock. This event led to a slower development of joint-stock financing in England.

Walpole's ministery began in 1721. He is considered the first prime minister and the architect of cabinet government. He tried to avoid controversies. His motto was "quieta non movere" (let sleeping dogs lie). He kept down the land taxes, supported the Bank, the trading companies, and the financial interests, and they supported him in return.

George I passed away in 1727, and George II succeeded in 1727.

In the 1730s, the English-Spanish conflict became extreme. During this period, there were many, many wars. To name a few, there were the War of Jenkins' Ear, Silesian wars, the Wars of Pragmatic Sanction, King George's War/French-Indian Wars, the War of the Austrian Succession, the Seven Year's War, etc., etc. These wars involved four principle players: England, France, Prussia, and Austria. England and France fighting for colonies, trade, and sea power, and Prussia and Austria for territory and military power in Central Europe.

During these wars, George III succeeded the English crown in 1760. The grand conclusion of the wars is the Peace Settlement of 1763. France gave up all French territory on the North American mainland east of the Mississippi to England. France gave Spain all holdings west of the Mississippi. In conclusion, France had no more territories in North America, but it didn't hurt them that much at all.

While all this was going on, we have American Revolution in 1776. France, as we all know, helped America and went bankrupt. (which was pretty stupid, considering the fact that France was a very rich country, but as you know, the French nobles didn't pay taxes.) So the French had their own bloody revolution and chopped off many heads. It alarmed other European countries.

France, for centuries, was the cultural center of Europe. The European kings didn't want their subjects to have a revolution like the French and chop off their heads, so they decided to crush the French rebels. Except that it didn't work, and the French defeated them. Napoleon took over France in 1799, and he began to conquer European countries.

This section courtesy of author Jo Beverley, and is concerned more with the day to day lives of the English, and, especially, those English we read about in historical romances set in the Georgian era:

What is the Georgian Age? The first four Georges were on the English throne from 1714 to 1830, but we don't regard the latter period as strictly Georgian. A case can be made that the Georgian Age ended with the French Revolution, which changed the whole mood of the times, and that is the definition I use here.

England in the Georgian age was the vibrant center of the agricultural and industrial revolutions, which set the stage for the immense wealth and power of Britain in the nineteenth century. The period was also the age of the Englightenment, when philosophers such as Voltaire re-evaluated western thought.

The English aristocrats in this period were a small group who still held almost fuedal power, but they avoided the fate of their friends in France by staying close to their country roots. London was a place to visit, mainly to sit in Parliament; it was not a place to live. Perhaps the Georgian gentlemen were willing to mince around in high heeled shoes simply because it was just for a little while, and they'd soon be back in their sensible country boots.

Though this was an age of decadent living, it was not one of the idle rich. The noble families ran estates, but were also leaders in agricultural improvement and industrial development, and daring investors. Coke of Norfolk changed English agriculture; the Duke of Bridgewater revolutionized transportation. The fortunes enjoyed by their descendants were built on hard work and risk. They were also generally well educated, usually at home by tutors and through the Grand Tour. They were patrons of the arts, and often writers of distinction on some subject. They were also active in politics. This was mostly to protect their family's interests, and politics was abysmally corrupt, but this was the age of some great statesmen such as Pitt and Walpole. Though still restricted, women were active in the arts and in intellectual circles.

Fashion changed as fashion will, but this was the age of wide, hooped skirts for the women. They wore corsets, but except for the vain, the "stays" were not designed to force the body into an unnatural shape. Men wore knee breeches, long waistcoats, and jackets. Powdered hair or wigs were essential for both sexes for formal occasions, but the extremely high hairstyles were only in fashion at the end of the period. Patches and paint were common, as were fans, muffs, and masks. When relaxing or in the country, both sexes dressed for comfort.

The main charm of the Georgian period for the novelist is the high style of upper class life. Georgian has come to be synonymous with elegance -- in houses (Adams), furniture (Chippendale and Hepplewhite) and landscape (Capability Brown). On beautiful estates, or in London, Bath, and Paris, the nobility played at balls and routs, enjoyed musical soirees and literary salons, and gambled for ruinously high stakes without, of course, ever showing by a blink that they cared about the turn of the card or the roll of the dice.

It was also, unlike the later Regency and Victorian ages, a time of damn-your-eyes amorality. Life was still rough and chancy, even for the nobility, and they made the most of it, often indulging without stint in food, wine, and sex. Syphilis was a serious problem, as were many other infectious diseases.

They achieved young. Pitt was Prime Minister at 24. The Duke of Bridgewater began his canal project at 23. Wolfe made general at 30 and died at 32. However, the life expectancy once an upper class person reached 20 was not vastly less than ours.

This was an age of almost constant war for Britain -- in India, Europe, and North America. At home, there were the two Jacobite risings in 1715 and 1745.

A brief chronology:

  • 1714 - Elector of Hanover, becomes George I of England (he speaks no English)
  • 1725 - Guy's hospital founded
  • 1727 - George II
  • 1730 - "Turnip" Townshend introduces improved crop rotation
  • 1733 - Methodism founded
  • 1749 - Henry Fielding becomes Bow Street magistrate (Bow Street Runners)
  • 1751 - Gin Act puts an end to the rampant abuse of gin by the poor
  • 1753 - Hardwicke Act regulated marriages, making Gretna Green marriages popular. Chippendale opens his workshop.
  • 1755 - Dr. Johnson's dictionary. The "Bluestockings" started.
  • 1759 - Wolfe captures Quebec, but is killed
  • 1760 - George III. Earl Ferrers hanged for murder (last peer executed in Britain)
  • 1764 - Mozart - (aged 8) performs for the king
  • 1769 - Josiah Wedgwood opens the Etruria pottery works
  • 1773 - Turnpike Act regulates road development. East India Company reformed and made more stable. Boston Tea Party.
  • 1775 - American War of Independence
  • 1776 - Adam Smith's Wealth Of Nations; Gibbon's Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire
  • 1780 - Gordon Riots (anti-Catholic)
  • 1784 - First mail coach. Bristol-London 17 hours; first balloon flight in England
  • 1787 - Final signature of US Constitution
  • 1788 - The Times starts. Penal colony set up at Botany Bay (Australia)
  • 1789 - Mutiny on the Bounty. French Revolution
  • 1792 - Imprisonment of French Royal family, declaration of French Republic
  • 1792 - Paine, The Rights Of Man; Wollstonecraft, The Rights Of Woman
  • 1794 - Beau Brummell begins to shine. End of the "Georgian Age"?

Active in the Georgian period: Handel, Pope, Swift, Defoe, Canaletto, Gainsborough, Smollett, Hogarth, Congreve, Dr. Johnson, Hume, Richardson, Fielding, Garrick, John Gay, Wesley, Jethro Tull, Reynolds, Chippendale, Gray, Sterne, Goldsmith, Boswell, Hargreaves, Stubbs, Burke, Arkwright, Watt, Cook, Romney, Sheridan, Siddons, Paine, Burney, Cowper, Walpole, Cartwright, Hepplewhite, Burns, Blake, Haydn

Primary sources:

  • Pamela by Samuel Richardson
  • Fanny Hill by Cleland
  • School For Scandal by Sheridan
  • She Stoops To Conquer by Goldsmith
  • Life of Johnson by Boswell
  • Evelina by Burney
  • Letters, Sentences, & Maxims by Chesterfield

Secondary sources:
  • English Society in the 18th Century by Roy Porter
  • London Life in the 18th Century by M. D. George
  • The film Dangerous Liaisons

 

The author's website
Jo Beverley at AAR
TJ's Cheat Sheet article on historical France
Return to Author-Penned Articles & Write Bytes



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