With George III’s first bit of madness in 1788 to the death of George IV in 1830, the world experienced the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, the Congress of Vienna, and the Age of Reform.
England found itself inundated with French refugees during the French Revolution. Thousands of French aristocrats arrived on English shores in the wake of the Terror. Estimates are set at 40,000 + French aristocrats coming through ports such as Brighton. Many arrived with nothing more than the clothes on their backs.
French émigrés left behind many of their valuables, but they brought tales of the Terror to English shores. There were, for example, stories of Victims’ Balls. These were parties given by the survivors of the Terror, those whose relatives had been executed. To be admitted one had to present a certificate to prove that one of the person’s relatives had been guillotined. When a male entered the party, he would bow his head as if presenting it to the guillotine. Women would wear a red ribbon about their necks as a symbol of the spilled blood.
The stories of horror turned many good Englishmen against the idea of Reform. Any steps toward thinking of changing the status of the working poor through governmental reform took on the language of treason. Add to the reality of the French Revolution the one taking place in America, and the idea of change in the electoral system took a GIGANTIC step backward.
In 1793, England declared war on France. It would be 1815 before peace would be declared. The war was very unpopular with the English public. The English educated class had held a long love affair with everything French. They spoke French with ease and adored French fashion and art. The great majority of the public, however, were very much anti-French. Part of this dislike of the French came from the lower classes’ dislike of the English upper classes’ fascination with the French.
Francophiles spoke French, indulged in French food and wine, and filled their houses with French furniture. Even George IV, the Prince Regent, decorated his houses in the French style. English Society had no intention of letting a little thing such as a war to interfere with their French obsession. Smugglers thrived, especially smugglers of French brandy and art, as well as luxury food stuffs.
A temporary peace arrived on English shores with the Treaty of Amiens in 1802. English high society kept the Channel busy as they streamed into Paris to scarf up all things French. Whig leader, Charles James Fox, was one of the first to arrive on French shore, along with the Duchess of Devonshire as part of his entourage. George IV’s future mistress, Lady Conyngham, was deemed the most beautiful woman in Paris at the time. It was quite fashionable to be presented to Napoleon. Fraternizing with the enemy was very much in vogue.
Madame Recamier was the most famous hostess of the English influx, but the peace held for barely fourteen months. The peace may not have lasted, but the English fascination with the French remained entrenched throughout the Regency. It was quite ironic to hear the English conducting business in the language of their enemy.
The Regency is noted for its elegance and achievements in the fine arts and architecture. This era encompassed a time of great social, political, and even economic change. War was waged with Napoleon and on other fronts, affecting commerce both at home and internationally as well as politics. Despite the bloodshed and warfare the Regency was also a period of great refinement and cultural achievement, shaping and altering the societal structure of Britain as a whole.