The Parliament that Shook the World

7 January 1812 opened the sixth session of the fourth parliament of the United Kingdom.

Significant debates were held concerning constitutional change, including Catholic Emancipation, and changes to Parliament itself.

The war against Napoleon was expensive and some doubted whether it was essential to Britain’s security.

Luddite “Riots” perplexed the parliament. (I just discovered the Luddite Bicentennary, which shares some interesting primary sources.)

Election violence, and most of the political violence within England itself of the year seems to have been largely forgotten.

The Speech below shows that the Parliament was not ignorant of the problems that lay before them.

The Prince Regent’s Speech

Delivered by The Lords Commissioners To Both Houses of Parliament
On Tuesday, January 7, 1812

My Lords and Gentlemen,

We are commanded by his Royal Highness the Prince Regent[i], to express to you the deep sorrow which he feels in announcing to you the continuance of his Majesty’s lamented indisposition, and the unhappy disappointment of those hopes of his Majesty’s early recovery which had been cherished by the dutiful affection of his family and the loyal attachment of his people.

The Prince Regent has directed copies of the last reports of her Majesty the Queen’s council to be laid before you, and he is satisfied that you will adopt such measures as the present melancholy exigency may appear to require.

In securing a suitable and ample provision for the support of his Majesty’s Royal Dignity, and for the attendance upon his majesty’s sacred person during his illness, the Prince Regent rests assured, that you will also bear in mind the indispensable duty of continuing to preserve for his Majesty the facility of resuming the personal exercise of his Royal Authority in the happy event of his recovery so earnestly desired by the wishes and the prayers of his family and his subjects.

The Prince Regent directs us to signify to you the satisfaction with which his Royal Highness has observed, that the measures which have been pursued for the defence and security of the kingdom of Portugal have proved completely effectual, and that on the several occasions in which the British or Portuguese troops have been engaged with the enemy, the reputation already acquired by them has been fully maintained.[ii]

The successful and brilliant enterprises which terminated in the surprize in Spanish Estremadura of a French corps by a detachment of the allied army under Lieut. Gen. Hill, is highly creditable to that distinguished officer, and to the troops under his command, and has contributed materially to obstruct the designs of the enemy in that part of the Peninsula.[iii]

The Prince Regent is assured, that while you reflect with pride and satisfaction on the conduct of his Majesty’s troops, and of the Allies, in these various and important services, you will render justice to the consummate judgement and skill displayed by Gen. Lord Viscount Wellington[iv], in the direction of the campaign. In Spain the spirit of the people remains unsubdued; and the system of warfare[v] so peculiarly adapted to the actual condition of the Spanish nation, has been recently extended and improved, under the advantages which result from the operations of the allied armies on the frontier, and from the countenance and assistance of his Majesty’s navy on the coast.

Although the great exertions of the enemy have in some quarters been attended with success, his Royal Highness is persuaded, that you will admire the perseverance and gallantry manifested by the Spanish armies. Even in those provinces principally occupied by the French forces, new energy has arisen among the people; and the increase of the difficulty and danger has produces more connected efforts of general resistance. [vi]

The Prince Regent, in the name and on the behalf of his Majesty, commands us to express his confident hope that you will enable him to continue to afford the most effectual aid and assistance in the support of the contest which the brave nations of the Peninsula still maintain with such unabated zeal and resolution.

His Royal Highness command us to express his congratulations on the success of the British arms in the Island of Java.[vii]

The Prince Regent trusts that you will concur with his Royal Highness, in approving the wisdom and ability with which the enterprise, as well as the capture of the islands of Bourbon and the Mauritius, has been conducted under the immediate direction of the Governor General of India, and that you will applaud the decision, gallantry, and spirit conspicuously displayed in the late operations of the brave army under the command of that distinguished officer Lieut. General Sir Samuel Achmuty, so powerfully and ably supported by his Majesty’s naval forces. [viii]

By the completion of this system of operations, great additional security will have been given to the British commerce and possessions in the East Indies, and the colonial power of France will have been entirely extinguished.

His Royal Highness thinks it expedient to recommend to your attention the propriety of providing such measures for the future government of the British possessions in India, as shall appear from experience, and upon mature deliberation, to be calculated to secure their internal prosperity, and to derive from those flourishing dominions the utmost degree of advantage to the commerce and revenue of the United Kingdoms.[ix]

We are commanded by the Prince Regent to acquaint you, that while
his Royal Highness regrets that various important subjects of difference with the Government of the United States of America still remain unadjusted, the difficulties which the affair of the Chesapeake frigate had occasioned have been finally removed; and we are directed to assure you, that in the further progress of the discussions with the United States, the Prince Regent will continue to employ such means of conciliation as may be consistent with the honour and dignity of his Majesty’s crown, and with the due maintenance of the maritime and commercial rights and interests of the British empire. [x]

Gentlemen of the House of Commons,

His Royal Highness has directed the estimates for the service of the current year to be laid before you. He trusts that you will furnish him with such supplies, as may be necessary to enable him to continue the contest in which His Majesty is engaged, with that spirit and exertion which will afford the best prospect of its successful termination.[xi]

His Royal Highness commands us to recommend that you should resume the consideration of the state of the finances of Ireland, which you had commenced in the last Session of Parliament. He has the satisfaction to inform you, that the improved receipt of the revenue of Ireland in the last, as compared with the preceding year, confirms the belief that the depression which that revenue had experienced is to be attributed to accidental and temporary causes. [xii]

My Lords and Gentlemen,

The Prince Regent is satisfied that you entertain a just sense of the arduous duties which his Royal Highness has been called upon to fulfil, in consequence of his Majesty’s continued indisposition.

Under this severe calamity his Royal Highness derives the greatest consolation from his reliance on your experience wisdom, loyalty, and public spirit, to which in every difficulty he will resort, with a firm confidence that, through your assistance and support, he shall be enabled, under the blessings of Divine Providence, successfully to discharge the important functions of the high trust reposed in him, and in the name, and on the behalf of his beloved father, and revered sovereign, to maintain unimpaired the prosperity and honour of the nation.

Notes on Prince Regent’s Address:

  • [i] The prince Regent, the Future George IV, took over the functions of the monarch during George III’s illness. These bouts of illness were later dramatised in “The Madness of King George,” although some killjoy historians doubt that real life was half that funny.
  • [ii] The campaign in Portugal was later a topic of debate. Some doubted whether it was worth it, or if Portugal’s security contributed to that of the United Kingdom. Most of the famous generals were British, but the a large percentage of the lower troops were indeed Portuguese. It seems that in exchange for financial aid, the British got to chose the commanders. Other troops were mercenaries from Germany and from the British Empire and elsewhere. I’m not sure how many were volunteers, how many were mercenaries, and how many were impressed into fighting.
  • [iii] The Peninsular Campaign in Spain is often confused with that in Portugal.  The politics were different, but at the time most politicians knew the difference between the two.
  • [iv] later known as the Duke of Wellington or Generalissimo Wellington.
  • [v] That is, guerilla warfare.
  • [vi] There were some doubts as to whether this compliment was sincere, or whether it is used in order to drum up financial support for the war effort.
  • [vii] Napoleon inherited Java when he took over the Batavian Republic (or the Netherlands). With Java, Britain took the last bastion of Napoleonic influence in “the Indian Seas.” Although this victory happened months before hand, it was recent news, and considered a very significant success at the time.
  • [viii] These victories do not seem to figure as highly in concurrent histories and news reports.
  • [ix] The British were under great anxiety that Napoleon wanted to cut off British territory in India. They even imagined it as being Napoleon’s motivation for the 1798 invasion of Egypt. Subsequent British representatives in Egypt and Malta were always suspicious that another French invasion was just around the corner.
  • [x] The British anticipated the war of 1812 well ahead of time, this speech was given five years after the Chesapeake affair. The British wanted to pacify the Americans, but Parliament was too proud to admit they were wrong. British tradesmen petitioned parliament to remove the Orders in Council because they hurt British manufacturers and were politically useless.
  • [xi] The King needed Parliament, especially the House of Commons, to approve the war budget.
  • [xii] Public Catholic religious meetings, including prayer meetings, were being suppressed, and the Irish suffered from widespread poverty. Catholic emancipation was unpopular with this parliament and the Irish seemed to be disliked in general.