The politics of a coronation: reaction and reform in 1821

This month the UK Parliament will be hosting an online presentation marking the coronation of George IV 200 years ago. To sign up for this free event please click here. In this blog Dr Philip Salmon explores some of the political issues surrounding one of the most extravagant coronations ever staged.

George IV in his coronation robes

This month marks the 200th anniversary of the coronation of George IV, one of the most colourful and dissolute monarchs ever to have sat on the British throne. During the previous year the new king and his Tory government had faced unprecedented public protests against the prosecution of his estranged wife Queen Caroline. Her cause had been widely promoted by leading radicals and reformers, leading to a major political crisis in November 1820. The success of the 1821 coronation just eight months later, one of the most lavish and popular royal events ever staged, was in these circumstances an extraordinary triumph for the King and the Tory government. At face value it represented a remarkable recovery, suggesting some sort of loyalist or patriotic reaction to the radical turmoil and public demonstrations of the previous year. Behind all the pomp and pageantry, however, some significant political changes had also started to take place.

1821 coronation procession at Westminster

The first signs that public support for the Queen may have been declining were apparent even before Parliament reassembled in January 1821. Disappointing turnouts at radical meetings celebrating the collapse of her trial began to be reported in late November and December. Lady Cowper, sister of the future Whig prime minister Lord Melbourne, believed the Queen’s popularity was ‘much on the wane’. ‘The tide of public opinion has changed’, remarked William Fremantle MP. The former prime minister Lord Grenville went further, sensing that there was ‘arising in the country … a royalist spirit and feeling’ similar to that which Pitt had been able ‘to avail himself of’ in the 1790s, and recommending the introduction of new measures by the government.

1821 satirical print showing Caroline and her Italian servant Pergami

The King’s popularity also seemed to be improving. At a much publicised visit to the opera on 6 February 1821 he was delighted to receive a standing ovation, although one man still shouted, ‘Where’s your wife Georgey?’ Earlier that day the Tory government had won a key victory in the Commons, defeating a Whig motion criticising their handling of the Queen Caroline affair by 324 to 178 votes. Further successes followed, aided by growing divisions among opposition MPs over tactics, and the next week a long-running but poorly co-ordinated campaign to restore the Queen’s name to the prayer book was also rejected decisively by 298 votes to 178. The resignation of the Whig leader in the Commons George Tierney early the following month only added to the opposition’s woes. By the middle of March 1821 it was being predicted that the Whigs would ‘split into three or more distinct’ factions.

These Tory successes in Parliament were significant, but they were also accompanied by measures that began to hold out the prospect of concessions to reformers and wider public opinion. The granting of a £50,000 annuity to the Queen (with conditions) reflected well on the ministry, leaving the opposition squabbling about the expense and the Queen appearing less a victim of oppression than an opportunistic gold digger. The unexpected leniency of the sentence against the radical MP Sir Francis Burdett, on trial for seditious libel in King’s Bench in February 1821, also seemed to hint at a new tone of tolerance by the authorities.

More significantly, two key measures which the Whigs and many reformers had long been campaigning for were introduced during the first half of 1821. In March a bill for Catholic emancipation was prepared by William Plunket, later the government’s Irish attorney general, following the first ever successful vote in Parliament on the subject. On 3 April it passed the Commons by 216 votes to 197. Although the bill was later rejected by the Lords, many leading Tories, including the future prime minister George Canning, gave it their firm support.

This apparent willingness to consider altering key components of Britain’s ancient constitution was even more striking on the thorny subject of parliamentary reform. In February Lord John Russell, a leading Whig and future prime minister, reintroduced his bill to disfranchise the ‘rotten borough’ of Grampound and transfer its seats to the industrial town of Leeds. Disagreements about the new franchise scuppered his original plans, but in June 1821 the Tory prime minister Lord Liverpool took up the reins and helped to pass another bill in the Lords transferring the borough’s seats to Yorkshire, England’s most industrialised county, which included Leeds. An important precedent had been established allowing not only for a gradual abolition of the most corrupt constituencies, but also the redistribution of the resulting seats to completely different and more populous areas. The constitution, seen by many as sacrosanct, had begun to be modified. 

Underpinning these political developments at Westminster, the economy began to improve. Unemployment had been steadily falling and the price of wheat plummeted following bumper harvests. The return of the currency to the gold standard in May 1821 prompted further price falls and a series of reductions in government expenditure and tax cuts were introduced by the treasury, leading to predictions that Britain would now begin to move towards free trade. Industrial unrest and protest, in the circumstances, became virtually non-existent outside a small number of struggling or rapidly mechanising trades. Instead it was the agricultural and landowning interest that began to suffer and campaign for relief, with varying degrees of success. 

Coronation celebrations around a wine fountain at Newcastle, by H. Parker © Art UK

By 1821, therefore, the public mood and political landscape had clearly begun to change. Vast numbers of people took part in the nationwide celebrations held to mark the King’s coronation, including at Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where the scenes around one wine fountain were captured in this famous painting. The refusal to admit the Queen to the ceremony in Westminster Abbey, although widely reported, sparked remarkably little public sympathy. This shift in attitude was attributed by many to a loyalist and religious reaction, helped along by all the salacious revelations about the Queen’s behaviour. But important concessions to popular opinion and more liberal policies had also started to be initiated in Parliament. These measures not only laid the foundations for a new style of ‘Liberal-Tory’ rule in the years ahead, but also helped ultimately to usher in a new era of reform.

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