Pitt felt himself to be in a strong position at the end of the decade. This did not mean that he had always got his own way - he had failed to persuade the Commons to accept his proposals for Irish free trade and (modest) parliamentary reform, and he had been forced to repeal his Shop Tax by riots outside Downing Street, where he had been burned in effigy. These bruising experiences were to make him more cautious in the future.
However his economic policies were bearing fruit: the national debt had been cut though additional taxes on spirits and hair powder and the setting up of a Sinking Fund, and the navy improved after its poor showing in the American War. In 1787 he had ended Britain’s post-war diplomatic isolation by joining a Triple Alliance with Prussia and the Dutch Republic. His political opponents, the Foxites were fewer than 200 in a House of 558, and the king’s favour consolidated his position. Pitt and George III were never close but they knew they needed each other. This left the Foxites impotent in opposition, deeply loathing Pitt. From 1786 they vented their frustration in impeaching Warren Hastings, the former Governor-General of India and then prosecuting him. The trial consumed a great deal of their energy, with Burke being especially zealous in the trial (which was to end in 1795 with Hastings’ acquittal). Politically they depended on the Prince of Wales and hoped desperately that the king would die
The Fitzherbert marriage
On 15 December 1785 the prince secretly marred the widowed Catholic Maria Fitzherbert (1756-1837), whom he had met the previous year. This marriage was illegal according to three Acts: the Act of Settlement (1701), the Act of Union (1707), both of which excluded a prince or princess married to a Catholic from succeeding to the throne, and to the Royal Marriage Act of 1772. Though the couple initially kept separate establishments, the marriage was an open secret in London society, where they were constantly seen together. Gillray drew a cartoon of the marriage, with Burke as the clergyman, and Fox giving away the bride. However the king and queen were ignorant of it.
The prince further embarrassed the Opposition by his debts, which were over a quarter of a million pounds. The king refused to relieve him without a promise that he would be less extravagant in the future. It was hinted to the prince that his father would be more amenable if he married and if he abandoned Fox. The Prince refused to do either.
In April 1787 Parliament debated the prince’s debts. One ‘country’ member hinted that a question was involved ‘which went immediately to affect our constitution in Church and State’ - an oblique reference to the Fitzherbert marriage. George wrote to Fox that ‘there never was any ground for those reports ... so malevolently circulated’. (To the end of his life he consistently denied the marriage.) Believing the prince, Fox spoke to a crowded Commons on 30 April, denying the
‘monstrous report of a fact which had not the smallest degree of foundation ... a low malicious falsehood’,and said that he had ‘His Royal Highness’s direct authority’ for his declaration. (After this Mrs Fitzherbert developed a lasting hostility to Fox.)
On arriving at Brooks’s, Fox met one of his friends who told him he had been present at the marriage. He then realized that he had unintentionally misled the House. For a year he did his best to avoid the prince, but they had to resume their alliance, because they needed each other.
The Regency Crisis
Compared with his son’s the king’s life was a model of rectitude and frugality, and after a difficult start to his reign he was becoming popular. In 1775 John Wesley had attested to his unpopularity:
‘…the bulk of the people in every city, town and village do not much aim at the ministry…but at the King himself. They heartily despise his Majesty and hate him with a perfect hatred’.But by the end of the war, opinion was shifting in his favour, and an assassination attempt in 1786 only increased his popularity.
On 11 June 1788 the king suffered a ‘spasmodic bilious attack’, and was ill for several days. At Kew on 17 October he had a second attack, coupled with severe abdominal pains and discoloured urine. This was coupled with ‘agitation’, ‘flurry of spirits’, uncontrollable gabbling and mental confusion. All these are symptoms of porphyria.
The Prince of Wales took over the royal household and called in his own doctor, Dr Warren. The king refused to see him. On 12 November from hearsay Warren told Lady Spencer, ‘Rex noster insanit’. The prince was already in communication with the Opposition in the person of Sheridan (Fox was in Italy with his mistress, Mrs Armistead).
The king’s condition fluctuated throughout the whole of November. The king remained at Windsor. Various remedies were tired: blistering, hot baths. On 18-19 November, after only two hours’ sleep, he talked for 19 hours. On 23 November, he uncharacteristically spoke ‘indecencies’.
The Opposition were convinced that a regency would be needed, which would put them in government. Fox hurried back from Italy. Stories were spread about the king’s illness - shaking hands with a tree. On 28 November the Whiggish Morning Post published a list of ministers who would be in the new government. The atmosphere at Brooks’s was buoyant, but fears of Pitt’s dismissal caused a two-point falling stocks.
However in late November the atmosphere began to change. The physician, Dr Anthony Addington, one-time consultant to the Pitt family and the former keeper of a madhouse, encouraged Pitt to think that the king might recover. He recommended a move to Kew - away from the prying spectators at Windsor. When taken there, George was denied permission to see his wife and daughters.
On 5 December Parliament opened. On the same day Dr Francis Willis, the keeper of a private asylum in Lincolnshire, arrived at Kew, armed with a straitjacket and three strong assistants.
Willis’s role shows that madness was now seen as a medical condition and that the patient, whatever his rank, had to submit to the all-knowing, all-powerful doctor – an historical development described in Michel Foucault’s Madness and Reason (1961).
In December - January, Parliament debated a regency. On 10 December one of the epic debates in the Pitt/Fox relationship took place. Pitt moved the appointment of a committee to examine precedents. Fox argued that this was a delaying tactic, as there were no precedents, and asserted that it was necessary to give the prince ‘full powers to act as a sovereign immediately. This betrayal of fundamental Whig principles gave Pitt the opportunity to ‘unwhig’ Fox.
The Whigs were reduced to quarrelling among themselves. Fox and Sheridan were at odds. On 15 December Thurlow, the opportunistic Lord Chancellor, who had been contemplating throwing in his lot with theirs, changed his mind and declared, ‘When I forget my sovereign, may God forget me!’ On 16 December the government motion for a restricted regency was carried 268/204.
However the king was still ill, and the prince was behaving very badly among his companions at Carlton House and Brookes’s, doing nothing to discourage the scurrilous attacks on the queen in the opposition press.
The king was suffering from Dr Willis’s treatment. Willis became quite openly Pittite, while Warren remained the Opposition’s preferred doctor. In the parliamentary debates their rival diagnoses were hurled across the floor of the Commons. Meanwhile, the duchess of Devonshire’s diary recorded Opposition in-fighting. Pitt was refusing the play the one card he knew would utterly discredit the prince - the secret marriage. Because the prince had denied the marriage, exposure would show him to be a liar and discredit the monarchy. Instead, he would rely on his good parliamentary majority.
On 5 February Pitt introduced the first reading of the Regency Bill, which passed the Commons:
- The Regent was to have no power to create peers (though in the debates Pitt conceded that he would have this right after three years).
- He would only to have a limited right to grant offices, salaries, or pensions.
- He would have no jurisdiction over the king’s lands or property.
- The care of the king was to be in the hands of the queen
On 16 February, the bill was ready to go to the Lords. If they threw it out and if the king recovered, Pitt would have to go.
On 19 February, the Lord Chancellor informed the Lords that the king was convalescing and was inquiring about parliamentary business.
On 24 February Pitt travelled to Kew and found the king lucid - he told Pitt that if the Regency Bill had gone through he would have retired to Hanover.
On St George’s Day a triumphant grand thanksgiving service was held at St Paul’s. The prince chatted throughout the service and the press attacks on the prince showed how much he had lost popularity. The Opposition was now in further disarray, with Burke and Sheridan extremely hostile to each other. And as he approached his 30th birthday, Pitt seemed stronger than ever.
In the summer the king made a triumphant journey to Weymouth. While the royal family were there, the Bastille fell.