|1714 – 1830 (1837)|
|Followed by||Victorian era|
|Periods in English history|
The Georgian era is a period in British history from 1714 to c. 1830–37, named after the Hanoverian kings George I, George II, George III and George IV. The sub-period that is the Regency era is defined by the regency of George IV as Prince of Wales during the illness of his father George III. The definition of the Georgian era is often extended to include the relatively short reign of William IV, which ended with his death in 1837. The transition to the Victorian era was characterized in religion, social values, and the arts by a shift in tone away from rationalism and toward romanticism and mysticism.
The term "Georgian" is typically used in the contexts of social and political history and architecture. The term "Augustan literature" is often used for Augustan drama, Augustan poetry and Augustan prose in the period 1700–1740s. The term "Augustan" refers to the acknowledgement of the influence of Latin literature from the ancient Roman Republic.
Georgian society and its preoccupations were well portrayed in the novels of writers such as Henry Fielding, Mary Shelley and Jane Austen, characterised by the architecture of Robert Adam, John Nash and James Wyatt and the emergence of the Gothic Revival style, which hearkened back to a supposed golden age of building design.
The flowering of the arts was most vividly shown in the emergence of the Romantic poets, principally through Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Blake, John Keats, Lord Byron and Robert Burns. Their work ushered in a new era of poetry, characterised by vivid and colourful language, evocative of elevating ideas and themes.
The paintings of Thomas Gainsborough, Sir Joshua Reynolds and the young J. M. W. Turner and John Constable illustrated the changing world of the Georgian period – as did the work of designers like Capability Brown, the landscape designer.
It was a time of immense social change in Britain, with the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution which began the process of intensifying class divisions, and the emergence of rival political parties like the Whigs and Tories.
In rural areas the Agricultural Revolution saw huge changes to the movement of people and the decline of small communities, the growth of the cities and the beginnings of an integrated transportation system but, nevertheless, as rural towns and villages declined and work became scarce there was a huge increase in emigration to Canada, the North American colonies (which became the United States during the period) and other parts of the British Empire.
The evangelical movement inside and outside the Church of England gained strength in the late 18th and early 19th century. The movement challenged the traditional religious sensibility that emphasised a code of honour for the upper class, and suitable behaviour for everyone else, together with faithful observances of rituals. John Wesley (1703–1791) and his followers preached revivalist religion, trying to convert individuals to a personal relationship with Christ through Bible reading, regular prayer, and especially the revival experience. Wesley himself preached 52,000 times, calling on men and women to "redeem the time" and save their souls. Wesley always operated inside the Church of England, but at his death, his followers set up outside institutions that became the Methodist Church. It stood alongside the traditional nonconformist churches, Presbyterians, Congregationalist, Baptists, Unitarians, and Quakers. The nonconformist churches, however, were less influenced by revivalism.
The Church of England remained dominant, but it had a growing evangelical, revivalist faction, the "Low Church". Its leaders included William Wilberforce and Hannah More. It reached the upper class through the Clapham Sect. It did not seek political reform, but rather the opportunity to save souls through political action by freeing slaves, abolishing the duel, prohibiting cruelty to children and animals, stopping gambling, and avoiding frivolity on the Sabbath; they read the Bible every day. All souls were equal in God's view, but not all bodies, so evangelicals did not challenge the hierarchical structure of English society. As R. J. Morris noted in his 1983 article "Voluntary Societies and British Urban Elites, 1780-1850," "[m]id-eighteenth-century Britain was a stable society in the sense that those with material and ideological power were able to defend this power in an effective and dynamic manner," but "in the twenty years after 1780, this consensus structure was broken." Anglican Evangelicalism thus, as historian Lisa Wood has argued in her book Modes of Discipline: Women, Conservatism, and the Novel After the French Revolution, functioned as a tool of ruling-class social control, buffering the discontent that in France had inaugurated a revolution; yet it contained within itself the seeds for challenge to gender and class hierarchies.
The Georgian period saw continual warfare, with France the primary enemy. Major episodes included the Seven Years' War, known in America as the French and Indian War (1756–63), the American Revolutionary War (1775–83), the French Revolutionary Wars (1792–1802), the Irish Rebellion of 1798, and the Napoleonic Wars (1803–15). The British won most of the wars except for the American Revolution, where the combined weight of the United States, France, Spain and the Netherlands overwhelmed Britain, which stood alone without allies.
The loss of the 13 American Colonies was a national disaster. Commentators at home and abroad speculated on the end of Britain as a great power. In Europe, the wars with France dragged on for nearly a quarter of a century, 1793–1815. The British organise coalition after coalition, using its superb financial system to subsidise infantry forces, and building up its Navy to maintain control of the seas. Victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Trafalgar (1805) and the Battle of Waterloo (1815) under Admiral Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington brought a sense of triumphalism and political reaction.
The expansion of empire in Asia was primarily the work of the British East India Company, especially under the leadership of Robert Clive. Captain James Cook was perhaps the most prominent of the many explorers and geographers using the resources of the Royal Navy to develop the Empire and make many scientific discoveries, especially in Australia and the Pacific. Instead of trying to recover the lost colonies in North America, the British built up in Asia a largely new Second British Empire. That new empire flourished during the Victorian and Edwardian eras which were to follow.
The era was prosperous as entrepreneurs extended the range of their business around the globe. By the 1720s Britain was one of the most prosperous countries in the world, and Daniel Defoe boasted:
While the other major powers were primarily motivated towards territorial gains, and protection of their dynasties (such as the Habsburg and Bourbon dynasties, and the House of Hohenzollern), Britain had a different set of primary interests. Its main diplomatic goal (besides protecting the homeland from invasion) was building a worldwide trading network for its merchants, manufacturers, shippers and financiers. This required a hegemonic Royal Navy so powerful that no rival could sweep its ships from the world's trading routes, or invade the British Isles. The London government enhanced the private sector by incorporating numerous privately financed London-based companies for establishing trading posts and opening import-export businesses across the world. Each was given a monopoly of trade to the specified geographical region. The first enterprise was the Muscovy Company set up in 1555 to trade with Russia. Other prominent enterprises included the East India Company, and the Hudson's Bay Company in Canada. The Company of Royal Adventurers Trading to Africa had been set up in 1662 to trade in gold, ivory and slaves in Africa; it was re-established as the Royal African Company in 1672 and focused on the slave trade. British involvement in the each of the four major wars, 1740 to 1783, paid off handsomely in terms of trade. Even the loss of the 13 colonies was made up by a very favourable trading relationship with the new United States of America. British gained dominance in the trade with India, and largely dominated the highly lucrative slave, sugar, and commercial trades originating in West Africa and the West Indies. China would be next on the agenda. Other powers set up similar monopolies on a much smaller scale; only the Netherlands emphasized trade as much as England.
Mercantilism was the basic policy imposed by Britain on its colonies. Mercantilism meant that the government and the merchants became partners with the goal of increasing political power and private wealth, to the exclusion of other empires. The government protected its merchants—and kept others out—by trade barriers, regulations, and subsidies to domestic industries in order to maximise exports from and minimise imports to the realm. The government had to fight smuggling, which became a favourite American technique in the 18th century to circumvent the restrictions on trading with the French, Spanish or Dutch. The goal of mercantilism was to run trade surpluses, so that gold and silver would pour into London. The government took its share through duties and taxes, with the remainder going to merchants in Britain. The government spent much of its revenue on a large and powerful Royal Navy, which not only protected the British colonies but threatened the colonies of the other empires, and sometimes seized them. The colonies were captive markets for British industry, and the goal was to enrich the mother country.
Most of the companies earned good profits, and enormous personal fortunes were created in India, but there was one major fiasco that caused heavy losses. The South Sea Bubble was a business enterprise that exploded in scandal. The South Sea Company was a private business corporation supposedly set up much like the other trading companies, with a focus on South America. Its actual purpose was to renegotiate previous high-interest government loans amounting to £31 million through market manipulation and speculation. It issued stock four times in 1720 that reached about 8,000 investors. Prices kept soaring every day, from £130 a share to £1,000, with insiders making huge paper profits. The Bubble collapsed overnight, ruining many speculators. Investigations showed bribes had reached into high places—even to the king. The future prime minister Robert Walpole managed to wind it down with minimal political and economic damage, although some losers fled to exile or committed suicide.
With the ending of the War with France, Great Britain entered a period of greater economic depression and political uncertainty, characterised by social discontent and unrest. The Radical political party published a leaflet called The Political Register, also known as "The Two Penny Trash" to its rivals. The so-called March of the Blanketeers saw 400 spinners and weavers march from Manchester to London in March 1817 to hand the Government a petition. The Luddites destroyed and damaged machinery in the industrial north-west of England. The Peterloo Massacre in 1819 began as a protest rally which saw 60,000 people gathering to protest about their living standards, but was quelled by military action and saw eleven people killed and 400 wounded. The Cato Street Conspiracy of 1820 sought to blow up the Cabinet and then move on to storm the Tower of London and overthrow the government. This too was thwarted, with the conspirators executed or transported to Australia.
The Black Act of 1723, sponsored by Robert Walpole, strengthened the criminal code for the benefit of the upper class. It specified over 200 capital crimes, many with intensified punishment. Arson, for example, was expanded to include burning or the threat of burning haystacks. The legal rights of defendants were strictly limited. For example, suspects who refused to surrender within 40 days could be summarily judged guilty and sentenced to execution if apprehended. Local villages were punished if they failed to find, prosecute and convict alleged criminals.
Historians have long explored the importance of the Scottish Enlightenment, as well as the American Enlightenment, while debating the very existence of the English Enlightenment.
English historian Peter Gay argues that the Scottish Enlightenment "was a small and cohesive group of friends – David Hume, Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, and others – who knew one another intimately and talked to one another incessantly. Education was a priority in Scotland, both at the local level and especially in four universities that had stronger reputations than any in England. The Enlightenment culture was based on close readings of new books, and intense discussions that took place daily at such intellectual gathering places in Edinburgh as The Select Society and, later, The Poker Club as well as within Scotland's ancient universities (St Andrews, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen). Sharing the humanist and rationalist outlook of the European Enlightenment of the same time period, the thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment asserted the importance of human reason combined with a rejection of any authority that could not be justified by reason. In Scotland, the Enlightenment was characterised by a thoroughgoing empiricism and practicality where the chief values were improvement, virtue, and practical benefit for the individual and society as a whole. Among the fields that rapidly advanced were philosophy, economics, history architecture, and medicine. Leaders included Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, Adam Smith, Dugald Stewart, Thomas Reid, William Robertson, Henry Home, Lord Kames, Adam Ferguson, John Playfair, Joseph Black and James Hutton. The Scottish Enlightenment influenced England and the American colonies, and to a lesser extent continental Europe.
The very existence of an English Enlightenment has been debated by scholars. The majority of textbooks and standard surveys make no room for an English Enlightenment. Some European surveys include England, others ignore it but do include coverage of such major intellectuals as Joseph Addison, Edward Gibbon, John Locke, Isaac Newton, Alexander Pope and Joshua Reynolds. Roy Porter argues that the reason for the neglect was the assumption that the movement was primarily French-inspired, that it was largely a-religious or anti-clerical, and it stood in outspoken defiance to the established order. Porter admits that after the 1720s, England could claim few thinkers to equal Diderot, Voltaire or Rousseau. Indeed, its leading intellectuals, such as Edward Gibbon, Edmund Burke and Samuel Johnson were all quite conservative and supported the standing order. Porter says the reason was that Enlightenment had come early to England, and had succeeded so that the culture had accepted political liberalism, philosophical empiricism and religious toleration of the sort that intellectuals on the continent had to fight for against powerful odds. The coffee-house culture provided an ideal venue for enlightened conversation. Furthermore, England rejected the collectivism of the continent, and emphasized the improvement of individuals as the main goal of enlightenment.
The British sponsored numerous scientists who made major discoveries in the small laboratories. Joseph Priestley investigated electricity. Chemist Henry Cavendish identified hydrogen in 1772. Daniel Rutherford isolated nitrogen in 1774, while Priestley discovered oxygen and ammonia. Antiquarians and archaeologists mapped the past. In medicine, in 1717 Lady Mary Wortley Montagu introduced inoculation against smallpox and Britain, and by 1740 it was in wide usage. Guy's Hospital was founded in 1721; the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh in 1729; Queen Charlotte's maternity hospital in 1739 and the Middlesex Hospital in 1745. Asylums for the mentally ill were established, notably Bethel Hospital in Norwich (1713); a ward for incurable lunatics at Guy's Hospital (1728); and lunatic hospitals in Manchester (1766) and York in (1777)—York was the first to be called an asylum.
Historians debate the exact ending, with the deaths of George IV in 1830 or William IV in 1837 as the usual marker. In most social and cultural trends, the timing varied. The emergence of Romanticism and literature began as early as the 1780s, while religious changes took much longer and were incomplete until around a century later. The 1830s saw important developments such as the emergence of the Oxford Movement in religion and the demise of classical architecture. Victorians typically were disapproving of the times of the previous era. By the late 19th century, the "Georgian era" was a byword for a degenerate culture. Charles Abbey in 1878 argued that the Church of England:
Note: In the twentieth century, the period 1910–1936 was informally called the Georgian Era during the reign of George V (following the Edwardian Era), and is sometimes still referred to as such; see Georgian Poetry.