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British Politics, 1793-1815: The State

Although Britain was a constitutional monarchy, the King still had a great deal of political power. He was not allowed to interfere directly in policy, but he personally appointed the government and was capable of opposing the appointment of men he did not like (an example being his veto against Charles James Fox, leader of the opposition during the 1780s, 1790s, and early 1800s). The King’s opinion had to be accounted for; Pitt the Younger was forced to resign in 1801 when he tried to force through a measure the King was known to oppose.


The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. (1780), George III. Retrieved from here)

Over time, however, George III declined in personal importance. A popular monarch due to his common touch and his frugality, he suffered prolonged mental breakdowns in 1788, 1801, and 1804, before falling permanently ill in 1810. For the last nine years of George III’s reign, therefore (1811–20), his eldest son, the Prince of Wales (later George IV), acted as Regent.


Portrait of George IV, after Sir Thomas Lawrence, ca. 1840, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, from here)

The King ruled through Parliament, which consisted of the House of Lords and the House of Commons. Parliament legislated for the nation, raised money by taxation, and controlled the way funds were spent. Until 1801, the Commons consisted of 558 Members of Parliament for England, Wales, and Scotland. Following the Anglo–Irish Act of Union in 1801, 100 parliamentary seats were added to the Parliament of the United Kingdom. The Lords consisted of the heads of the noble families of England, Wales, and Scotland (after 1801, also Ireland), as well as the bishops of the Church of England. The Lords scrutinised legislation passed by the Commons; they also acted as a court of appeal.

The King could also call on the Privy Council, a body traditionally called on to advise the sovereign on legal and legislative matters, and on the cabinet. This was an informal body; meetings were infrequent and unminuted, and important decisions were often taken outside it.

Background image: James Fittler, The House of Commons, 1804, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, from here)

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