As a lifetime history buff, I have always held a singular fascination with the 18th century and with the Georgian Age in particular. Although in courtliness it may be surpassed by the “Sun King,” and its intrigues by the Medici’s and Tudors, the Georgina age represents a fascinating paradox.
The naissance of this era, called after the scions of the House of Hanover, was the direct result of the Act of Settlement when with the death of Queen Anne’s death, Parliament bypassed over fifty Catholic aspirants to the throne, in order to settle it upon the closest Protestant, a German princeling who neither desired the crown, nor spoke the English tongue!
It was the birth of pluralistic government. What history says of the reluctant but avaricious Georg Ludwig, is that he left England to rule itself as much as possible, and took his living from it as much as achievable. During this rather apathetic reign, Britain began a steady transition as the true power gradually and bloodlessly (in contrast to France!) transitioned away from the absolute monarchy favored by the Stuarts of old, and toward a government led by a cabinet of ministers and a parliament largely elected by the people.
It was a time of intrigues, where for half a century the exiled and ill-fated “Pretender” sought to regain the throne he had lost for Catholicism. (It was joked of James Francis Edward Stuart that he traded three crowns for a mass!)
While called the age of enlightenment, criminals were yet pilloried or executed, and left to hang in gibbets for buzzards to pick their flesh, and debtors were incarcerated, sometimes for life, while the powerful aristocracy was protected from prosecution for their own crimes by the privilege of peerage.
This same nobility used an outer façade of honor and politesse to cover its multifarious sins. In the words of Dr. Johnson: “Vice, in its true light, is so deformed, that it shocks us at first sight; and would hardly ever seduce us, if it did not at first wear the mask of some virtue.”
In upper class society, marriage was seldom pursued without social or financial gain. Gin was cheap and readily available. The cities were rife with prostitutes and gambling. All of these harsh realities were readily exposed by the pencil and brush of the brilliant artist and social commentator, William Hogarth.
The Georgian age also saw tremendous growth of the arts especially geared toward the common man. At a time when Italian opera dominated Europe, the greatly beloved English composer Handel (German born but naturalized) usurped the Italians to introduce his English language operas and oratorios.
The modern romantic novel was crafted in Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, and then spoofed by the brilliantly sardonic wit of Henry Fielding in Shamela. The stage was revived and flourished with bawdy satires led by men like John Gaye, whose Beggar’s Opera lampooned the blatant governmental corruption of the day.
The Georgians by-and-large were a profligate and riotous breed: hard drinkers, with little regard to sexual morality. Brothels abounded to suit any particular fancy from flagellation to sodomy, the English” vice. Mercury pills may have killed more patients than the syphilis it was meant to cure.
Those of rank and title pursued every manner of pleasure, dissipation, and gaming. They drank hard and played harder – wagering on bare-fisted pugilism, (sometimes employing cudgels), cock fighting, bear, and bull bating with astronomical stakes often laid out at the hazard and card tables. And let us not forget the horses that were particularly suited for this fast-living crowd who admired no virtue more than “bottom.”
The Georgian gentlemen of the turf applied themselves wholeheartedly to perfecting the racehorse by importing Eastern stallions, those kings of the desert known for unparalleled stamina. The Byerley Turk, the Darley Arabian, and later the Godolphin Arabian were some of the very best horses selectively crossed with the blood of the early mares of Charles II to create an entirely new type of horse that became known around the world as the English Thoroughbred.
As fodder for an historical novelist, the Georgian era offers untold delights, and with such a legacy, how can I not love the Georges?