I wrote the following article for the October issue of The Regency Reader. (To get a free subscription, send a blank email to TheRegencyReaderemail@example.com) The hero and heroine of my recently released Marriage of Inconvenience were both keenly interested in Parliament. Lord Aynsley served in the House of Lords, and his bride was keenly interested in reform.
The Houses of Parliament that we know today were constructed during Queen Victoria’s reign. Prior to the 1834 fire, the House of Commons met at St. Stephen’s Chapel within the Palace of Westminster, and the House of Lords met in the White Chamber of the Palace of Westminster, then in 1801moved to larger quarters at the former Court of Requests (still at the Palace of Westminster).
Prior to the Great Reform Bill of 1832, the legislative power of the kingdom rested with a handful of rich, aristocratic landowners. In the early 1800s, eight powerful peers controlled 51 seats in Commons. Of the 658 seats in Commons, about half were controlled by lords. In most cases, the eldest son of a peer—if not all the peer’s sons—stood for Parliament. (Note, the British do not “run” for office.) Standing for a seat in the House of Commons was costly because votes were actually paid for in those days before secret ballots, but it was an expense these aristocratic families incurred for the sake of participating in government.
It should be noted that while some viscounts sat in the House of Lords, those viscounts with courtesy titles and non-representative Irish peers had to stand for the House of Commons. In Regency times many viscounts who were sons of the nobility or Irish viscounts served in the House of Commons. Among the vast number of these were Viscount Palmerston (Irish peer), Viscount Duncannon (son of the Earl of Bessborough), Viscount Althorp (son of Earl Spencer), and Viscount Fordwich (son of Lord Cowper).
Because of the indolent lifestyle of the aristocrats in both houses, Parliament during the Regency did not begin until 4 p.m., with sessions often lasting until the wee hours of the morning.
Seldom can the title Prime Minister be found in old journals. Often the office we now know as Prime Minister was referred to as First Lord of the Treasury. More often than not, the First Lord would not be a “lord.” Always, though, upon leaving office, the Prime Minister would have a title bestowed upon him. (This still occurs. Margaret Thatcher became Lady Thatcher upon leaving office.) William Pitt the Elder became the 1st Earl Chatham upon leaving office; Robert Walpole became the 1st Earl of Orford; and Benjamin Disreali became the 1st Earl of Beaconsfield, to name a few.
Some famous trials were held in Parliament, the most famous being the Trial of Queen Caroline (the Regent’s wife) in 1820. Warren Hastings’ impeachment trial covered seven years in the late eighteenth century, with his acquittal coming in 1795. Both of these held vast interest. It was something of a social coup to get to attend these. Fanny Burney visited Parliament to watch the Hastings trial and sat in the gallery with other women.
However, when Lady Caroline Lamb wanted to see her husband (William Lamb, later Prime Minister Viscount Melbourne) deliver his maiden speech in the House of Commons, she had to dress as a boy because by then women were barred from the galleries.
Lamb was a member of one of the prominent Whig families; Tories were in power during the actual Regency. Whigs were more liberal and opposed the king’s authority, thus were frequently referred to as the “opposition.”
The buildings may have changed since the Regency, as have the members, but one thing remains: the woolsack. This large, rectangular wool cushion with no back or arms has served as the seat of the Lord Chancellor (or, later, Lord Speaker) of the House of Lords for more than 600 years. Wool is the country’s traditional symbol of prosperity.