France was still in the grip of a miserable, cold, foggy Spring but Napoleon would have been encouraged by Britain’s reluctance to declare war, giving him more time to wrestle with his constitutional and political problems and continue to expand his army.
An insecure British government was facing Radical opposition within the Commons and on the streets, the economy was shaky and everyone was depressed by the weather. The price of bread was rising, the farmers were having a tough time because of the rain and the King’s health kept him out of the public eye – “his disorder continues without any sensible alteration,” according to the bulletins.
Only the Prince Regent seemed to be in a good mood – or perhaps he was keeping his spirits up with an orgy of lavish building works. A gothic-style dining room was added to Carlton House along with a library in the same style and a golden drawing room. Above is a detail of the Blue Velvet Room at Carlton House, a good example of the Regent’s lavish taste. At the same time John Nash was working on a “cottage” for the Regent in Windsor Great Park, a large and elaborate house the cottage orné style, with thatched roofs, verandas, and a conservatory. (It was demolished by William IV and the Royal Lodge now stands on the site). Nash was also working on further plans for the Pavilion at Brighton. Below is an example of the cottage orné style, although this is a much smaller example than Nash’s would have been. The drawing is from Ackermann’s Repository (November 1816)
The Whigs were attacking the head of the diplomatic corps, Lord Castlereagh, and, through him the Congress of Vienna, dominated by Russia, Prussia and Austria who, they said, were a threat to independent nations. Vociferously led by Samuel Whitbread they argued that Napoleon had the support of the French people and it was wrong to go to war simply because Britain did not like him. Whitbread argued that the Emperor was now peace-loving, Castlereagh countered that once he had assembled 400,000 troops it would soon become apparent how peace-loving he was.
The harassed government was faced with mobs on the streets protesting about the Corn Law, the Income Tax, the slave trade and the Prince Regent’s extravagance, but they finally decided that Napoleon was secure on the French throne and that war was inevitable. The Allied Treaty, signed at Vienna on 25th March, was laid before the House at last – if Parliament ratified it, it became a declaration of war. It was approved in the Lords by 156 votes to 44 and in the Commons by 331 to 92 on 25th May. War was now inevitable, the only question was – when?
The firebrand Samuel Whitbread fell strangely silent after this, his place as the radical leader taken by Francis Burdett and Henry Hunt. Whitbread may have been in financial difficulty and earlier in the month he had resigned his management of Drury Lane Theatre, in which he had invested a great deal of money.
At Drury Lane on the 24th, there was a benefit performance by Edmund Kean, announced as a never-before performed tragedy by Shakespeare. The newspapers the next day were respectful of Kean, but sarcastic about the play.
“MR KEAN took his benefit last night. A tragedy by SHAKESPEARE – “never acted” had been announced as the performance of the evening; but “insurmountable difficulties” opposing the execution of this design, (no great wonder, bye the bye, for what play, undoubtedly SHAKESPEARE’S, can we at this time of day, take upon ourselves to assert, had never been acted?) the tragedy of the “Revenge”, was substituted, and MR KEAN appeared for the first time as the representative of Zanga.”