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While Constable was sketching in the depths of Suffolk, dramatic news was breaking in the outside world. The king had gone mad, and power went to his fashionable son the Prince Regent; the prime minister was shot in parliament; the long war against Napoleon continued with disastrous consequences for the British economy. It was a year of three-day weeks, riots and the waltz.
By the beginning of 1812 Britain had been at war against Napoleon for the best part of 20 years. In all this time, she had totally failed to break French domination of the continent. Again and again she had encouraged other European nations to challenge French supremacy, only to see them defeated and reduced to the status of satellite kingdoms under the overlordship of the Emperor Napoleon.
Now at last there seemed to be hope. Friction between Napoleon and the Tsar Alexander looked like dragging France into an exhausting war with Russia. Nearer home a British army under Wellington was breaking out from bridgeheads in Portugal to begin an invasion of Spain. In domestic affairs, too, change was in the air. King George III had lapsed into permanent insanity and power had passed to his son the Prince Regent the leader of fashion and an outspoken critic of his father's conservative attitudes.
In London, however, the year began in gloom. January brought some of the darkest days the capital had ever known. Shops and public offices had to be lit throughout what should have been the daylight hours and it proved impossible to read a newspaper, even at an open window, without artificial light.
Persons in the streets', it was reported, 'could scarcely be seen in the forenoon at two yards distance'. In the House of Commons, as the darkness deepened, prophets of doom gained the upper hand. A brace of radical Whigs proposed an Address to the Regent alleging that the country was on the brink of total collapse. The Tory government's stubborn determination to wage economic warfare against Napoleon was disastrous.
There was some truth in the charges. By cutting off all trade with Napoleon's fortress Europe, the government was under-mining the very prosperity upon which any kind of war must depend. Many industrial areas had been working a three-day week for months past and starving labourers were taking the law into their own hands. Riots had become commonplace some of them apparently orchestrated by the semi-legendary figure of Ned Ludd, who issued proclamations from his 'office' in the depths of Sherwood Forest.
The only hope seemed to lie in the Regent. So far he had been prevented by law from making permanent changes in the government, but many people believed that when this limitation was removed he would throw out the Tories and form a new administration to bring back peace and prosperity. Their hopes were dashed. The restrictions on the Regent's power were removed in February, but no change came.
Then in May the Prime Minister was assassinated and the Commons passed a vote of censure on his Tory successor and forced him to resign. Still the Regent would not move. The Tories came back, the war continued, the portents of disaster, both man-made and heaven-sent, grew more ominous.
In the Channel the Royal Navy was hit by an unprecedented electric storm which 'shivered masts from end to end' and killed or wounded many sailors. In London the road tunnel newly dug at Highgate fell in with a terrifying roar workmen said they had been waiting for it to happen, because of the poor quality of the bricks they were forced to use and in the West Country there was an earthquake. The weather grew so bitter that when the London to Bath stagecoach arrived in Chip-penham two of the passengers were found to be stone dead and a third 'with faint signs of animation left, died the following morning.
The Regent and his ministers clung doggedly to their policies of war and repression. The only hopeful sign was the attendance of three of the Prince Regent's brothers at a meeting held in May 'to consider the distressed state of the labouring poor'. All that resulted, however, was the opening of a subscription fund and the appointment of a committee.
Napoleon for his part had relaxed a ban on the import of goods into Europe, so that British manufacturers were starting to re-cover old markets and pick up more business, but the British still sought to starve the continent into submission. The news-papers noted with some satisfaction the straits to which the foreigners had been reduced: a mill in Copenhagen to grind down bones and make 'a nourishing broth', and attempts in Germany to make sugar substitutes out of apples, turnips and the bark of trees.
In August observers along the Channel coast were alarmed by freak tides caused, the experts decided, 'by some great convulsion of Nature'. Then it was learned that at Giessen in Ger-many, at the very heart of Napoleon's Europe, a twelve-acre wood had sunk deep into the earth, leaving 'a frightful chasm'. Coincidentally, a national day of prayer and thanksgiving was held in Britain when this sinister abyss was at its deepest, before the wood began equally inexplicably to rise up again.
'Of thy great mercy', the British prayed, 'open the eyes of our blinded and infatuated enemies, that they may see and under-stand the wickedness they are working.' But there was no sign that the prayer had been heard. On the contrary, the French and their satellites succeeded in importing into Britain one of their most shameless dances, the waltz. 'It wakes to wantonness the willing limbs' wrote Byron, while outraged moralists condemned the new dance roundly and delighted caricaturists showed ballrooms full of couples doing rather more than dancing to the music.
The rich and the powerful went on dancing but the war they were waging was now neither successful nor popular. Wellington fell back from Spain into Portugal and when the Regent drove to open Parliament he was greeted by a sullen silence in the London streets. Then at last in December came news of the destruction of Napoleon's armies in Russia, 'the most memorable reverse in history'. It was to prove the beginning of the end of the French Emperor's power.
Writer – Marshall Cavendish