Nicola here, talking today about those elements of the London Season that feature in Regency historicals and are still going strong today. A photograph in the paper last week reminded me that although in many ways we have moved on from the Regency period in the UK (no climbing boys and a ban on fox hunting, for example), one aspect at least of the social life of the time is alive and well and that's The Season.
The photograph that reminded me of this was a picture of the Royal family watching the Trooping the Colour. Whilst you don’t see this mentioned in many Georgian or Regency-set historicals, this is actually a tradition of British infantry regiments that dates back to the 17th century. The ceremony arose out of the custom of using a regiment’s colours, or flags, as rallying points on a battlefield and takes place annually in June on Horse Guards Parade by St James’ Park. It was first held in the early 18th century and I imagine it would have been quite a show for the London crowds. The picture is quite interesting because when I first saw it I thought it was an old painting – then I saw the London Eye in the background!
According to Debretts, the season runs from April to August, concluding on August 12th when members of society return to their country houses for the start of the shooting season. Before the hunting ban was introduced, fox hunting was the traditional sport of the winter and then everyone went back to London in the spring and the whole thing started up again.
The concept of the London season started in the 17th century. The English gentry and aristocracy viewed their country house as their home but spent a number of months in London both for political and social purposes. (The season in Scotland was an entirely different matter and did not run to the same schedule). The season was intended to co-incide with the sitting of parliament since members of parliament were the same people who took part in London’s social scene. And of course one of the main focuses of the season was for the sons and daughters of the most eligible families in the country to make advantageous marriages. It could cost up to £120,000 in today’s money to launch a debutante into society.
Although historical romance has often featured places such as Almacks or the theatre, or pleasure gardens such as Ranelagh as the centres of entertainment in the 18th and 19th centuries, the most exclusive events were always the ones held in the town houses of the aristocracy. Invitations to these were the most coveted. It’s interesting though that places like Ranelagh still have a connection to the London season. These days it is where Chelsea Flower Show takes place, which is one of the highlights of the modern social calendar.
Out of curiosity I also looked up which other events of the Georgian and Regency season would still be recognisable to people today. Whilst the presentation at court was abolished in 1958 and there are fewer aristocratic balls around, a number of events are still going strong. One of these is the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, which was founded in 1768. It attracted such great artists as Gainsborough, Reynolds, Turner and Constable, and was and still is one of the most fashionable events to attend. I featured the exhibition in one of my books, Mistress by Midnight.
Another element of the season was the horse racing. Royal Ascot, one of Europe's most famous race meetings, dates back to 1711 when it was founded by Queen Anne. Queen Elizabeth II continues the tradition of attending with other members of the Royal family and arrives each day in a horse drawn carriage. The day’s racing is preceded by the raising of the royal standard. The Derby and the Cheltenham Gold Cup are also race meetings that date from the Georgian and Regency periods respectively although the dress code is rather different these days.
Then there are the water-based events, the Henley Regatta and Cowes Week. The Yacht Club was founded in 1815 in St James’s by 42 gentlemen who were interested in sea yachting. In 1817 the Prince Regent became a member and it was agreed to meet twice yearly in Cowes. The first race was held in 1826 with the prize of a “gold cup of the value of £100.”
If all this sporting activity seems too energetic, there is always the Queen Charlotte’s Ball, which dates back to 1780 and was established by King George III and named for his wife. This annual May ball ceased in 1976 amidst rumours of drug-taking and wild behaviour; not at all appropriate for the descendants of those young ladies who had made their debut at George III’s court. The ball was revived in 2013 though. Some good old traditions keep coming back!
Now over to you. If you were given a choice of the season's events to attend, which would be your favourite? Sailing? Looking at art? Dancing? Or would you like to introduce some new and different events to the London season?