[1813] - Leigh Hunt sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for libelling the Prince Regent

James Henry Leigh Hunt (1784–1859) was a poet, journalist and literary critic who was the founding editor of The Examiner, a liberal periodical, the first issue of which was printed on 3 January 1808. Dedicated to independent and impartial journalism, the newspaper campaigned relentlessly against corruption in public life. It expressed sympathy with the cause of Irish independence and Catholic emancipation, and strongly supported parliamentary reform. As a result, the paper soon attracted the attention of the government. In September 1810 Hunt was prosecuted for an article that condemned military flogging, but he was successfully defended from the charges against him in February 1811. A year later, however, Hunt launched a prolonged campaign against the Prince of Wales, who had been declared Regent in 1811. Hunt believed that the Prince Regent was a corrupt ruler whose habits would infect the nation at large. He printed a series of sharp satires, including Charles Lamb’s ‘The Triumph of the Whale’:

Io! Pæan! Io! sing
To the finny people’s King.
Not a mightier whale than this
In the vast Atlantic is;
Not a fatter fish than he
Flounders round the polar sea.
See his blubbers – at his gills
What a world of drink he swills,
From his trunk, as from a spout,
Which next moment he pours out.
Such his person – next declare,
Muse, who his companions are. –
Every fish of generous kind
Scuds aside, or slinks behind;
But about his presence keep
All the Monsters of the Deep;
Mermaids, with their tails and singing
His delighted fancy stinging;
Crooked Dolphins, they surround him,
Dog-like Seals, they fawn around him.
Following hard, the progress mark,
Of the intolerant salt sea shark.
For his solace and relief,
Flat fish are his courtiers chief.
Last and lowest in his train,
Ink-fish (libellers of the main)
Their black liquor shed in spite:
(Such on earth the things that write.)
In his stomach, some do say,
No good thing can ever stay.
Had it been the fortune of it,
To have swallowed that old Prophet,
Three days there he’d not have dwell’d,
But in one have been expell’d.
Hapless mariners are they,
Who beguil’d (as seamen say),
Deeming him some rock or island,
Footing sure, safe spot, and dry land,
Anchor in his scaly rind;
Soon the difference they find;
Sudden plumb, he sinks beneath them;
Does to ruthless seas bequeath them.
Name or title what has he?
Is he Regent of the Sea?
From this difficulty free us,
Buffon, Banks, or sage Linnæus.
With his wondrous attributes
Say what appellation suits.
By his bulk, and by his size,
By his oily qualities,
This (or else my eyesight fails),
This should be the PRINCE OF WHALES.
(The Examiner, 15 March 1812)

The article responsible for sending Hunt to jail was entitled ‘The Prince on St. Patrick’s Day’, published on 22 March 1812 with two epigrams written by Lamb. Here the Prince was described as ‘a violator of his word, a libertine over head and ears in debt and disgrace, a despiser of domestic ties, the companion of gamblers, and demireps, a man who has just closed half a century without one single claim on the gratitude of his country or the respect of posterity!’ (The Examiner, 22 March 1812, p. 179). As a result, Hunt and his brother John (The Examiner’s printer) were prosecuted for libel on 9 December 1812. On 3 February 1813 they were sentenced to imprisonment, fined £500 and required to pay a further £250 as a guarantee for their good behaviour. Hunt was imprisoned at Horsemonger Lane gaol, where he was joined by his wife and young son. He carefully decorated his cells, transforming them into a ‘bower’ with blue sky on the ceiling. Here he continued as editor of The Examiner, and was visited by many of the leading literary figures of the day. He was released on 3 February 1815.

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