As David Starkey writes, “For much of the eighteenth century, the monarchy veered between deep unpopularity and a national joke” (420). The new “Georgian” age lacked the conquests of the Plantagenets, the wild religious extremism of the Tudors and the Stuarts, and all the industriousness and sophistication of the Victorians. It was an age of liberty, new ideas, Georgian-style architecture (in contrast to the ornate French style) and the rise of the novel. The power of the monarchy was in decline but under the careful administration of a clutch of “cabinet” ministers, Britain became a more liberal and cosmopolitan empire. The last gasp of the Stuarts had ended with the death of Queen Anne, and in order to avoid the threat of a despotic Catholic monarch (per the Act of Succession) the crown skipped numerous blood relatives and was handed down to the House of Hanover, the ruling family of a remote German principate. The Hanoverian Georgians believed themselves to be the true fulfillment of the promise of William of Orange’s “Glorious Revolution.”
Georg Ludwig, elector of Hanover and Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg, preferred the quiet life of his German homeland to the hustle-bustle of Great Britain. He was born in 1660, the eldest son of the Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg. George much preferred to remain in the company of his German friends and two Turkish servants: Mustapha and Mahomet. His chief interests lay in equestrianism, women (he maintained several mistresses), and food (upon arrival in London he brought with him 18 cooks but only 1 washerwoman). George was the great-grandson of James I through James’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth. He would have been fiftieth in line to the crown if not for the infamous Act of Settlement in 1701 which prevented Catholics from attaining the succession. With the Act of Settlement George’s mother Sophia was suddenly next in line to the crown of Britain, however she died shortly before Queen Anne, so the kingship fell to her son George. When he succeeded the throne George made almost no effort to understand the language and customs of England, and after his coronation at Westminster Abbey in 1714 he spent as much time as possible away from Britain in his native Hanover. He was known to his British subjects as “Turnip-Hoer,” a title which came from his sudden closure of St. James Park in order to cultivate a private garden. It was also a colloquial reference to George being a cuckold and a foreigner. In the future rumors emerged that George’s own son was illegitimate (the future George II).
Many years prior, George had visited England in 1680 as a prospective suitor for Queen Anne but their mutual un-attraction ended his travels. George returned home and married his 16-year old cousin, a lively but naive woman named Sophia Dorothea of Celle. It was not a happy marriage. The years were filled with long antipathy and mutual loathing. At some point in the 1690s Sophia began an affair with a Swedish soldier named Count Philip Konigsmark. Then in 1694 the Count mysteriously disappeared (he is widely believed to have been murdered by George). George promptly divorced his wife and Sophia was then imprisoned for her remaining 32 years at the Castle of Ahlden. She was prohibited from seeing her children and from having any outside visitors until her death in 1726. Her scandal was titillating to the aristocratic minds of Europe -it was discussed at every court in Europe and the controversy dogged George long into his kingship of Great Britain.
By the time George had arrived in Britain, however, his marital scandal was many years passed. He was 54 years old when he became King of England and had grown accustomed to the well-ordered despotism of Hanover, rather than the messy Parliamentary system of Britain. He first landed on the British shores at Greenwich on September 18, 1714. Winston Churchill describes the scene as follows: “Now on the banks of the Thames he looked upon the nobles and Ministers who had come to greet him with suspicion and wariness, not unmingled with contempt. Here on English soil stood an unprepossessing figure, an obstinate and humdrum German martinet with dull brains and coarse tastes” (420).
We might say “apathetic tolerance” was the mood that characterized the era. Daniel Defoe praised the end of the “useless” Queen Anne’s reign, though she was replaced by an aloof foreigner who was openly mocked by his own people. The ruling passions of the seventeenth century had thankfully passed, and with them went the royal pretenses of the “divine right of kings.” Instead the Hanoverians ruled by the express sanction of Parliament -George was invited to rule at the behest of Parliament and presumably he could also be removed according to the whims of Parliament. The King was content not to raise a stir, and the people were happy to ignore their mostly frivolous king. Dowdiness and overt materialism ruled the day while Parliament and a clutch of ministers led by the Whigs vied for power. In fact a new generation of Whigs had replaced the old, the era of King William’s wars had ended under Wharton, Montagu, Burnet, Somers, and John Churchill the Duke Marlborough. The old guard was replaced by a new crop of men including Walpole, Stanhope, Carteret, and Townshend. The most important of these men was Sir Robert Walpole, a lumbering tower of a man from a prominent Norfolk family. He had risen through the ranks in the House of Commons, but not without his own share of scandals (he was at one point imprisoned in the Tower himself for a financial scandal). Walpole curried favor with the king while ascending through the Treasury before he became the kingdom’s first “prime minister” -originally a pejorative phrase ascribed to Walpole by the Tories. He is considered by most today to be the first Prime Minister of Great Britain. Here we see a “cabinet” government first beginning to emerge as power was transferred from the monarch to his ministers. George happily handed power down to his Whig ministers and since Walpole did not speak German the king spoke mainly in Latin to his prime minister. The Whigs were the party of choice for George because the Tories supported the Jacobites under James Francis Stuart, the son of the deposed James II (popularly referred to as the “Old Pretender”).
Despite the ascendance of the Whigs and their alliance with the king, George remained deeply unpopular in his new kingdom. In this milieu of royal antagonism, Scottish Jacobites saw their chance. A rebellion broke out and the “Old Pretender” returned yet again but the revolt was a bungled effort from the outset. The would-be usurper quickly abandoned his soldiers and fled back to France again. It led to a number of treason charges and several executions. Following this botched calamity, George’s reign was mostly free from Jacobite challenge and the power of the Tories was greatly diminished.
The Whigs continued their half century of rule thanks to the Tory capitulation to France in William’s wars while still clinging to their declining Jacobite sympathies. The next challenge to George’s kingship came from his own son, George Augustus the Prince of Wales (the future George II). It was a familial split that nearly divided the Whigs. The prince became the focal point of resistance to George I, and tensions were heightened until the king staged a magnificent demonstration over the Thames to the tune of Handel’s Water Music (composed just for the occasion). Walpole later astutely orchestrated a public familial reconciliation, but mutual contempt between father and son was to become a staple of the Georgian line.
The final crisis of George’s reign was the South Sea Bubble, a stock market crash in 1720 concerning financial speculation in the South Sea Company. The South Sea Company had been a product of the Wars of Spanish Succession, in which Britain gained control of global trade (particularly a forty-year monopoly on the slave trade negotiated by the Tories). William of Orange’s Glorious Revolution brought with it a new national bank and a stock market for willing investors. The downsides to the new system were the cycles of boom and bust, and the South Sea Bubble was the mother of all busts. The opening of the Royal Exchange allowed people to trade shares of the South Sea Company and the gentry flocked to the trading floor searching for sound investments to park their capital. However trouble emerged when the South Sea Company negotiated a deal to acquire Britain’s national debt in exchange for equity. It was a classic example of an early financial bubble: there was widespread confidence in the purchase of stock, investors flocked to park whatever assets they owned in the company no matter how high the price of the stock rose. In time, the price was drastically inflated, and in the end optimism plateaued and collapsed. Many investors lost their fortunes, save for Walpole who had invested wisely by buying the stock at its lowest point and cashing out at its highest. Once again it was Walpole who outshined the king, and the king was popularly blamed for the financial crisis.
George died in Hanover in 1727 of a stroke, unmourned in his foreign land. His son George Augustus was crowned King George II in 1727, and Prime Minister Walpole was invited to remain at his post, the first and longest serving Prime Minister at over twenty years.
For this reading I used Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples, David Starkey’s Crown and Country, and Peter Ackroyd’s Revolution: The History of England From The Battle of the Boyne To The Battle of Waterloo.