In the summer of 1727 George I died while fittingly on holiday in his beloved kingdom of Hanover. The crown was left to his first-born son, George Augustus Prince of Wales. Like his father before him, George II was a stolid man. Today, both men are remembered mainly as pig-headed dullards, renowned for their mutual disgust of one another. George II was a soldier through and through -he was the last English King to lead his troops in battle at Dettingen in 1743- and he had little taste for the arts (or “boets and bainters” as he called them) despite a lifelong love of music, particularly the works of Handel and donating the royal library to the British Museum which was founded during his reign. During his long kingship, Britain expanded its colonial and mercantile interests far and wide from India to the American colonies, however through it all George II was merely the pawn of his more capable ministers.
As a boy growing up in Germany, George was likely a lonely child. He had one sister who was four years his junior, Sophia, and when his mother was locked away in the Castle Ahlden as punishment for her infidelities, George never saw her again though he carried her portrait wherever he went. In 1705, George married a formidable woman, Caroline of Ansbach. She was as beautiful as she was intelligent, and her keen intellect was of great aid to her husband during his kingship. Throughout their marriage she tolerated his unquenchable sexual appetites for a rotating cohort of mistresses, but tragically Caroline died of a uterine rupture in 1737 after having borne eight children, many of whom were married into the best European families.
Throughout his father’s reign in Britain, George fils was constantly out of favor with his father. His insulting and calloused demeanor often cost him his father’s affection. At one point he was denied the interim role as regent while the king was away in Hanover (a gift George II would later bestow upon his own son as well), at another point he was threatened with imprisonment for his recalcitrance. It also didn’t help that George père despised his son’s wife, calling her ‘cette diabelsse Madame la Princesse’ (“this she-devil, Madame the Princess”). The elder king banished his son and daughter-in-law from St. James Palace, so George took up residence at Leicester Palace, but the younger George still managed to find support among the Parliamentary opposition in a clutch of the king’s ministers, particularly Viscount Townshend and Prime Minister Robert Walpole (the latter was rumored to have had an affair with the future Queen).
At any rate, despite being shunned by his father and under fear that the Tories might support a reversal of fortunes for the Jacobites, immediately after his father’s death George II was crowned king in 1727 at the age of 43 at Westminster Abbey. It was a magnificent ceremony intended to indicate redirection away from the dour Hanoverian rule of his late father (in truth, George II’s reign would dwell even more on the foreign kingdom of Hanover). The coronation ceremony featured the music of Handel, Zadoc the Priest and Nathan the Prophet crowned Solomon King, which would later become a feature of all future coronation ceremonies.
When George II acceded the throne, the question of who would fill the role of Prime Minister was paramount. Robert Walpole, England’s first and longest serving Prime Minister, was the top candidate as a carryover from George I’s reign, however George II was unimpressed with his father’s chosen minister. Nevertheless Walpole did not give up. When his efforts with the king yielded little, he ingratiated himself with the Queen and proved himself an able minister. He astutely managed the system of royal patronage, and secured himself a stable base of support for the king amidst the noisy, rancorous halls of Parliament. It was the golden age of the Whig party rule and Walpole still had a large following in the House of Commons. He orchestrated Parliamentary support for a larger personal income for George II than his father was allotted. This was enough to secure Walpole’s favor with the king. He flattered Queen Caroline, and the two were able to persuade the stultified king by steering him toward Walpole’s administrative policies. Thus, in effect, Walpole governed the country. Whereas the Whigs had been the party of war, Walpole made every effort to lobby for peace but alas as the years wore on it was not enough. The king wished to protect his home country of Hanover, while Walpole hoped to restore the nation’s finances after Marlborough’s wars. But prevention efforts fell short, the mood had shifted toward war.
Prime Minister Walpole, the towering man who was the first to grace #10 Downing Street, eventually fell from favor. Amidst the growng outcry for war, Walpole was unable to form a stable government and he resigned in 1742. Three years later, deprived of his vitalizing employment, Britain’s first Prime Minister was dead and a new war descended upon Europe. It was to be known as the War of The Austrian Succession (1740-1748). It began with two new royal leaders on the Continent: the accession of Frederick II (or “Frederick The Great”) in the German principate of Prussia, and Maria Theresa, daughter of the late Hapsburg Emperor Charles VI, from whom she inherited Austria, Bohemia, Hungary, and the Southern Netherlands. Despite her legitimate claim to these lands, Frederick the Great seized the Austrian province of Silesia with the support of France. Britain found itself ostensibly fighting to support Maria Theresa as George II became the last English monarch to lead his troops in battle. He led a combination of English armed forces, alongside Hessian and Danish mercenaries (he called it the “Pragmatic Army”) which he unilaterally stationed in Hanover to fight the coming French army and they won a spectacular victory. It was also the first British victory on the Continent since the days of Marlborough.
However, victory was short-lived. At home there was turnover among his ministers and popular opinion swayed against the king who was perceived to be merely defending the interests of Hanover rather than those of his British subjects. Meanwhile abroad the seed of James II stirred. The Old Pretender’s son, Charles Edward Stuart or “Bonnie Prince Charlie” (also known as The Young Pretender) launched a foolhardy invasion of England in attempt to restore the Stuart succession. It began by rousing the Scottish clansmen in 1745, but it never gained much more traction as he failed to secure the support of France. Still, he pushed forward with a haphazard invasion of England, making it as far as Derby, but his band of soldiers was swiftly cut down by a force led by William Augustus duke of Cumberland (second son of George II) who hunted down and mutilated all invading soldiers in his path, thus earning him the moniker “the butcher.” Somehow the Young Pretender managed to escape the onslaught. He fled to the coast in disguise, island hopping his way across the British isles, and eventually stowing away aboard a French frigate crossing the Channel. Any lingering European Jacobite support now dissipated, and the Young Pretender spent the next several decades of his life draining fine bottles of wine and dreaming of what might have been had he succeeded in reclaiming the Stuart line of kings. Winston Churchill called it “one of the most audacious and irresponsible enterprises in British history” (432).
As a soldierly man, George favored his second son William Augustus duke of Cumberland to lead the nation’s defenses, over his older son, Frederick Prince of Wales, whom he despised. As would become standard for the Hanoverians, father and son mutually despised one another. However Frederick later died prematurely when struck by a cricket ball in 1751. His death was followed later that year with the death of one of the king’s daughters, Louisa. Meanwhile the war on the Continent raged onward. The 1740s saw crushing losses for Britain against France at Fontenoy under the leadership of the king’s second and favorite son, William Augustus, and eventually ended with the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748. Little was gained, but the 1750s hailed another, more expansive war between France and England.
Domestically, after the fall of Robert Walpole, there was a cluster of ministers who rose to prominence: Henry Pelham, First Lord of the Treasury; his brother Thomas Pelham-Holles the duke of Newcastle, a long-serving Secretary of State; and Lord Carteret, a German-speaking sycophant and a warmongering confidant of the king. Spencer Compton 1st earl of Wilmington is often considered the second Prime Minister but he died in 1743 shortly after assuming the role, so the next Prime Minister was to be Henry Pelham who governed until his death in 1754, and the Prime Ministership fell to Thomas Pelham-Holles the duke of Newcastle and William Cavendish, 4th Duke of Devonshire. It was an era known as the “Whig supremacy” as the anti-Walpole faction of the Whigs gained power. The greatest of all these men was William Pitt the Elder 1st earl of Chatham (his son William Pitt the Younger also became Prime Minister during the reign of George III).
In his elder years, the activities of the crown were managed by most able ministers including the duke of Newcastle and especially William Pitt the Elder. In particular, they were proponents of The Seven Years’ War (1756-1763 known as The French and Indian War in America). By now George was 73 and unable to lead his men in battle, however he lived long enough to see the “year of victories” in 1759 but not the end of the war. His favorite son William Augustus had fallen out of his favor, and instead William Pitt the Elder became the man of the hour.
David Starkey calls William Pitt the Elder “the most remarkable politician of the age” (428). His grandfather was a tough, irascible East India merchant named Thomas ‘Diamond’ Pitt (so named for a precious diamond he acquired in India, known as Pitt’s Diamond, which today sits on display in the Louvre). In his political rise Pitt the Elder joined the opposition party to Walpole. He was an extraordinary orator who sometimes succumbed to extreme fits of physical and mental health ailments, the likes of which were cured by his tender and devoted wife. Coming from a line of international commercial men, Pitt supported global British dominance, international trade, and the means to achieve these ends through a powerful navy. This was sure to cause friction with the king who was a known devotee of the army infantrymen rather than the navy. In the 1750s the war with France spread far and wide from the West Indies and Africa, to India and Canada. George II was held hostage to the machinations of his ministers, once famously bemoaning “Ministers are Kings in this Country. Per David Starkey, “when it began [The Seven Years’ War], Britain was one of two or three leading European powers. When it ended, she was all powerful and mistress of the first empire to stretch across four continents” (433). Neither George nor Pitt would live to see such an empire. In the expansion of The Seven Years’ War, Pitt had managed to unite the factious colonies against the prospect of a vast French colonial Empire stretching from Montreal to New Orleans, but little did he know it was prelude to the American Revolution.
Of Pitt and The Seven Years’ War Winston Churchill writes: “The whole struggle depended on the energies of this one man. He gathered all power, financial, administrative, and military, into his own hands. He could work with no one as an equal. His position depended entirely on success in the field. His political enemies were numerous… Pitt did not confine himself to a single field of operations. By taking the initiative in every quarter of the globe Britain prevented the French from concentrating their forces, confused their plan of campaign, and forced them to dissipate their strength. Unless France were beaten in Europe as well as in the New World and in the East she would rise again. Both in North America and in Europe she was the ascendant… War with France would be a world war – the first in history; and the prize would be something more than a rearrangement of frontiers and a redistribution of fortresses and sugar islands” (439).
Pitt was a most extraordinary man, often remembered fondly as one of Britain’s greatest prime ministers. He earned the admiration of all, from the middle classes, the cities, the rising mercantilists in the towns, and the countrymen when he declined to receive any payment beyond his salary. He refused a title for many years earning him the respect of the lower classes and the nickname “The Great Commoner.” He was an impassioned proponent of Britain’s military might. He pushed for victory over France in The Seven Years’ War, however in his graying years during the reign of George III, Pitt argued for a more conciliatory approach to the grievances leveled by the rebelling American colonies, but his sage advice fell on deaf ears in Parliament, and the colonies would soon be lost.
Legally the American colonies were subordinate to the crown, however beginning in the mid 17th century England was distracted with a civil war and battles on the Continent, so the colonies began to develop their own unique civil administrations independent on the mother country. These rough-and-tumble men formed representative political groups and grew to resent the English yoke. Their fathers preferred exile in America to tyranny in England between the Strafford and Charles I debacle, wars with France and Spain, and foreign royal families they did not respect. New York became a royal province in 1685, and New England was intended to rival regional French rule in Canada. The Navigation Act sought to restrict trade being managed in London by forbidding the colonies from trading with whomever they wished. It caused ongoing consternation among the colonists. The early 18th century saw the last of the thirteen English colonies established. Philanthropist James Oglethorpe witnessed the many people suffering in British debtors prison, and he believed they would be better suited as emigrants to The New World. Parliament was approached and the government devised an administration whereby debtors and other religious minorities were effectively shuffled to The New World to a region below South Carolina named after George II called “Georgia.” It began in the Savannah region. Religious tolerance was promoted, except for Catholics, and Jews came from mainland Europe as well as Protestants from the German provinces. It was here that John Wesley first began his ministry. However, the settlement soon fell to bickering, its denizens were drawn to rum and slaves, rather than the founding any sort of noble republic. Thus the settlement’s charter was revoked and it again fell under the jurisdiction of the crown. The inflow of Englishmen slowed to a trickle but refugees from Scotland and Ireland came in droves, fleeing low economic opportunities and oppressive bureaucracy and taxation. They formed the core of hatred for all things English. Elsewhere throughout the colonies came French Huguenots and German immigrants.
Of the growth of the American colonies, Winston Churchill offers the following remarks: “The oases of provincial life were linked up. The population was rapidly doubling itself. Limitless land to the West offered homes for the sons of the first generation. The abundance of territory to be occupied encouraged large families. Contact with primeval conditions created a new and daring outlook. A sturdy independent society was producing its own life and culture, influenced and colored by surrounding conditions. The Westward march had begun, headed by the Germans and the Irish in Pennsylvania. The slow trail over the mountains in search of new lands was opening. There was a teeming diversity of human types. In Kentucky and on the Western farms which bordered the Indian country were rugged pioneers and sturdy yeoman farmers, and in the New England colonies assertive merchants, lawyers, and squires, and the sons of traders. This varied society was supported in the North by the forced labour of indentured servants and men smuggled away from the press-gangs in English towns, in the South by a mass of slaves multiplied by yearly shiploads from Africa” (438-439).
Before the end of The Seven Years’ War George II met his demise in 1760. It was a morning like any other. He rose and drank his chocolate before heading to the toilet. While he was sitting on the water closet he experienced a sudden and violent rupture of his aortic chamber. It was said that his aorta exploded with such veracity that his attendants thought the king had broken wind. He died moments later, and the gruff and choleric 77-year-old king was succeeded by his fresh-faced, 22-year-old grandson, George III.
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.