The Georgian Era Begins!

On 1 August 1714 Queen Anne of Great Britain died of complications of a stroke, ending the Restoration period of British history. Her heir, Georg Ludwig, the Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg and the Elector of Hanover, became King George I

NPG 488; King George I

Thus began the Georgian era, which would last until the ascension of Queen Victoria in 1837.

Fate, it would seem, conspired to place George in the highest offices possible since the day of his birth. Seriously, so many people between him and astounding inheritances, including the throne of Great Britain, died unexpectedly that one can only assume his stars were proactively slaughtering people to make way for him. He may have been the luckiest son of a gun to have ever lived, vis-à-vis familial ascension.

He came into the world on 28 May 1660 in Hanover, the eldest son of Duke Ernest Augustus. George’s mother, Sophia of the Palatinate, was the Protestant the granddaughter of King James I of England through her mother, Elizabeth of Bohemia. Sophia wasn’t expected to ever reign in England however, since there were more than 50 other heirs between her and her grandfather’s throne, so young George was never taught speak English or to think of Britain as anything other than just another international power to be dealt with when he one day assumed the responsibilities of a Dukedom.

 

The first bewildering stroke of good fortune came to George when three paternal uncles died without male heirs, making the sons of Ernest Augustus heirs to the Duchy of CalenbergGöttingen as well  the Duchy of Brunswick-Lüneburg. The second stroke of good fortune came in 1682, when the Hanoverian family agreed to adopt primogeniture, so that George would inherit everything rather than sharing the lands and titles with his brothers, as his own father had done.

To smooth the way for primogeniture, George married his first cousin and the only child of his last surviving uncle, Sophia Dorothea of Celle. The marriage was a loveless one, but it luckily (of course!) produce a healthy son, George Augustus, in the autumn of 1683. A daughter, Sophia Dorothea of Hanover, was born March of 1687. The marriage suffered a severe estrangement shortly thereafter, and there no more pregnancies. George Ludwig’s luck spread to his children, since unlike many families of the time, both children thrived and lived until adulthood, both having several children of their own.

Sophie_Dorothea_ of Celle with children Prinzessin_von_Ahlden

More good fortune came George’s way in 1692, when his father was made an Elector of the Holy Roman Empire. George was now the sole heir to a united Hanoverian state and his father’s electorate.

There was only one area of life where George was not blessed — his marriage. Nonetheless, even that worked out well for him, thanks to the sexist laws of 17th century Europe. George was living openly with his mistress, Melusine von der Schulenburg, but when it became known that Sophia Dorothea was romantically involved with Swedish Count Philip Christoph von Königsmarck, George and his parents went after the lovers with metaphorical guns blazing:

According to diplomatic sources from Hanover’s enemies, in July 1694 the Swedish count was killed, possibly with the connivance of George … However, sources in Hanover itself, including Sophia, denied any knowledge of Königsmarck’s whereabouts. George’s marriage to Sophia Dorothea was dissolved, not on the grounds that either of them had committed adultery, but on the grounds that Sophia Dorothea had abandoned her husband. With the agreement of her father, George had Sophia Dorothea imprisoned in Ahlden House in her native Celle, where she stayed until she died more than thirty years later. She was denied access to her children and father, forbidden to remarry and only allowed to walk unaccompanied within the mansion courtyard. She was, however, endowed with an income, establishment, and servants, and was allowed to ride in a carriage outside her castle, albeit under supervision. Melusine von der Schulenburg acted as George’s hostess openly from 1698 until his death, and they had three daughters together, born in 1692, 1693 and 1701, respectively.

The loss of his mother is probably one of the main reasons that George Augustus, the future King George II of Great Britain, was bitterly antagonistic toward his father in later life. 

George_II_by_Thomas_Hudson

On 23 January 1698 Ernest Augustus died and George inherited his father’s titles. A mere 18 months later, on 30 July 1700, George’s distant cousin and the heir to the British throne, 11 year old Prince William, Duke of Gloucester, died unexpectedly and threw Great Britain into a crisis of succession.

There was a multitude of heirs that could have taken the throne, including Queen Anne’s half-brother, James Francis Edward Stuart, but they were all Catholic. Protestant England was determined to avoid ‘Popish’ nonsense, so Parliament passed the Act of Settlement in 1701 prohibiting Catholics from ever inheriting the crown. As a result of this Act, 56 Catholic heirs were passed over in favor of George’s widowed mother, the dowager Electress Sophia.

Sophie dowager Electress of Hanover

Sophia was considerably older that Queen Anne, and passed away at age 83 on 28 May 1714, leaving George the heir apparent of 49 year old Queen Anne. George did not have to wait long before Dame Fortune killed yet another relative to give him a title. Just a few weeks later Queen Anne had a stroke, preparing the way for King George I.

King_George_I_by_Sir_Godfrey_Kneller

The ascension of King George I caused a major brouhaha in Britain. English Catholics and many conservative Tories had wanted James Stuart, son of James II, to be king instead of some distant German duke. The Whigs were 100% behind their man George. Luckily for George (naturally) the Whigs won the general election of 1715 by a landslide and gave the majority of the political power to the king’s staunch ally, Sir Robert Walpole.

Angry Tories and Jacobites, acting on behalf of James Stuart, started a rebellion in Scotland soon after the Whigs came to power.  The rebellion was headed by Lord Mar, who was a dismal military commander. By the time James Stuart arrived to aid the rebels it was too late, even if the would-be king had been able to bring adequate supplies with him. James and Lord Mar fled to France in February 1716, leaving the Jacobites the mercy of King George. Happily, the new King was merciful. He encouraged leniency toward the surviving rebels and diverted the income from forfeited estates to aid Scotland.

George was actually a pretty good king. He was a progressive ruler who followed Enlightenment philosophies, trying to increase religious freedom in Britain and eschewing the severe censorship of his critics. He even gave noted atheist and anti-monarchial rabble-rouser Voltaire sanctuary in England after his Parisian exile in 1726. He was also astoundingly good with finances, and did his best to lessen British national debt.

These good deeds notwithstanding , George remained profoundly unpopular with his British subjects because he was seen as too German, and was believed to be unable to speak English, although documents from  later in his reign show that he had learned the language fluently. He was also unfairly thought to be a bit beef-headed, because he was so stiff at public events. Many courtiers thought him tedious and dull, and his reserved nature disgusted them. His treatment of his estranged wife appalled the British public. His clear-headed reasoning was called cynicism, and his fiscal prudently was disparaged as miserly. The only potential monarch the British seemed to like less than George of Hanover was Catholic James Stuart.

Unappreciated and unloved by his subjects outside continental Europe, King George I died on 11 June 1727. He was succeeded by his son, George II, but no Hanoverian would approach such levels of unpopularity again until the Prince Regent, George IV. At least THAT George deserved his subjects’ disdain.

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