George II was crowned King of Great Britain and Ireland on 11 October 1727 at Westminster Abbey.
History hasn’t been kind to the second Georgian monarch, in part because “in the memoirs of contemporaries such as Lord Hervey and Horace Walpole, George is depicted as a weak buffoon, governed by his wife and ministers” and many historians accepted this verdict. It was easy to do, since George was uncouth, had no interest in academics whatsoever, frugal when that was unbecoming in a sovereign, and didn’t have the gift of diplomatic double-speak to avoid giving offence.
Historians also didn’t give enough thought to the miseries of George’s family life in determining whether or not he was a difficult, ill-tempered man. His father, King George I, had imprisoned his mother, Sophia Dorothea of Celle, in 1695 and never let her see her children again. Little George, born 30 October 1683, was old enough to grieve for his loss yet young enough to be miserably confused about it. His father, a naturally reserved man, was unable to give the little boy the same kind of affection and attention his mother had.
Then, when George’s father became King George I and left Hanover for London in the autumn of 1714, he forced George and Caroline of Ansbach to leave their only son, Frederick, in Hanover. Fredrick was only seven years old at the time, and it would another 14 years before his parents would able to see him again.
Worse, King George I also kept control over Prince George’s other children, his daughters Anne, Amelia, and Caroline. After a dispute during the christening of Prince George’s second son, Prince George William, King George banished Prince George and Caroline from St James’s Palace and they were forbidden to see their daughters and infant son. The couple were smuggled into the palace by sympathetic courtiers to see the children they missed so deeply, whereupon Caroline fainted from excess emotion and George “cried like a child”.
Under pressure of public opinion, King George I allowed Caroline unlimited access to her offspring a few weeks later, but Prince George was only allowed to see them once a week as punishment for his ‘disrespect’ to the king. Tragically, the tiny George William died at just three months old. Although Prince George had been allowed to be with his infant son when the baby died, he never forgave his father for separating them, and blamed the king for the baby’s death.
I cannot say I would have felt differently, in Prince George’s shoes.
Bitterly enraged by his father’s behavior regarding the royal grandchildren, Prince George understandably did everything he could to make his father’s life harder. This meant he worked against his father’s policies even when his own reign would indicate he had agreed with the policies in reality.
King George finally decided that antagonizing Prince George was not the wisest course of action, and although Prince George and Caroline had to allow their eldest three daughters to remain at St James with the king, they were able to see them often and to keep their youngest three children, William, Mary and Louisa, with them at Leicester House and Richmond Lodge. In turn, Prince George stayed out of politics and did nothing more to openly or publically thwart his father.
When Prince George became King George II in 1727, one of the first thing he did was send for his eldest son, Frederick. Regrettably, this was not the joyful reunion he had hoped for. Frederick, now a 21 year old man who had been the highest ranking person in Hanover, was headstrong and almost immediately began giving his father grief. Frederick was probably profoundly angry with his parents for ‘abandoning’ him, but without the advantage of modern psychology he probably couldn’t even put his resentment into words or understand his knee-jerk reactions to his father’s overtures.’
Compounding the issue, George II and Frederick had very different personal traits. Frederick was as spendthrift as his father was penny-pinching, which led to public fights about Frederick’s allowance. Frederick was extroverted and fond of partying, whereas George II preferred privacy and family life. Fredrick liked the arts, theater, gambling, and city life while his father preferred hunting and the countryside. Soon, Frederick was the locus of political opposition to his father, just as George II had been when he was Prince of Wales.
The biggest kerfuffle came when Frederick broke royal protocol during the birth of his first child by loading his wife, Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, “who was in labour, into a coach and driving off in the middle of the night”. This wasn’t just a family matter – there were supposed to be official witnesses to the birth of the potential heir to the throne, including the king and queen. George had little choice but to punish Fredrick for his rash insolence, and banished Frederick and Augusta from St James Palace and court. Nevertheless, George allowed Frederick to retain custody of his newborn daughter, Princess Augusta, rather than subject his son to the pain he had suffered from being separated from his children.
The worst thing that George II did to Fredrick was to deny him the chance to say goodbye to his dying mother. As far as the king was concerned, Frederick had show such cruelty in keeping the queen away from the birth of little Princess Augusta that he didn’t deserve to be at her deathbed.
On a personal level, George was destroyed by the death of his wife on 20 November 1737. The king had mistresses throughout his marriage, but monogamy and love are not the same word for a reason, and he had remained emotionally faithful to Caroline. He had also considered her intelligent, and trusted her judgment in political matters, for which he was mocked and lampooned. (A smart woman? Stupid man!) The king refused to remarry after he lost Caroline, even though he outlived her by more than 20 years.
The biggest event of George II’s reign was the 1745 rebellion by the Jacobites, when Charles Edward Stuart, known as Bonnie Prince Charlie or the Young Pretender, landed with an invasion force in Scotland to attempt to reclaim the British throne. The Jacobites, including many Catholic Scotsmen, were successful at the outset of the insurrection, defeating the British at the Battle of Prestonpans before moving south across the boarder into England. There was widespread panic throughout England, and rumors abounded claiming the bloodthirsty Scots were coming into London to raze it to the ground.
The Jacobites cause faltered in heavily Prostant Engliand, however, and their French allies did not send the promised reinforcements. On 16 April 1746, King George’s second surviving son, Prince William, Duke of Cumberland, vanquished the remaining Jacobite army at the Battle of Culloden, “the last pitched battle fought on British soil”. Charles escaped to France, but his followers were massacred by Cumberland’s troops.
Cumberland was initially lauded for saving England from the Scots, but when word got out that he was brutalizing the residents of Scotland in what is now recognized as an attempted genocide, he was reviled as Billy the Butcher even in London. His slaughter of women and children made him a monster in the eyes of even the most loyal Protestant Englishman, and destroyed his political credibility.
The Hanoverian rule was secure on the throne, but personal tragedy was still to come for King George. Prince Frederick, who had turned into a countryside-loving family man like his father, died suddenly of a pulmonary embolism on 31 March 1751.
Shortly before Christmas of that same year, George’s youngest child, Louise, Queen of Denmark and Norway, died at age 27 from complications of a miscarriage. Rumor and contemporary reports indicated the George, in spite of some early weeping, was unmoved by their deaths. This does not take into account how intensely private the king was with his emotions, and how unwilling he was to make a public display of his mourning. People had supposed that he didn’t really care that much about his wife, but her death had clearly devastated him.
Fredrick’s eldest son, Prince George, became the heir apparent to the British crown after his father’s death and was created the Prince of Wales in April of 1751. George II, who was kept deliberately distant from his grandson by his estranged son Fredrick, was accused of having ignored Prince George prior to his becoming the immediate heir. This is, I think, unfair since the king had little opportunity to spend time with his grandchildren as long as Frederick was alive.
King George II died unexpectedly in the early morning of 25 October 1760 as the result of an aortic aneurysm. He was buried on 11 November in Westminster Abbey, and in spit of his reputation for cold-heartedness, he “left instructions for the sides of his and his wife’s coffins to be removed so that their remains could mingle”. Obviously, in the case of George II, still waters ran deep and covered a hidden wealth of sentiment and love.
He had reigned for 33 years, to almost no acclaim. Nevertheless, he was a better king than people generally think. Elizabeth Montagu, a noted Regency intellectual, praised the late king, pointing out that, “With him our laws and liberties were safe, he possessed in a great degree the confidence of his people and the respect of foreign governments … His character would not afford subject for epic poetry, but will look well in the sober page of history.”
And so it does.