Monday, September 19, 2016

Monarch Profile: King George I of Great Britain & Ireland

His Highness Georg Ludwig, Duke of Brunswick-Lueneburg was born on May 28, 1660, the eldest son of Ernest Augustus, Elector of Hanover and his wife Sophia of the Palatinate. The first son born to the Hanoverian ruling family in some time, he was mostly raised alongside his younger brother and was known as a very serious little boy, responsible and who established himself early on as the leader of his younger siblings. He gained many lofty titles in quick succession as his childless uncles passed away but the grandest title he stood to came originated some distance from his flat, beloved lands of meandering rivers in northern Germany. His mother, known as Sophie of Hanover, was the daughter of Elizabeth of Bohemia, who was the daughter of King James I of England. As they were Protestants, in 1701 the English Parliament passed a new Act of Succession which stated that, “the most excellent Princess Sophia, Electress and Dowager Duchess of Hanover, daughter of Elizabeth, late Queen of Bohemia, daughter of James I, shall be next in succession to the Crown” after the Stuart Queen Anne.

For the young George, however, that seemed a remote a distant possibility. He was raised entirely with the intention of being Elector of Hanover and no more. His father feared his son would have to fight to keep his inheritance and stressed his military education, taking his teenage son on campaign with him during the Franco-Dutch War in which the German empire backed the Dutch republic against King Louis XIV of France. In 1682 he married his first cousin (another effort to secure the family fortune) Sophia Dorothea of Celle and the following year George and his brother Frederick Augustus fought with the Austrians against the Turks at the Battle of Vienna while his wife gave birth to a son and heir, George Augustus, whom his father would thoroughly despise. Family feuding meant that George spent a great deal of time fighting for and trying to gain favor with the Hapsburg Emperor and powerful figures in Germany as they tried to unite the Hanoverian lands into a single state under his control. In 1692 his father was formally made an Elector of the Holy Roman (German) Empire and this went a long way to securing the position of George due to the previous passage of primogeniture.

After the birth of another child, a daughter, the family life of George fell apart, if it had ever been real in the first place. George took a succession of mistresses but when his wife did the same with a Swedish aristocrat, the man was eventually murdered and George himself did not escape suspicion. Their marriage was dissolved and George had his wife placed under house arrest and was not allowed to see her children, which certainly could not have helped the father-son relationship between George and George Augustus which would become extremely bad. However, in 1698 George’s father passed away and he became the ruler of Hanover and a Prince-Elector of the Empire. He made his court quite an attraction with a palace described as a smaller-scale Versailles and which was frequented by numerous prestigious intellectuals and artistic figures. The security of Hanover was, undoubtedly, George’s top priority but in 1710 he did send an agent to London, Baron von Bothmar, to represent his interests in the matter of the British succession. The idea that he would actually become King of England and Scotland was not really secured until the death of Queen Anne and the work of her minister the Duke of Shrewsbury to put the Act of Settlement into effect.

Contrary to what some still think, the Elector of Hanover was not anxious to take the British throne. Hanover was his home, his first concern and the land he loved most. He delayed going to England and took his time getting there, knowing that, while being King of England was certainly more prestigious than being Elector of Hanover, it would also be a much more complicated undertaking. In Hanover, he was effectively an absolute monarch, military matters were left entirely at his discretion and any expenditure over 12 pounds required his consent. The people were loyal and accepted that government was for the Elector and not their concern. In Britain, on the other hand, there was an entrenched political class, contentious religious divisions, animosity between England, Scotland and Ireland as well as a considerable number of people still loyal to the House of Stuart. Scotland, the English country gentry and many in the Church of England were not pleased at all to see George arrive on English shores, his largest base of support basically being the political class that wanted and needed his favor to maintain themselves. He could hardly speak English at all and caused some reaction when he landed and announced to the assembled people that he had, “come for your goods, I have come for all your goods”.

Becoming King of England and Scotland in August of 1714 (his mother had died earlier in the year), King George I wanted to make it clear from the outset that he asserted his right to the throne on the basis of heredity rather than an act of Parliament, as a way to show that he did not owe his Crown to politicians and to assert that he was not a usurper to the Jacobite supporters of the Stuarts. In truth though, he was only king because of an act of Parliament and if the Stuart heir had, as he was advised, abandoned Catholicism and become an Anglican, there was no doubt that he would have been able to take the throne and would have been head of a much more robust monarchy than George I was handed. However, Britain accepted King George I quietly, without much enthusiasm but also without much serious opposition beyond bitter words and ridicule at his rather scandalous private life. European politics, as well as religion, helped King George I in his cause. As well as being Catholic, the Stuarts were very closely allied with the French whereas King George, as Elector of Hanover, had opposed the French, allied with Britain and others, as commander of the (German) Imperial army on the Rhine during the recent War of Spanish Succession. The Dutch and other European Protestants were united in support of a Protestant monarch in Britain but many Catholics were supportive as well, even if not overtly, due to Austrian and Papal opposition to the power of France.

The first beneficiary of King George I was the Whig party. The Tories had tried to get the Stuarts to embrace Protestantism and thus ensure their own succession, so they were out of favor while the Whigs who rallied to him, along with his trusted German officials, were rewarded with high office. The King also baffled many of his new subjects by his behavior, which was unlike anything they had seen before. He disliked crowds and preferred meals in his private apartments to large state dinners. He lived in only two rooms of the palace and while royal mistresses were nothing new, George’s were known for being absurdly ugly which greatly amused the public. King Charles II had, at least, shown better taste in many mistresses. Most singled out were two German mistresses (they were invariably German), one of whom was extremely thin and the other extremely fat. He distrusted strangers, clever women and had little time for poets or painters though he was a great patron of music.

As King, his first challenge was the Jacobite uprising of 1715. Started by the Earl of Mar who proclaimed the Stuart heir King James VIII of Scotland and III of England and with propaganda support from the exiled Tory leader Henry St John in France, the rebellion had considerable support. Most of Scotland outside Edinburgh favored the Jacobites and there were demonstrations of support in many towns across England. Supporters of King George I described him as calm and solid during this crisis but the truth may well have been that losing the British throne would have made his life easier, allowing him to return permanently to his beloved Hanover. Fortunately for King George, the Jacobite uprising was very poorly coordinated and was soon squashed without undue difficulty. By the time the Stuart heir arrived on British soil, his cause was already effectively lost and a great many aristocrats were put to death in the aftermath, a fact which caused some lack of support for George I in the upper echelons of British society. Tory support for the Stuarts also ensured that the Whig party could enjoy an uncontested hold on power. It also helped that the King spoke English so poorly that he rarely attended council meetings and mostly let them do as they pleased, though he could be counted on to intervene when it concerned Hanover.

Although obliged to spend most of his time in England, the government was considerate enough, or willing enough to be rid of him, that they repealed the law requiring Parliamentary consent for the King to leave the country so that George I was able to take length leaves of absence in Hanover in 1716, 1719, 1720, 1723 and 1725. His son presided over a regency council while he was away and given that the King and his son thoroughly hated each other, government opposition tended to gather around the Prince. Since it often involved Hanover, King George I did take an active interest in foreign affairs and played a leading part in gathering an alliance of the British, Germans, French and Dutch against the Spanish who, in 1719, invaded Scotland and tried to spark their own Jacobite rebellion. However, only a few hundred Spanish troops managed to land successfully and they, along with barely a thousand Jacobites, were easily crushed. The King also saw to it that Hanover benefited by gaining territory at the expense of Sweden in the resolution of the “Great Northern War”, a Russian-backed war to destroy the dominance of the Kingdom of Sweden in northern and eastern Europe.

The last major crisis King George I presided over was the collapse of the so-called “South Sea Bubble”. What happened was that the government-backed South Sea Company was given a monopoly on trade with South America in exchange for buying the British national debt from the government. Despite having no real assets, speculators bid up the price of shares in the company higher and higher so that dozens of “bubble companies” sprang up. When the government passed a law to squash these companies, it sparked the bursting of the South Sea Bubble, causing a stock market crash, forcing the resignation of many government officials and severely undermining faith in the government. The King and his ministers were never more unpopular than after their bungled attempts at controlling the economy had cost so many so much. The public did not know that King George I had hardly been the cause of it all and evidence shows that he lost money in the affair as well. It was not a good situation though for King George’s first minister, Robert Walpole, generally regarded as the first British Prime Minister as people today would recognize it. He was better recognized by sticking to simpler forms of patronage, such as in convincing King George I to revive the Order of the Bath as a way to reward political supporters.

King George I died in Germany on June 11, 1727 which did not provoke a great deal of sorrow in the British Isles. All in all, about the best that can be said for George I, as King of England, is that he was not terrible. He was a very effective Elector of Hanover but as for the British Isles, the best that can be said is that the three kingdoms did not descend into chaos or poverty during his reign. He did have his good qualities. He was a good military leader, courageous on the battlefield, thrifty in economic matters and was fairly astute in political matters. His shyness led to some unfair criticism and he was not an unintelligent man, however he was far from a good man either. His treatment of his family was deplorable, he frankly did not care all that much about Britain and was from start to finish a German more concerned with events in Germany than in the British Isles. Brought to the throne by an act of Parliament rather than by birth, the political class became more entrenched under his reign as he was fairly disinterested in events that did not impact Hanover. The changes put in place in 1688 were not really fully felt until the reign of King George I when the King’s first minister first began to rise in prominence as being the real “leader” of the country, a trend which would (with one interruption named George III) continue and become more pronounced over time.

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