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George I

St James's Palace from St James's Street

The eighteenth century was a time of contradiction. The beginnings of a scientific and industrial revolution were bringing new order and new confusion to society. As Dorothy Marshall says in the introduction to Eighteenth Century England, " Man was no longer the centre of the universe: his world was no longer under the personal control of God... Instead it had become a part of Newton's vast, impersonal, universe."

Monarchs were no longer divinely ordained. Naturally in such an age of change there were many who still clung to old ideas. George I, installed by Parliament, is symbolic of this contradiction. Ironically George, Britain's first Parliament appointed "constitutional" - or figurehead - monarch, came from a society in Hanover run in the old manner, by an absolute monarch. Seemingly he was an unlikely candidate for the job of Britain's first constitutional king. But George did not owe his position to being forward looking and compatible with new ideas of government. Instead George is an illustration of the strange way history goes backwards as it goes forward. He was an old monarch in a new age.


Hanover was a northerly German state, which took its name from the capital city, and was ruled by an "elector" who had absolute power. The elector appointed and dismissed all ministers in government. He had to make all important decisions concerning major home and foreign affairs, initiate all major criminal prosecutions, and was commander-in-chief of the armed forces. As John Van Der Kiste says "Poverty, political dissent, and parliamentary government were almost unknown" (George II and Queen Caroline P3). In England Queen Anne, inspite of wrecking her health with seventeen pregnancies, had not managed to have a child survive to adulthood. Her only surviving son died a few days after his eleventh birthday in the summer of 1700. Strictly speaking the heir to Anne's throne was now the catholic son of deposed King James II. But according to the Bill of Rights passed after James II's abdication, a catholic could not take the throne. Searching around for a suitable protestant successor to Anne, it was decided that the Elector of Hanover's wife, the Electress Sophie, a granddaughter of James I, was the most suitable candidate. Sophie always made much of her English heritage, spoke English well, and took great interest in English affairs. The plan was to make Sophie queen when Anne died. Unfortunately Sophie was to die a few months before Queen Anne, on 19th June 1714. In place of the really rather English Sophie, the next in line to the throne was her son George Lewis. George was a dour old German prince who had been brought up in the tradition of absolute Hanoverian royal power. In his disastrous marriage to Princess Sophie Dorothea of Celle, both partners had taken other lovers. While George's infidelities had been accepted as one of those things, his wife was locked up in Ahlden Castle, where she remained for the rest of her life. It was this man who became king when Queen Anne died on 12th August 1714.




Westminster Abbey

George I was in no hurry to take up his new position. At fifty four years old he was set in his ways, shy and awkward. It wasn't until 27th September 1714 that George and his son embarked on the yacht Peregrine, landing at Greenwich on 29th September. An estimated one and a half million people from London and Kent watched the royal party's public entry into London on 30th September. The new king did not put on a good show: "He bowed woodenly to the cheers, placing his hand theatrically on his heart, without the merest flicker of a smile" ( George II and Queen Caroline by John Van Der Kiste P37). The procession began in Southwark, crossed London Bridge into the City, and ended around dusk at St James's Palace, where George was to live for most of his reign. The new king was crowned at Westminster Abbey on 31st October. Change and stability were now intimately related in this new king and reactions to him. George feared the Tories in Parliament, not because they were red hot radicals, but because they were so traditional. Their feeling for tradition extended to a tendency to continue believing in the divine right of kings. This in turn led to sympathy for the son of deposed catholic king James II. 1715 saw an attempted rebellion against the new king with the aim of restoring the Stuart line of James II. Then in a ruthless effort to ensure stability a purge of Tories in Parliament took place. George naturally supported those in Parliament who he saw as wishing to protect him from the "Jacobites", the name given to the supporters of James II and his descendents. In this way Robert Walpole leader of the Whig Party began his climb to prominence. As we shall see the influence of Walpole was to be a milestone in the development of independent parliamentary power. But Walpole's power was explained not by an attempt to break free from the king, but by his ability to work with him.

There are more ironies in the way the balance of power played out between king and parliament. It is often noted that George I did not attend cabinet meetings. This detail is used to paint a picture of a figurehead king who did not have any real power. To be accurate, the king did actually continue to go to meetings of the full cabinet, where decisions were formally ratified, but he gave up going to cabinet committees where decisions were actually made. Crucially, however, this was not done because the passive role had been accepted. Dorothy Marshall points out that the king only stopped attending cabinet committee meetings after a quarrel with his son and heir, George, Prince of Wales, in 1717. King George, like most monarchs was uneasy about his successor, a paranoia which was taken to extremes by George I. When the king visited Hanover for six months from summer 1716 to January 1717, Prince George had been left in charge as regent. The prince had done what was considered a good job, and his father was jealous. Since the king had difficulty with English, his son would act as interpreter for him at meetings. This gave the Prince of Wales access to information which the king feared would be passed on, and used by opponents. So the king decided to deny this source of information to his son, and end royal attendance on critical committees. Lack of attendance at cabinet meetings, so often mentioned as evidence of acceptance of a lesser role, was actually a ploy to try and maintain the king's position. George came from a tradition in Hanover of absolute royal power. It is unlikely he was simply going to sit down and let his British ministers tell him what to do. Dorothy Marshall points out that non attendance of committee meetings "had done little, if anything, to lessen royal control over policy" (Eighteenth Century England P131). It was still necessary for political leaders to carefully manage the king, and all important matters of policy still had to be discussed with the monarch and approval sought. As I said, the parliamentary leader Robert Walpole owed a large measure of his success not to breaking free of royal influence, but in working closely with, and carefully managing, George I and his successor George II.

The row between King George and his son continued, which presented politicians having to manage them, with a tricky balancing act. A dispute over who should be god-father to a grandson born to Prince George and Princess Caroline in 1718 quickly got out of hand. Prince and princess were ejected from St James's Palace and forbidden to see their children. King George was then irritated by the lively social scene organised by his perceived rivals at their new residences in Leicester House, in what is now Leicester Square, and at Richmond House. Walpole, and other leading parliamentarians cultivated the heir to the throne at these parties, while trying to also keep the king on side. Walpole managed this trick best of all. In 1720 Walpole skillfully handled a speculative disaster known as the South Sea Bubble, shielding aristocratic directors of companies involved. Then a year later a Tory conspiracy to restore to the throne the son of James II, known as the Old Pretender, was discovered by Walpole's counter espionage network. King George was grateful, and by looking after royal interests Robert Walpole became in effect, if not name, Britain's first prime minister.



Statue of Newton by Paolozzi , outside the British Library

For the next few years royal quarrels subsided a little. The Prince and Princess of Wales lived quietly at Leicester House and Richmond Lodge, while King George went on his grumpy way, carefully handled by Robert Walpole who was now at the height of his power. Then on 14th June 1727 George I left St James's Palace for his usual summer trip to Hanover. He was busy planning the marriage of his grandson George Frederick to Princess Wilhelmina of Prussia. On the road to Hanover King George suddenly developed stomach pain. He collapsed and died in the early hours of 21st June in Osnabruck.

Isaac Newton, one of the most prominent names in the history of science, who did so much to change our view of the universe, also died in 1727. In a new world people need the reassurance of the old, and George I, with his background in Hanover's absolute monarchy, served this purpose as Britain's first constitutional monarch. History characteristically combines change and stability. Newton himself whose views caused such disruption to old beliefs actually presented a universe of predictability, where a single law could explain a myriad of apparently disassociated phenomena. The astronomer Edmund Halley was to use Newton's inverse square law of gravity to precisely predict the path of Halley's Comet, and give the correct date of its return to the proximity of Earth. Halley died in January 1742; Halley's Comet returned, as predicted, on Christmas Day 1758. Life seems to follow the same course as Halley's comet, disappearing into the unknown, only to return one day to where it was before. The change in eighteenth century society took people into the outer darkness and brought them home again, with the help of a stuffy old man from Hanover.