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George II


Kensington Gardens, created by Queen Caroline

Not very much has been written about George II. Perhaps people don't think his thirty three year reign makes a good story. Some people, however, have tried to make a story out of it. W.H. Williams, for example, tried to present a lively tale with Queen Caroline as a sympathetic character having to put up with her small-minded nonentity of a husband. With the idea of creating a story in mind, John Van Der Kiste asks at the beginning of his book on George II and Queen Caroline : "Where does reality finish and colourful legend, or... soap opera take over?" (George II and Queen Caroline: Preface) John Van Der Kiste thinks the comparison between royal history and soap opera is a "hideously overworked cliche". But in fact royal history, particularly as the monarchy began to settle into its constitutional role, is well described by the serial nature of soap opera. In fact it is soap opera's sense of continuity which is such an important aspect of the royal family and its survival.



If it is hard to find a story in the reign of George II, perhaps we should start by asking what sort of story the king and his ministers wished to present. You could say that the story they wished to tell was a reassuring one of a traditional king in charge. The eighteenth century was a time of profound change. Isaac Newton had revealed an impersonal universe in which man no longer necessaily played a central role. Newton was to die in the same year that George II came to the throne, and it wouldn't be too fanciful to suggest that George II and his father George I represented a continuing effort to give the impression that nothing had changed in these confusing new times. The background of Hanover's royal family lay in the absolute monarchy of a north German state. In this society the leader, known as an "elector," was all powerful. George I had been the son of an elector, and of a granddaughter of James I of England. He acted accordingly. In 1680 he married Princess Sophie Dorothea of Celle. This disastrous marriage was to produce one son, Prince George Augustus, the future George II, who was eleven when his parents divorced. His mother was then locked up for the rest of her life in Ahlden Castle. This was punishment for her infidelities. The fact that her husband had been similarly unfaithful did not seem to matter. Young George Augustus continued his childhood, idolising his lost mother, and receiving the traditional education of German princes. Then in 1705 a crucial event in his life took place, when he was married to Wilhelmina Caroline, daughter of the ruler of Ansbach. Caroline was a woman of unusual abilities. The future for George Augustus lay in England which would not allow him to be an absolute monarch. But the skills of Caroline would allow the story of apparent kingly authority to be told. Caroline in modern terms was to be an expert spin doctor. The couple were devoted to each other. This bond had its roots in 1707 when Caroline caught smallpox. Even though Prince George was encouraged to keep away from his desperately sick wife, he insisted on staying with her. He was a hopeless nurse, continually scolding his wife for being ill, but he did not leave her, and caught smallpox himself as a result. From this point on, Caroline accepted her husband's essential loyalty. George, for his part, also seemed to privately accept that Caroline was an extremely able woman who he needed in his life. They were to be married for thirty two years.



Hampton Court

George II's father George I came to the throne in 1714, as Parliament's choice of a protestant monarch to replace Queen Anne. Hanover was the highly unlikely background for the first of Britain's figurehead "constitutional" monarchs. It was as though old kings were being installed to reassure people living in a new world. Fittingly George I was actually an old man, of fifty four, when he succeeded. He took his son and daughter in law with him on the journey from Hanover. The new king did have a greater role in government than he is usually given credit for, and tried not to be marginalised. But finding English difficult he would often not bother to read documents passed to him. Princess Caroline found out about this and told him off. Remarkably the king seemed to grumpily accept her criticism. Perhaps her father in law, like her husband, reluctantly realised Caroline's abilities, though this was never admitted openly. It was important that George I was seen as a king, inspite of the reality of power lying with Parliament. He would not be crossed, and was particularly suspicious of his son and heir, as monarchs generally had been through history. Eventually this suspicion boiled over into open hostility. In 1716 King George had returned to Hanover for six months to attend to business there. Prince George was left in the role of regent. The Prince was diligent in the limited duties he was entrusted with, attending cabinet meetings and listening intently to proceedings. That summer he and Caroline stayed at Hampton Court, where Caroline had been advised to live during her latest pregnancy. It was an idyllic summer. Prince George was free of his domineering father, he had something like a proper job, and Hampton Court was beautiful:




Gardens at Hampton Court

"Most mornings the prince and princess would 'take the air upon the river' in the crimson decked barge, rowed by watermen in royal attire... they dined in public, and the princess rested afterwards. In the evening she and her husband walked in the gardens, before going to one of the pavilions by the bowling green to play cards. Many of those who accompanied the prince and princess at Hampton Court that summer would ever look back on it as the most pleasant and carefree time of their lives" (quoted from King George II and Queen Caroline by John Van Der Kiste P 58).

At the end of September George made a progress through southern England, the sort of trip out amongst the people that his father hated. This went well. He was also praised for helping personally to put out a fire at Spring Gardens in London, and for his bravery during an assassination attempt at Drury Lane Theatre. When his father returned and was told how well the prince had done, there was much jealousy. King George insisted on the illusion of his absolute power. The king dismissed some of the prince's political friends from office to make a point. Charles Townshend was sacked from his job as lord lieutenant of Ireland, and rising political star Robert Walpole resigned in protest. The final row which split the royal family came in 1718, following a disagreement over who should be godfather to Caroline's son, born that year. This silly dispute blew up out of all proportion and ended with George and Caroline being ejected from St James's Palace and forbidden to see their children, who became property of the crown. Family relations did not begin to ease until February 1719 when the baby boy's death brought the king at least partially to his senses. Even so, the palaces of Windsor, Hampton Court, and Kensington Palace were still forbidden to the prince and princess. They purchased Richmond Lodge as their residence, and much to the king's annoyance Richmond Lodge became a social centre, with which the dour old king could not compete. There were parties, hunts, horse racing and picnics. Walpole and other leading parliamentarians visited. Walpole realised the abilities of Caroline and carefully cultivated her, knowing that authority within the marriage lay with her, and that one day she might be useful in controlling a future king. According to the testimony of Lady Compton, Walpole also allowed his wife to sleep with Prince George to gain favour with him. No doubt the prince enjoyed his seeming power to sleep with other men's wives, when in reality he was being drawn into a political net.



The Serpentine in Hyde Park

In April 1720 there was an official royal reconciliation, staged at St James's Palace, which was done more for show than anything else. After this the prince and princess lived at Richmond Lodge, and at Leicester House in Leicester Fields, now Leicester Square. A baby boy came along in 1721, and two girls in 1723 and 1724. This new family lived quietly, taking care not to anger the king. Caroline busied herself chatting with the great minds of the day, and designing gardens at Kensington and Hyde Park. Caroline's gardening, in a revolutionary naturalistic style, can still be seen most dramatically in Hyde Park. Here the Serpentine was created by Caroline's gardeners. She read Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and Swift's Gulliver's Travels. The princess was also forward looking in the way she prevented doctors using barbaric treatments such as bleeding on her children. After experiments with Newgate prisoners and charity children, her own children were inoculated with a mild dose of smallpox to confer immunity.







The Round Pond, created by Queen Caroline in Kensington Gardens

On 14th June 1727 George I left St James's for his usual summer trip to Hanover. He took the trip every year, and seemed in good health. But on the road to Hanover he was struck with severe stomach pain, and died in the early hours of 21st June at Osnabruck. The soap opera was about to begin a new episode, and while soap opera is often dramatic, drama is always contained within a comforting familiarity of setting and characterisation. The new George II was now very like his father, and the same impression of his power had to be presented. News of George I's death reached Robert Walpole first. He rode immediately to Richmond to break the news to a disbelieving Prince George and Princess Caroline. Now Walpole's careful cultivation of Caroline paid off. After the coronation at Westminster Abbey on 11th October 1727, Walpole and Caroline soon became a formidable team, managing the king without appearing to do so. Ministers quickly discovered that the best way to get things done was to talk to Walpole, who talked to Caroline, who talked to the king and persuaded him that the idea under discussion was his. Together wife and first minister told a story of traditional kingly power. The mechanics of this image making is amusingly described by John Van Der Kiste.

"....if the matter was urgent , the minister would confer with the queen overnight, and next morning when he was summoned by the king, Queen Caroline would time her 'accidental' entry into the royal closet with care. She would immediately offer to withdraw; the king would tell her to stay, and she would take a chair, occupy herself with knotting, reading or something similar, apparently taking no interest in the conversation. When the king asked her opinion she would say 'I understand nothing of politics, your majesty knows all'. Delighted and flattered, he would press for an answer to his question, and the game would begin" (King George II and Queen Caroline P104 - 105).

Walpole and Caroline would exchange secret messages through pre arranged gestures, pulling out a handkerchief or taking snuff for example, to guide conversations in the required direction. In this way the illusion of George II's power was maintained. The king was also encouraged to get on with his interest in the minutiae of uniform worn by palace staff, and with his extra marital affairs, so that his wife and chief minister could get on with running the country.


St James's Palace from St James's Street

Walpole and Caroline put on a good show, but there were some things they could not control. The king and queen's relationship with their eldest son Frederick was very difficult, The king's popularity began to decline as his long reign went on, and Frederick presented himself as the people's champion. In September 1736 Frederick drank gin in public to demonstrate his opposition to the Gin Act which placed a tax on spirits. In a strange echo of the past, very reminiscent of the cycles of drama in a soap opera, January 1737 was to see Frederick and his wife ejected from St James's Palace, just as the king and queen had once been by George I. Caroline was worn down by family rows, and became ill on the morning of 9th November 1737. She'd been on her way to her sanctuary at her library at St James's Palace. She died of a strangulated hernia on 20th November, her death removing one of the most crucial members of government. Without Caroline there was no way for Walpole to control the king. Efforts were made to use his mistress Baroness Von Walmoden, but these failed. By the following year Britain was itching for war, as was usually the case after a sustained period of peace. Spanish insistence on the right to search British ships seemed reasonable grounds. Thomas Arne and James Simpson wrote Rule Britannia, which reflected the prevailing national mood. Walpole opposed the war, knowing it was bad for business. But without the queen he had little room for manoeuvre. The king, whose interests were really confined solely to military matters, had a predictable desire to get stuck in. Walpole was forced out of office in January 1739, and was powerless to stop the declaration of hostilities in October.



Hatchlands Park home of Admiral Boscawen

The messy war that followed, which merged into a wider European conflict, actually provided continuing opportunities for the king to present another chapter in his story of an old style monarch. Much to his delight George II got a chance to lead troops in battle. In defence of Hanoverian interests George II had his Henry V moment at the Battle of Dettingen against the French on 19th June 1743. Although George wore a Hanoverian uniform, he was the last British monarch to lead soldiers in battle. Even though the European war was rather unpopular, and did not generally go well for Britain, the king's role in it made him something of a hero. The royal family was to reprise its traditional military role two years later at Culloden. George's son William, the Duke of Cumberland, defeated an army of Scottish Highlanders who had joined Bonnie Prince Charlie, the grandson of deposed Stuart king James II. Culloden marked a change of focus away from religious and dynastic struggle. It was the last major battle fought across a religious divide, with the Scottish jacobites supporting a deposed catholic king, and government forces protecting a new protestant monarchy. Religious warfare was to grumble on in Ireland for centuries, but Culloden marked a change on the wider European stage. Into the 1750s nationalism became increasingly central to war. As T.E. Lawrence said in a different context there was a move into "nationalist politics and to dream of wars for self government and self-sovereignty, instead of for faith or dogma" (Seven Pillars of Wisdom Ch4). May 1756 saw the declaration of war against France and its empire. This was a global struggle for national prestige involving Europe, North America, the West Indies, the East Indies, and the west coast of Africa. This was in effect the first of the world wars, the first of a new age of wars.


Quebec House home of General Wolfe

George II was to see this new war go well for England. Admiral Boscawen directed a dramatic victory over the French at Louisberg, which then allowed an attack up the St Lawrence Seaway towards Quebec. In September 1759 General Wolfe gained a famous victory over the French at Quebec. By September 1760 French forces had been driven from Montreal, leaving Britain in control of the whole province of Canada. Crowds marched to Kensington Palace to cheer the king. George II emerged many times to acknowledge the salutes. He was a king from the old world, a time when dynasties stretched across international frontiers. He accepted cheers following victories in a new war, fought in a new world. Through the course of his reign George II had done his job by presenting a reassuring soap opera which went on just the same. Three weeks after taking the cheers of his enthusiastic subjects, George II had a heart attack at Kensington Palace. He died soon afterwards.