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The Hanoverians

Royal Pavilion, Brighton

The Hanoverian monarchs were installed by Parliament following Queen Anne's death in 1714. George I was 52nd in line to the throne, but he was the nearest protestant to the throne, a major consideration to a Parliament hostile to any perceived catholic influence. George I began a period of relative stability for Britain, a stability enhanced by the characteristic longevity of Hanoverian monarchs. From 1714 to 1832 there were only five kings, and one of those, George III, remains the longest living king in British history. Then after William IV's short reign, Queen Victoria continued this stability with a reign of sixty four years, from 1837 until 1901, the longest reign of any British monarch. This stability, might ironically have contributed to one of the most profound changes Britain has ever gone through, the transformation of the Industrial Revolution.





Houghton Hall home of Robert Walpole, Britain's first prime minister

From the beginning, the Hanoverians had been created by Parliament, and seemingly were subservient to Parliament's wishes. But it is interesting that the Hanoverians themselves came from a tradition in Hanover of absolute monarchy. They were a very traditional lot, perfect symbols of stability in a period of unprecedented change. It was vital for early prime ministers to give the impression that their monarch was still in charge. Sir Robert Walpole, known as Britain's first prime minister, who dominated government from 1720 until 1742, was a master of this game. Walpole's skill was shown at its best during the reign of George II when he enjoyed a masterful double act with Queen Caroline, prime minister and queen working together to push through government business and make it seem like it was all the king's idea.


George III was perhaps the most energetic Hanoverian king. He read all government papers, and sometimes annoyed ministers by taking such an interest in government business. The force of George's personality meant that on occasion his political influence was real: he was able to bring about the resignation of William Pitt the Younger in 1801 following a dispute over granting full civil rights to catholics. But once again it was as a symbolic leader that George III was really important. George III is sometimes remembered as the king who lost America, and in the Declaration of Independence is named as the evil prince who brought about war with America through his tyrannical policies. Although George III had no sympathy for American independence, he had none of the personal control which the Declaration of Independence suggests. America wanted a cause to unite behind, and George III could be conveniently used as a symbolic tyrant. He made a better tyrant than Parliament where power really lay, and where many people were arguing the case for America anyway.


Kew Palace

In the last decade of his life George III was mentally unfit to rule, suffering from what medical historians believe was a blood disorder called porphyria. He spent much of his time at Kew Palace in Kew Gardens, where the history of this sad time in his life can be explored. His eldest son acted as prince regent from 1811, and became George IV on his father's death in 1820. George IV lacked the political influence of his father, illustrated by the fact that much against his will, catholics were finally granted the civil rights that his father had blocked. George IV spent much of his reign eating, womanising, collecting works of art, and directing grand building schemes. He had the fantastical Royal Pavilion built in Brighton, and to a large extent transformed Windsor Castle into the building we see today. While having little influence as a political leader, he was an important cultural leader. In his enthusiasm for fashion he illustrated new social trends of aspiration, required to drive consumption on which the Industrial Revolution depended.






Natural History Museum

George IV's reign was followed by the short reign of his brother William IV, who is usually portrayed as fully accepting a more limited monarchy: A.N. Wilson in The Victorians quotes him as saying: "I have my view of things, and I tell them to my ministers. If they do not adopt them I cannot help it. I have done my duty." This, however, does not really do justice to William. Rather than a passive figure, he was more of a man walking a social tightrope. He is interesting in illustrating basic social contradictions of the nineteenth century. Politically there were moves towards greater social equality. William had a cut price coronation, and was acutely aware of the danger of being seen to waste tax payers money. But this was also the age of the Industrial Revolution when a desire to emulate fashions of those higher in society drove production. Aspiration required social inequality, without which the Industrial Revolution could simply not have happened. Perhaps then it is not surprising that while George IV had been criticised for being too ostentatious, William IV suffered mockery for his lack of grandeur. Visible grandeur, a vision to aspire towards, was an essential element of industrial society.



William was succeeded by Queen Victoria in 1837. Victoria became queen in the same year social commentator Thomas Malthus died. Victoria and her prime minister Lord Melbourne looked into a frightening future where Malthus had predicted a dark fate of human population growth outstripping food supply. Charles Darwin had recently finished his voyage on HMS Beagle, and later in Victoria's reign the full force of his ideas would become apparent. Amidst all this doubt and the loss of old certainties, there was still a role for a monarch to play as a symbol of stable conservatism. Victoria herself faced the full force of continuing conservatism in the way a lively, independent young woman was eventually tamed by her husband, Albert of Saxe Coburg. A.N. Wilson makes much of the fact that Victoria was no great intellect, and that Albert was the power behind the throne. But as Victoria's biographer Monica Charlott argues, Victoria was probably much cleverer than she is usually given credit for. Charlott is persuasive in describing a carefully orchestrated campaign by her husband and other male members of the establishment to ensure Victoria was subservient to Albert. The writer Stanley Weintraub has said that Prince Albert's virtue "was indeed appalling; not a single vice redeemed it" (Albert, Uncrowned King P6). It might be more accurate to see Albert as closely conforming to what was considered virtuous in his time. Victorian values were really Albert's values, and these were traditional values seemingly required by a world in a state of bewildering transformation.


Victoria and Albert Museum

Albert, after a polite battle with a young Victoria, took the lead. He realised that the royal family's symbolic role could be combined with social leadership. Albert did have a sincere desire to play a useful public role, and was a major driving force behind the Great Exhibition of 1851. This event, which took place in the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, was a huge success. Profits went into building a great cultural complex in south Kensington - Imperial College, the Natural History Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Royal Albert Hall. While Albert understood monarchy's new role and worked to do his best within its confines, Victoria in her frustration still had delusions of grandeur. She tried to influence selection of prime ministers, but failed. She had an intense dislike for William Gladstone, who was prime minister four times between 1868 and 1894. Victoria complained that Gladstone "addresses me as though I were a public meeting". But all this searching after a significant public role came to an end with the early death of Albert in 1861. Victoria never really recovered and withdrew from public view. Some writers are dismissive of the monarchy as the twentieth century approached. A.N Wilson doesn't mince his words in the Victorians:"... the widow of Windsor, living as a virtual recluse for years and performing almost no constitutional function, helped to lead the monarchy into a position where it was not worth abolishing" (P244). Responding to this it can easily be argued that monarchy continued to play a significant role in cultural leadership. Even before Victoria died in 1901 her son and heir Edward, the eventual Edward VII, was setting many fashion trends on which industrial society depended. Clothing and jewelry fashions, hotel breakfasts, Sunday roasts, the popularity of motoring, were all due to the example set by Edward and his wife Alexandra. Edward was in great demand to visit places and lend his presence to events, since it was clear his presence made money. It was wise to book Edward two years ahead, as for example, South Shields did in 1882, preparing for the opening of their New Dock in 1884. It could be argued that the monarchy survived not because it was not worth abolishing, but because it simply made money for a lot of people.

Victoria was the last Hanoverian monarch. Her eldest son Edward VII took his father's name of Saxe Coburg. Edward ruled only until 1910, when his second son succeeded as George V. This was the monarch who decided, due to the outbreak of war with Germany, that a German name was not a good idea for the royal family. He made a list of possible alternatives, and settled on Windsor. The royal family has been Windsor ever since.



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