Georges I & II Limited Monarchs: Jeremy Black Reminds Us of the Importance of Two of Britain's Less Well-Loved Monarchs

Article excerpt

THE FIRST TWO Hanoverians, George I (r. 1714-27) and his son George II (r. 1727-60), have not had a terribly good press. Unpopular with their contemporaries, they have not subsequently been seen as great rulers. George I is chiefly remembered for his personal life, not least the thirty-year incarceration of his adulterous wife, Sophia Dorothea (1666-1726), the disappearance of her lover Philipp Christoph von Konigsmarck in 1694, and George's subsequent attachment to the Duchess of Kendal. George II is generally seen as a headstrong, blinkered boor, manipulated in his early years as king by his wile, Queen Caroline (1683-1737), and by his chief minister Sir Robert Walpole (1676-1745). Neither has left much correspondence to provide his own point of view or to offer sympathetic insights on character and goals.

Yet both men played a major role in the development of the British monarchy. Their reigns were crucial for the solid establishment of the constitutional and political conventions and practices known as the Revolution Settlement after James II and VII's replacement by William III in 1689. The legislation that made it up (which included the 1701 Act of Settlement enshrining the claim to the British throne of Sophia of Hanover, mother of the future George I was passed from 1689, but much of the political settlement was not solidified until after 1714. In particular, the defeat of the Jacobite uprising of 1715-16 marked a triumph over forces opposed to the new order. This triumph was repeated in a clash of dynasties in 1746 when the army that crushed Charles Edward Stuart at Culloden was, significantly, led by George II's second and favourite son, William, Duke of Cumberland.

The reigns were also important because they determined the character of the Anglo-Hanoverian monarchy. Although the consequences of this new polity were less dramatic than those stemming from the personal union of England and Scotland under James VI and I in 1603, this had been by no means clear when the new dynastic personal union was created.

Britain-Hanover was similar to Poland-Saxony. In each case a state with a degree of public participatory politics (Britain and Poland) found itself linked to one that was more clearly the expression of a ruling house (Hanover and Saxony). This led both to serious problems of adjustment at the domestic level and to an attempt to create a degree of unity at the international level that aroused controversy.

Both George I and George II sought to use British resources to help secure gains for Hanover. George I sought to win territories from the partition of the Swedish empire and to place a westward limit on the expansion of Russian power under Peter the Great. George II pursued Hanoverian territorial interests in neighbouring principalities, especially in Mecklenburg, East Friesland and Osnabruck. As a leading Protestant power, Hanover was also involved in the defence of confessional interests, especially during the reign of George I. Both rulers also sought to counter Hanoverian vulnerability to attack from France or Prussia. These ambitions and interests of Georges I and II maintained the dynamism of Hanoverian policy: one that was unwise and unsuccessful in itself, and a source of concern and anger to numerous British ministers and diplomats. Public criticism in Britain of the kings' lengthy visits to Hanover was intense.

The Hanoverian ambitions of both kings made their British ministries vulnerable to domestic criticism and Hanover itself to foreign attack, but they learned, however reluctantly, to accept the limitations of their position. By 1721, it was abundantly clear that the territorial ambitions of George I had been disappointed, and the same was apparent for George II by 1748 when he had to accept that Hanover would make no gains from the War of the Austrian Succession, whereas his hated nephew, Frederick the Great of Prussia, had seized Silesia and East Friesland, thus ensuring that Prussia, not Hanover or Saxony, became the major North German power. …