Magazine article The Spectator

In the House of Hanover

Magazine article The Spectator

In the House of Hanover

Article excerpt


by Lucy Worsley

Faber, £20, pp. 402,

ISBN 9780571238897

Either Lucy Worsley or, more probably, her publisher has given her book the subtitle 'The Secret History of Kensington Palace.' This is enticing, or intended to be so; it is also misleading.

There is no secret history, and the subject of this well researched and entertaining book is life at the court of the first two Georges, life which went on also at St James's Palace and indeed Leicester House, where George II lived as Prince of Wales, as did his son Frederick later. Indeed the book begins with a lively account of a reception at St James's, where, 'beneath their powder and perfume, the courtiers stank of sweat, insecurity and glittering ambition'. (What is the stench of glittering ambition? ) Kensington Palace was where the court removed to for the summer months when London was even less healthy than in winter.

Neither George I nor George II is among the best remembered of British monarchs.

Some may recall that the father hated his son, which became a Hanoverian habit;

others that the first George was believed, probably with reason, to have organised the murder of his wife's lover, and that the second George died on the privy. George II is, however, notable as the last reigning British monarch to have commanded his army in battle, which he did successfully at Dettingen in 1743, and for having replied to his dying, much-loved and ill-treated wife Caroline when she urged him to marry again, 'Non, j'aurai des maitresses', a promise which he kept. But that's about it. They lack glamour.

George I was 54 when he became king in 1714. His hereditary claim was slight, but he was the senior Protestant descendant of James VI & I, therefore appointed successor to Queen Anne by the English Parliament's Act of Settlement of 1701, a decision endorsed in the Treaty of Union between England and Scotland which created the Parliament of Great Britain. He was a German prince - Elector of Hanover - who spoke only broken English and had never previously set foot in his new kingdom. He neither liked not trusted his new subjects, known throughout Europe for their disreputable habit of getting rid of monarchs who didn't suit. His new subjects didn't care much for him either; the Scots Jacobites among them called him 'a wee bit German lairdie' and English Tory squires muttered about 'Hanoverian rats'. He had no queen to bring with him to enliven the court, his wife having been shut up a prisoner in a German castle since the discovery of her adultery, but instead he brought two mistresses, one monstrously fat, the other thin and scrawny. His irreverent subjects dubbed them 'the Elephant and the Maypole'.

There were also two devoted Turkish servants who, on account of their Muslim origin, were believed to be kept for the purpose of sodomy. Lucy Worsley makes it clear that this nasty gossip was unfounded.

Indeed, she paints an affectionate portrait of George I, a shy man who shunned ceremony and did his duty conscientiously, despite his understandable dislike of English politicians and his distrust of the odd British constitution which denied the monarch the power more well-ordered countries granted him. He much preferred Hanover, and can scarcely be blamed for doing so.

His much-loathed son, George II, agreed with his father in that respect, but, like him, did the job he had been hired to perform. He had the advantage of a clever wife, Caroline, whose huge bosom was much admired. …

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