George I (Great Britain) (1660–1727; Ruled 1714–1727)
GEORGE I (GREAT BRITAIN) (1660–1727; ruled 1714–1727)
GEORGE I (GREAT BRITAIN) (1660–1727; ruled 1714–1727), king of Great Britain and Ireland. George I, who was also elector of Hanover (1698–1727), was the first of the Hanoverian dynasty to rule in Britain. Unlike William III (ruled 1689–1702), who seized power in 1688–1689 and who was familiar with English politics and politicians from earlier visits, marriage into the English royal family, and extensive intervention in English domestic politics, George knew relatively little of England. His failure to learn English and his obvious preference for Hanover further contributed to this sense of alien rule. It was exacerbated by a sense that the preference for Hanover entailed an abandonment of British national interests, as resources were expended for the aggrandizement of Hanover and as the entire direction of British foreign policy was set accordingly. Within five years of his accession, George was at war with Spain, was close to war with Russia, and, having divided the Whigs and proscribed the Tories, was seeking to implement a controversial legislative program. Allied with France from 1716, George pursued a foreign policy that struck little resonance with the political experiences and xenophobic traditions of his British subjects.
On the other hand, George's reign was not so much the wholesale Hanoverian takeover that some feared. Despite periodic rows about Hanoverian interests, George did not swamp Britain with German ministers or systems. Instead, he adapted to British institutions, conforming to the Church of England despite his strong Lutheranism. Even his dispute with his son, later George II (ruled 1727–1760), in 1717–1720 fitted into a parliamentary framework with court and Leicester house parties at Westminster. And the failure of the Jacobite rising of the Old Pretender, James Edward Stuart (1688–1766), in 1715 indicated early in his reign that the establishment on which George depended was determined in turn to maintain his rule.
George's place in politics was not of his choosing but was instead a consequence of the limitations in royal authority and power that stemmed from the Glorious Revolution of 1688–1689 and subsequent changes. George was sensible enough to adapt and survive. Unlike James II (ruled 1685–1688), he was a pragmatist who did not have an agenda for Britain other than helping Hanover. In part this was a sensible response to circumstances and in part a complacency that arose from diffidence, honesty, and dullness. George lacked the decisiveness, charisma, and wiliness of Louis XIV (ruled 1643–1715) of France and Peter the Great (ruled 1682–1725) of Russia.
As an individual George was a figure of suspicion because of the incarceration of his adulterous wife, Sophia Dorothea, and the disappearance in 1694 of her lover, Philipp Christoph von Königsmarch, and because of rumors about his own personal life. His choleric quarrel with the future George II also attracted attention. George I enjoyed drilling his troops and hunting. When he could, he had fought, including in 1675–1678 in the Dutch war against Louis XIV and in 1683–1685 against the Turks in Hungary. He had led forces into Holstein in 1700, led an invasion of Wolfenbüttel in 1702, and commanded on the Rhine against Louis XIV's forces in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1714).
George's reliance on the Whigs and antipathy toward the Tories was more important, as it limited his room for political maneuver. In 1720 George had to accommodate himself to Robert Walpole (1676–1745), the leading opposition Whig, but it is also clear that Walpole had to adapt to George. In 1720 George was also reconciled with his son, but only to the extent of a mutual coldness. George refused to have his son as regent in England during his trips to Hanover in 1723, 1725, and 1727, on the last of which he died en route. He also turned down his son's request for a military post in any European conflict that might involve Britain.
George showed both political skills and a sense of responsibility during his reign. An incompetent and unyielding monarch might well have led to the end of Hanoverian rule in Britain, but at George's death in 1727 there was no question that the succession would pass anywhere other than to his son.
Beattie, John M. The English Court in the Reign of George I. London, 1967.
Hatton, Ragnhild. George I: Elector and King. Cambridge, Mass., 1978.
Marlow, Joyce. George I: His Life and Times. London, 1973.
Plumb, J. H. The First Four Georges. Rev. ed. London, 1974.
Having established links with the Whig Party before his succession, largely because of their mutual opposition to the Tory peace with France at Utrecht in 1713, George favoured a Whig administration, though he did employ a handful of senior Tories until the Jacobite Rebellion in 1715 led to the proscription of that party. The Whigs won the general election of 1715, and established their supremacy for the next four and a half decades. Though unpopular, George's position was never seriously threatened either by the rebellion of 1715 or by the Jacobite plots of 1719 and 1722. In fact these episodes served only to strengthen the Hanoverian succession.
George appears to have been diligent in politics, especially in his chosen fields of foreign affairs, diplomacy (he helped to negotiate the Quadruple Alliance of 1718), and the army, over which he insisted on keeping control. His court was private and he much preferred the company of his German ministers to his British advisers, as well as that of the duchess of Kendal and the countess of Darlington. These two were long thought to have been his mistresses, and indeed Kendal was from 1691, but she may also have later been his morganatic wife (he had divorced his wife Sophia Dorothea in 1694 for adultery and imprisoned her for life). Darlington, however, was his half-sister.
Contrary to long-established views, George did attend cabinet meetings throughout his reign. The language he commonly used with his ministers was French but he arrived with a smattering of English and knew sufficient to write and converse in it by the end of his reign. However, he rarely attended Parliament and never debates in the House of Lords ‘incognito’ as had some of his predecessors, such as Charles II and Anne.
Relations between George and his son, the prince of Wales (later George II), were often strained, and in 1717 a violent quarrel erupted. The prince and his wife were expelled from the court (their children were kept by the king) and set up a rival one in Leicester House. This quarrel coincided with the Whig schism in which Walpole and Townshend left the ministry of Sunderland and Stanhope. In April 1720 the royal quarrel was patched up as a cover for the reconciliation of the ministry with the schismatic Whigs.
George frequently returned to Hanover in the summer months. The king's attachment to his electorate and its presumed prominent influence on English foreign policy (as well as the interference of the German ministers at the English court) created a good deal of friction. George, however, was close to some of his English ministers, particularly Stanhope, who looked after foreign policy, and Sunderland. It was the king's attachment to the latter which kept him in power after the bursting of the South Sea bubble in 1720 (the most serious crisis of the reign) and Stanhope's untimely death in 1721. Sunderland had arranged for fraudulent South Sea shares to be given to the king, and had overseen the distribution of douceurs in Parliament to help things along. George and his chief minister had to stick together in the ensuing crisis, and managed to weather the storm. Sunderland's unexpected death in April 1722 forced George to accept Walpole (whose acumen in salvaging the financial disaster had saved the dynasty) and Townshend as his chief ministers, though Carteret (a protégé of Sunderland) was to remain a serious contender for power for a further two years.
George's reign ended with domestic affairs entering a period of quiet, while abroad Britain was recognized as the major arbiter of the balance of power. He died of a stroke on 20 June 1727 at Osnabrück.
Hatton, R. , George I: Elector and King (1978).
George I (1660-1727) was king of Great Britain and Ireland from 1714 to 1727. Founder of the Hanoverian dynasty, he was the first English monarch whose claim to reign depended upon an act of Parliament.
Born at Hanover on March 28, 1660, George Lewis, of the house of Brunswick-Lüneburg, was the son of Ernest Augustus and Sophia, granddaughter of James I of England. George's marriage to his cousin Sophia Dorothea in 1682 united the Hanoverian possessions of the house of Brunswick. He answered his wife's suspected infidelity by divorcing her in 1694 and confining her to her castle for life. He succeeded his father as elector of Hanover in 1698.
George's role in British history stemmed from two circumstances: he was the great-grandson of James I, and he was a Protestant. In 1701 the English Parliament, recognizing that neither William III nor his successor, Anne, would leave an heir and fearing reversion of the crown to a Roman Catholic, passed the Act of Settlement; it conferred the inheritance on Sophia of Hanover and "the heirs of her body being Protestants." By this statute George became king in 1714—to the exclusion of some 57 persons with superior hereditary claims.
Understandably, George proved unpopular in Britain. A shy, rather sour man, he preferred to avoid crowds and royal pageantry. Ignorant of the language, bereft of intellectual gifts, and unmoved by the arts, save music, he showed no appreciation of English culture. Hanover remained undisguisedly his first love. He showered his German mistresses with estates and pensions and showed favoritism to his German courtiers. In foreign affairs he was rightly suspected of giving priority to the interests of Hanover, but fortunately those interests were usually congruent with Britain's.
Yet, fundamentally, George I was the right man at the right time for Britain. He possessed a quality the Stuart kings had lacked—steadiness. He knew his friends from his enemies and rewarded them accordingly; nothing was more essential in defending the new dynasty against treason. He quickly learned to find his ministers among the Whigs, who had supported his succession to the throne.
Though ignorant of English politics, George I did have experience in European foreign affairs. For 6 years he relied chiefly on his Hanoverian ministers, Bernstorff and Bothmer; the English ministers, led by Lords Townshend and Stanhope, usually had to work through the German advisers on matters requiring royal assent. The main weakness of this arrangement lay in its tendency to isolate the King's government from its parliamentary support. When the King visited Hanover in 1716, his most influential men in Parliament, Townshend and Sir Robert Walpole, were left behind and fell victim to intrigue. Blamed for opposing the King's foreign policy and, quite unfairly, for conniving with George's son, the Prince of Wales, Townshend lost royal favor and resigned in April 1717. Walpole followed him. Finding allies among the Tories, they led a vigorous parliamentary opposition. The lively court of the Prince of Wales became a gathering place of dissident politicians. Although the government, increasingly dominated by Bernstorff until 1719, survived these onslaughts, the political turmoil provoked by the outcast Whigs goaded the King into action.
It has been said that George I reigned but did not rule. However, he could be energetic and ruthless when his power seemed threatened. To overshadow the prince's court, he suppressed his aversion to courtly entertainments and conversed with ambitious men. The King's inability to speak English was not a serious hindrance; nearly everyone at court was fluent in French.
In 1720 the bursting of the "South Sea Bubble" raised stormy protests in Parliament. The goverment badly needed men who could tame the House of Commons, and chief among these was Walpole. Gaining access to George I through his aging but most trusted mistress, Madame Schulenberg, now Duchess of Kendal, Walpole and Townshend successfully negotiated a reentry to office. By 1722 Walpole was the King's leading minister and retained royal confidence to the end.
George I died suddenly of a stroke on June 11, 1727, while journeying to Hanover. Unmourned by his family and his English subjects, he had nevertheless done his duty. His instincts were authoritarian, yet he had managed to stifle rebellion without imposing tyranny. Above all, he learned to accommodate himself to a system of constitutional rule that the more energetic William III had found frustrating and distasteful.
The most penetrating account of George I's relationship with his ministers can be found in J. H. Plumb, Sir Robert Walpole (2 vols., 1956-1961). A detailed history of the reign by Wolfgang Michael is partially translated from the German under the title England under George I (2 vols., 1936-1939). John M. Beattie, The English Court in the Reign of George I (1967), contains a valuable chapter on the court in politics.
Hatton, Ragnhild Marie, George I, elector and king, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978.
Mangan, J. J., The king's favour: three eighteenth century monarchs and the favourites who ruled them, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991. □