George II (Great Britain) (1683–1760; Ruled 1727–1760)
GEORGE II (GREAT BRITAIN) (1683–1760; ruled 1727–1760)
GEORGE II (GREAT BRITAIN) (1683–1760; ruled 1727–1760), king of Great Britain and Ireland. George II, who was also elector of Hanover (1727–1760), was the second of the Hanoverian dynasty to rule Britain. He was the son of George I (ruled 1714–1727). It is not easy to evaluate George II, as he left relatively little correspondence. In his youth he took an active role in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1714) with France, and he never lost his love of military matters. In 1705 he married the vivacious Princess Caroline of Ansbach (1683–1737), who exercised considerable influence on him until her death in 1737. The contrast between the queen's bright, sparkling, witty nature and George's more dour, boorish demeanor led contemporaries to underrate the influence of the latter. George accompanied his father to London in 1714 and became Prince of Wales. Relations between the two were difficult, and in 1717 this led to a rift that was closely linked to a serious division within the Whig Party. Relations were mended in 1720, although they remained difficult.
Succeeding to the throne in 1727, George II kept his father's leading minister, Sir Robert Walpole (1676–1745), in office and supported him until his fall in 1742. George's attitudes were important in politics, but he was not always able to prevail. Thus in 1744 and 1746 George failed to sustain John, Lord Carteret (1690–1763) in office, while in 1746 and 1755–1757 George could not prevent the entry into office of William Pitt the Elder (1708–1778), later first earl of Chatham. Pitt had angered George by his criticism of the degree to which British policies favored George's native electorate of Hanover, and that indeed was central to George's concerns. He spent as much time as possible in the electorate and actively pressed its territorial expansion. This was not to be, however. Instead, George's hated nephew, Frederick II (Frederick the Great, ruled 1740–1786) of Prussia, became the leading ruler in North Germany, and George had to face the humiliation of a French conquest of the electorate in 1757.
George's reign also saw the defeat in 1746 of a Jacobite attempt, under Charles Edward Stuart (1720–1788), "Bonnie Prince Charlie," to overthrow Hanoverian rule. George did not panic in December 1745 when the Jacobites advanced as far as Derby. After George's second son, William Augustus (1721–1765), duke of Cumberland, was victorious over the Jacobites at Culloden, not only was the Protestant establishment affirmed, but the Hanoverian dynasty was also finally and explicitly accepted as representing the aspirations and security of the realm.
George II was not noted as a patron of the arts, although he was interested in music. He was despised as a boor by his wife's influential favorite, John Lord Hervey (1696–1743). In fact George, as king, was happiest in 1743, when at Dettingen he became the last British monarch to lead his troops into battle. George displayed great courage under fire, and the battle was a victory. It was celebrated by George Frideric Handel (1685–1759) in Dettingen Te Deum. As a young man George had also participated in 1708 in the battle of Oudenaarde, where he had charged the French at the head of the Hanoverian dragoons and had his horse shot from under him. He was keen on the army, enjoyed the company of military men, and was determined to control military patronage. George had the guards' regimental reports and returns sent to him personally every week, and when he reviewed his troops, he did so with great attention to detail. George's personal interest in the army (but not the navy) could be a major nuisance for his British ministers, since as a result they had less room for concession and parliamentary maneuvering over such issues as the size of the armed forces and the policy of subsidies paid to secure the use of Hessian forces.
The impact of George's martial temperament upon his conduct of foreign policy also concerned the government. In Britain, however, George had no particular political agenda, and this was important to the development of political stability. His pragmatism was both a sensible response to circumstances and the consequence of a complacency that arose from diffidence, honesty, and dullness, albeit also a certain amount of choleric anger.
With Caroline, George had eight children, three boys and five girls. His relations with his eldest son, Frederick Louis (1707–1751), Prince of Wales, were particularly difficult, mirroring those of George II with his father. The prince's opposition was crucial to the fall of Walpole. After Caroline died, George settled into a domestic relationship with his already established mistress, Amalia Sophie Marianne von Walmoden. George made her countess of Yarmouth, and she became an influential political force because of her access to him.
By the close of George's reign, Britain had smashed the French navy and taken much of the French Empire to become the dominant European power in South Asia and North America. The direct contribution of the by then elderly king to this process was limited, but the ability of William Pitt the Elder to direct resources to transoceanic goals was a consequence of the way he, his ministerial colleague the duke of Newcastle, and George II operated parliamentary monarchy in the late 1750s.
See also Hanoverian Dynasty (Great Britain) ; Jacobitism ; Pitt, William the Elder and William the Younger .
De-la-Noy, Michael. The King Who Never Was: The Story of Frederick, Prince of Wales. London and Chester Springs, Pa., 1996.
van der Kiste, John. King George II and Queen Caroline. New York, 1997.
Whitworth, Rex. William Augustus Duke of Cumberland: A Life. London, 1992.
The king could choose his own ministers, but only those with Commons approval were able to do his business. Walpole had served George I for many years and George II soon formed an equally successful relationship with him. Walpole was masterful at holding the favour of both monarch and Parliament, sharing George's distrust of the Tories. He persuaded the king to keep Britain out of the War of Polish Succession and survived the turmoil of the Excise crisis. Though Walpole fell in 1742, the Whig oligarchy remained and the king gravitated towards Carteret, the German-speaking former diplomat, but his rivals, the Pelham brothers (assisted by William Pitt), forced him to resign in November 1744. The Pelhams reinforced their pre-eminence in February 1746 by threatening to resign unless the king took them into his full confidence. He was furious, but was unable to form a viable alternative government. Gradually George came to appreciate the prudence of Henry Pelham, 1st lord of the Treasury until his death in 1754. Thereafter, a period of great instability set in; Pelham's brother, the duke of Newcastle, hitherto foreign affairs minister, became 1st lord, but the Commons was restless, with Pitt and Henry Fox ridiculing the government (of which they were both members). The king detested Pitt and had long refused to admit him to the higher echelons of government, but there seemed no other option. War and expediency brought Newcastle and Pitt together in 1757, to form one of the greatest ministries in British history. George never came to like Pitt, but they worked effectively together; even in old age the king remained at the heart of government and had, usually, the final word.
George II was the absolute ruler of a medium-sized German state, Hanover, as well as being the British sovereign. George's affection for and (understandable) desire to visit and protect Hanover was a frequent cause for concern among his British subjects and a significant factor in the development of foreign policy. It gave the king a German-centred view of foreign affairs, shared by Newcastle, but which came into conflict with the colonial vision of Pitt. In addition, his unfettered power to rule in Hanover contrasted with the limitations placed upon the monarch in Britain, which George could find frustrating.
George II's reputation for parsimony was not restricted to his private finances. He was an emotional miser too (he had been separated from his mother as a boy), having few, if any, close friends. This tendency extended to government. He admired Pelham's budget cuts (except when they affected the military) and was notoriously reluctant to ‘dilute’ the peerage with new creations, despite their political value. The one emotion he displayed liberally was a prodigiously bad temper. He was blunt, rude, and lacked social graces to a surprising degree. He had good health for most of his life, apart from severe piles, and into old age retained full command of his faculties. George had little interest in cultural or intellectual matters (with the exception of his patronage of Handel). His wife Queen Caroline, however, was renowned for her intellectual curiosity and quick wit. George loved her deeply, but resented any suggestion that she (and her alleged favourite, Walpole) dictated policy to him. His love did not prevent George from taking a number of mistresses before as well as after her death in 1737. Thereafter, Lady Yarmouth (a German) became the chief object of his not inconsiderable sexual appetite.
The king got along with his daughters fairly well, but towards his sons the difference in attitude was dramatic. His beloved younger son was the duke of Cumberland; he was very like his father in his devotion to the military with his finest hours coming during the War of Austrian Succession, including accompanying George at Dettingen (1743). His ruthless pursuit of the Jacobites after Culloden also met with paternal approval. Cumberland's errors of diplomatic judgement and consequent resignation in 1757 cast a shadow over George's otherwise triumphant final years. The king's pride in Cumberland contrasts with the loathing he (and Queen Caroline) had for their heir, Frederick, prince of Wales. That George I (whom George II also hated) had liked Frederick may have been the origin of the king's animosity, but it reached such intensity as to be beyond rational explanation. Frederick was often foolish, but he had received little encouragement to show responsibility; despite George II's own contacts with the opposition as prince of Wales, the king was enraged by Frederick's similar behaviour. Frederick's early death in 1751 provided the opportunity for reconciliation between the king and the princess of Wales and his grandson and heir. However, as the future George III grew older, a breach developed here too, so that when the new king acceded to the throne, he had already formulated theories of government notably different from his grandfather's.
During his reign George II demonstrated that his love of the military was not purely ceremonial. His courage in battle was obvious as early as 1708, when as Prince George Augustus of Hanover he fought as a British ally in the War of Spanish Succession. His courage was required again during the War of Austrian Succession, not just on the battlefield at Dettingen, but in the face of an invasion by Charles Edward Stuart in 1745. George was certain of victory, even when the Jacobites reached Derby; the minute levels of support the invaders received in England vindicated his instincts and the Jacobites were soon utterly vanquished. The Seven Years War brought momentous British successes in the colonies and in Europe. George supervised military operations and appointments carefully, though preferring elderly commanders to the more enterprising younger officers advocated by Pitt.
A flamboyant, charismatic, and forceful king may not have been the ideal way for Britain to preserve her balanced constitution in the mid-18th cent. But though George II had his flaws, he was essentially sensible and moderate, and his reign can be judged a success.
Andrew Iain Lewer
Chevenix-Trench, C. , George II (1973);
Davies, G. , A King in Toils (1938);
Owen, J. B. , ‘George II Reconsidered’, in Whiteman, A., Bromley, J. S., and Dickson, P. G. M. (eds.), Statesmen, Scholars and Merchants (Oxford, 1973).
George II (1683-1760) was king of Great Britain and Ireland and elector of Hanover from 1727 to 1760. During his long reign the system of governing Britain through an oligarchy of powerful political managers solidified.
George II, born Nov. 10, 1683, followed a military career as a young man. As Prince of Wales, he displayed hostility to his father—which was amply returned—and counted his father's advisers as enemies. Thus, when he became king in 1727, he did not wish the incumbent leading minister, Robert Walpole, to continue in office. But Walpole stayed on all the same. The new queen, Caroline of Ansbach, whose close friendship Walpole had secured 10 years earlier, made George II see that Walpole could provide what others could not: stable government and a lavish budget for the court.
The Queen ruled her husband. Although George II took mistresses, his enduring passion was for his wife. Her ample physique attracted him; her management of his ego enslaved him. They were quite unalike. He was meticulous, industrious, and orderly in his habits, yet lacking in self-confidence. She was bold and charming. He had no time for ideas, though he loved music and read history; the religious and philosophical subjects that she delighted in discussing were to him "lettered nonsense." It was a stormy marriage; the King shouted, but the Queen got her way. Walpole, who ignored the mistresses, had indeed "taken the right sow by the ear," and although the Queen's death in 1737 diminished his certainty of royal favor, he was kept on until war eroded his parliamentary position in 1742. Even after Walpole retired, George II sought his advice.
George II was the last English monarch to lead his troops in battle, but, "for all his personal bravery," he was, as Walpole observed, "as great a political coward as ever wore a crown." When pressured by his ministers he quarreled and complained but yielded. Thus he gave up the one minister who completely captured his heart, John Carteret, because the Pelhams brought to bear their parliamentary power. Carteret's intellectual gifts and his zeal for a strong diplomatic posture attracted George II, but the man had no parliamentary base, and when the Pelhams sought his dismissal in 1744, the King acquiesced. The new broad-based ministry that was then formed insisted, in 1746, on giving office to William Pitt the Elder. George II detested Pitt and vowed never to show him favor, but when nearly all his ministers threatened to resign, he capitulated.
It was the habit of the Georges to hate their sons. George II's strangely intense loathing for Frederick, Prince of Wales—"that monster"—was fully shared by the Queen, who once asserted: "My dear first-born is the greatest ass, and the greatest liar, … and the greatest beast in the whole world." To avoid employing the dissident politicians who, since 1737, had gathered around the prince at Leicester House, the King gladly put up with the Pelhams. There was no sorrow at court when the prince died in 1751, but there was regret when Henry Pelham died in 1754.
"Now I shall have no more peace," George II remarked on learning of Pelham's death. He was right. His government was unsettled until 1757, when he agreed to accept the combined leadership of Pitt and Lord Newcastle. George II disliked both men, but under them Britain achieved its greatest triumphs in 18th-century warfare. Amid these triumphs the old king died of a heart attack on Oct. 25, 1760.
Clearly, George II's role in the great victories of the Seven Years War was at best a marginal one. It was not that he was lazy or stupid; he understood government business and took it seriously. If during his reign the power of monarchy seemed to diminish, it was mainly because he preferred to avoid difficult situations. Power flowed to those with stronger wills. "Ministers are kings in this country," he grumbled. It was not true, but he generally acted as though it were.
J. D. Griffith Davies, A King in Toils (1938), is a study of George II. R. L. Arkell, Caroline of Ansbach: George the Second's Queen (1939), and Peter Quennell, Caroline of England: An Augustan Portrait (1939), offer good introductions to life at George II's court. Lord Hervey's Memoirs provides a colorful eyewitness account of the court; Romney Sedgwick's abridged edition (1952; rev. 1963) retains most of the material relating to the King and Queen. For reliable accounts of politics during George II's reign see Basil Williams, The Life of William Pitt, Earl of Chatham (2 vols., 1913); J. H. Plumb, Sir Robert Walpole (2 vols., 1956-1961); and John B. Owen, The Rise of the Pelhams (1957). □