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Georg Ludwig of Hanover
George I, or "Georg Ludwig" as he was known before his succession in 1714 to the British throne, was born on May 28, 1660, in the city of Hanover in the Duchy of Brunswick-Lüneburg, which was part of the Holy Roman Empire. As a young man, his prospects were modest, but Georg Ludwig's luck changed when his father, uncles, and cousins agreed to impose primogeniture on future generations. Primogeniture is an ancient custom in Europe where the eldest son inherits the family estate.
Transferring all the wealth from one generation to the eldest son allowed for a small noble class, in contrast to the practice in much of Europe, which had thousands of impoverished noblemen. Upon his father's death, Ernest Augustus, in 1698, George received a substantial inheritance and the title of "Elector of the Holy Roman Empire." The title would eventually give him the right to join the small elite group of electors who had the right to determine who would become king of the Holy Roman Empire.
Georg's mother, Sophia of Hanover, was the daughter of the "Winter Queen,” Elizabeth of Bohemia, and granddaughter of King James I of England. Sophia was known as an intelligent and engaging woman and, in the opinion of Duchess of Württemberg, “She is probably the most agreeable and cleverest person in the world and it is a great pleasure for anyone who has the honor to consort with her, for she is very good-natured and clever to a degree, so much so that everyone should take her as a model.”
After the death of Duke George William of Brunswick-Lüneburg, George inherited the state of Lüneburg, which was cordially known as the Electorate of Hanover.
To merge the neighboring duchies of Celle with Hanover, a marriage was arranged between Georg and his cousin Sophia Dorothea of Celle. When they married in 1682 their relationship did not go well. She was a spry and lively 16-year-old girl, and he was a 22-year-old young man. However, Georg was old for his years, taciturn, serious, and driven as a soldier.
Georg spent much of his time away at war fighting the Ottoman Turks. When he was home, he spent his time hunting. His sexual appetite was satisfied by the ladies of the court, especially his mistress Baroness Melusine von der Schulenburg, who gave birth to their daughter in 1692.
It was common for male princes to have at least one mistress; wives were primarily needed to generate legitimate male offspring to secure the family lineage. While infidelity in males was accepted, indiscretions by the wives were completely forbidden.
The Sad Fate of Sophia Dorothea
Lonely and frustrated, Sophia Dorothea made the acquaintance of a handsome young officer in the Hanoverian service named Philip Christoph von Königsmarck. Philip wrote his first love letter to Sophia Dorothea in 1690 while campaigning in Flanders. Their relationship was hard to keep secret in a small royal court and a town the size of Hanover.
Though the facts of the night of July 11-12, 1694, are not exactly known, apparently Philip went to the palace late at night for a tryst with the princess. Before he could reach Sophia, he was intercepted and as the story goes, he was hacked to death and his body parts were weighted down with stones and dumped in the nearby Leine River. Soon afterward, Georg divorced his wife and returned her to her father, Duke Georg Wilhelm of Celle. There she was placed under a form of house arrest.
She spent the next 32 years, until her death, living in a comfortable but isolated and guarded state. Her frequent pleas to see her two children fell on deaf ears, as she never did see her children again. The scandalous treatment of his wife would become political fodder for the king’s opponents for the rest of his life.
Georg Ludwig becomes King George I
George I has been called the “lucky king” because of the unlikely series of events that brought an elector of a duchy in the Holy Roman Empire to the throne of Britain. The events began to unfold in late May 1714 when Georg's mother Sophia went for a stroll about the family estate in Hanover. A sudden shower sent her running for cover, but the exertion must have been too much as the 83-year-old died 11 days later.
Through a series of deaths within the family and as the closest Protestant relative of Queen Anne, she had become the heiress presumptive to the British, Scottish, and Irish thrones. The 1701 Act of Settlement, which defined the next in line to the throne, declared that after Queen Anne, “the most Excellent Princess Sophia Electress and Duchess Dowager of Hannover Daughter of the most Excellent Princess Elizabeth late Queen of Bohemia Daughter of our late Sovereign Lord King James the First of happy Memory be and is hereby declared to be the next in Succession in the Protestant Line to the Imperial Crown.”
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When Princess Sophia died in June 1714, her eldest son Georg Ludwig became the next heir apparent to the English throne. When Queen Anne died just a few weeks after Sophia, Georg was destined to be the next king of Britain.
King George I
Once Georg learned of his good fortune, he began the task of moving to his new home in Britain to take up his role as king. In England, the German name Georg would become George. George and his entourage arrived without fanfare in Greenwich on September 18, 1714.
Two days later the new king set out for London escorted by a procession that took half a day to pass. One observer of the event wrote in his diary of that day: “We had a fair view of the cavalcade when his Majesty, King George, made his public entry through the city, which was most splendid and magnificent above expression, the nobility even burdened with gold and silver embroidery. We counted above two hundred and six coaches, though they were frequently two lords in one coach, besides the Bishops and Judges, etc; at last came the most blessed sight of a Protestant King and Prince attended with the loud acclamations of the people.” Beneath the surface of all the grandeur and spectacle of the king's entrance, there was an underlying conflict seething—not everybody was willing to accept the new German king.
George’s good fortune to become king of Britain was a mixed blessing for the 54-year-old man who was already set in ways. He hated to leave his native soil, where he greatly enjoyed hunting in woodlands surrounding his fine country home, the Herrenhausen. The territory of Hanover was small compared to the British Empire, but his subjects were loyal and relatively obedient.
In Hanover, the Elector was powerful, having absolute authority over the smallest of expenditures, and the army was regarded as his personal property. Britain as a constitutional monarchy had a much more complex political and social landscape; infighting raged between the two political parties, the Tories and the Whigs; Scotland had recently united with Britain and many weren’t happy with the union; the Catholics and the Protestants were bitter enemies; and war with European rivals was a constant threat.
Though fraught with headaches and perils, becoming king of Britain enormously enhanced his prestige with the other Electors of the Holy Roman Empire, giving him the power to destroy those who sought to overtake his native land.
The King’s Mistress
When George came to claim his throne in Britain, he brought with him two women who became the object of much malicious gossip. Melusine von der Schulenburg, nicknamed “the Maypole" because she was tall and slim, had been George's mistress of two decades, bearing him three daughters, all of whom lived with their parents at St. James' Palace.
The second important lady in his entourage was Sophia Charlotte von Kielmansegg, nicknamed “the Elephant'" because she was short and heavy. She was George's half-sister, the illegitimate offspring of his father, Elector Ernst August. The king put her husband in charge of the royal stables.
These two ladies grew rich in the king's court, taking bribes from those who sought the king's favor. George's history of divorce and locking up his first wife for adultery and his public relationship with his mistress did little to bolster his image with his subjects, who were growing increasingly weary of sexual impropriety in high places.
The Supremacy of the Whigs
Once in power, King George began to make changes within the ministers. The two leading Tory ministers, Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford, and Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke, were replaced by two Whig politicians, Charles, Viscount Townshend, and James, Viscount Stanhope, as secretaries of state. Robert Walpole, Townshend's brother-in-law, became paymaster general.
Walpole, who was of Norfolk gentry, was a capable politician—shrewd and greedy, he had served as a member of Parliament, secretary of war, and secretary of the Navy. Warpole found favor with the king and was promoted to first lord of the Treasury and chancellor of the Exchequer in 1715. He encouraged the king's Whig bias, using it to his advantage.
In the general election held in February 1715, the Whigs won 341 seats in Parliament to the Tories' 217. With the Whig victory came quarreling within the leadership of the party, leading to the departures of Walpole and Townshend in 1717 as the king's ministers. Charles Spencer, Earl of Sunderland, became the secretary of state. While all this political jostling was happening, the heir apparent to the throne, George, the Prince of Wales, began to quarrel with his father and flirt with opposition groups within Parliament.
The Jacobite Uprising
During the weeks leading up to the arrival of King George, London had been a scene of unrest over the Hanoverian succession. Ever since the Glorious Revolution of 1688 when the Catholic King James II fled to France in exile and was replaced by his Protestant daughter Mary II and her husband William III of Orange, supporters of James II, known as "Jacobites," wanted to bring the Catholic line of the Stuart dynasty back to the British throne by any means necessary.
James II died in 1701 and his son James Francis Stuart claimed the stolen lineage to the throne. The son, James III, as he was known by the Jacobites or the “Old Pretender" by everyone else, roused his supporters in the summer of 1714 at the time of Queen Anne's death to take back the throne.
King George I was keenly aware of the absolute significance of religion in Britain, attending Anglican services to take Communion in the Anglican rite soon after he arrived in England. During his reign, he returned to Hanover six times for visits, and each time he took an Anglican chaplain with him to ensure his attendance at Anglican services would be reported in the press. Though the transition to power of King George I was without a significant Jacobite uprising, there were protests over the election campaign for the new Parliament that by law had to occur within six months of Queen Anne's death.
The civil unrest led to waves of rioting across England between the fall of 1714 and the summer of 1715. At the same time a group met with King James III for a new revolution to restore him to the throne.
In Scotland, the Jacobites began secretly preparing an uprising that would restore the Stuart line and free Scotland from British rule. When George I found out about the conspiracy, he and his ministers had the Tories’ leaders in Britain arrested, but failed to catch the Jacobites’ leader in Scotland, the Earl of Mar. The Earl of Mar had persuaded the Scottish clans in the northeast to come to the support of the Old Pretender. Other Scots, who were opposed to the union with Britain, also rallied to the cause.
However, due to his incompetence as a general, Mar failed to win an overwhelming victory over the greatly outnumbered Hanoverian troops at the Battle of Sheriffmuir on November 13, 1715. In December, the Old Pretender arrived in Scotland, but by then the rebellion had faltered, forcing him to flee back to France with Mar and other leaders of the rebellion.
Over the next several months, the ringleaders in both England and Scotland were arrested. Many of those captured were tried for treason and executed. James III fled the country, and the uprising was squashed. Over the next 30 years, James and the Jacobites would attempt to regain the throne of the Kingdom of Britain.
The South Sea Bubble
In 1720, a major financial crisis ruined many investors in what has become known as the South Sea Bubble. The South Sea Company was founded in 1711 as a Troy alternative to the Whig financial establishment.
In 1719, the trading and finance company offered to take over a large portion of national debt that had previously been managed by the Bank of England. The Whig-led government approved of the takeover. In return, many of the high-ranking government officials received gifts, really bribes, from the company. By 1720, investing in the stock of the South Sea Company became a mania; as investors rushed in to purchase the stock, the price rose from £120 in January to £1,000 in August.
In September the bubble burst and the stock price crashed, ruining thousands. The directors of the South Sea Company were arrested, and their estates were confiscated. King George was also dragged into the investigation when it was found that his mistress and half-sister were both heavily invested in the company and were blamed by the public for their involvement.
Parliament held an inquiry into the financial crisis, which resulted in the removal of several members of Parliament and John Aislabie, Chancellor of the Exchequer. The crisis became an opportunity for Robert Walpole to return to leadership in Parliament. He had invested heavily in the company’s stock and managed to sell at the top of the market for a huge profit. With the money from his profits, he was able to gain considerable power in Parliament, allowing him to take charge of the troubled financial condition of the nation, thus, restoring financial confidence in the government.
Walpole’s handling of the crisis prompted his promotion to the first lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer. The crisis also provided a way for Townshend to return to his post as secretary of state.
The Prince of Wales
King George's eldest son Georg August, the child of his imprisoned ex-wife, had a bitter and acrimonious relationship with his father. The son, who was given the title Prince of Wales, never forgave his father for the virtual imprisonment of his mother. The hostility between the two came into the open when King George returned to his native Hanover for an extended visit in 1716.
The king was adamant that the Prince of Wales not act as his viceroy during his absence. Rather than attempt an active role in the government, the prince organized lavish court festivities, dined in public, boasted of his knowledge of the English language and culture, and put on airs as the presumptive next king. By now, King George was well into his fifties, an elderly man by the standards of the day. Accompanying the prince was his attractive and intelligent wife Caroline. When King George returned to England in January 1717, the level of hostility between the king and the prince escalated.
The Prince of Wales had gathered around him dissident Whigs and Tories, making him effectively the leader of the opposition to his father. The king had his own games to play, preventing the prince and his wife from dining in public and banning both from the royal dining table. To bolster his image among the elites, during the summer months at Hampton Court, twice each week the king would throw lavish dinner parties with up to 50 prominent guests in attendance.
The birth of a son to the Prince of Wales and Caroline brought a crescendo to the family squabble. The parents wanted George’s brother, Ernest August, to stand as godfather for the boy at his christening. The king’s ministers persuaded him that tradition required Lord Chamberlain, the Duke of Newcastle, to perform that role.
Though the Prince of Wales complied with his father’s request, at the end of the ceremony he turned to Lord Chamberlain and snapped, “Rascal, I find you out.” Chamberlain misunderstood the comment, believing he had said, “Rascal, I fight you out.” Newcastle was shocked. Was he being challenged to a duel by the heir to the throne? The king flew into a rage at the perceived impertinence of his son, sending guards for his arrest. The king stopped short of the arrest of the prince when he was reminded that under English law, not even the king could impose arbitrary imprisonment.
The royal family descended into chaos, and the Prince of Wales was banished from St. James’ Palace. His wife joined him in exile, but the king required their three young daughters and the baby boy to remain with him. The prince’s new house became a meeting place for those who opposed the king.
At the insistence of Robert Walpole, a truce was called between the father and son; however, the two men never fully reconciled their bitter feelings. The animosity between the king and his eldest son would become a hallmark of the Hanoverian dynasty, as this feud would play out in each succeeding generation until the twentieth century.
During the last few years of George I’s reign, he relied heavily on Robert Walpole to act on his behalf. As the king delegated more of his authority, Walpole became more powerful, able to appoint ministers at his own will. George seldom attended meetings of the cabinet; rather, he communicated with his ministers in private. During his sixth trip to Hanover with his mistress, he suffered a stroke in early June 1727. He died at Osnabrück on June 11, 1727, in the very room in which he was born.
During King George I’s reign, the power of the monarch diminished, and the period saw the rise of the modern system of British government with a prime minister and cabinet. Robert Walpole became the de facto first prime minister of Great Britain, serving under both King George I and II. King George I was succeeded by his son, George Augustus, the Prince of Wales, who became known as George II.
- Blanning, Tim. George I: The Lucky King. Great Britain: Penguin Random House UK, 2019.
- Cannon, John (Editor). Oxford Dictionary of British History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
- Fraser, Antonia (Editor). The Lives of the Kings & Queens of England. Revised and Updated. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.
- Treasure, Geoffrey (senior editor). Who's Who in Early Hanoverian Britain (1714-1789). London: Shepheard Walwyn, 1991.
- Act of Settlement (1700). Accessed July 28, 2021. https://www.legislation.gov.uk/aep/Will3/12-13/2/contents
© 2021 Doug West