Guest article written by: Alan Freer
George I, King of Great Britain and Ireland, and Elector of Hanover, is portrayed as an insensitive, cold man with little learning and less sense. This is completely inaccurate. He may have been lazy, set in his ways and preoccupied with the affairs of Hanover, but he had a good brain, a shrewd political instinct, and a knack of knowing whom to trust.
He was born at Hanover on 28 March 1660, the eldest son of Ernest Augustus, of the House of Brunswick, and Sophia, daughter of Frederick, Prince of the Rhine, and Elizabeth, daughter of James I of England (for the background to the family see the first article in the series). His mother had a lively and intelligent mind and must have been a considerable influence on his education and early years. A family member states that he showed her little affection but he wrote to his mother loving and dutiful letters when he was away on military service and was always very concerned when ever she became ill. He first demonstrated his skills as a soldier at the age if fifteen when he served in the army of the Holy Roman Emperor, Leopold I. Ernest Augustus informed his wife that “her Benjamin bore himself bravely “ in the battle of the Bridge at Conz.
In December 1680 young George embarked on a journey to England. He was well received and, at one point, believed himself in the running for the hand of Princess Anne (later Queen Anne whom he succeeded). However, he was suddenly recalled to Hanover by his father. Ernest had found him a wife, Sophia Dorothea, the daughter of his uncle, George William, Duke of Luneburg-Celle, and his French wife. The marriage took place on 21 November 1682 and the union assured the unification of all the lands held by the junior branch of the House of Brunswick.
He returned to his military activities in the service of the Emperor, campaigning in Austria and Hungary, distinguishing himself at the capture of Neuhausel and, at the battle of Neerwinden, he was fortunate to escape with his life.
Domestically, his wife presented him with two children, George, the future George II, and Sophia Dorothia, later the queen of Frederick William I, King of Prussia. However, all was not well in the Prince’s bed. George had a healthy appetite for women. The relationship with his cousin was never of a loving nature, and this was not helped by him taking a mistress, Madame von dem Bussche. A coldness developed in to loathing and the infidelity was not all on one side. Sophia had her paramours and one such lover was to prove her downfall. Count Philip von Konigsmark was a Swedish soldier of fortune who joined the Hanoverian army. It seems that Sophia planned to foolishly elope with the Count on the night of 1 July 1694. The escapade was discovered and the Count was never seen again. George can not be directly implicated in the Count’s disappearance as he was in Berlin at the time, but it is unlikely that he was unaware of the circumstances. Sophia was accused of a criminal intrigue. She had previously made an attempt to leave Hanover and this was an apparent effort, using Konigsmark, to repeat the venture. On George’s return the sentence of divorce was pronounced on the grounds of malicious desertion and Sophia was made a prisoner at Ahlden, near Celle. Despite his feelings of betrayal, she was not maltreated but she never saw her husband or children again. When she died on 3 November 1726, George allowed her to be buried with her parents at Celle.
In 1694 George began to shoulder part of the responsibility for governing the Electorate and, when his father died in July 1698, Hanover became his. William III had attempted to obtain the specific mention of George’s mother, Sophia, and her descendants by name in the succession to the British crown in 1689, but had been unable to pass it through Parliament. King William made a visit to George’s uncle, George William of Celle, in 1699, when it was made clear the King favoured a Hanoverian succession. The death of young William, Duke of Gloucester, the only surviving child of Princess Anne, on 30 July 1700 strengthened this course of action. The Act of Settlement of 1701 eventually defined the succession to the line of Hanover should William and Anne die without issue.
Over the next ten years George devoted himself to the military matters of the Empire. He built up a reputation for being a steadfast soldier and a sound commander. He helped protect Holstein-Gottorp in 1699 against the Danes and in 1701 it was seriously suggested that he might take over the Stadholdership of Holland in succession to the late King William. He gained further respect and gratitude in England when he placed ten thousand German troops under the command of the Duke of Marlborough and, in addition, provided the Duke with five regiments of horse. There was a school of opinion that George should have been appointed Captain-General of the Allied forces but the Elector of Hanover was sensible enough to recognise his superior in military skill. Toland described George as “a popular prince, equitable in administration, frugal and punctual in his payments, a perfect man of business, but spending much time with his mistresses.” He praised his military knowledge, personal courage, and George’s love of hunting. He wrote of his “zeal against the intended universal monarchy of France, and was so most hearty for the common cause of Europe.” All sentiments that were guaranteed to garner support in England.
Marlborough paid a visit to Hanover in 1704 and George was able to use his good offices to assist the Duke in his negotiations with Charles XII of Sweden. The too very different men were to cement an intimate relationship and when the Duke lost favour with Queen Anne, he never lost the support of George.
In 1707 George was granted the supreme command of the Army of the Empire in the Upper Rhine. He found it lacking in discipline and in poor condition. Over the next three years he battled against red tape and petty obstructions in an effort to improve the situation but eventually, on 20 May 1710, angered by differences with the Emperor, he resigned his command.
Despite the fact that he expected to succeed to the British throne, he never interfered in British politics. A number of approaches were made to him, particularly by the Tories, but all were coldly received. As Queen Anne’s life moved towards its close, his contact with Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford, her chief minister, bred a deep suspicion and he developed a contempt for the Secretary of State, Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke. George placed his trust in Marlborough and his associates.
His mother, the Electress Sophia, died on 8 June 1714 and was followed less than two months later by Queen Anne on 1 August. George promptly reinstated Marlborough as Captain-General of the British army, probably his first action as King.
George was in no haste to leave Hanover. He placed the government of the Electorate in the hands of a council presided over by Ernest Augustus, his youngest brother, and eventually departed without ceremony on 31 August. He travelled by stages to The Hague and set sail on 16 September on the yacht Peregrine, escorted by a squadron of twenty British naval ships under the command of Admiral Berkeley. Fog delayed his landing but he finally set foot on English soil at Greenwich on the 18th at 6 p.m. On the 19th at a reception he met the higher ranks of the nobility, giving much attention to the Whig lords, particularly Marlborough, and virtually ignoring the Tories. If the Lords Ormonde, Oxford and Harcourt did not know they were out of favour before, they did now. The following day he made his entrance in to London, with his son, George, the new Prince of Wales, at his side. The Privy Council was convened, but only to dissolve it and a new one appointed. The new ministry was entirely Whig in membership, with the exception of the Earl of Nottingham.
The Whigs knew how to take advantage of the sudden change in climate. After the great victories so hard won by Marlborough had been humiliatingly thrown away at the Treaty of Utrecht to appease the French and after four years out of office, the likes of Stanhope, Townshend, Halifax, Sunderland and Walpole were not in a forgiving frame of mind. An Act of Parliament required that an election be held within 6 months of Queen Anne’s death. With the King’s obvious favour and their leaders packing the council of state, the Whigs obtained a large majority. This was an opportunity to settle old scores. A secret committee of the Commons was set up to investigate the conduct of the previous administration and to root out traitors. Bolingbroke saw the writing on the wall and on 6 April 1715 he wisely slipped out of a theatre in the middle of the performance and crossed the Channel to St. Germain to join James Stuart. Ormonde followed the same path four months later while Oxford remained and found himself in the Tower of London.
King George brought certain baggage with him from Hanover. With his ex-wife locked away in Germany, two strange women accompanied him to his new kingdom. Ehrengard Melusina von Schulenburg, whom he created Duchess of Kendal, had been one of his mistresses for some years. She was thin, tall, and sixty years old. She had lost interest in the pleasures of the flesh and now focused her attention on riches and power. George installed her in an apartment on the ground floor of St. James’s Palace. He would spend hours in her comfortable company talking their native tongue and cutting out paper figures, an amusement of the King’s. When not in the presence of the Duchess of Kendal, he could be found enjoying the delights of Charlotte Sophia Kielmannsegge whom he made Countess of Darlington. She was the daughter of the Countess of Platen, the mistress of George’s father, Ernest Augustus. There was a suspicion that she was George’s illegitimate half-sister but that is most unlikely. The ordinary Englishman did not take kindly to these appendages to the King. A newspaper, the Journal, published on 27 May 1721, “We are ruined by trolls, nay, what is more vexatious, by old, ugly trolls, such as could not find entertainment in the most hospitable hundreds of old Drury.” George would have to get used to such comments in England. In Hanover he would have exercised a more direct response to criticism. Horace Walpole met the Countess of Darlington as a boy and recorded his impression of her. “Lady Darlington, whom I saw at my mother’s in my infancy, and whom I remember by being terrified at her enormous figure, was as corpulent and ample as the Duchess (Kendal) was long and emaciated. Two fierce, black eyes, large and rolling beneath two lofty, arched eyebrows, two acres of cheeks spread with crimson, an ocean of neck that overflowed and was not distinguished from the lower parks of her body, and no part retrained by stays – no wonder that a child dreaded such an ogress, and that the mob of London were highly diverted at the importation of so uncommon a seraglio!” Despite her gross appearance, Lady Darlington was intelligent, knowledgeable and many found her charming and friendly. Nevertheless, she was as greedy as her companion and they both undoubtedly took bribes in return for favours. They did not have it all their own way for George quickly spotted the delights of the Duchess of Shrewsbury and wasted no time in sampling them.
The initial years of the reign were lively, if somewhat earthy, compared to the court of dull-witted Queen Anne, but as George moved into his late fifties, he, essentially a shy man, withdrew in to an inner circle of his German advisors, his ministers, and a few close friends. He was not a man for pomp and circumstance, he was a soldier who would rather live in a few rooms than a great palace. His personal needs were met by two Turkish servants whom he had captured while campaigning in his younger days. He was a modest gambler, preferring to play cards with a small group of friends in the privacy of their homes than in open, public Court. His great love was opera but even with this amusement he rejected the formality of the Royal Box. The Court would have probably drifted in to a comfortable, somewhat dull routine had it not been for his heir, George, Prince of Wales, and his wife, Caroline of Ansbach. And therein lay the abiding curse of all the Hanoverian Kings – father and son loathed each other!
The disenchantment between father and son may have stemmed from George’s treatment of his wife, Sophia Dorothia, and her imprisonment. Although the Prince of Wales was very much like his father in character, far more than he would perhaps like, as with most princes in waiting, kings always tended to live too long. King George was fully aware of these sentiments and provoked the Prince with petty restrictions and slights. The King’s relationship with his daughter-in-law was completely different. Caroline was a larger than life figure – in all ways. She was intelligent, intellectually witty, with a large but shapely figure, blue eyes, a great shock of blonde hair, and an ample bosom. She was well endowed with charm and could hold her own in any learned discussion. The King found her staggeringly attractive, as did most men. Without Caroline the rift between father and son would have made court life intolerable.
With the Hanoverian succession it was inevitable that some revolt would materialise in Scotland. The Earl of Mar raised the Jacobite flag at Perth on 6 September 1715. In the north of England Lord Derwentwater also gathered together a force of disaffected gentry bent on the restoration of the Stuarts. Reinforced by four thousand Scots, they moved south in an effort to raise the whole country. When asked for his advice, the old Duke of Marlborough pointed to a map and said, “You will beat them there.” He marked the map with his thumbnail at Preston. On November 13, the Duke’s prediction came to pass – at Preston. In Scotland government forces under the Duke of Argyll brought a Jacobite army to battle at Sheriffmuir on the same day. Although the outcome was indecisive, the ever recurring disease of Scots armies, desertion, took its toll and by the time the Old Pretender landed in Scotland in December it was merely a case of salvaging what support he could find and returning to France. The “fifteen” revolt had come to a miserable end.
George was anxious to return to Hanover and the Scottish rising had delayed his departure. Before leaving he had to solve the problem of the Prince of Wales. Normally the heir would have been appointed regent. George refused to do this and a title was dug out of the Middle Ages of “Guardian of the Realm and Lieutenant.” With regard to his powers – he had none. With the King in Hanover things started to fall apart. The Whigs, united in the early months of the reign against the Tory and Scots danger, now began to quarrel and plot. Assisted by Caroline’s charm, Prince George used his father’s absence to form his own power base.
George I returned in March 1717 well aware that his son had been courting support. The matter came to a ridiculous and farcical head in November. Caroline gave birth to a son and the Prince wished to name the godparents. King George overruled him and appointed his own and included the Duke of Newcastle whom Prince George detested. In the course of the ceremony the Prince muttered in Newcastle’s ear, “Rascal, I find you out.” The Duke panicked for he thought the Prince had said, “I’ll fight you.” Newcastle spoke with his colleagues who advised him to go to the King. George was furious and confined the Prince of Wales to house arrest. A wise head pointed out that under the Habeas Corpus Act, this was illegal. The King banished the Prince from the court and young George set up home at Leicester House.
Inevitably Leicester House became the focal point of opposition. Lord Townshend and Robert Walpole, both recently dropped from the Whig government, soon found themselves welcome at the Prince’s abode. This “second court” was far more lively than that surrounding the fifty-seven year old King and, with the added bonus of the presence of the charming Caroline, young men of ambition beat a path to Leicester House.
The Prince’s exclusion from cabinet meetings brought unexpected complications. King George could only speak German and French while the Prince had good English. In deference to the King, matters were conducted in French but not all his ministers could speak the language. Some of the proceedings had to be held in English. The King relied on the Prince to pick up the nuances of the discussions and, without him, the King at times found himself isolated. The last thing the Whigs in power, Lord Sunderland and Stanhope, wanted was the presence of the Prince for they realised that any plans made would immediately by related to the opposition. To save himself embarrassment the King stopped attending cabinet meetings and received a briefing from individual ministers in private, thus placing greater power in the hands of the Lords of Cabinet. This has been seen as an important development in the evolution of the British Constitution, and all because of a family quarrel and a king’s ignorance of English!
Walpole was the “coming man” in the ranks of the opposition. He found an affinity with Princess Caroline and they both realised that the only way they could get what they wanted was to arrange a reconciliation between father and son. It took time and a great deal of work behind the scenes by them both, but in 1720 she managed to get her husband on his knees before his father. Although this was purely a cosmetic affair, it did stabilise the chaotic political situation. This was fortunate for there was a far greater danger looming on the financial horizon.
The English economy was prospering; trade was increasing, industry developing and agriculture was stimulated by the upward turn of events. There were solid institutions in the form of the Bank of England and the long-standing chartered corporations. There was, however, one fly in the ointment – credit. Most new overseas trading enterprises were wholly financed on credit. The largest of these was the South Sea Company. It was a sort of “ dot com.” affair; expansion was the “be all and end all” and the directors saw a chance of making fabulous riches by manipulating the price of its stock. The stock became highly inflated in price and the company used this paper to bribe politicians and even the King’s mistresses. Speculation had London by the throat like some mad disease. Inevitably the crash came and shook the foundations of political and economic society.
The words of a Colonel William Windham, writing to his brother on 27 September 1720, display the enormity of the disaster. “There never was such distraction and undoing in any country…You can’t suppose the number of families undone. One may say almost everybody is ruined who has traded beyond their stock. Many a 100,000 men not with a grote and it grieves me to think of some of them.” With so many losses there were a few lucky winners. Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, made a fortune by getting out at the top of the market and Walpole was saved from financial disaster by his prudent banker.
With society racked with ruin, who was to rebuild the lost confidence? Robert Walpole took on the task and his solution was not financial but political. The bursting of the South Sea Bubble did not change the overall strength of the British economy. Walpole took the debts of the bankrupt company and divided it between the National Debt and the Treasury. Within twelve months his business-like approach to government had restored the nations confidence. Edmund Burke later wrote, “The charge of systematic corruption is less applicable to Sir Robert Walpole than any other minister who ever served the Crown for such a length of time.”
With Walpole and his close associate and ally, Lord Townshend, in charge of the ship of state, George could relax. There followed years of peace and prosperity leaving George to travel back and forth between England and Hanover.
On one of these excursions the King left England on 3 June 1727. He spent the night of the 9th at Delden in Holland. Leaving the Duchess of Kendal behind, he continued his journey at 7 a.m. in the company of two Hanoverian officials, Hardenberg and Fabrice. An hour later he collapsed with an “apoplectic stroke.” He was still conscious and, after being bled, he insisted that they continue to his brother’s house at Osnabruck, where he arrived at 10 p.m. in a poor state. He lasted through the next day and died on the morning of Wednesday 12 June attended by his faithful Turkish servant, Mustapha. After a period at the Osnabruck palace his body was interred in Hanover on 30 August. On news of his father’s death the new King George II destroyed his father’s will!
George Ludwig, Elector of Hanover, had succeeded to the throne of Britain at a precarious time. The country was riven with rebellion and factional strife. His steady, if unimaginative, hand had brought stability from chaos. History may not have made him many friends but he undoubtedly deserves fewer enemies.
About the Author:
I am Alan Freer and live in the small village of Byfleet, Surrey, England. Edward, the Black Prince, spent much of his final years in Byfleet. I have been an amateur “historian” since the age of seven, when I purchased my first history book in 1955. Indeed, it was anticipated that I would become a history teacher, but a brief conversation just before I was due to go to university directed me to the banking industry – more lucrative but, perhaps, not so satisfying! History lead me into genealogy and I have my own website detailing the Descendents of William the Conqueror (www.william1.co.uk ). A never-ending project! When I retired from the bank in 1999 I started to write and have had a number of articles published in US history magazines or on magazine websites. Primarily I wrote for the amusement of my colleagues in my second occupation as a civil servant. I count myself most fortunate to have been born in England and would not wish it otherwise – except, possibly, Italy!!