Saturday, 3 September 2016

The first two Georges

The Hanoverian dynasty celebrated in
the Painted Hall in Greenwich
Sir James Thornhill

At 6 pm on 18 September 1714 Georg Ludwig, Elector of Hanover, landed at Greenwich, to be greeted by cheering crowds. In August, following the death of Queen Anne, he had been proclaimed King of Great Britain. He spent his first night in England at the Queen's House. The following day he held his first royal reception there. 

George owed his crown to the Act of Settlement of 1701, which settled the English succession in favour of George’s mother, the Electress Sophia of Hanover and her heirs, ‘being Protestant’.

It remains the law to this day and is the present Queen’s legal title to the throne. By the laws of hereditary succession, James Francis Edward (the Old Pretender), the son of the deposed James II, was the rightful king, but his Catholicism barred him from the throne. 

A parliamentary monarch

George I was the heir to the Glorious Revolution of 1688-9, which had banished the Catholic monarch, James II, and his family. In the aftermath of the Revolution, Parliament became an indispensable part of the government of the country. The monarch needed to summon it in order to raise money, and from 1689 it met annually.

George was also the heir to the Act of Union of 1707 that united the English and Scottish Parliaments, and his legal title was King of Great Britain and Ireland. There were now two Parliaments in Britain: a two-chamber one in Westminster, and a single-chamber Parliament in Dublin that was subordinate to the Westminster Parliament. The King still possessed considerable prerogative powers: he could appoint and dismiss ministers, summon and dissolve Parliament, and appoint peers and bishops. But the fact that he owed his title to various acts of Parliament meant that he could no longer claim to be ruling by divine right. This marked out the British monarchy from most other European monarchies.

The new royal family

George Augustus, Prince of Wales
Sir Godfrey Kneller (1716)

His son George Augustus, now Prince of Wales, was installed with his wife Caroline and their daughters Anne, Emily and Caroline. 
Their son Frederick (born 1707) was left behind in Hanover. George’s divorced wife, Sophia Dorothea remained a prisoner in her native Celle. She was a non-person and her name was never mentioned.

Caroline of Ansbach, Princess of Wales
Sir Godfrey Kneller (1716)

Whigs and Jacobites

George immediately dismissed Anne’s Tory ministers and appointed Whigs. Tories were also purged from local government.
His coronation on 20 October was marked by riots and disturbances Birmingham, Bristol, Chippenham, Norwich, and Reading. In 1715 the Riot Act was passed to quell such disturbances. The Septennial Act, lengthening the life of a Parliament from three to seven years, was passed in 1716. Hanoverian Britain was therefore an oligarchy rather than a democracy. 

The early Hanoverians lived in constant apprehension of a Scots-led rebellion in support of the Pretender.There was a major rebellion in 1715, a lesser one in 1719, and an especially dangerous one in 1745. In September 1745, when the capital seemed threatened by the army of the Young Pretender, 'God Save the King' was first sung at a London theatre.

An early version of 'God Save the King'
published in The Gentleman's Magazine

It was only the Jacobite defeat at Culloden in April 1746 that secured the future of the dynasty. The legitimacy of the monarchy was now unchallenged.

The first Prime Minister

In September 1720 the South Sea Company, that had been set up in 1711 to trade with South America, collapsed. In the wake of the South Sea Bubble there were spectacular bankruptcies and many were ruined. In February 1721 the Chancellor of the Exchequer was voted guilty of fraud by the Commons and sent to the Tower. In March Lord Sunderland, the First Lord of the Treasury, was tried in the Lords for corruption. Though he was acquitted, he resigned in March. In desperation the King turned to a politician he disliked, the Norfolk MP, Robert Walpole.

This was not seen at the time as a particularly momentous move as the office of Prime Minister did not really exist. But though Walpole had many enemies, his opponents were in disarray and he was to remain in office for twenty years. Britain was now a one-party state and Walpole was at the centre of a network of patronage that kept him in power. The 'Robinocracy' seemed unassailable.

Robert Walpole
by Arthur Pond

One moment of danger came in 1727 when George I died. But over the years he had cultivated his wife, Caroline, who was determined to keep him on. 

Walpole’s official title was First Lord of the Treasury, but he was also unofficially referred to as Prime Minister – a term of abuse. In 1735 he moved into 10 Downing Street (then no 5), the residence of a Mr Chicken, and he secured the property as a residence for all future First Lords of the Treasury. 

The Hanoverians and their heirs

In this atmosphere of one-party politics opposition came not from Parliament but from within the royal family. All the Hanoverian monarchs were at odds with their heirs. As Prince of Wales George II had quarrelled with his father in 1716. In December 1717  he set up his own court at Leicester House. 

Frederick Prince of Wales

The pattern was repeated when George became King in 1727 and he quarrelled with his heir, Prince Frederick. Leicester House again became the focus for opposition politicians. As the historian, Hannah Greig writes

‘The existence of separate households for the monarch and heir proved particularly divisive, and the periodic dissociation of the heir apparent from the main royal court provided the disaffected political elite of the day with their own royal centre and court culture, placing the reversionary interest (the heir to the crown) in opposition to the crown.’ The Beau Monde: Fashionable Society in Georgian London (2103)

The fall of Walpole

In 1739 a reluctant Walpole was forced to take Britain into a war with Spain and in the following year Britain became involved in the War of the Austrian Succession. By this time the opposition was gaining ground. When the two great Scottish borough-mongers, the Duke of Argyll and his brother, Lord Islay, withdrew their support, Walpole lost his Commons majority. He resigned on 1 February 1742. He had not lost an election, but he had lost his Commons majority and the king was powerless to save him.

The importance of the monarch

Walpole had created the office of prime minister. But his career and his fall showed that a prime minister needed two things in order to survive: the support of the monarch and a majority in the House of Commons. 

The prime minister depended on the king because of the amount of patronage at the disposal of the monarch. Up to a third of the members of the Commons were ‘placemen’, bound to support a ministry that retained the king’s favour. 

The king also retained the right to summon and dissolve Parliament and to appoint prime ministers, peers and bishops. Because the monarchy was so important, opposition politicians turned to the heir to the throne, who set up his own rival court, ready for the time when he would be king.

This ‘reversionary interest’ dominated much of British politics during the Georgian period, though it probably became less important  by the end of the eighteenth century, as the modern system of government and opposition began to emerge.

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