Neither of the first two Hanoverian monarchs has fared well in popular perception. Both have been dismissed as remote, stolid and very foreign. Our latest seminar by Andrew Thompson challenged some of these preconceptions about the second of the Georges. In his paper Andrew sought to draw together some of his earlier work on George II as well as looking ahead to a new project considering the significance of princes of Wales in the long eighteenth century.
Andrew began with a brief exposition of the traditional historiography of the reign, which as he emphasized has proved remarkably durable. For many, George II, like his father, appeared fixated on military affairs, uninterested in England, and difficult to like. What has been thought most significant about the Hanoverian succession was the way in which the selection of a Protestant ruling House by Parliament in preference to the (in dynastic terms) senior Catholic Stuarts eroded the authority of the monarch and paved the way for limited constitutional monarchy. The reigns of George I and his successor, it has been asserted, witnessed as a result the ascent of Parliament (in particular the Commons) and the inevitable decline of the court. Such a view has been challenged in recent years by historians such as Hannah Smith, who has argued for the survival of court ritual at the heart of elite life.
Andrew took this one stage further by setting out the way in which court remained crucial not only as a centre of ritual (and George II loved ritual) but also as an arena for significant political intervention, not least through the fruits of patronage. George II was no cipher. He knew his own mind and in matters of appointment, particularly military appointments, he was more than willing to intervene. The importance of the king’s favour was apparent in other significant areas too. When Sir Robert Walpole came under pressure at the height of the Excise Crisis, the king’s support for his minister was a crucial factor in enabling Walpole to survive. George was incandescent that opposition had been rallied so extensively against someone for whom he had demonstrated his clear support. The king’s opinion in matters of foreign policy was also well attested and respected by his ministers. This was a far more active and interested monarch than the traditional view might have suggested.
Alongside this picture of a more dynamic and involved king emerged other features of the changing state. George’s need to visit his Hanoverian dominions (he made 12 trips to the electorship during his reign) had important consequences for the management of government. It may also have helped with the development of cabinet government, though for Andrew this was an unintended consequence. The king’s ministers benefited in other ways too: the duke of Newcastle, as one of the secretaries of state a frequent attendant on the king during his visits abroad, acquired a particular taste result for fine Rhenish wines and made the most of his position to acquire a plentiful supply of them. This peripatetic monarchy also had significant implications for government after George II’s demise. Ministers had become accustomed to a king who made frequent trips abroad and for policy to be communicated by correspondence. With George III they had to get used to a very different sort of monarch: one who never left these shores and was far less easy to predict than his grandfather.
In the final part of his paper Andrew turned to the question of the reversionary interest: the development of opposition to the monarch gathered around the expected heir. For much of George II’s reign, the point of focus was his eldest son, Frederick Prince of Wales, who built up an alternative court at Leicester House. George as Prince of Wales had behaved in a similar fashion by offering through household appointments the opportunity for aspiring politicians not in the ministry to build careers and look forward to greater rewards in the coming reign. The extent to which this was developed by Frederick in the 1730s, at the time of the fall of Walpole and latterly towards the end of the 1740s made his premature demise all the more dramatic. It left erstwhile followers like George Bubb Dodington without a figurehead and scrabbling to make their way back into favour at the king’s court.
Andrew’s excellent paper reminded us of the importance of the role of the court in political life, long after many commentators have dismissed it as little more than a fading spectacle. Perhaps most significant, though, was the emphasis on the role of the dual monarchy and the way that this shaped the nature of government during the early Hanoverian period. As expected, the paper generated some interesting questions and we will look forward to Andrew’s future findings on the role of the princes of Wales throughout the longer period.
Don’t forget that Rhodri Morgan, former first minister for Wales, will be speaking at our next seminar on Tuesday 12th March. Details here.