Today marks the anniversary of the coronation of George II, the British monarch known for being the last to ride into battle with their troops. He did so at the Battle of Dettingen in 1743. Dr Robin Eagles, Editor of our House of Lords 1715-1790 Section and manager of the Georgian Lords Twitter and blog discusses George’s, initially less illustrious, military career…
On Sunday 27 November 1743 two new pieces by Handel were premiered at the Chapel Royal at St James’s Palace. The first was a new setting of the Te Deum, the traditional hymn of praise; the second was an anthem The King Shall Rejoice (making use of the same text that had been used sixteen years earlier at the king’s coronation on 11 October 1727). Handel had clearly expected a bigger venue for the service judging by the number of performers the pieces required [Cambridge Handel Encyclopedia, 633] and given the occasion – the king’s safe return from war and his victory at the Battle of Dettingen (27 June) – it was in many ways a modest event, underscoring the king’s much vaunted (if not entirely justified) reputation for parsimoniousness.
George had spent much of his early life frustrated in his ambition of being a soldier. While his own father (George I) had been permitted to take an active role in the military campaigns of the Empire, George as an only son was forced to keep himself out of harm’s way – at least until he had produced an heir of his own and thereby helped to secure the succession. The birth of his first son, Prince Frederick (future Prince of Wales) in 1707 finally gave George (recently created duke of Cambridge) the break he had been hoping for and the following year he achieved his ambition by commanding a squadron of Hanoverian dragoons under the overall command of the duke of Marlborough at the Battle of Oudenarde.
The ending of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1713 put paid to any further opportunities for military glory for the Prince and in 1714 his father’s succession to the British throne brought George to England along with his wife and daughters (Prince Frederick was left behind in Hanover). George’s continued interest in the armed forces remained unchecked, however, as is clear from his frequent attendance at military reviews. On 19 April 1715 he joined the king, Marlborough, and ‘several other persons of distinction’ in Hyde Park to observe four new captains presented to the four troops of guards [Post Boy, 16-19 Apr. 1715] and in June 1722 he joined a similar party reviewing the Honourable Artillery Company [Weekly Journal or British Gazetteer, 2 June 1722]. He demonstrated an ability, not unlike that of his grandson George III, to recall minute details relating to regiments and uniforms and took evident pleasure in watching his troops parade whenever possible. Denied an active role in suppressing the Jacobite rebellion of 1715, George was forced to content himself with these sorts of activities, and his succession to the throne in 1727 must have seemed the end of any hope of further military action.
The outbreak of the War of the Austrian Succession (1742-1748) offered the king a final chance to relive his youth. In the early summer of 1743 he headed for the continent to join the ‘Pragmatic Army’ commanded by the earl of Stair and on 27 June their much larger force of around 40,000 troops of British, Hessians, Hanoverians and Austrians, fought a much smaller force of around 25,000 French commanded by the duc de Noailles. The result was a victory for the allies and as the General Evening Post later related:
The King, during the whole Action, which lasted six Hours, was in the Heat of it, sometimes on Horseback, sometimes on foot. His Presence contributed greatly to the success of the Day.
Along with the king was his favoured younger son, William, duke of Cumberland, who was wounded in the leg but was afterwards noted to be ‘very well and in high spirits’.
Reception of the news back home, which was relayed in a public letter by Lord Carteret carried by several newspapers, was predictably buoyant. On the day the news reached home the guns fired salutes at the Tower of London and in one of the London parks, and in the evening the bells rang, bonfires were lit and ‘there were all possible demonstrations of joy’. At Tunbridge Wells, the more than usually large company of people seeking relief from the waters ‘celebrated the success of the British Arms with great Rejoicings, fireworks, Illuminations, Bonfires, &c. The night ended with a great Ball’. [Daily Advertiser, 28 June 1743] Not long before the formal celebration of the king’s safe return was marked at the Chapel Royal service, a dozen captured French standards were carried from Lord Carteret’s London residence to St James’s palace to form part of George’s trophies of war calling to mind the battle standards captured during Marlborough’s campaigns which were displayed for many years in Westminster Hall.
The immediate aftermath of the battle witnessed a boost in the king’s popularity, but this soon declined. This was not least because of reports that he had favoured his Hanoverian troops on the day over his British ones, and had even sported a Hanoverian sash rather than the order of the Garter [Andrew Thompson]. In any case, it was to be the king’s final foray into warfare and when the Jacobite army of Bonnie Prince Charlie invaded two years later it was left to Cumberland and others to mount the defence. In December 1745 Cumberland set out from Lichfield in quest of the rebel army. According to the London Evening Post of 5-7 Dec. 1745, during his time there Cumberland had ‘gained a vast Character by his great Affability, and admitting all to his Presence’. It was a reputation that was to be undone by his subsequent actions in putting down the rebellion.