In the latest post for the Georgian Lords, Dr Robin Eagles, Section Editor of the Lords 1715-1790, discusses the much-debated question of whether the first Hanoverian king was able to speak English and the implications for the dynasty’s reception in Britain
Popular impressions of the Hanoverians have rarely been that positive. George I, it is usually thought, was a dull middle-aged man with a somewhat unsavoury past who remained closely tied to his German homeland; George II was an uncultured martinet whose best-known saying was uttered at his wife, Queen Caroline’s deathbed when she urged him to remarry, which he dismissed with ‘non, j’aurai des maîtresses’. George III was mad; George IV a spendthrift.
This problem of attitude to the Georges was the starting point for J.H. Plumb’s The First Four Georges, in which he ‘attempted to portray [them] as human beings caught in exceptional circumstances’, and much has been done subsequently to revise attitudes to the second, third and fourth of the line. Recent biographies of George II and studies of the court over which he presided have painted him as a far more engaged character. George III is well-known for his scientific and artistic interests, and his much-studied ill health has attracted more sympathy than scorn, particularly following the success of Alan Bennett’s play (later film) The Madness of King George. Even George IV has come to be seen as an important arbiter of taste and a more thoughtful character, thanks in part to recent releases from the Royal Archives via the Georgian Papers Programme.
George I, however, remains little known and little loved. Plumb dismissed him as ‘Very stupid and lacking interest in the arts’ while at the same time insisting that he was ‘far from a nonentity’. This chimed with impressions circulated in the nineteenth century that George was interested in England only for what it could offer him rather than the other way around.
The most enduring myth has been that he was unable to speak English, or at best spoke little haltingly. His linguistic weakness was supposedly the reason for the preference shown to his German advisers over most English politicians, who were for the most part similarly limited in their knowledge of foreign languages (Lord Carteret being one obvious exception). This, it has been argued, helped pave the way for authority being delegated to his ministers, while George remained little more than a cipher.
Yet how true is it? When Lord Halifax met the then elector in 1706 he recorded that they conversed in ‘very ill French’. Recent publications have certainly done nothing to question the assumption that George struggled with English. Writing in a volume produced to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Hanoverian succession Tim Blanning insisted that George was ‘Handicapped by his rudimentary knowledge of the English language’, while Tracy Borman asserted that because of his lack of English George’s preferred entertainments were ballets and pantomimes. His poor grasp of English, or at least his inability to pick up on the cultural reference, may also have been behind the supposedly insulting choice of Psalm 75, verses 3-6, as the text for the thanksgiving day marking the first anniversary of his reign in August 1715:
Set not your horns on high:
I said unto them, set not up
Your raised horns on high…
According to the thoroughly hostile commentator, Thomas Hearne, the selection gave ‘great offence to the Whigs, who say it was done on purpose by way of affront to King George, who is known to be a cuckold.’
The perpetuation of the view that George had little or no English is the more remarkable, however, given that the seminal biography by Ragnhild Hatton committed an entire sub-section to the question of the king’s English, and concluded that when he arrived in England his knowledge ‘was not as limited (or non-existent) as once believed’. Hatton detailed how prior to his accession one correspondent, writing to George in English, flattered his command of the language; and how Robert Harley (future earl of Oxford) writing in 1710 insisted that he knew George possessed ‘an English heart’. Both seem to indicate that George had more than a smattering of English at the time of his accession. References to him holding talks with the notoriously unpolished 3rd earl of Berkeley about the condition of French sea defences early in the reign also suggest that he was capable of holding a technical conversation.
What, then, is the evidence for the king’s supposed ignorance of his new kingdom’s language? A comment made by Lady Ferrers complaining to a correspondent in August 1714 that the new king spoke ‘neither French nor English’ and consequently would not ‘be very good company’ was certainly wide of the mark: if nothing else, there is no doubting that he spoke French. Confidence may have been part of the problem. He disliked dining in public at his English court, unlike in Hanover where he was considerably more outgoing, and he avoided addressing Parliament directly, allowing the lord chancellor to deliver the speech at the opening of sessions while he looked on from the throne. In July 1721 although the papers noted that he was expected in the Lords ‘to open the new session with a speech’, he merely spoke briefly (in English) to inform the two Houses that he had once again delegated the task to the lord chancellor, who then read it out as usual. By the 1720s, though, George had clearly made progress in the language. Official documents were no longer translated into French, which suggests that he was more than capable of following arguments relating to policy in English. There is also evidence, via his annotations, of him engaging directly at a sophisticated level*.
Even if George never quite cast off his own preference for speaking French or German in private, he undoubtedly understood that for the dynasty to prosper it was important that the following generations were not so encumbered. In 1705 Sir Rowland Gwynne had recommended that someone be sent to Hanover to instruct the electoral prince (the future George II) in English as his tuition had thus far had been undertaken by a German whose ‘pronunciation was not good’. George I was also eager to ensure that instruction in English should be a key aspect of his grandson, Prince Frederick’s education and by the time the prince arrived in England in the winter of 1728 there is every reason to suppose that he was fluent.
It is telling, though, that at private moments George I, George II and Prince Frederick preferred to fall back on French (or German). When Prince Frederick lay dying in the spring of 1751, his last words were said to have been ‘Je sens la mort!’ rather than anything more handily patriotic. When told of his heir’s death, according to one source, George II’s response was to repeat the information in German: ‘Fritz ist tot’. Another source reported that his reaction was in English, but was the no less asinine, ‘why, they told me he was better’. By flitting in and out of different languages, though, the royal family were far from alone within British polite society in making use of a fairly broad polyglot language that might be littered with occasional bon mots.
Nothing could be more different from Prince Frederick’s son, who succeeded as George III in 1760. The first of the Hanoverian kings to be born in England, his opening speech to Parliament following his accession emphasized his Britishness, making a no doubt conscious reference to Queen Anne. His choice of the term ‘Briton’ when describing himself was every bit as controversial as if the king had insisted on giving his speech in French or German, but it undoubtedly marked a turning point for the dynasty as it attempted to shuffle off the image of being ‘foreign’.
(*One example cited by Hatton has, though, since been demonstrated to have been by George II and not George I)
J.H. Plumb, The First Four Georges (1957)
Ragnhild Hatton, George I (1978)
Andrew C. Thompson, George II: king and elector (2012)