In the latest post for the Georgian Lords, Dr Charles Littleton considers the career of Prince George of Denmark, consort of Queen Anne, who proved an important support for one of Britain’s unfairly underrated sovereigns.
The recent tributes to HRH Prince Philip, duke of Edinburgh, have emphasized that, at 69 years, he was the longest-serving royal consort in British history, with an active life of public service in support of his wife, HM the Queen. He has been frequently compared to Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg & Gotha. Far less well-known, however, is the first royal consort of a British queen – George, like the duke of Edinburgh a prince of the Danish royal line, who married Princess Anne, younger daughter of James, duke of York, in 1683.
Charles II provided the abiding impression of Prince George of Denmark with his observation, that ‘drunk or sober, there is nothing in him’ [Burnet, History of my Time, iii. 49n]. True, Prince George never enthusiastically threw himself into public life, unlike princes Albert or Philip, but preferred a calm domestic life. Early in his marriage he complained of the demands of court life:
God send me a quiet life somewhere, for I shall not be long able to bear this perpetual motion.Historical Manuscripts Commission, 9th Report, ii. 458.
However, such comments and the character they suggest – dull, complacent, indolent – only tell part of the story. Prince George may never have aspired to the press of public life, but he did not shy away from duties that were laid on him or positions he felt compelled to take. He was named a privy councillor by his father-in-law James II in 1685, and attended council meetings regularly. At the same time, the prince, a committed Lutheran, disagreed with his father-in-law’s attempts to remove the penalties against Catholicism in England, and at the Revolution in November 1688 both the Prince and Princess of Denmark (as George and Anne were known) defected to William of Orange.
In early April 1689 Prince George was naturalized as an English subject by Act of Parliament and was created duke of Cumberland by the new king William III. Relations between the couples quickly deteriorated, though, as William and Mary suspected the prince and princess of trying to build a separate political interest with the aid of their close confidants, John Churchill, earl (subsequently duke) of Marlborough, and his redoubtable countess Sarah.
Prince George’s most important role during this period was a more private one, as a devoted support to his wife as she suffered numerous unsuccessful pregnancies. By 1700 she had been pregnant at least 17 times, but only five children were born alive and of these only one, William, duke of Gloucester, born in July 1689, survived beyond his third year. Gloucester’s death aged 11, only a few months after Anne’s last pregnancy ended in stillbirth, was devastating. These constant losses undoubtedly plunged the couple into intense shared grief, drawing them closer together. They enjoyed a reputation as a devoted and, unusually among royalty of that period, faithful couple. After Anne’s succession to the throne George was described as:
of a familiar, easy disposition with a good sound understanding but modest in showing it… He is very fat, loves news, his bottle and the QueenMacky, Characters of the Court of Queen Anne, 3
Unlike William of Orange, George never demanded that he should be king alongside his wife. Anne, though, was ambitious for him and quickly loaded him with honours. In April 1702, only weeks after coming to the throne, she appointed him ‘generalissimo’ of the English forces preparing for the impending War of the Spanish Succession. A month later he was also made Lord High Admiral (a title most recently held by the duke of Edinburgh), giving him nominal command of the Navy as well. These were at best empty titles, as real authority in the Army and Navy lay in, respectively, the duke of Marlborough and his brother George Churchill. As well as these grand-sounding offices, George was made Constable of Windsor Castle and Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports.
As duke of Cumberland, George had a seat in the House of Lords. His best-known appearance there was in the first days of December 1702 when he voted in favour of the Occasional Conformity bill, against his own Lutheran inclinations, but at the direction of the queen. A frequently-recounted anecdote has it that as he was being counted for the bill by the teller for the Tories, George confided to the Whig teller, in his heavily-accented English, that, despite his wife’s commands, ‘my heart is vid you’. [Earl Stanhope, History of England, 80]
George’s public life during Anne’s reign was sharply curtailed as he had long suffered from debilitating chronic asthma. His health was declining seriously from 1706, while at the same time he was beset politically. Throughout 1707-8 the Whig Junto criticized the mismanagement in the Admiralty and called for the removal of both Prince George and George Churchill. These attacks continued as the prince’s health worsened and ultimately, despite the queen’s own constant ministrations, the prince died at midday on 28 October 1708, aged 55. ‘His death has flung the Queen into an unspeakable grief’, it was reported. ‘She never left him till he was dead, but continued kissing him the very moment his breath went out of his body.’ [Huntington Library, Letter of James Brydges to William Cadogan, 29 Oct. 1708]
Neither Anne’s former friend Sarah, duchess of Marlborough, nor the duchess’s allies among the Junto showed much sympathy for the queen’s crippling grief and urged Anne to replace him quickly. Worn down by mourning, Anne allowed some of the Junto into the Cabinet, but she reserved her husband’s former office for herself. Eventually she showed her true feelings toward those who had underestimated her loyalty to her husband and thought his memory could be easily ignored. Over 1710-11, she removed the most obnoxious Whigs from office, dissolved Parliament, and countenanced the construction of a Tory-oriented ministry. In a final dramatic move, she dismissed the duke of duchess of Marlborough, who had first joined her household shortly after her wedding to the 30-year old Danish prince.
Charles Breem, ‘”I am Her Majesty’s Subject”: Prince George of Denmark and the Transformation of the English Male Consort’, Canadian Journal of History 39 (2004), esp. pp. 465-87
Edward Gregg, Queen Anne (rev. edn. 2001)