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George II consolidated the Hanoverian succession

Posted in Famous battles, Historical articles, History, Music, Politics, Royalty on Monday, 10 February 2014

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This edited article about George II first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 548 published on 15 July 1972.

George II at Dettingen,  picture, image, illustration

George II became the last British king to lead his soldiers into battle, on the field at Dettingen in 1743 by Clive Uptton

A chip off the old block. There was no better way of summing up the character of George the Second when at last his irascible old father died and surrendered his throne to the son he had come to hate.

George was 44. Like his father, he was obstinate and not particularly intelligent – a gloomy pair of weaknesses in kings. It gave him a temper which was always creating sullen scenes at best, and hysterical rages at worst. And it began at breakfast time, when he joined his family:

‘Coming in upon the breakfast party he snubbed the Queen for being always stuffing; the Princess Emily for not hearing him; the Princess Caroline for being grown fat; the Duke of Cumberland for standing awkwardly; Lord Hervey for not knowing what relation the Prince of Sultzbach was to the Elector Palatine; and then carried the Queen to walk and be re-snubbed in the garden.’

Like his father, too, George loved music alone of all the arts. He would go a long way to hear the latest work of Handel and it is thanks to the king’s patronage that the German composer continued to live in England.

And like his father, George hated his eldest son, the Prince of Wales. He was, said George, ‘the greatest villain that ever was born.’ Frederick, the Prince, was the latest victim of the Hanover family’s curse on its offspring, probably the most consistent feature in that strangely inconsistent family.

In certain essential qualities, however, George was different from his father. He spoke English for one thing; for another he was a keen businessman when his own interests were at stake. When the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, hinted that he could induce the House of Commons to increase the king’s income, George told him.

‘Sir Robert, what makes me easy in this matter will prove for your ease, too. It is for my life it is to be fixed, and it is for your life.’

Unlike his father, too, George was extremely fond of his wife. George the First locked up his wife for 32 years, an imprisonment from which only death released her. George the Second, by contrast, leaned heavily on his queen, Caroline of Ansbach, listening to her views and acting on her opinions.

Knowing this the prime minister, Walpole, made great use of it. When he wished to convince the king about something he would first tell the queen about it.

Thus it was, after darkness had fallen, the late night strollers in London’s streets might see the short, dumpy prime minister descending from his carriage and entering the queen’s apartments at St. James’s Palace by the private staircase. And in those apartments the laws of England would be drafted.

On most days, Walpole would officially visit the king, who would call in the queen while Walpole told George what he thought should be done. The king had no knowledge that these plans had been worked out between Caroline and Walpole the previous night, and he never found out.

Fortunately, Walpole was an able prime minister and Caroline an astute politician. Together they formed a restraining influence on the impetuous king, even persuading him against plunging the nation into war.

Caroline maintained her influence over the king by giving into his every whim and fancy. ‘She was,’ says her biographer, ‘at least seven or eight hours a day with the king, during which time she was generally saying what she did not think, assenting to what she did not believe, and praising what she did not approve.’

‘For all the tedious hours she spent then in watching him while he slept, or the heavier task of entertaining him while he was awake, her single consolation was in reflecting that she had power, and the people in coffee-houses were saying she governed the country, without knowing how dear the government of it cost her.’

Queen Caroline’s death left George grief-stricken. He wept as she lay dying and swore to her that he would never remarry. For two months after her death he closetted himself away from the court and refused to appear in public.

None of this family devotion was ever felt by Frederick, Prince of Wales, who was George’s eldest son. Frederick had been born and educated in Hanover and was not brought to Britain until he was 21. From the first he quarrelled bitterly with his parents – about his fondness for gambling at cards, about his allowance and about his projected marriage.

Frederick argued, with some reason, that the king was withholding from him money which had been voted by the House of Commons with the intention of providing a suitable income for the heir to the Crown. Whatever his grievances, he behaved with studied insolence to his parents and took a special delight in insulting his mother.

Queen Caroline openly said of him, ‘My dear first-born is the greatest ass, and the greatest liar and the greatest beast in the whole world, and I heartily wish he was out of it.’ The King usually referred to the prince as ‘my rascally puppy of a son.’

Frederick’s reaction to this was to imitate the conduct of his father as Prince of Wales by making an alliance with the political leaders of the Opposition and doing his best to embarrass his father’s government. For this George expelled him from St. James’s Palace, but the Prince went on with his trouble-making until he died in 1751.

As his father did, George made frequent trips to Hanover, where he was born and raised and where his father had ruled for years before receiving Parliament’s summons to take over the crown of Great Britain.

Obviously, Hanover held a high place in his heart, and he came back to Britain grumbling as ever about how much better the Germans did things.

‘No English cook could dress a dinner; no English coachman could drive, or English jockey drive, no Englishman knew how to come into a room . . . whereas at Hanover all these things were in the utmost perfection.’

George was not the most popular of British kings and his visits to Hanover did nothing to enhance his reputation with his subjects who, through newspapers and pamphlets, used to delight each other with bitter attacks on their leaders.

Once, when the king had made a longer than usual visit to Germany a witty discontented Londoner posted this notice on the palace gates:

‘Lost or strayed out of this house, a man who has left his wife and six children on the parish. Whoever will give any tidings of him to the churchwarden of St. James’s parish, so he may be got again, shall receive four shillings and sixpence. N.B. This reward will not be increased, nobody judging him to deserve a crown.’

For all his ill-temper, prejudice and unpleasing manner, George was a brave man and to him belongs the distinction of being the last British king to lead his troops into battle. It happened at Dettingen in 1743, during the war of the Austrian Succession.

France was the real enemy and the object of the British army, commanded by Lord Stair, was to drive the French from Germany. In April, 1743, George went in person to join his troops and at Dettingen he led an infantry charge which went far to win the battle.

Dismounting from a frightened horse, the King shouted. ‘Now, boys, now for the honour of England – fire and behave bravely, and the French will soon run.’ The victory brought some popularity to the king, which he badly needed.

George died at Kensington Palace in 1760 after a reign of 33 years. He was found one morning lying dead on the floor of his room. He was 77, and no king of Britain had ever before reached so great an age.

Whatever may be said of his character, George was a good king for Britain, anxious, as he himself said, to settle political disputes by the laws of the land. Throughout his reign he acted as a constitutional sovereign, realising that there was a new power in the nation – the will of the people.

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