I’m loving all this excitement about the new future monarch in our midst! The future King George the seventh, I think it is. (I had heard some speculation that when Prince Charles takes the throne that he might take it as George VII, but that was when The King’s Speech came out and it may just be idle Hollywood-fueled gossip) I guess I’m a bit of a royalist. But no, actually I’m just a history nerd. And as a history nerd, today I want to tell you about the first King George of England.
Because I like George I. He was an interesting man in an interesting time. History has flip-flopped back and forth about whether he was a good king or a bad king, but right now the prevailing opinion is that he was a good king. Apparently he was moderate, fair, tolerant, and influenced by the Enlightenment. But man, did he had a hard time in his own times!
The thing about George I is that he inherited a great big huge mess that could be said to have been started by that old rascal, Henry VIII. Yep, it’s that whole Catholic v. Protestant thing. Religion had been a major hot-button issue all through the 16th and 17th centuries. A civil war was fought over it in England, not to mention decades and decades’ worth of near war and squabbles. Finally, parliament had had enough and the Act of Settlement 1701 was passed, barring Catholics from taking the throne.
So everyone did their math, pulled out their family trees, and realized that once Queen Anne died, the next Protestant in line to the throne was her distant, distant cousin, Sophia of the Palatinate, who was in her seventies. Sophia was savvy enough to say “Right, like that’s going to happen!” and set to work putting the ducks into rows for her son, George the elector of Hanover, to become the English king.
It’s easy to look at the fact that George was 56th in line to the English throne and to think that on the day Queen Anne died that he was all, like, “Oh! Hey! I’m king of England! How did that happen?” In reality, he’d known for years that he was going to inherit the throne and he made preparations. He secured English citizenship, he studied up on English politics, and he took a strong interest in the land that he would one day be responsible for.
And yes, he learned English. But at the time that he assumed the throne, indeed, in his entire lifetime as King George I of England, there was a widespread belief that he couldn’t speak or understand English. Not true! But the propaganda machine of his enemies was hard at work. In the first half of the 18th century it was a lot harder to squash rumors that were well spread because George couldn’t exactly go on TV and give a speech. Not this King George, at least.
So the image that George I was unable to speak English, that he was stupid and illiterate and had a string of German mistresses, all of which have been proven to be very much untrue, persisted in England. That made George a very unpopular king. At least to those who were just reading the broadsides.
In fact, George was a smart king who escorted England onto the path of modernization that would evolve throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. It may have looked very strange to early 18th century observers used to the absolute monarchy of their forefathers and of France to see King George letting power gradually shift from the monarchy to parliament, but that’s what George was doing. He was influence by the way things operated in the Holy Roman Empire—which was actually much more authoritarian, but at the same time less centralized. He was known to shelter known radicals, like that scoundrel Voltaire when he was thrown out of Paris. Sure, he wasn’t a total socialist or liberal like we would see today, but he was the first step on that road.
If the people of England didn’t like him all that much, his immediate family despised him. He married his first cousin, also named Sophia, for political reasons, and though they had two children, another George and another Sophia, their marriage fell apart spectacularly. They each had their own lovers, and there is some strong evidence that George or people close to him had Sophia’s lover murdered.
George II absolutely detested his father on just about every level. Actually, I remember reading a fairly cool assessment of the four consecutive Georges that said that the odd ones got along and the even ones got along, but the odds hated the evens and the evens hated the odds. And in that assessment, the odds seem to be much more effective, moral, and decent human beings.
Another cool fact that I somehow know about George I is that he used pop culture to advance his image. Yes, they did that back in the early 18th century too! Among George I’s court favorites was George Frederick Handel. Handel was an 18th century rock star, something George I was well aware of. George employed Handel to spruce up his image with his compositions. It worked.
All in all, George I lived out that old Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times”. He fought wars, dealt with rebellions, led his country through economic collapse, and was part of the ever-changing landscape of the monarchy-parliament shift. Not to mention the first dawning of the Industrial Revolution. He managed it all about as well as any leader could have.
So when our new Prince G grows up and assumes the throne—probably long after I’ve gone on to my great reward, if I’m being honest—here’s to hoping he can follow in the footsteps of the first George and handle it all with skill and grace. His kingship will be a drastically different kingship (and for those of you saying “if they haven’t abolished the monarchy by then”, just keep in mind that they were trying to abolish the monarchy when George I was king and even before and 200+ years later, the monarchy is still there, yo!) but my hope is that he’ll face it with the same class.