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How Georg Ludwig became George I

By Andrew C. Thompson

On 1 August 1714, Queen Anne died. Her last days were marked by political turmoil that saw Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford, and Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke, struggle to assert their authority. However, on her deathbed Anne appointed the moderate Charles Talbot, duke of Shrewsbury, as the last ever lord treasurer. The queen’s death prompted a transition from the Stuart dynasty to the Hanoverian, and the succession of Georg Ludwig, elector of Hanover, as King George I of Great Britain and Ireland.

King George I by Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1714. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
King George I by Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1714. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

We now look back on the Succession as one of decisive dynastic change — one that came about as a result of the Act of Settlement (1701). This act set out how, following Anne’s death, the throne was to be inherited by the children of Sophia, Dowager Electress of Hanover, and granddaughter of James I and VI. The act had named Sophia and “the heirs of her body being protestants” as next in the line of succession precisely because William III — King from 1689 to 1702 — had been anxious to ensure that Protestant monarchy would be preserved within Britain. William’s invasion of Britain in 1688 had been, in part, justified on the basis that the ruling monarch, James II, had put himself at odds with the political nation through his espousal of “popery and arbitrary government.” Moreover, the birth of James’s son in June 1688 raised the prospect of a permanent reversion to dynastic Catholicism into the next generation.

Although William and his wife Mary had quickly established themselves in their new roles, they failed in one particular respect. They did not produce an heir. Queen Mary’s premature death in 1694 was widely mourned, but William did not rush to re-marry and ensure that the succession would be perpetuated into the next generation. Instead, attention turned to Mary’s sister, Anne, the younger of James II’s Protestant daughters. Anne was the victim of frequent gynaecological misfortune. She gave birth to many children but few thrived. In 1689 she and her husband, George, prince of Denmark, had a son, William, Duke of Gloucester. His birth was widely seen as an indication of divine approval for the recent changes on the throne, but William was a sickly child. In July 1700 he contracted smallpox and died shortly afterwards. It was his death that pushed William into formalizing succession arrangements through the Act of Settlement.

Sophia of Hanover by her sister, Louise Hollandine of the Palatinate, c. 1644. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Sophia of Hanover by her sister, Louise Hollandine of the Palatinate, c. 1644. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Naming Sophia as heir to William and Anne, on the basis of her Protestantism, excluded more than fifty closer blood relations who happened to be Catholic. Thus, it is easy to see why a shift from the Stuart line to the Hanoverian seemed momentous. Yet, it’s also important to remember that contemporaries talked not in terms of the Hanoverian but of the Protestant succession, stressing continuity over change. Likewise, following its arrival in England in September 1714, the new dynasty was keen to emphasise its Stuart ancestry. This can be seen in the refurbished state apartments at Hampton Court where visual representations of the Hanoverians stood alongside portraits of James I and VI, his wife Anne of Denmark, and their daughter, Elizabeth of Bohemia.

Sophia, the matriarch of the new Hanoverian dynasty, had married the youngest son of the cadet branch of the dukes of Brunswick in 1658. The fortunes of her husband, Ernst August, had risen rapidly. Through a combination of marriage, negotiation, and luck he was able to acquire the duchy of Calenberg-Göttingen and ensure that his son, Georg Ludwig — the future George I — would inherit the Duchy of Celle. In 1692 Hanover was granted electoral status, so joining an elite club with the right to elect the Holy Roman Emperor. On his father’s death in 1698, Georg Ludwig therefore inherited a major German state; three years later his status was raised further with the prospect of succession to the British thrones. In addition, Georg was an accomplished commander who served as allied supreme commander for a period during the War of the Spanish Succession that raged in Europe between 1702 and 1713/14.

During Anne’s reign (1702-14), it was unclear whether the Act of Settlement had, in fact, resolved the succession question. Support for the exiled Stuarts persisted while Anne was unwilling to allow her Hanoverian relations to come to England to represent their interests personally. The Hanoverians did, however, find staunch supporters among members of the whig party. Polemicists such as George Ridpath worked hard to promote the Hanoverian cause. Protestant dissenters also tended to support the Hanoverians. On 1 August 1714 the dissenting minister Thomas Bradbury was preaching in his meeting house in Fetter Lane, when — alerted to Anne’s death by a handkerchief dropped from the gallery — he claimed the honour of being first to pray publicly for the new king.

George I was proclaimed king without much trouble on 1 August 1714. The plans, long in preparation, were quickly put into action. A Regency council was formed, made up of whigs and some Hanover tories. Hans Kaspar von Bothmer, one of George’s Hanoverian ministers, co-ordinated the transition. The new king was sufficiently relaxed to spend several weeks sorting out governance arrangements for his German lands before departing for London. He stopped to hold talks in the United Provinces en route and only arrived at Greenwich in late September.

Having spent a day meeting key figures, George I was transported into London. A long procession of coaches followed the royal party, soldiers lined the route, and cannon fire accompanied the new king. In the immediate aftermath of their arrival George and his family were highly visible on the London social scene, seeking to emphasize their qualities and advantages over the Stuart, or Jacobite, pretenders. They were clearly Protestant, they were numerous (ensuring that the succession was secure for the immediate future), and they seemed willing to adapt. It is worth remembering that George I was 54 years old when he became king in August 1714. He had behind him a long political and military career and could easily have arrived in Britain set in his ways. Instead, in the coming years he demonstrated a willingness to work hard and take on new responsibilities—qualities that would make George a very successful immigrant.

Dr. Andrew C. Thompson teaches history at Queens’ College, Cambridge, and is the author of Britain, Hanover and the Protestant Interest (2006) and George II: King and Elector (2011). His article on the Politics of the Hanoverian Succession was recently published in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, alongside two further essays — on Literary Responses to the Succession (by Abigail Williams) and Legacies of the Hanoverians (by Clarissa Campbell Orr) — to mark the tercentenary.

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is a collection of 59,102 life stories of noteworthy Britons, from the Romans to the 21st century. The Oxford DNB is freely available via public libraries across the UK, and many libraries worldwide. Libraries offer remote access allowing members to gain access free, from home (or any other computer), 24 hours a day. You can also sample the ODNB with its changing selection of free content: in addition to the podcast; a topical Life of the Day, and historical people in the news via Twitter @odnb.

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Recent Comments

  1. Edwin

    It is also important to mention that Elizabeth was able to elevate her position and the position of her children during the peace negotiations.

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