A Royal History of England George II
George II (1683 - 1760)
VARIOUS assessments of King George II across the centuries have described him as dull, arrogant, pompous, impatient and obstinate. He hated to be proved wrong and many of his contemporarie s described him as a colossal bore.
“No mill horse ever went on a more constant track or a more unchanging circle,” said one who had experienced the King’s conversation.
George II’S behaviour might suggest signs of what today we would call Asperger’s syndrome. A stickler for routine and punctuality, he found it difficult to build a rapport with people and had repetitive patterns of behaviour.
Being very precise in his habits, George visited his mistress Henrietta Howard at nine o’clock each evening. Never a minute before or a minute after, but as the clock chimed nine.
George had few male friends and preferred the company of woman, although Lord Chesterfield observed that he “sauntered away” his time with them rather than enjoyed their company.
Some of George’s reserved manner may have stemmed from a difficult childhood in Germany. The only son of George of Hanover (later King George I) and Sophia Dorothea, he was born at the royal palace of Herrenhausen on November 10, 1683, and was christened George Augustus.
While he was still young, his mother was imprisoned due to an illicit love affair with a Swedish soldier, Count Philip von Königsmarck. Accused of adultery, she was imprisoned at Ahlden Castle, aged just 28, and never saw her husband or children again. She was held captive for 32 years and died at the castle.
This separation from his mother blighted George’s childhood and affected him for life. It led to many disagreements with his father, who had ordered the incarceration, and they had a very poor relationship as a result.
George went to live with his grandmother, Electress Sophia of Hanover, who was a granddaughter of King James I of England. She made sure that George was taught to speak English, although he was never able to lose his German accent, and he also studied French and Latin.
It has been said that George had a soldier’s brain and he found that the military life suited him well. Being very precise, he knew every single detail of a uniform.
As a young soldier in 1708 he fought under the command of the Duke of Marlborough at the Battle of Oudenarde during the War of Spanish Succession. George led the Dragoons and had his horse shot from beneath him, but he survived.
When George was 17 his grandmother
became direct heir to the English throne, as Queen Anne had no living children. George became a naturalised English citizen in 1705, and Queen Anne gave him the titles Duke of Cambridge, Earl of Milford Haven, Viscount Northallerton and Baron Tewkesbury on his birthday in 1706.
He was also made a Knight of the Garter in April that year. This was in preparation for his family moving to England on the eventual death of Queen Anne, which happened on August 1, 1714. As Electress Sophia had died less than two months before Queen Anne, it was his father who succeeded to the throne as King of England. George then received further titles to become Prince of Wales, Earl of Chester, and Duke of Cornwall and Rothesay.
The new Prince of Wales became a popular figure in England at this time – some would say because he could speak English. His popularity increased further following a failed assassination attempt at the Drury Lane Theatre in London.
Despite their new life in England, the difficult relationship between George and his father did not improve. When King George I returned to Hanover quite soon after the coronation, he left George, as Prince of Wales, in control as “Guardian of the Kingdom”.
The Prince and his wife immediately moved to Hampton Court, where they lived in great splendour. This did not go down well with his father and the next time the King paid a visit to Hanover he left a Regency Council in charge of the country instead of his son.
George had married Wilhelmina Charlotte Caroline of Branden burgAnsbach at Herrenhausen on September 2, 1705, when he was 23 and they went on to have three sons and five daughters. She was known by her last Christian name, Caroline, and was now Princess of Wales. She was a strong, determined woman and had an equally poor relationship with King George I, who called her a “she-devil”.
Sir Robert Walpole intervened to bring about a reconciliation between father and son, but as George was a staunch Tory supporter and Walpole was in power as a Whig, there was inevitably friction. The Prince and Princess of Wales had homes in Richmond Park and Leicester House, on the site of what is now Leicester Square.
Their circle became known as “The Leicester House Set” and opposed the King wherever possible.
George I died in Hanover following a stroke in 1727 and George II’S Coronation took place at Westminster Abbey four months later. As soon as George was on the throne he attempted to get rid of Sir Robert Walpole. He planned to replace him with Sir Spencer Compton, who was Speaker of the House of Commons and had been George’s faithful treasurer for many years. But the Queen came to Walpole’s rescue and he kept his position.
During George II’S reign Walpole presided over a period of great prosperity. He increased trade and staved off war. The absence of military conflict was of
particular benefit, as wars were costly in terms of money and lives.
The subtle change during this period was a transference of power from the monarch to the government. It has been said that George II reigned but Parliament ruled. In addition to this, the Queen was very much the power behind the throne.
Sir Robert Walpole’s view of George never softened.
“The King is – for all his personal bravery – as great a political coward as ever wore a crown.”
The two remained at odds and whilst Walpole strove for peace, the soldier King would have been happy to go to war.
He soon got his wish. In 1739, England became involved in a conflict with Spain in what is now known as the War of Jenkins’ Ear. Although fighting was largely over by 1742, the war dragged on until the Treaty of Aix-la-chapelle in 1748 returned colonial land to previous owners.
In the meantime, England had also become involved in the War of Austrian Succession, when Maria Theresa of Austria was in conflict with Prussia over who should rule the Hapsburg Empire.
The English and the Dutch joined the Austrians and Hanovarians against the French and Prussians. At the Battle of Dettingen in 1743, King George II became the last English monarch to lead troops into battle.
His battle cry was, “Now, boys, now, for the honour of England! Fire and behave bravely and the French will soon run.” When his horse bolted, George continued on foot.
Although it was the War of Austrian Succession, George’s keenness at Dettingen was really to preserve the independence of his homeland of Hanover, where he was still Elector.
When the War of Austrian Succession ended, George commissioned Handel to compose Music for the Royal Fireworks for a celebratory firework display in London’s Green Park on April 27, 1749, to mark the end of the war and the signing of the Treaty of Aix-la-chapelle in 1748.
As a patron of Handel, it was George who began the custom of standing during the “Hallelujah Chorus” of the “Messiah”.
Although the War of Austrian Succession had ended when the Treaty of Aix-la-chapelle was signed, tensions remained.
By the mid-1750s there were two major causes for concern. There were ongoing maritime and colonial disputes between England, Spain and France. In Europe, Frederick the Great of Prussia invaded Austria, which led to the Seven Years’ War.
Britain emerged as the world’s dominant naval power, expanded its territories and would soon play a dominant role in the history of Canada and India. But George did not live to see the end of the war or the increase in Britain’s rule.
For the last years of his reign George II seemed to take a back seat. Walpole lost power in 1742 and had been replaced by Sir Spencer Compton.
Although he had been King of England for over 30 years, courtiers felt that George had become increasingly German in outlook. He eventually came to dislike English traditions and ceremony.
“I am sick to death of all this foolish stuff,” he once ranted, “and wish with all my heart that the devil may take all your Bishops, and the devil take your Ministers, and the devil take your Parliament, and the devil take the whole island, provided I can get out of it and go to Hanover.”
Such an outburst did nothing to endear him to the English.
During George II’S reign, witchcraft was abolished as a crime in England, John and Charles Wesley started the Methodist movement and the first botanical gardens were laid out at Kew. The path was laid for the advent of the Industrial Revolution when Jethro Tull published his book “The New Horse Hoeing Husbandry”, detailing how mechanisation could improve farming. Soon manufacturing would be transformed by machinery.
In his private life, George II had many similarities with his father: notably, he kept mistresses and disliked his eldest son! George had a number of mistresses, including the Duchess of Kendal, Lady Deloraine and Countess von Wallmoden.
To some he bestowed titles, making the German Amalie Wallmoden the Countess of Yarmouth, and one of his wife’s ladies-in-waiting, Henrietta Howard, became the Countess of Suffolk and had her own suite of rooms at St James’s Palace. Despite the mistresses, George II appeared to remain devoted to his wife, and she even seemed to condone his adultery as part and parcel of the 18th-century court.
Both George and Caroline hated their eldest son, Frederick, Prince of Wales. The Queen told courtier Lord Hervey, “You know as well as I that he is the lowest stinking coward in the world and that there is no way of gaining anything of him but by working on his fear.”
George was equally damning, saying he was “the greatest beast, the greatest liar and the greatest fool in the world.”
George and Caroline took the “spare the rod and spoil the child” approach with all of their offspring. Perhaps because of his strict upbringing, their eldest son Frederick turned into a rebel and opposed
his parents at every turn.
In adulthood, Frederick was known as a spendthrift whose chief interests were gambling, drinking and womanising. George kept a very tight rein on the purse strings and continually reduced Frederick’s allowance to try to keep him in check, but it was a constant battle.
The situation was further exacerbated by the fact that George knew his expenses would rise when the Prince married, and as heir apparent it was essential to find Frederick a suitable bride to become the next Princess of Wales.
Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, offered her granddaughter, Lady Diana Spencer (later Duchess of Bedford) to Frederick with an incredible dowry of some hundred thousand pounds.
This arrangement suited them both, as Frederick needed the money and Lady Diana would give the Marlboroughs the ultimate in social status when she eventually became queen. A date was arranged for a secret marriage, but as soon as Sir Robert Walpole heard the news, he scuppered the plans.
Eventually Frederick married seventeen-year-old Princess Augusta of Saxe-gotha. She was an immature girl who arrived in England holding her favourite doll for comfort. The King and Queen took an instant dislike to her.
When Augusta was due to give birth to their first child, Frederick told his parents that the baby was due in October, when in fact it was due in July. This was to prevent the King and Queen being present at the birth, as was traditional at that time.
As soon as Augusta went into labour, she was taken from Hampton Court to St James’s Palace to give birth there in a further attempt to thwart his parents.
When Caroline heard the news she rushed to St James’s Palace, but a baby girl had already been born. This opened up a further rift between mother and son that was never bridged.
Caroline had felt unwell since the birth of her last child and was actually suffering with an umbilical hernia, which she kept to herself until her condition deteriorated perilously. Despite his mistresses, George seemed inconsolable when the Queen died on November 20, 1737, declaring that of all the women he had known there was not “one fit to buckle her shoe.”
Frederick, his troublesome heir, died in 1751 from a lung abscess, said to be the result of being hit by a cricket ball. In recent years, historians have come to the conclusion that he more likely died from a pulmonary embolism – a blood clot on the lungs.
George himself died at Kensington Palace on October 25, 1760 while on the toilet – a victim of severe constipation. He left instructions that he was to be buried next to Caroline and that the sides of their coffins should be removed where they touched. They now lie side by side in Henry VII’S Chapel. He was the last King of England to be buried at Westminster Abbey. After his death, there were few glowing tributes to the late King. Horace Walpole wrote that George II had “the haughtiness of Henry VIII without his spirit; the avarice of Henry VII without his exactions; the indignities of Charles I without his bigotry for his prerogative; the vexation of King William, with as little skill in the management of parties, and the gross gallantry of his father, without his good nature or his honesty.”
Victorian author and politician Justin Mccarthy was slightly more gracious, concluding, “The best, perhaps, that can be said of him is that on the whole, all things considered, he might have been worse.”
Above: George II.
Above: Caroline of Ansbach. Above right: Well-wishers gather for Caroline. Below right: George II at the Battle of Dettingen.
Above: Coronation of George II.
Below right: Frederick, Prince of Wales. Below: George II by Rysbrack, Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich.