George I (1660-1727) was king of Great Britain and Ireland from 1714 to 1727. Founder of the Hanoverian dynasty, he was the first English monarch whose claim to reign depended upon an act of Parliament.
Born at Hanover on March 28, 1660, George Lewis, of the house of Brunswick-Lüneburg, was the son of Ernest Augustus and Sophia, granddaughter of James I of England. George's marriage to his cousin Sophia Dorothea in 1682 united the Hanoverian possessions of the house of Brunswick. He answered his wife's suspected infidelity by divorcing her in 1694 and confining her to her castle for life. He succeeded his father as elector of Hanover in 1698.
George's role in British history stemmed from two circumstances: he was the great-grandson of James I, and he was a Protestant. In 1701 the English Parliament, recognizing that neither William III nor his successor, Anne, would leave an heir and fearing reversion of the crown to a Roman Catholic, passed the Act of Settlement; it conferred the inheritance on Sophia of Hanover and "the heirs of her body being Protestants." By this statute George became king in 1714—to the exclusion of some 57 persons with superior hereditary claims.
Understandably, George proved unpopular in Britain. A shy, rather sour man, he preferred to avoid crowds and royal pageantry. Ignorant of the language, bereft of intellectual gifts, and unmoved by the arts, save music, he showed no appreciation of English culture. Hanover remained undisguisedly his first love. He showered his German mistresses with estates and pensions and showed favoritism to his German courtiers. In foreign affairs he was rightly suspected of giving priority to the interests of Hanover, but fortunately those interests were usually congruent with Britain's.
Yet, fundamentally, George I was the right man at the right time for Britain. He possessed a quality the Stuart kings had lacked—steadiness. He knew his friends from his enemies and rewarded them accordingly; nothing was more essential in defending the new dynasty against treason. He quickly learned to find his ministers among the Whigs, who had supported his succession to the throne.
Though ignorant of English politics, George I did have experience in European foreign affairs. For 6 years he relied chiefly on his Hanoverian ministers, Bernstorff and Bothmer; the English ministers, led by Lords Townshend and Stanhope, usually had to work through the German advisers on matters requiring royal assent. The main weakness of this arrangement lay in its tendency to isolate the King's government from its parliamentary support. When the King visited Hanover in 1716, his most influential men in Parliament, Townshend and Sir Robert Walpole, were left behind and fell victim to intrigue. Blamed for opposing the King's foreign policy and, quite unfairly, for conniving with George's son, the Prince of Wales, Townshend lost royal favor and resigned in April 1717. Walpole followed him. Finding allies among the Tories, they led a vigorous parliamentary opposition. The lively court of the Prince of Wales became a gathering place of dissident politicians. Although the government, increasingly dominated by Bernstorff until 1719, survived these onslaughts, the political turmoil provoked by the outcast Whigs goaded the King into action.
It has been said that George I reigned but did not rule. However, he could be energetic and ruthless when his power seemed threatened. To overshadow the prince's court, he suppressed his aversion to courtly entertainments and conversed with ambitious men. The King's inability to speak English was not a serious hindrance; nearly everyone at court was fluent in French.
In 1720 the bursting of the "South Sea Bubble" raised stormy protests in Parliament. The goverment badly needed men who could tame the House of Commons, and chief among these was Walpole. Gaining access to George I through his aging but most trusted mistress, Madame Schulenberg, now Duchess of Kendal, Walpole and Townshend successfully negotiated a reentry to office. By 1722 Walpole was the King's leading minister and retained royal confidence to the end.
George I died suddenly of a stroke on June 11, 1727, while journeying to Hanover. Unmourned by his family and his English subjects, he had nevertheless done his duty. His instincts were authoritarian, yet he had managed to stifle rebellion without imposing tyranny. Above all, he learned to accommodate himself to a system of constitutional rule that the more energetic William III had found frustrating and distasteful.
Further Reading on George I
The most penetrating account of George I's relationship with his ministers can be found in J. H. Plumb, Sir Robert Walpole (2 vols., 1956-1961). A detailed history of the reign by Wolfgang Michael is partially translated from the German under the title England under George I (2 vols., 1936-1939). John M. Beattie, The English Court in the Reign of George I (1967), contains a valuable chapter on the court in politics.
Additional Biography Sources
Hatton, Ragnhild Marie, George I, elector and king, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978.
Mangan, J. J., The king's favour: three eighteenth century monarchs and the favourites who ruled them, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991.