George II

George II (1683-1760) was king of Great Britain and Ireland and elector of Hanover from 1727 to 1760. During his long reign the system of governing Britain through an oligarchy of powerful political managers solidified.

George II, born Nov. 10, 1683, followed a military career as a young man. As Prince of Wales, he displayed hostility to his father—which was amply returned—and counted his father's advisers as enemies. Thus, when he became king in 1727, he did not wish the incumbent leading minister, Robert Walpole, to continue in office. But Walpole stayed on all the same. The new queen, Caroline of Ansbach, whose close friendship Walpole had secured 10 years earlier, made George II see that Walpole could provide what others could not: stable government and a lavish budget for the court.

The Queen ruled her husband. Although George II took mistresses, his enduring passion was for his wife. Her ample physique attracted him; her management of his ego enslaved him. They were quite unalike. He was meticulous, industrious, and orderly in his habits, yet lacking in self-confidence. She was bold and charming. He had no time for ideas, though he loved music and read history; the religious and philosophical subjects that she delighted in discussing were to him "lettered nonsense." It was a stormy marriage; the King shouted, but the Queen got her way. Walpole, who ignored the mistresses, had indeed "taken the right sow by the ear," and although the Queen's death in 1737 diminished his certainty of royal favor, he was kept on until war eroded his parliamentary position in 1742. Even after Walpole retired, George II sought his advice.

George II was the last English monarch to lead his troops in battle, but, "for all his personal bravery," he was, as Walpole observed, "as great a political coward as ever wore a crown." When pressured by his ministers he quarreled and complained but yielded. Thus he gave up the one minister who completely captured his heart, John Carteret, because the Pelhams brought to bear their parliamentary power. Carteret's intellectual gifts and his zeal for a strong diplomatic posture attracted George II, but the man had no parliamentary base, and when the Pelhams sought his dismissal in 1744, the King acquiesced. The new broad-based ministry that was then formed insisted, in 1746, on giving office to William Pitt the Elder. George II detested Pitt and vowed never to show him favor, but when nearly all his ministers threatened to resign, he capitulated.

It was the habit of the Georges to hate their sons. George II's strangely intense loathing for Frederick, Prince of Wales—"that monster"—was fully shared by the Queen, who once asserted: "My dear first-born is the greatest ass, and the greatest liar, … and the greatest beast in the whole world." To avoid employing the dissident politicians who, since 1737, had gathered around the prince at Leicester House, the King gladly put up with the Pelhams. There was no sorrow at court when the prince died in 1751, but there was regret when Henry Pelham died in 1754.

"Now I shall have no more peace," George II remarked on learning of Pelham's death. He was right. His government was unsettled until 1757, when he agreed to accept the combined leadership of Pitt and Lord Newcastle. George II disliked both men, but under them Britain achieved its greatest triumphs in 18th-century warfare. Amid these triumphs the old king died of a heart attack on Oct. 25, 1760.

Clearly, George II's role in the great victories of the Seven Years War was at best a marginal one. It was not that he was lazy or stupid; he understood government business and took it seriously. If during his reign the power of monarchy seemed to diminish, it was mainly because he preferred to avoid difficult situations. Power flowed to those with stronger wills. "Ministers are kings in this country," he grumbled. It was not true, but he generally acted as though it were.


Further Reading on George II

J. D. Griffith Davies, A King in Toils (1938), is a study of George II. R. L. Arkell, Caroline of Ansbach: George the Second's Queen (1939), and Peter Quennell, Caroline of England: An Augustan Portrait (1939), offer good introductions to life at George II's court. Lord Hervey's Memoirs provides a colorful eyewitness account of the court; Romney Sedgwick's abridged edition (1952; rev. 1963) retains most of the material relating to the King and Queen. For reliable accounts of politics during George II's reign see Basil Williams, The Life of William Pitt, Earl of Chatham (2 vols., 1913); J. H. Plumb, Sir Robert Walpole (2 vols., 1956-1961); and John B. Owen, The Rise of the Pelhams (1957).