George I became an international name in 1714 when he became King of Great Britain and Ireland. Until then, he was one of many German princes and dukes with their own patch to rule but not much reason for the rest of the world to take notice of them. George had acquired some notoriety because of his action packed private life but nothing could have prepared him for the changes that inheriting the Crown of Great Britain would bring. George’s life and the fate of the Monarchy changed forever on the day he became king.
Perhaps from the very first moment he stepped ashore in England, on September 18th 1714, George had some indication of the grand scale of the life he was now destined to live. He arrived speaking barely any English and as a man who was used to being an absolute ruler. His new people were suspicious of him and had got used to the king working with parliament in their governance. A month later, on October 20th, riots broke out in some parts of England when George I was crowned. From day one, this monarch found out that being a king could be very hard work.
It wasn’t a role that Georg Ludwig, who was born on May 28th 1660 in Hanover, had expected as he grew up. He was an eldest son so had expected to inherit some power from his father, Ernest Augustus, Duke of Brunswick-Luneberg. His mother was Sophia of the Palatinate and a granddaughter of King James I who had inherited Elizabeth I’s crown when the Tudor line had run out. His early life was packed with preparation and his father took him on battle campaigns from a fairly early age to get him ready for his military role. As a young boy he won plenty of praise and his mother described him as a conscientious child. But her opinion of him would change.
By the time her son turned 20, Sophia thought very different of him. At the time of his marriage, November 22nd 1682, she wrote that George was the ‘most pigheaded, stubborn boy who ever lived, who has round his brains such a thick crust that I defy any man or woman ever to discover what is in them’. She wasn’t the only one who found George difficult. One of his nicknames as ‘pig snout’ and it was this unfortunate label that the woman selected as his bride shouted when told that their marriage would go ahead. George’s bride was his first cousin, Sophia Dorothea of Celle, who brought with her a sizeable amount of cash and who, having said I’ do, settled down to a life of mutual loathing with her new husband. The royal couple had two children, George and Sophia Dorothea, but this was far from a happy family. By the time George succeeded his father in 1698 they had parted and Sophia Dorothea was under house arrest.
George established a new court which, given the general opinion of him as stubborn and ignorant, held its own in terms of culture and learning. But the new ruler soon had new issues vying for his attention. For within fou years of his accession it became clear that another title would becoming his way. In 1702, Anne became queen but it was a sad inheritance for her as her only surviving child, William Frederick, had died the year before. Anne, who had had nineteen pregnancies, was left with no family and no heir and a successor had to be chosen. The decision was made to name Sophia, George’s mother, as first in line to the throne – partly because of her strong Protestant background. And with Sophia older than Anne (although considerably more healthy) it became very clear that George would one day wear the Crown.
That didn’t stop him forging a name for himself at home. While Parliament in London made preparations for a House of Hanover, making Sophia and her descendants British citizens and formalising the union of the English and Scottish crowns to ensure there was no split when Anne died, George formed formidable political alliances as he took part in the War of the Spanish Succession. Showing his military prowess and sense of diplomacy, George slowly won himself more power as a result and in 1708 he was confirmed as a Prince-Elector. His mother died on his 54th birthday and he became heir to the British throne. Queen Anne died on August 1st 1714 and Georg Ludwig was now a king.
His stubborness showed itself almost immediately. He landed in England with a considerable retinue and ideas about how much control he should have of his parliament. His new subjects weren’t overly enamoured of him and he soon made political enemies as he put in place a largely Whig government leading the Tories to take against him. Some of them were so unhappy with the new king that they joined supporters of the descendants of James II who claimed the Crown belonged to them. Within a year of his accession, George faced the Jacobite rebellion which sought to put James’s son, another James, on the throne in his place. It ended in failure.
But that’s not to say the new king’s reign was plain sailing. His personal life was turbulent and his enemies played on that to try and lower his reputation. George I had no consort and the story of his treatment of his wife, Sophia Dorothea, was often used against him. Not long after the birth of their children, George had begun publicly showing off his mistresses but when rumours that his wife had taken a lover surfaced he was far from happy. Sophia Dorothea’s friend, Count Philip Koningsmark, had disappeared in mysterious circumstances while she was repudiated by her husband and imprisoned in Ahlden Castle. She was locked within its walls while her husband took on his new kingdom.
That’s not to say George was lonely. He had arrived in England with a second family as his long established mistress, Ehrengard Melusine, had had three daughters with the king and soon after his accession she was made Duchess of Kendal and Munster. There were rumours that another woman, Sophia von Kielmansegg, was also his mistress but she was a half sister of the new king and while close to George was probably not his lover. She was eventually made Countess of Darlington and of Leinster. And complex family relations only added to George’s difficulties.
For his legitimate family was fast becoming more popular than the very German George who had so little English he had to speak to his ministers in French. His son and heir, another George, became Prince of Wales and soon established a reputation for loving all things British. This played well with people still suspicious of their foreign king and this, along with political differences, led to a breakdown in relations between the two men which culminated in George I banning his son from seeing his own children for a while.
George constantly tussled with the politicians of his day in the first half of his reign, retaining his strong support for the Whigs. His links to this party would led to a further tarnishing of his reputation when some of its leading ministers were involved in the South Sea Bubble, the financial crisis which led to ruin for many in 1721. The fact that George’s mistress, Ehrengard Melusine, had been involved didn’t help. George suffered a personal blow from this crisis.
The later part of his reign saw him retire from direct involvement with British politics and he paid several trips to his beloved homeland of Hanover. It was during a visit there, in 1727, that he suffered a stroke. He died at the Bishop-Prince’s Palace in Osnabruck on June 11th 1727 and was buried nearby. His kingdom didn’t really mourn him and his much more popular son took his throne.
George I was a hard working king but although his crown brought him fame it didn’t win him a glowing reputation. In some ways, he was accepted as monarch by many because of who he wasn’t – there was still a fear of Roman Catholicism in parts of England and George’s Protestant faith outweighed his negatives for many. His own mother, who came so close to inheriting the British throne, perhaps summed her son up better than anyone else. Sophia remarked on George’s conscientious nature but she also knew how stubborn he was and that intransigence perhaps stopped the first King of the House of Hanover ever adapting fully to the role he unexpectedly inherited.
Picture credit: Portrait of George I by Sir Godfrey Kneller [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, Portrait of Sophia of the Palatinate by Luise Hollandine von der Pfalz ([www.zum.de/…/rhein/pfalz/sophie.htm]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, and the portrait of Sophia Dorothea of Celle and her children, attributed to Jacques Vaillant [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons