Monarch of the week
We ended Week 2 with an animated summary of how we got from Elizabeth I to George I, whose reign we’ll be focusing on this week. There had been a period of interregnum, a change in religion once more, and now a new, foreign King had taken the throne.
In this step we’ve provided a family tree for the new Georgian dynasty, and for those of you who aren’t familiar with the story, we’ve also included a brief summary of the events that led up to George I succeeding his cousin Queen Anne.
A word of caution, we do start mentioning a lot of royal monarchs within this week, many of whom are called George! If you’re confused about who’s who, we’ve included a complete family tree to help you.
For those of you already familiar with this story you may like to skip straight to the next Step, marking this one complete as you move on.
In the early years of George’s life there was no certainty that the family would be destined to rule England.
When George I (1660-1727) came to the throne in 1714, the Georgian dynasty was born. However, his succession was not without its challenges. He was unpopular with his new subjects who were hesitant about a foreign king, and his ongoing conflict with his son and heir, George Augustus (the future George II) marred his rule.
George I was born 28 May 1660 in Hanover, Germany. His father was a minor aristocrat, but his grandmother was the daughter of James I and VI: King of England and Ireland as James I from 1603, and King of Scotland as James VI from 1567. It was through this maternal connection that George was able to claim the English throne, following the death of his second cousin, Queen Anne.
After the death of William, Duke of Gloucester in July 1700, all of Queen Anne’s other children had either been still-born or had died at a very young age, so the death of William meant the end of any real potential for a direct, blood-line, heir. A successor was needed, and a protestant one at that (which excluded a number of other claimants). Her Hanoverian cousins fitted the bill.
On 1 August, Queen Anne died, leaving George as King of Great Britain and Ireland, and from this point forward George dropped his German name (Georg Ludwig) and always signed himself as ‘George R[ex]’.
However, more than a change of name was needed to win over his new subjects. George arrived in England on 18 September accompanied by his son, a number of nobles and a great crowd of people to a challenging start. In these early months of his rule, George needed to show strength and required the backing of a strong, loyal government. Furthermore, George had to face a wary British public who were cautious about their new, foreign king and his entourage.
George I was the first Hanoverian monarch to rule Britain, and unfortunately did not ingratiate himself with his new subjects with his inability to fully learn English (he conversed with ministers in French or Latin). He missed Hanover, and frequently returned there during his reign. But perhaps worst of all for the English public, he arrived with two female companions instead of his queen. He had in fact left his wife, Sophia Dorothea, imprisoned in Germany as she had been unfaithful, and prevented his young son Prince George (later George II) from ever seeing her again. Instead he came to England accompanied by his mistress and his half-sister.
George I was never the most public of monarchs and enjoyed his privacy. Unfortunately, this did not sit well with the need for the new king to have a public presence, and it added to the image of George as a ‘recluse’, an ‘outsider’ and a ‘foreigner’. In the early years of George’s rule, the new Prince of Wales, George Augustus, and his wife, Caroline of Celle Ansbach, took on this public role. But when tensions increased to crisis point between father and son, with the two irreconcilable from 1717 to 1720, it became clear that George I himself would have to become a much more public figure to compete with the glamorous couple.
While at Hampton Court in the summer of 1717, George began to dine in public on a daily basis, watched by visitors to court and joined on occasions by up to fifty guests. These guests included foreign ambassadors, nobility, and his British ‘gentlemen-in-waiting’. George also took to walking in the gardens with visitors; holding balls in the evenings several times a week (sometimes with a concert, and always with billiards and cards) and hunting regularly, which he combined with visits to country houses of the nobility. Just as Henry VIII had used food, feasting and entertainment as a sign of his power and kingship in the early sixteenth century, so too did George I in the early eighteenth; and Hampton Court played an important backdrop for both.
As we will go on to discover, Hampton Court had been ‘upgraded’ since the Tudor period and was, once again, a perfect setting for hosting royal occasions. On arriving at the Palace, George employed the architect Vanburgh to make even more improvements, including a suite of rooms for the Prince and Princess of Wales and he had Henry VIII’s Great Hall temporarily converted into a theatre.
George I continued to keep up his public presence in the following years and over the course of the summer of 1718, the celebrations at Hampton Court were even more lavish than they had been the previous year – there were more guests, more balls and more musicians. This was a period of luxury and lavish entertainment and George I’s court was at the heart of it, using both performative entertainment and food to make a statement about this newly established royal family.
© University of Reading and Historic Royal Palaces