Saturday, 8 October 2011

The Three Georges

Who were the Georgian kings and what did their reigns really mean to the British public?

After Queen Anne died without issue in 1714 the kingship passed to the House of Hanover via the most senior Protestant descendant of James I, Georg Ludwig. There were others with a closer blood link to James I however the Act of Settlement of 1701 made it impossible for Roman Catholics to take the throne. Therefore in 1714 Georg Ludwig of Hanover became king of Great Britain at the age of 54 and on his death in 1727, his son became king George II (aged 44).

Kings George I and II
Kings George I and II filled an important role for the British. Although they remained distant and different in their German ways to the British public, most were happy that Protestants were ruling the kingdom as opposed to the Catholic son of James II, James Stuart (The Old Pretender). There were some Jacobite uprisings and support in the early eighteenth century by those who felt the throne rightfully belonged to James Stuart however popularity was short-lived and never wide-spread enough to allow full military or financial support.

George I and II were both German born and arrived at the British throne as middle-aged men. This and a variety of other reasons meant that their personalities remained distant from the British public. One reason was that there was little propaganda or royal reporting of them, and little public ceremony which only served to make them seem aloof from the British public. In addition, they never travelled to some parts of the country during their reigns, creating a lack of visibility across the country. Furthermore, their fear of Jacobite sympathy within the Tory party meant they favoured the Whig party, and this favouritism naturally distanced some and meant they could not be seen as neutral British figureheads.

King George II painted by Thomas Hudson (1744)

Receiving insufficient money from Parliament they could barely afford their lifestyles (once they had used this money to pay the salaries of courtiers and ministers etc), meaning they were unable to lavish sums on one symbolic royal palace or residence like Louis XIV had done at Versailles. This had the impact of there being a relatively small royal court and rather than court defining good taste and fashion and being leaders in culture, instead Kensington Palace, Hampton Court and St James' were merely cultural venues among many others in London. Polite culture was being formed by opera houses, pleasure gardens, and magnificent artistocratic town houses more than it was by the royal circle.

King George III
George III however gradually washed that aloof public image away and by the end of his reign he was deeply mourned. He ascended the throne at just 22 in 1760 and had the benefit of being born and growing up in England.

George III was much better at what we would now call PR and ensured paintings of himself were distributed. His sons travelled the length and bredth of the kingdom, making royalty visible and he himself engaged in active ceremonial display. The public finally had a king they could recognise and see. Celebrations such as the Jubilee of 1809 were popularly attended by all classses of society, and towns competed with each other for the best celebrations. In fact it was during his reign that the song 'God Save The King' was increasingly sung and became popularly known as the national anthem. The increase in the press and transport developments such as the turnpike roads led to increased propaganda and royal reporting.

1809 Jubilee celebrations for King George III at Berkshire Record Office (D/EX225/Z4)
 Additional Parliamentary funds enabled him to invest in public splendour and he renovated many of the royal palaces, while as his eldest son lavished sums onto Brighton Pavilion and his London residence at Carlton House. In addition, the French Revolution created a mixture of feelings in the British; the bloodshed and brutality causing many to feel protective about their royals.

Furthermore George III's percieved political neutrality (any serious Jacobite threat had now gone) enabled him to embrace all his subjects without alienating any politically. Finally, his morality and vulnerability (due to his illness) meant that often the public looked on him as a Father of the People as well as a normal man.

By helping to bring royalty back into the limelight George III turned the tables on his forbears and paved the way for modern kingship.

King George III pained by Zoffany