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Feature essay

The Hanoverian succession in British and European politics, c.1700–1720

 George I (1660–1727) by Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1716 [replica; original, 1714] George I (1660–1727) by Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1716 [replica; original, 1714]
August 2014 marks the 300th anniversary of the Hanoverian accession, the point at which—following the death of Queen Anne—Georg Ludwig, elector of Hanover, became king of Great Britain and Ireland. The king's accession began a dynastic line now synonymous with the eighteenth century, typically described as the Hanoverian or Georgian era. This essay considers the politics of accession and explains how and why Georg Ludwig became George I.

Towards an Act of Settlement

Worries about issues of succession were a major cause of instability throughout Europe in the early modern period. This is hardly surprising. Unscrupulous nobles could take advantage of minorities or female rule to cause trouble. Disputed successions could descend into faction and civil war or even provoke Europe-wide conflict, as did the demise of Carlos II of Spain. In the first decade of the eighteenth century Britain was a key participant in the grand alliance that sought to resist Louis XIV's ambitions to place a member of his family on the throne during the War of the Spanish Succession (1702–13/14). Yet this conflict, and the Nine Years' War which preceded it (1688–97), could just as well be described as a ‘war of the British succession’. The quest to introduce a degree of certainty into arrangements about the succession to the British thrones would ultimately lead to the arrival in England of Georg Ludwig, elector of Hanover, on 18 September 1714.

When William, prince of Orange, landed at Torbay on 5 November 1688, it was far from clear whether his invasion would succeed. James II had done much to alienate significant sections of the political nation since 1685. His open Catholicism and his loosening of the civil disabilities that prevented Roman Catholics from serving as army officers had reinforced the link between ‘popery and arbitrary government’ in the minds of his subjects. Although much has been made of the importance of the invitation from the Immortal seven to William to invade, the birth of a son to Mary of Modena (James Francis Edward, the future Jacobite King James III), was also a crucial element in William's calculations. The prospect of a Catholic dynasty establishing itself in Britain was considerably less enticing than a single Catholic monarch.
 Anne (1665–1714) by Michael Dahl, 1705 Anne (1665–1714) by Michael Dahl, 1705

William's success was helped by James II's flight to France and by the defection of the military leader John Churchill, later first duke of Marlborough, with the result that in February 1689 the Convention Parliament offered the thrones to William and his wife Mary. The justification for this unusual action was important. Hereditary rights were still vital in a society that was both hierarchical and based around land ownership. Going against normal inheritance patterns required explanation. The claim that the members of the convention made, as articulated in the Bill of Rights (1689), was that the throne had been left vacant by James's abdication and that they were therefore in a position to dispose of it. This argument was designed to appeal to tories and moderate whigs, anxious not to set an unsettling constitutional precedent. The more radical ideas that parliament now determined the succession or that a people had the right to rid themselves of irresponsible monarchs found few contemporary advocates.

James II's departure into exile left William in de facto control. Protestantism was seemingly re-established on a firm basis. Yet the question of what would happen about the succession persisted. Mary's death in 1694 and William's unwillingness to remarry meant that it was unlikely that he would have heirs of his own. Attention therefore turned to Mary's sister, Anne, and her husband, George of Denmark. Anne was frequently pregnant but her children were sickly. The birth of her son, Prince William, in 1689 had been seen as providential endorsement of what came to be known as the ‘glorious revolution’, but in July 1700 the prince fell ill and died. William now faced a serious problem.

Some accounts suggest that he toyed with the idea of declaring as his heir a member of the Prussian royal family, the Hohenzollerns, but the legislation presented to parliament in spring 1701 adopted a different course. The Act of Settlement (passed in June of that year) reinforced the prohibitions in the Bill of Rights that excluded those who were Catholic or married to Catholics from the line of succession. It placed the succession to the British thrones, after Anne, in the hands of Sophia, dowager electress of Hanover, ‘and the heirs of her body being Protestants’.

Why the house of Hanover?

 Sophia Dorothea  [Princess Sophia Dorothea of Celle] (1666–1726) by Jacques Vaillant, c.1690 [with her children, the future George II and Sophia Dorothea, queen of Prussia] Sophia Dorothea [Princess Sophia Dorothea of Celle] (1666–1726) by Jacques Vaillant, c.1690 [with her children, the future George II and Sophia Dorothea, queen of Prussia]
Sophia's claim to the throne came through her grandfather, James I and VI. She was the twelfth child and youngest daughter of Princess Elizabeth, James's only surviving daughter, and her husband, Frederick V, elector palatine and ‘winter king’ of Bohemia [see under Elizabeth]. More than fifty of William's closer blood relations, all Catholics, were excluded by the act. Sophia's background had not suggested such a meteoric rise. Brought up in exile, following her parents' expulsion from Prague, she had married Ernst August of Brunswick-Lüneburg in 1658. She had originally been contracted to marry Ernst August's elder brother but his refusal to go through with the match created the opportunity for Ernst August. His prospects were limited: he was the youngest of four brothers with no expectation of inheriting territory of his own. His brothers' inability to produce legitimate heirs and their early demise eventually brought Ernst August control of the duchy of Calenberg in the north-west corner of the Holy Roman Empire. The marriage of his eldest son, the future George I, to his niece, Sophia Dorothea of Celle, ensured that Calenberg would eventually be united with neighbouring Celle. This territorial consolidation, combined with the value of Ernst August's troops and apparent loyalty, was sufficient to persuade Leopold I to raise Hanover, as the new territory became known after its principal city, to the status of an electorate in 1692.

Hanover in the late seventeenth century was, therefore, anything but a backwater. An important player in central European politics, it had one of the finest opera houses in Europe. Sophia and Ernst August created a court that attracted such luminaries of the early enlightenment as Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. The passing of the Act of Settlement increased the number of British visitors to Hanover, where Georg Ludwig had succeeded his father as elector in 1698. News of the act itself was brought by a delegation including Charles Gerard, second earl of Macclesfield, Charles Mohun, fourth Baron Mohun, and the philosopher John Toland. They presented a ceremonial copy of the act to Sophia and were richly rewarded for their trouble.

The feelings of Sophia and her son towards the prospect of the British thrones were mixed. When offered a set of Books of Common Prayer for use in her chapel, Sophia retorted that there were not enough English speakers at court to make it worthwhile and she, of course, could still remember the liturgy off by heart from childhood. George was usually keen to let his mother set the pace and other concerns, such as his relations with his Wolfenbüttel neighbours and the War of the Spanish Succession, were more important for him in the early eighteenth century.

The succession and British party politics

 George II (1683–1760) by Thomas Hudson, 1744 George II (1683–1760) by Thomas Hudson, 1744
Within British domestic politics, however, the Act of Settlement had not settled everything. The whigs, particularly their Junto leadership, supported the idea of the Hanoverian succession. For them, the key element was the Hanoverian family's protestantism. They viewed the threat to English liberties as coming predominantly from Catholicism and adopted a more tolerant attitude towards non-Anglican protestant dissenters. Tories, by contrast, remained very attached to the Church of England and were worried about the spread of protestant dissent and the departure from hereditary principles. Although Anne was distrustful of the whig junto, its support for the war made its members a vital component of the ministry and they were able to press their case from within government.

Nevertheless, debate about the succession continued. The Act of Settlement had been passed by the English parliament and the question of what would happen in Scotland remained unresolved. The Scottish parliament passed legislation in 1703–4 that vested the power to choose Anne's successor as queen of Scotland in itself. England responded with trade restrictions. In 1706 negotiations were begun which led to the union of 1707 and Scottish acceptance of the Hanoverian succession.

In addition to securing the succession in Scotland, the junto maintained pressure on Anne to make other outward gestures of support for the Guelphs (the family name of the Hanoverians). In 1706 Charles Montagu, earl of Halifax, accompanied by Joseph Addison, was sent to Hanover to compliment Sophia and to institute the Hanoverian electoral prince Georg August (the future George II) into the order of the Garter. The mission also allowed the whigs to keep Sophia informed about the succession situation. Meanwhile the elector and his son participated in campaigns in the Low Countries, growing closer to Marlborough and some of his key lieutenants, such as William Cadogan, in the process.

  Hans Kaspar  von Bothmer (1656–1732) by John Faber senior, 1717 Hans Kaspar von Bothmer (1656–1732) by John Faber senior, 1717
War-weariness and the furore caused by the whigs' failed attempt to impeach the Church of England clergyman Henry Sacheverell, for preaching against the glorious revolution led to a shift in the public mood in 1710. The general election of that year saw a marked increase in tory support and Sidney Godolphin fell from power. The new ministry was led by Robert Harley and Henry St John. They dispatched Richard Savage, fourth Earl Rivers, to Hanover, to reassure Sophia and the elector about their commitment to the protestant succession. Yet they were also determined to bring the war to a rapid conclusion and a peace treaty was signed with France at Utrecht in 1713. The elector of Hanover was angered at what he perceived to be England's abandonment of her allies. Rumours were also circulating about contacts between tory figures and the exiled Stuart court at St Germain, near Paris. As Anne's health visibly declined, whig pamphleteers, such as George Ridpath, were growing anxious. Calls were renewed for Anne to summon the electoral prince to London to take up his seat in the House of Lords (he had been created duke of Cambridge in 1706).

The arrival of George I

The elector became Anne's direct successor only in June 1714, following his mother's death. Plans to deal with the transfer of power had, however, already been hatched. George's representative in London, Hans Kaspar von Bothmer, had been sent a list of regents, as had Thomas Tenison, archbishop of Canterbury, and the lord chancellor, Simon Harcourt. The regents were to act as an interim government, until George arrived in the country, proclaiming the new ruler and securing his succession. The list contained the great officers of state but also included a group of politicians who were either staunch whigs, among them Charles Powlett, third duke of Bolton, and Charles Howard, third earl of Carlisle, or tories who had opposed the separate peace with France, such as Daniel Finch, second earl of Nottingham. John Campbell, second duke of Argyll—a strong supporter of the union between Scotland and England, and of resisting Stuart influence in Scotland—was also included.

 Frederick Lewis (1707–1751) by Philip Mercier, c.1735–6 Frederick Lewis (1707–1751) by Philip Mercier, c.1735–6
Queen Anne died on 1 August 1714. George's succession was quickly proclaimed and met with little immediate resistance. The new king made a leisurely journey from Hanover to his new kingdoms, stopping in the United Provinces en route for meetings with leading Dutch politicians. He arrived at Greenwich on board a royal navy ship in late September, accompanied by his eldest son, his mistress, Ehrengard Melusine von der Schulenburg, and some of his leading Hanoverian advisors, like Andreas Gottlieb von Bernstorff. His secretary, Jean Robethon, provided a link back to Williamite politics.

The new king was welcomed with considerable pomp and circumstance: a contemporary engraving, published by Abraham Allard, shows the crowds of carriages outside St James's that marked his arrival in London. The presence of his son and his daughter-in-law Caroline in London was a signal of dynastic security—their eldest son, Frederick Lewis, was left to represent family interests in Hanover—to be commemorated in a work by the artist James Thornhill in the Painted Hall at Greenwich. On the west wall, George is depicted, sceptre upon a globe, surrounded by his family. The picture visibly emphasizes generational continuity and the plenteous benefits of his rule. On the north wall, opposite an image of William III arriving at Torbay in 1688, George, in Roman garb, is seen arriving at Greenwich.

George's distrust of the tories was evident in the composition of his first ministry. Figures such as Robert Walpole and Charles Townshend, second Viscount Townshend, were returned to office and Marlborough was restored as captain-general. Others who had fought in war, such as James Stanhope, were now rewarded with peerages and political promotions. The 1715 Jacobite rebellion was a gift for whig propagandists, who claimed that their political opponents were all covert Jacobites, and widespread proscription of the tories followed. Additionally, those such as John Robinson, bishop of Bristol, and Thomas Wentworth, third earl of Strafford, who had been responsible for negotiating the Utrecht treaty found themselves facing impeachment. The message was clear: George intended to continue on the path of involvement in continental politics that had become standard practice since 1688 and those who disagreed or who favoured the Stuarts would struggle to find favour.

For George's supporters, his successful establishment on the throne was a triumph for the idea of a protestant succession. Opponents, such as the non-juring cleric Thomas Brett, argued that Lutherans were very different from Anglicans. However, most early eighteenth-century Britons were less concerned about abstract theological questions than the prospects for political stability. Partly by their own longevity and partly through their ability to adapt to their new surroundings, George I and his successors were able to deliver this and to ensure that there were no further wars of the British succession.

Andrew C. Thompson


J. Black, The Hanoverians: the history of a dynasty (2004) · E. Gregg, Queen Anne (1980) · T. Harris, Revolution: the great crisis of the British monarchy, 1685–1720 (2006) · R. Hatton, George I: elector and king (1978) · G. S. Holmes, British politics in the age of Anne, rev. edn (1987)


J. Vaillant, group portrait, oils, 1690, Bomann-Museum, Celle; Sophia Dorothea [see illus.] · M. Dahl, oils, 1705, NPG; Anne [see illus.] · G. Kneller, oils, 1716 ([replica; original, 1714]), Beningbrough Hall, North Yorkshire; George I [see illus.] · J. Faber senior, mezzotint, 1717, NPG; Hans Kaspar von Bothmer [see illus.] · P. Mercier, oils, c.1735–1736, Beningbrough Hall, North Yorkshire; Frederick Lewis [see illus.] · T. Hudson, oils, 1744, NPG; George II [see illus.]