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18 May 2016updated 03 Aug 2021 10:44am

Wigs and Whigs: Who exactly were the Georgians?

10 things you need to know about the House of Hanover.

By Lettie Mckie

Our national sense of royal history tends to get a little vague after Charles I, and when it comes to the 18th century, it’s positively hazy. There’s a whole generation whose entire experience of this period of our revered monarchy’s history comes from Blackadder.

Who exactly were the Georgians? Were they all called George? What is the House of Hanover? Weren’t they the mad ones who liked whoring and powdered wigs?  

Perhaps their anonymity can be blamed on a gap in the National Curriculum. Or perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the Georgian era has so much other important stuff going on. From the American Revolution to the Enlightenment, the abolition of the slave trade to the wars with Napoleon, the comings and goings of a bunch of German aristocrats seems boring and irrelevant in comparison.

Look around, though, and you will still see their influence everywhere, from the incredible Palaces they built to the music they commissioned. Much of the Royal pomp and ceremony that still exists comes from this period. The Hanoverians were also the first kings of England to be figureheads rather than rulers – and the story of how the transition occurred is full of intrigue, power struggles and bitter family feuds.

So here, in 10 bite sized bullet points, is everything you need to know about the highs and lows of the dynasty which ruled Great Britain from 1714 to 1837

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1) When the last Stuart monarch (Anne 1665-1714) died, she left no children and a potential succession crisis in her wake.

The most important factor for the ruling class when picking their new sovereign had been that they should not be a Roman Catholic. And so, in the 1701 Act of Settlement, Parliament passed over 50 other royal relatives to name as Anne’s successor her cousin once removed, Sophia of Hanover (a granddaughter of James VI & I).

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Sophia, though, died a month before Anne – so the crown finally ended up with her son George I (1714-1727). Plucked from the obscure north German principality of Hanover, George spoke barely two words of English. Never popular with the people, he even had to deal with mocking banners being displayed in the crowd at his coronation.

2) The 1701 act had made it illegal for Roman Catholics to rule England – and so to prove their Protestantism George I and George II (1727-1760) had to publically receive Anglican Holy Communion. This Act was not repealed until 2013 on the birth of Prince George.

3) The Stuart period had been overshadowed by revolution and civil war, thanks in large part to Parliament’s growing belief that autocratic monarchs had too much power.

And so, the early Hanoverians were far less engaged with the business of ruling than their predecessors. Neither George I or II had much influence over domestic policy, increasingly leaving important decisions to their Whig ministers. It is during the reign of George I that the office of Prime Minister first emerged, and that the Cabinet began to meet regularly without the sovereign presiding.  

4) Revolution still plagued the Georgians, however. In 1745 the Jacobite Rising saw the “Young Pretender” Bonnie Prince Charlie (grandson of the deposed catholic James II) gather support from Scotland and France for his campaign to regain the throne for the house of Stuart. After initial success, his army was eventually defeated at the Battle of Culloden, the last pitched battle to be fought on British soil. 

The National Anthem “God Save the King’ that we still sing today was penned by Sir Thomas Arne during this troubled time to raise patriotic feeling. The army sang the rousing tune as they marched to meet the Jacobites, putting the monarch firmly at the forefront of the campaign.

5) The Windsors may be the epitome of a close-knit nuclear family but there was little love lost between the Hanoverians. George II was far more popular than George I because he spoke English, a fact that the king was madly jealous of.

It was under George II that court life became lavish, artistic and glamorous.  Politicians and intellectuals vied for favour at the iconic palaces of Kensington and Hampton Court – but bitter rivalries still existed between father and son, this time between George himself and Frederick the Prince of Wales, who supported the parliamentary opposition.  In 1737 he was banished from court and died without ever repairing their relationship.

6) George II’s grandson, George III (1760-1820) therefore took the throne. He was the most famous of the Hanoverians kings, partly because of his long rule, but also on account of his bouts of insanity caused by a disease known as porphyria that turned his urine purple.

Historians have suggested, however, that his illness may actually have increased his popularity, consolidating the position of the British monarchy in a time when dissent and revolution was rife across Europe. In Music and Monarchy David Starkey says “it made him appear deeply vulnerable”. As the people’s hearts melted for a king with a debilitating mental illness, so the popularity of the monarchy grew.

7) The Regency – in which George III was considered unfit to rule and his son, George the Prince of Wales, ruled in his stead – happened between 1811-1820.  The Prince Regent – or Prinny, as he was nicknamed – is the inspiration for Hugh Laurie’s bumbling character in Blackadder.

As George IV (1820-1830), he spent lavishly, often running into huge debts from gambling, drinking and womanising. But he was also the greatest artistic patron of the age, commissioning John Nash to re-design large parts of central London including building Buckingham Palace.

8) The Regency saw the Unification of the British Isles that made Ireland officially ruled by the sovereign, a position England had been claiming since the Norman Conquest.

British Monarchs had also claimed the throne of France since Edward III in the 1340s. George III was the last British King to style himself King of France, however – because, by 1801, there was no longer a French throne to claim.

9) At 64 years old, George IV’s brother William IV (1830-1837) was the oldest British monarch to accede the throne (although Prince Charles may still beat this record).

Like his Hanoverian predecessors he increasingly saw power and influence slipping through his fingers – but he did assert himself enough to become the last British Monarch to appoint a prime minister against the will of Parliament.

10) William’s niece Queen Victoria (1837-1901) was technically also of the House of Hanover (though married into that of SaxeCoburgGotha). As William IV’s heiress presumptive, she was controlled by her mother’s supposed lover Sir John Conroy, and even tricked into making him her private secretary.  

However on becoming queen she escaped his controlling influence, rising to be a national figurehead so iconic she defined a new era: the Victorian Age. 

This article is part of the New Statesman’s Monarchy Week. Find more here.