DURING THE LATE SUMMER OF 1714 ALL ENGLAND AWAITED THE coming of King George I. On September 18 he landed at Greenwich. This fortunate German prince, who could not speak English, viewed his new realms without enthusiasm. In accepting the throne of the United Kingdom he was conferring, as it seemed to him, a favour upon his new subjects. He was meeting the convenience of English politicians. In return he expected that British power and wealth would be made serviceable to his domains in Hanover and to his larger interests on the European scene. His royal duties would entail exile from home in an island he had only once previously visited and which he did not like. For years past, as heir presumptive, he had attentively watched the factious course of English politics. He had followed distastefully the manœuvres of the party leaders, without understanding the stresses that gave rise to them or the principles that were at stake. Now on the banks of the Thames he looked about upon the nobles and Ministers who had come to greet him with suspicion and wariness, not unmingled with contempt. Here on English soil stood an unprepossessing figure, an obstinate and humdrum German martinet with dull brains and coarse tastes. As a commander in the late wars he had been sluggish and incompetent, and as a ruler of men he had shown no quickening ability or generosity of spirit. Yet the rigidity of his mind was relieved by a slow shrewdness and a brooding common sense. The British throne was no easy inheritance, especially for a foreign prince. King George took it up grudgingly, and it was ungraciously that he played his allotted part. He owed his crown to the luck of circumstance, but he never let it slip from his grasp.
Many holders of office under the previous reign nursed hopes of the new King. Others were filled with well-justified apprehension. Foremost among those now in acute anxiety was Bolingbroke. His fall was relentless and rapid. Upon the death of Anne he was still Secretary of State. But everyone suspected that if the Queen had lived a few weeks longer Bolingbroke would have laid the train for a Jacobite Restoration. The real designs, if he had any, of this brilliant, veering opportunist can scarcely be discerned. He had the gift of expressing in decisive language any policy that the moment required. He could hit any nail on the head, though which particular nail never seemed important to him. He had played high, and at the critical moment wavered and lost. He could expect little mercy. Nor was he left long in doubt. His name was not included among the Regents appointed to act for the King until His Majesty’s arrival. Soon a curt note of dismissal arrived for him from Hanover. Retiring to the country, he hovered aimlessly between regrets and fears. The first Parliament of the new reign demanded his impeachment. In despair Bolingbroke turned for advice to Marlborough, now back from exile, whom he had once mercilessly harried and driven from office. At their interview Marlborough was all urbanity. But he contrived to suggest that Bolingbroke’s life was in danger. He hinted that Bolingbroke alone of the Tory leaders would pay with his blood for their misdeeds. That night Bolingbroke fled to France disguised as a valet, his jauntiness utterly shattered. A few months later he took the plunge and became Secretary of State to the Pretender. The Court of Saint-Germain, with which he had long intrigued, was soon to disillusion him. Eight years of exile lay ahead. But this false, glittering figure has not yet passed out of our story. His great rival Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford, was meanwhile imprisoned in the Tower of London. No condign punishment was inflicted on him; but when he emerged from the Tower he was a broken man.
The political passions of the seventeenth century had spent themselves in the closing years of Queen Anne. The struggle of Whig against Tory had brought the country to the verge of civil war. The issue was who should succeed to the crown, the Catholic son of James II or the Protestant Elector? Now all was settled. There were no more great constitutional issues. George I had come peacefully to the throne. The Tory Party was shattered, and England settled down, grumbling but safe, under the long rule of Whiggism. A rapid change in the atmosphere marked the decades following 1714. The wrath and venom of controversy were replaced by an apathetic tolerance. Great principles were no longer dominant. Political sentiment was replaced by political interest. Public life was degraded by materialism and politics became a mere striving for office and Crown patronage by rival groups of Whigs.
The monarchy too had lost its lustre. There was no pretence that the Hanoverian kings ruled by Divine Right. They held their position by the express sanction of Parliament. Even the symbolism of royalty was curtailed. The Court was no longer the centre of beauty, rank, and fashion. A certain dowdiness creeps into the ceremonial and the persons of the courtiers. Life in the royal palaces is dominated by the panoply and surroundings of a minor German princeling. The dreary names of the German women are ever present in the memoirs of the time—the Kielmansegges and the Wallmodens, the Platens and the Schulenbergs—all soon to deck themselves out with English titles and wealth. Much is heard in political circles of the influences of the German “gang”—Bernstorff and Bothmer, advisers whom the first George brought with him, and Roberthon, his Huguenot private secretary.
The men who led the Whig Party in the days of Queen Anne were fast retiring from the scene. Wharton, long the party’s great organiser, died in 1715. Charles Montagu, now Lord Halifax, who had done so much to reconstruct English finances during King William’s wars, followed his colleague in the same year, and Burnet, the diligent historian and the staunchest of Whig Churchmen, was also gone. Lord Somers, the former Lord Chancellor, dragged his life out paralysed and helpless for twelve months longer. And the greatest figure of them all, John Duke of Marlborough, lived on in splendid isolation in his houses at Blenheim and St Albans, stricken with a lingering paralysis, until he was released by death in 1722. His wife Sarah was doomed to live out her life for twenty years more, a croaking reminder of the high days of the Augustan Age. But she was alone.
A new generation of statesmen—Walpole, Stanhope, Carteret, and Townshend—were to ensure the peaceful transition from the age of Anne to the age of the Georges. Among this group Stanhope gradually became the leading Minister. He had commanded in Spain during the wars and had captured Minorca. Now his main interest lay in foreign affairs. In domestic matters he was less happy, and here the Government faced no tranquil task. The country had acquiesced in the imposition by Parliament of a German royal family. But there was strong feeling in many parts of England for the house of Stuart. In London, in Oxford, and in the West Country there were riots and shouting. The houses and meeting-places of the Dissenters were once more looted and wrecked as symbols of the new Whig régime. Portraits of King William were burnt in ceremony at Smithfield. The ablest supporter of the Jacobite Pretender, Marshal Berwick, the illegitimate son of James II and Marlborough’s sister, estimated that in 1715 five out of six persons in England were Jacobite. This was certainly an exaggeration; yet, although the Government had very successfully managed the elections of the previous year, they had every reason to fear the feelings of the people. They had achieved their greatest victory by cooler leadership and better organisation, but they had no illusion about commanding the general sentiment of the country. In the dual task of humouring a German king and a peevish nation their patience was sorely tried. Their first actions involved England in Northern Europe on behalf of the house of Hanover. The English Fleet was sent to acquire Swedish ports on the North German coast which had long been coveted by Hanoverian Electors. There were angry mutterings that England’s resources were being used for German interests. But the Whig Ministers, though nervous, took good precautions. The British Ambassador in Paris kept them closely informed of the Jacobite movements in France. Plans were being hatched for a general rising not only in England but also in Scotland, restless and as yet disappointed at the results of the Act of Union. When the blow came the Government was ready. Moreover the Jacobites suffered a severe stroke by the death of Louis XIV on September 1. The Great King had been their protector and encourager. The Regent Orleans, now at the head of French affairs, was cool to their projects.
On September 6 the Earl of Mar raised the Jacobite standard at Perth. Within a few weeks ten thousand men were in arms against Hanoverian rule in Scotland. But they had no proper plans and no solid link with the exiles in France. The Government in London acted at once. Parliament passed the Riot Act to curb disturbances in the English towns. Oxford was occupied by a body of cavalry. Sellers of seditious pamphlets, talkers of seditious opinions, were swiftly arrested. Habeas corpus was suspended. A reward of £100,000 was posted for the apprehension of the Pretender, dead or alive. Dutch troops were demanded from Holland under the terms of the Barrier Treaty guaranteeing the Protestant succession in England, and the regular forces moved quietly northwards against the rebels.
In the North of England a small band of gentry, led by Lord Derwentwater, rose in support of the Stuarts. They were unable to form effective contact with Mar; but, reinforced with four thousand Scots, they made a rash and forlorn attempt to raise help from the towns and countryside to the south of them. The Duke of Marlborough was consulted by the military authorities. “You will beat them,” he said, marking Preston with his thumbnail on the map, “there.” And on November 13 beaten there they were.
The Government forces in Scotland, led by the Whig Duke of Argyll, met the Jacobite army at Sheriffmuir on the same day. The battle was indecisive, but was followed by desertion and discouragement in the Jacobite ranks. With all hope of success gone, the Pretender landed in bad December weather upon the Scottish coast. He brought neither money nor ammunition. Assembling the leaders, he evacuated them in a French vessel and returned to France. The collapse was followed by a batch of treason trials and about thirty executions. Despite the incompetence of the rising, the Government perceived and feared the unorganised opposition throughout the country to the new régime. They felt they must strengthen their grip on the administration. A Septennial Act prolonged the life of the existing House of Commons for another four years and decreed septennial Parliaments henceforth. This was the boldest and most complete assertion of Parliamentary sovereignty that England had yet seen. Later the Lords took a further step. They tried to perpetuate the Whig monopoly in their House by a Bill to stop the Crown’s creating more than six fresh peerages. But this was too blatant. Loud protests were heard in the Commons, led by Walpole, who had left the Ministry and was now its chief critic. It was not the curtailment of royal power which they opposed, but their own eternal banishment from the ranks of the peerage. They rejected the Bill by a large majority.
Political power was henceforth founded on influence: in the dispensation of Crown patronage; stars, sinecures, pensions; the agile use of the Secret Service fund; jobs in the Customs for humble dependants; commissions or Church livings for younger sons. Thus the Whigs established control of the Parliamentary machine. Though they had split among themselves, there was no hope of an organised opposition to the Whig oligarchy. The first two Georges were preoccupied with European affairs and showed little interest in the home politics of their adopted country. The Tory Party had no focus in Parliament after the flight of Bolingbroke. The 1715 rebellion made it even more easy for the Government to brand all Tories as Jacobites and disturbers of the peace. With political power and influence barred except to the favoured few, men turned to other pursuits and new adventures.
Financial speculation was encouraged. The Government was burdened with a war debt of nearly fifty millions, and the idea of benefiting from the commercial prosperity of the world was not unattractive. In 1710 a Tory Ministry had granted a charter to a company trading with the South Seas, and had arranged for it to take over part of the National Debt. This connection had rapidly expanded the wealth of the South Sea Company, and in 1720 a group of Directors approached the Government with a plan to absorb the whole National Debt, then standing at about £30,000,000. The scheme soon came to stink of dishonesty, but the politicians were too greedy to reject it. There was a chance of wiping out the whole debt in twenty-five years. £1,250,000 is said to have been spent in bribes to Ministers, Members of Parliament, and courtiers. The Whig Chancellor of the Exchequer, John Aislabie, purchased £27,000 worth of South Sea stock before introducing the project to the House of Commons. The Bank of England, nervous of a growing financial rival, competed for the privilege of undertaking this gigantic transaction. But the South Sea Company outbid the Bank. In April 1720 the Bill sanctioning these proposals was brought before the House. It received a sober and savage attack at the hands of Robert Walpole, whose reputation was rising. “The scheme countenanced the pernicious practice of stock-jobbing, by diverting the genius of the nation from trade and industry; it held out a dangerous lure for decoying the unwary to their ruin by a false prospect of gain, and to part with the gradual profits of their labour for imaginary wealth.” Success, he argued, depended on the rise of the South Sea stock. “The great principle of the project was an evil of the first magnitude; it was to raise artificially the value of the stock, by exciting and keeping up a general infatuation and by promising dividends out of funds which would not be adequate to the purpose.” But the Members were dazzled at the prospect of private gain. The House sleepily emptied even as Walpole spoke. The Bill was carried on April 2 by 172 votes to 55, and five days later an equally large majority secured its passage through the Lords, where Lord Cowper compared it to the wooden horse of Troy.
The mania for speculation broke loose. Stock soared in three months from 128 to 300, and within a few months more to 500. Amid the resounding cries of jobbers and speculators a multitude of companies, some genuine and some bogus, was hatched. By June 1721 the South Sea stock stood at 1050. Robert Walpole himself had the luck to make a handsome profit on his quiet investments. At every coffeehouse in London men and women were investing their savings in any enterprise that would take their money. There was no limit to the credulity of the public. One promoter floated a company to manufacture an invention known as Puckle’s Machine Gun, “which was to discharge round and square cannonballs and bullets and make a total revolution in the art of war,” the round missiles being intended for use against Christians and the square against the Turk. Other promoters invited subscriptions for making salt water fresh, for constructing a wheel of perpetual motion, for importing large jackasses from Spain to improve the breed of English mules, and the boldest of all was the advertisement for “a company for carrying on an undertaking of Great Advantage, but no one to know what it is.” This amiable swindler set up a shop in Cornhill to receive subscriptions. His office was besieged by eager investors, and after collecting £2,000 in cash he prudently absconded.
The Government took alarm, and the process of suppressing these minor companies began. The South Sea Company was only too anxious to exterminate its rivals, but the pricking of the minor bubbles quickened and precipitated a slump. An orgy of selling began, and by October the South Sea stock stood at 150. Thousands were ruined. The porters and ladies’ maids who had bought carriages and fineries found themselves reduced to their former station. Clergy, bishops, poets, and gentry found their life savings vanish overnight. There were suicides daily. The gullible mob whose innate greed had lain behind this mass hysteria and mania for wealth called for vengeance. The Postmaster-General took poison. His son, a Secretary of State, was snatched from his accusers by opportune smallpox. Stanhope, the chief Minister, died of strain. The Directors of the Company were arrested and their estates forfeited for the benefit of the huge army of creditors. A secret committee was appointed by the House of Commons to inquire into the nature and origins of these astonishing transactions. The books of the company were mutilated and incomplete. Nevertheless it was discovered that 462 members of the Commons and 122 peers were involved. Groups of frantic bankrupts thronged the Parliamentary lobbies. The Riot Act was read. There was a general outcry against the cupidity of the German ladies. “We are ruined by Trulls—nay, what is more, by old, ugly Trulls, such as could not find entertainment in the most hospitable hundreds of Old Drury.” Walpole came to the rescue with a scheme for grafting a large section of the South Sea capital on to the Bank of England’s stock and for reconstructing the National Debt. Apart from the estates of the Directors there were few assets for the mass of creditors. The brief hour of dreamed-of riches dosed in wide-eyed misery. Bringing order to the chaos that remained was the first task of Britain’s first Prime Minister.