The Rulers

I. GEORGE I: 1714–27

THE English, as Voltaire and Montesquieu were soon to perceive, were much cleverer than the French in the matter of government. Having beheaded one sovereign and sent another scurrying in fright across the Channel, they now imported a king who had left his heart and mind in Germany, who took long leaves of absence in his native Hanover, and who could readily be ruled by a Parliament whose ways and language he could never understand.

The house of Hanover had its roots in medieval Germany, tracing its princely lineage through the dukes of Brunswick-Lüneburg to Henry the Lion (1129–95), and beyond him to his Welf, or Guelph, ancestry. Hanover itself became an electorate of the Holy Roman Empire in 1692. Its first Elector, Ernest Augustus, married Sophia, granddaughter of James I of England. After the death of Ernest his widow, by Parliament’s Act of Settlement (1701), became heiress to the English throne.

Her son George Louis, second Elector of Hanover, clouded this happy heritage by an unhappy marriage. His wife, Sophia Dorothea, resented his infidelities, and planned elopement with Count Philipp von Königsmarck, handsome colonel of the guards. George discovered the plot; the Count was never heard of again, and was presumably put to death (1694). Sophia Dorothea was arrested and tried, her marriage was annulled, and she was imprisoned for the remaining thirty-two years of her life in the castle of Ahlden. She had borne to her husband a daughter who became the mother of Frederick the Great, and a son who became George II of England.

Sophia, Dowager Electress of Hanover, died in 1714, two months before the passing of Queen Anne; therefore she missed royalty, but her son was at once proclaimed George I of Great Britain and Ireland. On September 18 he reached England, beginning a new epoch in English history. He brought with him his son and daughter-in-law, a number of German aides, and two mistresses: Charlotte von Kielmannsegge, whom he made Countess of Darlington, and Countess Melusina von der Schulenburg, whom he made Duchess of Kendal and perhaps his wife. England might have accepted this arrangement as in accord with the morals of the time, but both ladies, to British eyes and purse, were ugly and costly. Melusina sold her influence for such fat sums that even Walpole, superintendent of corruption, complained; whereupon George asked had not Walpole himself received fees for his recommendations to office?1

In 1714 George I was fifty-four years old, tall and soldierly, a “plain, blunt man” who cared not a pfennig for books, but had shown his courage on more than one battlefield. Lady Mary Montagu called him “an honest blockhead,”2 but he was not as dull as he seemed; and she admitted that “he was passively good-natured, and wished all mankind enjoyed quiet, if they would let him do so.”3 He could not be expected to feel at home in so unfamiliar an environment, so uncertain an employment. He had been hired by the British oligarchy to forestall a second Stuart restoration; he had no “divine right” or personal claim to the throne; he saw that these masterly Englishmen who ruled Parliament were bent on ruling him too; and he could scarcely forgive them for speaking English. He thought them inferior to his Hanoverian associates. He withdrew into the recesses of St. James’s Palace, fled to Hanover almost annually, and did all that he could to divert English funds and policy to the protection of his beloved electorate.

To make matters worse, his own son hated him as a murderer. George Augustus, now Prince of Wales, denounced the continuing imprisonment of his mother, rebelled against the ascendancy and airs of the regal mistresses, quarreled with the King’s ministers, and made his views so clear that his father excluded him from the palace. The Prince and his wife, Caroline, separated by royal order from their children, retired to form a rival court at Leicester House (1717). To them came Newton, Chesterfield, Hervey, Swift, Pope, and the livelier ladies of Vanity Fair, only to find the Prince even surlier and duller than the King.

This schism in the reigning family accorded more or less with the division of the ruling minority and the Parliament into Tories and Whigs. Voltaire estimated that some eight hundred men controlled municipal government, elections to Parliament, national legislation, administration, and the judiciary.4 There was no longer any troublesome talk about democracy, such as had been raised by Cromwell’s Independents and the Levellers. Voting for Parliament was limited to property owners—some 160,000 in this period5—and these normally accepted the candidate recommended by the local squire or lord.6 Politicians were Tory or Whig according as they favored either the titled nobility or the gentry (lesser landowners) and the commercial interests. “Church of England men” followed the Tory line; Dissenters supported the Whigs. The Tories had opposed the subordination of the monarch to the Parliament; they clung, with the Established Church, to the theory of divine right in kings; in the last days of Queen Anne they had thought of recalling the exiled Stuarts to power; naturally, now that the house of Hanover was enthroned, they were displaced by the anti-Jacobite Whigs. Whereas heretofore the ministries had usually included men from both parties, George I called only Whigs to high office, and so established government by party through a cabinet. And since, not understanding English, he soon ceased to preside over cabinet meetings, the dominant member became “prime minister,” and took over more and more of the functions and powers of the king.

The ministry was led for seven years by James Stanhope. One of his first and most popular acts was to restore John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough—who had been impeached by the Tories—to all his former offices, especially as captain general of the army. Returning from exile, the Duke retired to Blenheim Palace; there he suffered a long illness, and died on June 16, 1722. The nation, forgiving his acquisitions and remembering his uninterrupted victories, accepted Bolingbroke’s verdict—“He was so great a man that I do not recollect whether he had any faults or not.”7 His widow, the Sarah Churchill who had for a decade ruled a queen, spent twenty-two years cherishing and defending his memory. When the Duke of Somerset asked her in marriage, she answered, “If I was young and handsome as I was, instead of old and faded as I am, and you could lay the empire of the world at my feet, you should never share the heart and hand that once belonged to John Churchill.”8 In 1743, a year before her death at eighty-four, she proposed to burn her early love letters, but reading them again she felt “I could not do it,” and let them survive.9 There must have been much good in a woman who could so faithfully love, and in a man who could win such devotion from so difficult a woman.

Bolingbroke replaced Marlborough in exile. Dismissed from the government by George I, threatened with impeachment for secretly negotiating with the fallen dynasty, hated by the Whigs and Dissenters whom he stung with his wit, and shunned by churchmen as a scorner of Christian theology, he fled to France (March, 1715), joined James III, became his secretary of stateless state, helped to organize a Jacobite rebellion in England, and proposed an invasion of England from France. Parliament declared him guilty of treason, confiscated his property, and condemned him to death.

The movement to restore the Stuarts almost toppled George I. The Tories, hating the Hanoverians as usurpers and boors; the common people of England, rooted in old loyalties, and secretly longing for the banished dynasty; the upper and lower classes of Scotland, proud of having given a Scottish king to England, and fretting under the Act of Union (1707) which had ended the Scottish Parliament—all were ready to abet an invasion by the youth whom Louis XIV had recognized as the only legitimate king of England.

James Francis Edward Stuart was now (1715) twenty-seven, though history knows him as “the Old Pretender.” He had been brought up in France, and so steeped in the Catholic faith by monastic teachers and the sufferings of his father, James II, that he rejected Bolingbroke’s plea that he should strengthen the Jacobite sentiment in England by promising conversion to Protestantism. How, Bolingbroke argued, could the Presbyterian Scots and the Tory Anglicans be roused to the support of a man bringing to their throne the religion that they had through a century of turmoil fought to overthrow? James was obdurate; he declared that he would rather be a throneless Catholic than a Protestant king. Bolingbroke, free from faith and principles, pronounced him fitter to be a monk than a king.10 Meanwhile (August, 1714) Parliament had offered £100,000 for the capture of James III in case he should land on British soil.

A personal factor appeared to turn events to the Pretender’s cause. John Erskine, Earl of Mar, had been secretary of state for Scotland in the final years of Queen Anne. Dismissed by George I, he laid plans for a Jacobite rising in England, then sailed to Scotland and called upon the Scots to join his standard of revolt (September 6, 1715). Several nobles rallied to him, raising his forces to six thousand foot and six hundred horses; but Edinburgh, Glasgow, and the southern Lowlands adhered to the Hanoverian. The British government decreed death for treason, and confiscation of property, against all rebels; it mobilized thirteen thousand men, and called six thousand more to the fleet; and it ordered the Duke of Argyll, commanding the garrisons at Edinburgh and Stirling, to suppress the rebellion. He met Mar’s forces at Sheriffmuir (November 13, 1715) in an engagement from which neither side could claim a decisive victory. Another Scottish force of two thousand, instead of joining Mar, advanced recklessly to within thirty miles of Liverpool, vainly hoping to inspire and protect Jacobite uprisings in the English towns. At Preston a government army surrounded it and compelled its unconditional surrender (November 14).

James III must have known of these events before he sailed from Dunkirk on December 27. Bolingbroke had warned him that no Jacobite revolt would rise in England. The Pretender was carried on by faith in the divine legitimacy of his cause, plus 100,000 crowns from the French government, and thirty thousand from the Vatican. Landing in Scotland, he joined Mar’s army at Perth, and made plans for a solemn coronation at Scone. But his taciturnity and melancholy countenance, and his complaint that he had been deceived about the extent of the rebellion, added nothing to the enthusiasm of the Scots; they complained in their turn that they never saw him smile, and rarely heard him speak;11 moreover, he was shaking from the ague, and bore the northern winter hardly. Mar judged his troops unfit for battle; he ordered them to retreat to Montrose, and to burn all towns, villages, and crops in their wake as a measure to halt Argyll’s pursuit. James lamented the destruction, and left money in part compensation for those whose property had suffered. Then, as Argyll’s greatly superior army approached Montrose, James, Mar, and other leaders of the revolt fled precipitately to the coast, and took ship to France (February 4, 1716). Everywhere the rebel forces surrendered or dispersed.

Most of the prisoners were transported to servitude in the colonies; fifty-seven were executed, and a dozen Scottish nobles, now refugees in France, were marked for death if ever they returned. James had hoped that Philippe d’Orléans would send troops to his rescue in Scotland; but France was now contemplating an alliance with England, and urged James to leave French soil. He settled for a time at papal Avignon, and then in Rome.

Bolingbroke remained in France till 1723, and, knowing French well, made himself at home in the salons and among the philosophers. Clever in everything but politics, he bought shares in Law’s System, and sold at great profit before the bubble burst. Having left his wife in England, he formed an almost honorable attachment with Marie Deschamps de Marcilly, the widowed Marquise de Villette. She was forty, he was thirty-eight. Like so many Frenchwomen, she had kept her charm even while losing some of her beauty; perhaps it was her grace, vivacity, and wit that drew him. He became her lover, and when Lady Bolingbroke died he married the Marquise and went to live with her at La Source. There, as we have seen, Voltaire visited him (1721). “I have found in this illustrious Englishman,” reported the young philosopher, “all the erudition of his own nation, and all the politeness of ours.”12

The suppression of the revolt had left a few nobles headless, but it had not reduced Jacobite sentiment in Britain. By the Triennial Acts of 1641 and 1694 no Parliament was to last over three years. Hence the first Parliament of George I faced in 1717 the prospect of an election in which a Tory and Jacobite majority might be returned. To guard against this the Parliament, by the Septennial Act of 1716, voted itself four additional years of life, and ruled that thereafter all Parliaments might continue for seven years. “This,” said Marlborough’s most brilliant descendant, “was the boldest and most complete assertion of Parliament’s sovereignty that England had yet seen.”13 George I, also fearful of a Tory victory, approved the new law; in effect the Hanoverians had to abdicate in order to reign.

To further protect the new dynasty, Stanhope concluded with France and Holland (1717) a Triple Alliance that ended French support of Jacobite claims, and English support of Spain against France. In 1720 Spain signed a submissive peace, and George I could sit more securely, during his seven remaining years, on his alien throne. In 1726 his still imprisoned wife sent him a bitter letter, challenging him to meet her, within a year, at the judgment seat of God. Soon afterward she died of brain fever. Tradition represents a soothsayer as having predicted that George I would not outlive his wife by a year. In 1727 the King’s health began to fail. In June he left England to visit his beloved Hanover. Near Osnabrück a folded paper was thrown into his carriage; it was a dying curse left him by his wife. Reading it, the King fell into a fit, and on June 11 he died.14

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