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How the German House of Hanover ruled Britain for 200 Years

How the German House of Hanover ruled Britain for 200 Years

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The House of Hanover (formally known as the House of Brunswick-Lüneburg, Hanover line) is a German royal house that came to rule Great Britain. The Hanoverians, as they are known, gained the British throne in the 18 th century, and held on to it until the early 20 th century. During this period, a total of six Hanoverians monarchs ruled Britain, the most famous of whom was probably Queen Victoria.

The House of Hanover is a cadet branch of the German House of Welf (also known as Guelph), which itself is a branch of the Italian House of Este. This dynasty was created in 1638 as a result of the division of territories of the House of Brunswick-Lüneburg. Initially, the new state was known as the Principality of Brunswick-Calenberg-Göttingen. Later on, however, it was renamed after its principal town, Hanover, which is today the capital of the northwestern German state of Lower Saxony . Thus, the dynasty became known as the House of Hanover. The prestige of the House of Hanover grew as the century progressed. In 1692, in return for lavish promises of assistance to the Habsburgs, Hanover was designated by the Holy Roman Emperor, Leopold I, as the empire’s 9 th electorate.

The ruler of Hanover at the time was Ernest Augustus, who had been its duke since 1679. Apart from transforming Hanover into an electorate of the Holy Roman Empire, Ernest Augustus also contributed to his dynasty’s possession of the British throne . In 1658, the duke married Sophia, the daughter of Frederick V of the Palatinate, and more importantly, the granddaughter of James VI of Scotland (James I of England and Ireland from 1603). This would have a significant impact on the House of Hanover in the future.

How Religion Played Its Part in The Elaborate Web of Royals

Anne became Queen of England, Scotland, and Ireland in 1702. Following the Acts of Union 1707, Anne’s title was changed to Queen of Great Britain and Ireland. Anne was the last monarch of the House of Stuart, which had ruled England, Scotland, and Ireland since 1603. When she died in 1714, she did not leave behind an heir, and there were uncertainties about the succession. One of Anne’s potential successors was her brother James, whose nickname was ‘The Old Pretender’, a Roman Catholic in exile.

Anne (centre) and her sister Mary (left) with their parents, the Duke (later King James II and VII)  and Duchess of York, painted by Peter Lely and Benedetto Gennari II in 1668 to 1670 (Public Domain)

Anne (centre) and her sister Mary (left) with their parents, the Duke (later King James II and VII)  and Duchess of York, painted by Peter Lely and Benedetto Gennari II in 1668 to 1670 ( Public Domain )

A year before Anne had come to power, however, the Act of Settlement 1701 was passed, which confirmed a provision in the Bill of Rights that the throne would not pass into the hands of a Roman Catholic, or a ruler with a Roman Catholic spouse. Although efforts were made by some parties to secure the throne for the Old Pretender, they did not succeed and upon Anne’s death, the throne of Great Britain was to pass to her closest Protestant relative. It so happened to be Sophia, the wife of Ernest Augustus. Unfortunately, Sophia died about two months before Anne. As a result, the throne passed to Sophia’s son, who became George I of Great Britain. Incidentally, George I was the 52 nd in line to the British throne.

George I

George I was the first Hanoverian monarch of Great Britain and ruled until 1727. Being from a foreign dynasty, George I was not exactly a popular figure in his new kingdom. This was partly due to the fact that the new king could not speak English, the rumors regarding George I’s terrible treatment of his wife (also named Sophia), the supposed greed of his German mistresses, and the economic crisis that resulted from the collapse of the South Sea Company in 1720. Nevertheless, George I did make an effort to fulfil his obligations as king. For instance, he communicated with his ministers in French. Additionally, he was shrewd in matters of foreign policy and formed an alliance with France against Spain between 1717 and 1718. Still, the powers of the monarchy were steadily decreasing during his reign, as it had been during Anne’s reign . The modern system of government by a cabinet was developing, and by the end of George I’s reign, the real power was in the hands of Sir Robert Walpole, Britain’s first prime minister.

George II and Walpole Holding the Reigns

George I was succeeded by his son, George II, under whom Walpole continued his domination of the British government. Walpole was almost dismissed from his post as prime minister. The relationship between the two Georges had been strained since 1717, but the two were reconciled by Walpole in 1720. This won Walpole the premiership under George I, at the expense of his favor with George II. Thanks to the intervention of the queen, Caroline of Ansbach, Walpole was able to keep his post.

Walpole would repay the Hanoverians by obtaining the acknowledgement of George II’s legitimacy as ruler from the leading Tories of the kingdom. Many influential members of this party had been supporters of the Stuart pretenders to the British throne. In 1745, the Jacobites (who wanted to restore of the House of Stuart) launched an uprising. Thanks to Walpole, however, no senior politician deserted the king. Although the Jacobites had some initial success, they were ultimately defeated, and this marked the end their threat to the House of Hanover. The Jacobites had also made two attempts to restore the House of Stuart during the reign of George I, once in 1715 and another in 1719. They were unsuccessful on both occasions.

George II envisioned at the Battle of Dettingen in 1743 by John Wootton (Public Domain)

George II envisioned at the Battle of Dettingen in 1743 by John Wootton ( Public Domain )

Three years before the Jacobite uprising, Walpole was forced to resign as prime minister. His role as the king’s mentor, however, was soon taken up by John Carteret. Although Carteret was not prime minister, he was in fact one of the most powerful men in the British government. Carteret advocated British involvement in the War of the Austrian Succession, which had broken out in 1740. This was supported by George II, but Great Britain’s entry into the war was used by the king’s opponents to accuse him of subordinating British interests in favor of his German possessions. Incidentally, in 1743, George II personally led his troops against the French at the Battle of Dettingen, making him the last British monarch to perform such a feat.

George III

George II reigned until 1760 but took little interest in politics during the last decade of his life. He was succeeded by his grandson, George III, as his son, Frederick, had died in 1751. Unlike his two predecessors, George III was born in Britain, and used English as his first language. During the early reign of George III, the kingdom suffered from political instability and financial difficulties. On the foreign front, however, Britain was enjoying much success. At the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763, France lost its supremacy in Europe to Britain. Moreover, the British became the dominant European power in North America and India.

The situation back home also improved in 1770, when Frederick North was appointed Prime Minister. Another problem, however, soon arose. Although North was a capable administrator, his government was at odds with the American colonists on the issue of Britain’s attempt to levy taxes on them. As a consequence, war broke out in 1775. In 1779, George III insisted that the war in the American colonies be prolonged, in order to avoid similar rebellions from breaking out elsewhere in the empire. When the British were defeated in 1781, North was forced to resign.

Two other notable events that occurred during the reign of George III were the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleonic France. On both occasions, Britain was dragged into yet more wars. Around this time, however, the king suffered several serious bouts of acute mania. By the time Napoleon was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, George III was permanently insane. It has been speculated that the king’s madness was caused by a blood disease called porphyria. Recent studies have found that George III’s hair contained high levels of arsenic, making it possible that the king’s madness was caused by this poisonous substance.

George IV, From Regent to King

From 1811 until 1820, George III’s heir, the future George IV, served as prince regent. This period is known also as the Regency. George IV was notorious for his extravagant lifestyle, which caused his father to regard him with contempt. On one occasion, for instance, he agreed to marry his cousin, Caroline, in order to induce the British Parliament to pay his debts. On the plus side, George IV was a generous patron of the arts . The architect John Nash received the king’s patronage, and many of his works may still be seen today. These include the Marble Arch, Regent Street, and the Royal Pavilion. The last of these is located in Brighton and is considered to be exotic due to its heavy use of Mughal Indian elements.

Panorama of Royal Pavilion, Brighton, England (Alexey Fedorenko / Adobe Stock)

Panorama of Royal Pavilion, Brighton, England ( Alexey Fedorenko / Adobe Stock)

 

George IV reigned as king from 1820 until 1830. Since his only child, Charlotte, had died in 1817 during childbirth, George IV did not leave an heir. His brother, William IV, who was 65 years old at that time, ascended the throne. Since William IV had served in the Royal Navy during his youth, he was known also as the ‘Sailor King’.

From William IV to Queen Victoria

William IV ruled for seven years, and the most notable event of his reign was the passing of the Reform Act 1832. The king was opposed to parliamentary reform but was forced to accept the Act. Amongst other things, the Act reduced the power of the monarch over the government, and the transfer of representation from ‘rotten boroughs’ (known also as pocket boroughs), which were normally depopulated to the industrialized districts. Incidentally, William IV’s short reign is often included as part of the Georgian era, which is named after the four Hanoverian Georges.

William IV’s died in 1837. By that time, all his legitimate children had died, whilst his illegitimate ones were not entitled to succeed him. Therefore, the throne passed to his niece, Victoria. Although Victoria was the Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, she did not inherit the throne of Hanover, which had attained the status of ‘kingdom’ in 1814. As the kingdom’s succession was regulated the Salic Law, women were not allowed to sit on the Hanoverian throne. Therefore, Ernest Augustus, William IV’s eldest surviving brother, became the new King of Hanover.

Ushering in the Victoria Era, Queen and Empress

Victoria reigned for almost 64 years (63 years, 216 days, to be exact), the second longest of any British monarch. The longest reigning British monarch is the current queen, Elizabeth II, who has reigned for 68 years, 96 days, and counting…

The period of her reign is referred to as the Victorian era and was a time of great change not only in Great Britain, but also in the British Empire. The Second Industrial Revolution, for instance, began during her reign. Victoria’s reign also witnessed the great expansion of the British Empire. India, which had been ruled by the East India Company, was transferred to the British Crown in 1858, and Victoria adopted the title ‘Empress of India’ in 1876. Like her predecessors, Victoria attempted to retain political power, but was unable to do so. During her reign, the British monarchy lost its political role, and attained a ceremonial one. This new role, however, ensured the monarchy’s survival.

Queen Victoria monument at Kensington palace sculpted by her daughter, Princess Louise (Alexey Fedorenko / Adobe Stock)

Queen Victoria monument at Kensington palace sculpted by her daughter, Princess Louise ( Alexey Fedorenko / Adobe Stock)

Victoria was the last British ruler form the House of Hanover. When she died in 1901, she was succeeded by her son, Edward VII, who belonged to the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. This was due to the fact that Edward VII’s father (Victoria’s husband), Prince Albert , was a member of that dynasty. Edward VII’s successor, George V, changed the name of the dynasty to the House of Windsor in 1917. This change was made due to the anti-German sentiment amongst the British public caused by the First World War. The House of Windsor is the current royal house of the United Kingdom.

The House of Hanover played a significant role in British history. The dynasty’s almost 200-year rule saw Great Britain transforming form a dominant power in Europe into a world superpower. At the same time, it was during the reign of the Hanoverian monarchs that the current relation between the British monarchy and the government was attained. Whilst the monarchs sought to retain their political powers, their governments sought to reduce them. In the end, the British monarchy was changed from a political institution to a ceremonial one. Thanks to this transformation, the British monarchy has survived till this day.

Top image: The House of Hanover                      Source: English Monarchs

By Wu Mingren                                                                           

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