BBC’s History Extra published an article three years ago on George I and George II, the first monarchs of the House of Hanover, which stated:
In reality, George I and George II were just as excitingly dysfunctional as Henry VIII. Theirs was truly a dynasty, with plenty of children, giving us enough characters to fill out a whole soap opera. They were also reasonably good kings. They weren’t flashy or showy, but under them Britain could truly claim to have become ‘Great’.
The article correctly claims that the first two Georges are two of Britain’s forgotten kings. Indeed, their house would become famous for George III and Queen Victoria, and perhaps even more so for founding the line that would so closely link the Royal Family’s heritage with Germany.
But the real secret about the this time period and these reigns isn’t captured in the last sentence above, but the first. And it’s not that the Hannoverians were more dramatic than the Tudors, but rather that they were perhaps equally as brutal. Some of that is perhaps unfair, for the lives of men and women in the 18th century were better-recorded, at least for our purposes. The domestic dysfunction that has permeated the royal court for centuries is better gleaned through primary sources the closer we approach present day, and so, for better or for worse, the dirty laundry is more accessible.
The “Georges” had plenty of it and the 17th and 18th century are full of unhappy stories, cruelty, violence and tragedy. But the Tower of London was shut down, their apparel more genteel to modern eyes and the personal vendettas of princes and princesses muted by the growing separation of policy and monarchy.
I don’t care for the claims that today’s House of Windsor is inherently German. I find it smug, a tad xenophobic and, frankly, illustrating a poor understanding of how the Royal Family has always evolved. If the Windsors are German than the Normans and Plantagenets were French, the Stuarts Scottish and the Tudors Welsh. What is English? That’s not how royalty works. And to follow that line of thought, the Royal Family’s most patriotic unions were those between monarch and commoner, which wouldn’t be in vogue until the 20th century and even then it was bound to raise some eyebrows.
But the fact remains that the House of Hanover is a bit of an anomaly in that their narrative has continued to be this idea that they were plucked from German obscurity and dropped on to the British throne. And they were, to a certain extent, but one could make the argument (to varying degrees of stretch) that so too was William III or James I or Henry VII or Henry II or William I, or any monarch that was not born to be king or raised abroad.
George I’s claim to the English throne was distant, but firm. His mother was Sophia of Palatine, daughter of Frederick V, King of Bohemia and Elizabeth Stuart. Elizabeth was the only daughter of James I and Anne of Denmark; in 1613 she married Frederick of Palatine and left England, the Stuart succession supposedly secure through her brother, the future Charles I. And so it was, for a time. When he was executed in 1649 and the monarchy abolished, it was his son, Charles II, who oversaw its restoration in 1660. When he died childless in 1685 the crown passed to his younger brother, James II. James would be forced off the throne three years later; his Catholicism was abhorrent to the largely Protestant England and they called upon his eldest daughter, Mary Stuart, who had resided in the Netherlands with her husband, William of Orange, since her marriage 11 years before.
The Glorious Revolution brought about the last leg of the Stuarts. James and his Catholic wife and children ended up at the sympathetic French court, while William and Mary established a Protestant co-monarchy. They, unfortunately, were childless. When Mary died William established a solo rule, and when he died the throne passed to Mary’s younger sister, Anne Stuart. Anne had married her Danish husband in 1683 and despite 18 pregnancies in all, was also without an heir. So, who should succeed her? Or, to put it more precisely, which Protestant should succeed her?
In order to find that the other children of James II were excluded. So, too, were the offspring of his late sister, Henrietta Anne Stuart, Duchess of Orleans. One generation up and you reach Elizabeth Stuart and her descendants, scattered throughout Europe. The rules of succession guided the British to Hanover where Sophia had married the Elector Ernest and successfully provided him with a healthy, flourishing line.
By the time Queen Anne died in 1714, Sophia was dead and her claim was inherited by her eldest son, George Ludwig of Hanover, who became King George I. He arrived in England thoroughly German and was as bemused by his new country as it was of him. He spent significant amounts of time returning “home,” where things were done properly and he was less a fish out of water. But for what he lacked in popularity, and certainly affection, he made up for in competency.
His reign, however, would be marked by another sort of problem, one that became a recurring issue for the Royal Family going forward: a tense dynamic between the monarch and his eldest son. His heir, George Augustus, and his wife, Caroline of Ansbach, moved with the new king to London in 1714, younger and more enthusiastic about the British adventure that lay ahead. Indeed, they had also had the time to mentally prepare for such a turn of events, Anne’s fertility having long been doubted by the time the two married in 1705.
Caroline became the highest-ranking woman in England, George I having divorced his wife 20 years before, and she and her husband attempted to assimilate as much as possible, in stark contrast to the King. Two rival courts began to take shape, and they attracted very different political sympathies. Unfortunately, the royal children got caught in the fray, and what they symbolized at this time was crucial.
George Augustus and Caroline were the first Prince and Princess of Wales in over 200 years, the last pair having been Arthur Tudor and Katherine of Aragon for a few months in 1501-1502. From that point on, monarchs had either come to the throne unmarried or not as the previous monarch’s eldest son. As such, it had been a long time since there had been a young family so close to the throne that hadn’t, as in the case of James II and Mary of Modena, signified political instability.
Two years after arriving in England Caroline suffered a stillbirth in November 1716. However, a year later she successfully delivered a son, christened George William, and greatly enhancing the couple’s popularity with the public. Unfortunately, the young prince’s birth also sparked the final break between the King and the Prince of Wales when they fell out over the choice of godparents. George Augustus was placed under house arrest, and though Caroline was initially given the option of staying with her children, she believed her correct place was beside her husband and as a result her children were “given up” to George I.
Caroline was understandably beside herself and the King quickly relented, allowing her unrestricted access, but not custody. The situation turned tragic three months later when, in February 1718, George William fell ill an died at Kensington Palace. A post-mortem autopsy revealed that the baby had been born with a heart condition, but the optics of him having died while separated from his mother did nothing to help the King’s reputation. Caroline, who was pregnant yet again, suffered a miscarriage that same month due to her grief.
For another two years the cold war continued, and George and Caroline’s three daughters remained separated from their parents. Finally, in 1720, Caroline and the politician Robert Walpole helped mediate a truce between George I and the Prince of Wales, but though it gave Caroline back her daughters, it did nothing to restore affection to either side.
A year later Caroline gave birth to a healthy son, William, and two years after that, on March 5, 1723, she gave birth to a fourth daughter, Princess Mary. The family would be rounded out by another daughter, Princess Louisa, in December 1724.
This was the dynamic in which Mary was born. Her early years were spent at Leicester House in London surrounded by her siblings, while her parents’ home became a meeting spot for some of the most inspired and liberal writers and thinkers of their time. When she was less than four years old, her grandfather, George I, died and her parents ascended the throne as King George II and Queen Caroline. The young family left Leicester House for St. James’s Palace and, over time, Hampton Court Palace, which underwent significant renovation to become a favored royal residence.
A year later, Mary’s 21-year-old brother, Frederick, would finally join the rest of the family in England after a 14-year separation. Almost immediately his parents were put off, and it wouldn’t be long before they found themselves on the reverse side of their feud with George I, politically and personally at odds with their heir. Caroline’s younger son, William, was the favored child and she didn’t hide the fact that she would have preferred to see him on the throne after his father.
It was an unfortunate dynamic, but one that Mary and her younger sister, Louisa, would have been fairly protected from due to their age. On November 20, 1737 Queen Caroline died at St. James’s Palace in London, urging her daughter, Princess Caroline, to “do what she could to support the meek and mild disposition of Princess Mary,” according to historian Michael Beatty.
What was done, however, was the arrangement of a marriage to Frederick, Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel, the heir of the German Landgrave William VIII. Mary and Frederick were married by proxy on May 8, 1740 at St. James’s Palace and then in-person, once Mary arrived in Kassel, on June 28th. Mary was 17 at the time, thoroughly English and extremely reserved. The marriage was loveless, but worse, it appears to have been physically abusive.
Mary gave birth to a son, William, within her first year of marriage, however he died in infancy. In 1743 she gave birth to a second son, also christened William, followed by a third, Prince Charles, in 1744. At some point Mary’s father was alerted to the full extent of the situation his daughter face in Kassel, for she made an extended trip back to England in 1746 to escape her husband. There was a limit, however, to what could be done, save opening both families up to a scandal.
Mary may have had some financial options so long as her father was willing to pay her bills, but legally she was beholden to her husband, and certainly if she wished to have access to her children she couldn’t take too strong a stance against Frederick. She returned to Kassel in 1747 and conceived yet again, giving birth to a fourth son, Prince Frederick.
Shortly after the birth Mary’s husband disappeared; at some point, months later, Mary received a letter in which she was informed of her husband’s conversion to Catholicism. Or, more precisely, that her husband had long been in love with a Catholic German woman, to whom he had proposed before marrying Mary, but had been rejected when he refused to convert. When he had been betrothed to Mary, he had gone to see this woman to inform her in person and had the front door shut in his face. They left the matter by swearing that if either was near death the other would visit one last time.
Shortly after their youngest son’s birth, Frederick was sent word that the former object of his affection was dying. He traveled to see her and finally gave in to her desire for him to convert so that they might, ostensibly, one day be united in Heaven.
This put Mary in quite the predicament. It’s unclear what her emotional response to this news was, if she had any, but practically this created an issue. Her husband’s Catholicism gave her a clear out from the marriage on religious grounds without losing her reputation, however logistically it still risked separation from her children. George II, furious, ordered that she return to England, but she refused, saying, “It was Her Duty to remain in the situation in which it had pleased God to place Her; but that she would make her own terms for the sake of her son, as they were brought up Protestant.”
This is perhaps the most critical insight we have into Mary’s character and what the children of George and Caroline took away from their feud with George I, for Mary, unlike her mother, chose her children first, putting her physical safety (and perhaps her perceived spiritual safety, depending on the depth of her own religiousness) at risk lest she be forced to leave behind her sons. The choice was clearly prompted by her children and not her sense of wifely duty, for Frederick and Mary formally separated a few years later, having long-lived apart.
Mary’s father-in-law, equally as horrified by his son’s behavior, gave her and her children a residence in Hanau.
On December 19, 1751 Mary’s younger sister, Louisa, died in Copenhagen, having married King Frederick V of Denmark in 1743. She left behind four young children, including the future King Christian VII, and Mary eventually moved with her own children to Copenhagen to help her brother-in-law care for them. Splitting her time between Hanau and Copenhagen, her sons were raised alongside their cousins and her two elder sons, William and Charles, would each later marry Danish princesses.
In 1760 Mary’s father-in-law died and her husband became the Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel. The inheritance did nothing to change the dynamics of the marriage and the couple remained apart, though Mary took the title of “Landgravine” for the next 12 years. She died at her home in Hanau on February 1, 1772 and was buried in Germany.
After her death, Frederick remarried to Margravine Philippine of Brandenburg-Schwedt, a woman who appears to fare better as his wife. While the marriage produced no children, she did help to mediate a reconciliation between Frederick and his three sons, who continued to reside in Denmark. She also established her own court and conducted her own affairs, giving birth to an illegitimate son on March 1, 1777.
Mary and Frederick’s eldest son, William, would only return to Germany when his father died in 1785 and he inherited the title of Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel and the extensive fortune with which it came. He and his wife, Princess Wilhelmina Carolina of Denmark, and their children established themselves in Kassel after over two decades of living in Copenhagen. One of his first acts was to hire Mayer Amschel Rothschild to help him manage his estate, a move which played a significant hand in establishing the Rothschild banking and family dynasty. In later years, when Europe was mired in the Napoleonic Wars with France, William would use Rothschild to hide his money and divert it to help the British cause as needed – an interesting move given his own mother’s British heritage.
In 1806 Kassel would annexed by Westphalia, ruled by Jerome Bonaparte, and William and his family returned to Denmark until the French were expelled from Germany. Following the Congress of Vienna in 1815 William took the title of Prince-Elector, ruling Kassel until his death in 1821. He was succeeded by his son, also named William.
Mary’s choice to remain with her children was a bold one, which, for all of her supposed meekness, betrayed a strong will and an insistence on independence. Her sons’ desire to remain in Denmark and aversion to their father is evidence of her influence, as is their closeness to their Danish cousins (who, in two cases, became their future wives). Louisa’s son, Christian VII, would eventually marry a daughter of Louisa and Mary’s brother, Frederick, a further sign of that generation’s openness and comfort with Britain. (That the marriage was a disaster is a different matter altogether.)
And for all that the British Royal Family continued to be called German, the marriages of its princesses into German principalities served for a long time in strengthening friendship and preserving understanding between the two regions. It’s a dynamic worth considering, particularly in light of Friday’s news that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge will be making a joint visit to Germany in July of this year, in a post-Brexit show of goodwill.