When the Germans Arrived in Britain


On Sunday, we examined the religious friction that defined the Stuarts, finally prompting the Glorious Revolution. The story ends with the death of Queen Anne in 1714 and the end of the Stuart line, but it’s worth zooming in on this time and examining how extraordinary the beginning the House of Hanover truly was. Echoes of it, further cemented by anti-German sentiment in the 20th century, can still be heard today in how we talk about the House of Windsor and its members, from Prince Philip joining the British Royal Family in 1947 to Earl Spencer’s eulogy of his sister in 1997. So, here’s what happened.

In the summer of 1700, the only son of Princess Anne and her husband, George of Denmark, celebrated his 11th birthday in his apartments at Kensington Palace in London. Feasting, dancing and playing, he was flushed and overexcited; by the end of the night, he complained of feeling tired and was promptly put to bed. By the next day he had a fever, a soar throat and chills. A physician arrived at the Palace three days later, but no one could agree on a diagnosis. Finally, he was bled, a controversial decision that many in the room were afraid would kill the boy. In the end, he passed away the night of July 29th, five days after his birthday, his mother at his bedside.

Anne and her son, William

Princess Anne was the younger daughter of King James II, who had ruled for a mere three years before being deposed over this Catholicism in favor of his elder daughter and her husband. Queen Mary II had died six years previously, leaving her husband, William III to rule alone. The King childless and disinclined to remarry, Anne was first-in-line to the throne and William, her only child, had been the only legitimate Protestant Stuart of the next generation. Everyone knew Anne would succeed William; it was unclear who would succeed Anne.

In 1700, James II was still alive and living in France with his wife, Mary Beatrice of Modena, and their children. Their Catholicism, however, striking them as viable options. None of James’s siblings were still alive, ruling out any other children of Charles I. Which then moves you back a generation to the children of James I, who had died in 1625. He had had three living children who reached adulthood – Charles I who succeeded him, an older son Henry, who had pre-deceased him, and a daughter, Elizabeth, who had briefly ruled Bohemia with her husband, Frederick of Palatine.

Elizabeth was long dead, but she and her husband had had 13 children, two of whom were still living. The elder, Louise, entered religious orders in 1659 and the younger, Sophia, married Prince Ernest of Hanover in 1658. Ernest became the Elector in 1692, by which point Sophia had fulfilled her wifely duty by producing six sons, four of whom were still living. In short, that particular Germanic line of Stuarts had none of the fertility issues that plagued the British.

Sophia of Palatine as a young woman

Two months after Prince William’s death, William III and Sophia met at Loo Palace in Holland. Sophie, fluent in Dutch and staunchly Protestant, charmed the King and instilled in him confidence that she could effectively govern. The following year Parliament passed the Act of Settlement naming Sophia as William and Anne’s heir, legally bypassing the still living Catholic Stuarts.

Sophia’s husband, Ernest, died in 1698, leaving her eldest son, George, as Hanover’s Elector. By Sophia’s calculation, as a widow and a Dowager Electress, she was free and clear to leave for England when duty called, believing she was cashing in her mother’s birthright as an English princess.

Queen Anne

But despite Sophia’s willingness to move, Anne would have none of it once she ascended the throne. In fact, the friendliness that William III and Sophia struck up would not be mirrored in the latter’s relationship with Anne. When Sophia’s eldest great-granddaughter was born in 1709, the Hanoverians chose the name “Anne” in homage to the British queen – and their place in the succession – but the family had to nag her to accept the honor. In return, the Queen sent along her portrait surrounded by jewels, however Sophia was less than impressed by their quality.

Other factors were simply the situation Anne faced at home: the Glorious Revolution might have been bloodless, but the British government was plagued by factionalism, not helped by clear political favoritism from the monarch. By the dawn of 1713, Anne was unable to walk and effectively immobile through the summer. Over the Christmas holiday she was so feverish she spent it unconscious in her bed. By the new year, she began to rally, but by the summer her health was back on the decline. That March she made a final speech from her throne in which she made no mention of the succession, despite her ministers’ preparation for her imminent death, sounding alarm bells in Hanover.

And in the midst of this, Tory leaders, the Earl of Oxford and Viscount Bolingbroke, were at each other’s throats. On July 27th, Anne dismissed Oxford as Treasurer, implementing a temporary commission. Three days later she suffered a final stroke just after appointing the Earl of Shrewsbury as his replacement. Finally, on August 1st, she passed away at Kensington Palace and was buried in Westminster Abbey before the end of the month.

Ironically, despite the fact Anne had essentially been an invalid for her entire reign, she managed to outlive Sophia, but only by a hair. Sophia caught a chill early in June while walking in the gardens of Herrenhausen and died three days later on June 8th at the age of 83. Her claim to the British throne was absorbed by her eldest son, George Ludwig, Elector of Hanover, 54 years old and as German as they come.

George I as Elector of Hanover in 1706

One of Anne’s oldest and closest friends was John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough who had found himself exiled and dismissed during the last years of the Queen’s life, though they remained in contact. He circled the Hanoverian court and made friends with George, preparing him for the political reality of becoming Britain’s king. And George, though he lacked the genuine, emotional yearning his mother had to ascend that particular throne, was determined to safeguard his inheritance. From Hanover, he empowered Marlborough to defend Britain should Anne’s half-brother, James Stuart, attempt to launch an invasion and Marlborough had been called back by the Queen during her last days, arriving in England the same day she died.

Whether George fully understood British culture or political reality is debatable, but he certainly grasped that his rule had to appear to be the result of invitation not foreign interference. When his ministers and family urged him to send his eldest son to London to install a physical presence, he declined, correctly guessing it would only create anxiety.

Political factionalism and dynastic angst aside, George was proclaimed King George I within hours of Anne’s death. A temporary regency was put in place until George could travel from Hanover to England, a group made up of members of Anne’s government, Whigs and George’s own picks, all selected for their ability to moderate and most of them opposed to the recent actions of Oxford and Bolingbroke.

George arrived in England on September 18, well after Anne’s funeral and once some of the Stuart cobwebs had been dusted away. James Stuart failed to take advantage of the power vacuum and all systems were a go when George reached London more than a week later. But while there was no real political opposition to George’s accession, his complete foreignness can’t be overstated. He had never been to Britain before becoming its king, he didn’t speak English (relying on French and bad Latin for most of his reign) and he had little patience or interest in party politics.

Sophia Dorothea of Celle

George had married a woman named Sophia Dorothea of Celle in 1682, a match purely motivated by the money she brought with her. They managed to produce two children, George Augustus and another Sophia Dorothea, before effectively calling it quits. Both were openly unfaithful to the other, only Sophia Dorothea’s adultery was less tolerated. In 1694 Sophia Dorothea’s lover “disappeared” – likely he was murdered – and George divorced his wife, imprisoning her in Ahlden where she remained under close supervision until her death in 1726.

Thus, she was very much still alive when George ascended the throne and were it not for the divorce, would have become another of Britain’s queens. While Britain might have been used to drama from its royal family, this particular dynamic was dark and sordid by 18th century standards. Nor was the thin and ugly mistress George brought with him from Hanover quite up to London’s standards – the presence of her and the couple’s three illegitimate daughters quickly and easily mocked.

The first sight the British had of their new king was him alongside his son, George Augustus, exhibiting limited enthusiasm as he rode through Greenwich. He occasionally waved at the crowds who gathered to meet him, but he was small, dark and unimpressively dressed. The coldness between father and son was apparent, the latter of whom was by far merrier, which only seemed to annoy the King more. A few weeks later the crowds were somewhat cheered by the arrival of George Augustus’s wife, Caroline of Ansbach, and their two eldest daughters (their son, Frederick, was left behind in Hanover as consolation to the electorate and their youngest, Caroline, was ill).

The sight of a young family was a welcome change of pace to the public; the last time a monarch had possessed a full nursery was Charles I and Henrietta Maria of France back in the 1630s and their unpopularity diminished much of the natural goodwill royal children inspired. Even so, the King was reserved and wary, doing little to inspire to goodwill. George Augustus and Caroline had the makings of driving more popularity, but were quickly sidelined by a resentful sovereign.

George I was crowned king at Westminster on October 20th, his son and daughter-in-law, by then installed as Prince and Princess of Wales, participating in the ceremony. The ceremony foretold the beginning of the end for the two Georges. Younger, more flexible and willing to set up his own power base in Britain, George Augustus was eager for a different, more powerful and high-profile life than the one he had experienced in Hanover. He had no hesitation in opposing his father’s politics, while Caroline was undoubtedly more intelligent than her husband and father-in-law put together.

Caroline of Ansbach

George I, on the other hand, was quickly homesick for the quiet order of Hanover and began planning to return as soon as possible. Unfortunately, the succession laws put in place by Queen Anne dictated a monarch had to ask Parliament’s permission to leave the country, circumventing the situation that might arise with a foreign king in which he might choose to rule Britain from afar. He eventually made trips back home in 1716, 1719, 1720, 1723 and 1725. All told, he spent nearly a quarter of his reign abroad, a fact that did little to endear him to his new subjects, but then again, he wasn’t a Catholic and they didn’t have much from which to choose.

George Augustus ascended the throne as George II in 1727 and the House of Hanover was secure. But George II and Caroline were still both foreign-born, as was their eldest son. Prince Frederick joined the rest of his family in London once his grandfather died, but he also took a German wife. He died nine years before his father, thus the throne passed from George II to his grandson, George III, in 1760. George III also took a German wife, as did both of his sons, George IV and William IV, and his granddaughter, Queen Victoria.

George II

Part of this was less favoritism of Germany or Germans and and of itself and more the illegality of marrying a Catholic. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the surest bet for a solid Protestant match was to source in Germany – that combined with the increasing family ties, made those unions more attractive and likely to be successful (in theory).

It was the future Edward VII who broke the mold in 1863, well over a century after his great-great-great-grandfather founded his House. He declined to marry any of the German candidates with which his parents presented him, instead choosing the Danish princess Alexandra of Denmark (though admittedly, Alexandra’s mother was half-German). Their son, George V, married Mary of Teck, a great-granddaughter of George III, who may have possessed German heritage but was born and raised in England. Their son, George VI, married the wholly British Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon. And their daughter, Elizabeth II, married Prince Philip of Denmark and Greece, who was not in fact Greek, but rather Danish and German.

This last marriage is significant because in many ways it was a throwback to the days of marrying foreign princes, and German ones at that. Both Elizabeth’s father and grandfather had gotten away with marrying aristocratic women, so at first blush her choice seems unusual. But, for one, it was in fact a choice – Elizabeth was genuinely in love with Philip and hell-bent on marrying him. Philip was also educated in Britain and served in the British Royal Navy – by the time he married Elizabeth, England was essentially his home, a fact legally reinforced by the necessary renunciation of all of his foreign titles and his adoption of the surname “Mountbatten” the day before their wedding.

Philip and Elizabeth

By then, of course, Britain and Germany were no longer the close allies they had once been. Two world wars had eradicated pro-German sentiment – in many ways, they were the new Catholics. Suddenly, the necessity of German alliances for reason of religion became the black mark against the British Royal Family. Their heritage was German; they had familial ties to Germany and its allies. In 1917, in a brilliant, if unsubtle, bit of PR, the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (which began with Edward VII having taken his father’s name) was re-branded the House of Windsor. The BRF was once again “British.”

But this is a bit murky for a few reasons and not the obvious one. What exactly is “British,” particularly in the royal sense? It’s understandable why George I and George II are essentially viewed as imports, but George III was born and raised on English soil, as has every monarch since him. If we are quibbling, then, about mothers, why single out the post-Hanoverian monarchs? The Stuarts weren’t any more “British” than any other royal family. Charles II’s and James II’s mother was French and tracing their grandmothers through the Stuart line brings up a regular cadence of French and Danish women, Joan Beaufort and Margaret Tudor excluded. The Tudors were English, but not for the right reasons – for that matter, Mary I was half-Spanish. And the House of York was only English by accident. And then you are in the Lancastrians and Plantagenets, who were mostly marrying French women.

Those who quibble about the House of Windsor being German today are often unwittingly comparing them to the aristocracy, which is to say Queen Anne’s government which oversaw the smooth transition of power to George I. But let’s be clear: that transition was necessary because of how firmly Britain wanted to exclude Catholics from the succession and the fact that royalty marrying nobility undermined political neutrality.

The snobbery speaks to a larger, more powerful political and social commentary: The Royal Family exists at the pleasure of its people. It’s a point with which the Stuarts forced a reckoning by their embrace of Catholicism against the mood of their subjects and their inability to constructively work with Parliament. The ousting of James II eradicated the idea, however unspoken it was and is, that the sovereign has truly been anointed by God and owed the crown by blood. The choice of George I and the Hanoverian line was the closest Britain has ever come to electing their own monarch, no matter his ancestry.

The Prince of Wales, the Queen and Diana

This idea, this slight threat, reared its head 20 years ago when Earl Spencer delivered his eulogy for the late Princess of Wales. For all that he said very kind and correct things about his sister, interwoven in those words is in fact the reminder that he spoke on behalf of a great English family, one which pre-dates the Hanoverians. In short, he was playing upon nationalism to castigate some Germans for not taking care of his very English sister.

The extent to which the German accusation is based in fact is debatable. George I became king over 300 years ago, and while his direct descendants sit on the throne, bloodlines have changed considerably. Alexandra of Denmark and Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon genuinely brought in “fresh blood” (so to speak), as did Diana and as has Kate Middleton. The Duke of Cambridge is a bit more “British” than his father (for that matter the Queen is a bit more “British” than her son), and Prince George is more British than all of them put together.

But make no mistake, this is all completely absurd. Since 1760, each and every monarch has been born, raised and educated in Britain and should be “British” enough for anyone.

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