The Queen is Dead: Long Live the King!
On this day in 1714, these words were proclaimed to distinctly muted applause. With the death of Queen Anne, the terms of the 1701 Act of Settlement kicked in and so George, Elector of Hanover ascended the British throne, jumping over the heads of 50 closer claimants who were unable or unprepared to support Anglicanism. (Whenever there are discussions involving attempts to make the British monarchy less sectarian and more inclusive, it needs to be pointed out that there are in that case literally thousands of people descended from those 50 with a better dynastic claim to the throne than the Hanoverians who might want to stake a claim.)
Now when dynasties experience a tercentenary, generally speaking a bit of bunting in order. Generally speaking that is. Now for sure, the British royal family has had a couple of name changes since 1714 due to the conventions of patrilinear nomenclature (although ‘Mountbatten’ was discounted as a surname which caused wailing and gnashing of teeth in certain quarters). But the present Windsors are in direct line from George I. There has been no real interruption or diversion of succession. Even the abdication of Edward VIII offered a merely temporary diversion of succession since he died childless in 1972, when the present Queen would have succeeded anyway.
So why wasn’t there a big monarchist shindig in 2014 for the tercentenary? There was a conference in London on this topic, which I couldn’t get to because I was in Canada at the time. But that was a bunch of historians arguing – not a state commemoration (and all the better for it). Well – there are good reasons why the tercentenary of the Hanoverian succession is not a big cause for celebration. Firstly there is George I himself. Notorious for having imprisoned his wife for life and quite possibly arranging her lover’s murder, he began a long and unfinished sequence of hopelessly dysfunctional royal families, seemingly averse to marital fidelity, parental fondness or filial gratitude. Of course, this was not so much the personal fault of individual Hanoverians as a reflection of the inherent cruelties of the hereditary principle which are structurally corrosive of the most basic ties of human affection.
George I was hard to love. At the beginning of his reign at least, he spoke no English. He immediately lobbied to have a crucial provision of the Act of Settlement revoked – the one which said that the monarch cannot leave Britain without parliament’s permission. He wanted to be able to swan off to Hanover wherever he liked – a territory where he could rule rather more despotically than England. Parliament was rather supine in this respect and entailed upon Britain decades of anxiety about whether Hanover’s interests were dictating British foreign policy.
But 1714 is an important anniversary in other ways. George I represented a demystified monarchy, a reigning family that would never again attempt to cure scrofula. The Hanoverians knew that they were only on the throne because of an Act of Parliament and that claims of “natural” or “divine” authority were untenable.
Ge0rge I is not an ancestor that modern monarchists cherish. Preferring to flourish “history” rather than read it, the idea of a monarchy that has lasted a vague number of “centuries” is preferred. And the original terms of the 1701 Act of Succession – the document which determined who and why certain people get to be on coins, are usually obfuscated. Prince Charles has even talked about wanting to be regarded as a “defender of Faith in general” rather than a “defender of THE faith = the Church of England”. Charles’ notion – that any kind of religion is to be defended against any kind of irreligion looks increasingly stupid and dangerous with every passing year, but the idea that an individual monarch can unilaterally re-write the terms of his dynasty’s employment is itself a sign of a different but cognate form of arrogance.
Today is the anniversary of an uninspiring dynastic compromise. Yet the very lack of inspiration and glamour, the sheer disappointment of a character like George I and the debt he owed to a confident and sovereign parliament, is itself the source of a deeper and more important form of inspirational constitutionalism.