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Penguin Monarchs. George I.

October 2, 2021
King George I - Historic UK

At first sight, George I is the sort of monarch that would have the arms of most writers and historians pinned rigidly to their sides when the call for volunteers to “do” him is issued. Tim Blanning is about as eminent and prolific an eighteenth-century political historian as you could hope to encounter, and you sense a kind of arch relish at being invited to take on a subject that appeals to very few people. This is a crisp, witty, engaging book that compels attention throughout.

The sub-title of the book is “The Lucky King”, and this title does not seem misapplied. In order for George to succeed to the thrones of north west Europe when he did, quite a number of people had to die. They had to die at the right time and they had to die in the right order.

The arrival of an uncharismatic and unprepossessing monarch who could not speak much English (of course he knew some – he could hard avoid knowing some – and he could hardly avoid learning more and more English the longer he stayed in England), was of course a great boon to parliamentary sovereignty. A more charismatic ruler might have retarded the power of representative governance even without trying to. Blanning, incidentally, cannot help admiring Walpole and concluding that for all his deviousness and abuse of patronage, Walpole’s broadly pacific and economically well grounded policies were remarkably beneficial for a great many people.

Many people feared of course, that with the accession of George would mean a Hanoverian tail wagging a British dog, that the sheer complexity of central European politics would drag Britain into expensive and intractable entanglements. Blanning is at his best dealing with this question. He notes that George managed to intervene successfully and carefully in the Great Northern War with the intention of preventing Charles XII of Sweden from dominating the Baltic. He also notes that the Hanoverian connection, while not bleeding the British treasury dry or committing British armies to continental land wars, managed to ensure that Britain was continually concerned and informed and interested in the balance of power in Europe. It was Britain’s good fortune (and luck features very heavily in this book) to have acquired a monarch who could arbitrate internationally yet withdraw domestically, thus saving England at least from isolationism and/or despotism.

George’s contempt for Ireland is noted. George was accidentally responsible for sponsoring some of the finest prose written in English in the eighteenth-century when he permitted his mistress to sell off the contract for supplying Ireland with copper coinage. The Drapier was thereby born.

Blanning does not try to get inside George’s head. George’s head seems a very unappealing residence. With George, the long slow (and ongoing) train wreck of inter-generational familial dysfunction is initiated. His first wife is arrested and imprisoned and her reputed lover murdered (possibly without George’s knowledge but who can say?) His son and heir George Augustus becomes the king’s chief enemy and George I and George II seem divested of anything resembling “natural” family feeling. The relationship between George II and his son and heir Frederick would turn out to be even worse. And so on, and so forth.

There are only a few scraps to do with Handel. The Water Music is referenced in terms of its value as a public relations exercise and there’s a shout out to Jonathan Keates at the very end. There’s far more about Thornhill’s monumental painting of George at Greenwich than there is about Handel, a painting that is as clumsy and unappealing as its subject matter as far as I’m concerned.

But Handel offers the opportunity to extrapolate something potentially far more interesting about George. This story describes one of the most significant relationships between a ruler and a historically significant creative genius that I can think of. It’s more significant than the relationship between Joseph II and Mozart. It’s up there with the relationship between Pope Julius II and Michaelangelo.

I have thoughts about other books in this series.

See below:

King John:

Richard II:

Henry V:

Henry VI:

Edward IV:

Richard III:

Henry VIII:

Edward VI:

Queen Mary:

Elizabeth I:

James I and VI:

Penguin Monarchs: James I and VI

Charles I:

Oliver Cromwell:

Charles II:

James II and VII:

William and Mary:

George III:

George IV:


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