The Coming of the Georges
1. Father and Son
In September, 1714, seven weeks after Queen Anne died, the first king of a new royal House landed in England.
Sophia of Hanover, daughter of the Elizabeth Stuart who was once for a few months Queen of Bohemia, had been named by the Act of Settlement (1701) as successor to her cousin Anne. And ever after Sophia longed to outlive Anne, if only for one day, so that she might call herself Queen of England before she died. But she had been dead already some four months; so it was not to her but to her son George Lewis, now King George I, that the English crown descended.
George I was a foreigner by birth, connected with the old royal line only because his grandmother Elizabeth had been a daughter of James I. Nearly sixty persons, it was said, had a better title to the throne by descent. He was a foreigner, too, by breeding and education. The jealous Anne, indeed, had never allowed him to enter England. Thus he knew hardly more of English ways and English institutions than he knew of the English language, which was practically nothing at all. Further, having ruled Hanover for sixteen years with almost absolute power, he had had no training for the task of ruling England as a "constitutional king," that is, a king with limited power, strictly controlled by Parliament. And he knew that few, if any, of his new subjects felt even the slightest liking for him. Already, indeed, they were violently jealous of his foreign friends and interests. And, till the very moment of Anne's last illness, Bolingbroke had been working, with every hope of success, to put a different king upon the throne. Even now Bolingbroke still hoped, and George himself feared, and foreign statesmen quite expected, that "the fickle English" would soon send back their new ruler to his little German State.
Nor could George hope to win favour by his personal charms, for he had none. His face was plain, his expression lifeless, his bearing awkward, and his manners stiff. His habits were thrifty, even niggardly. His ignorance of English cut him off from most of his subjects. Few of his own ministers could talk to him in his own language. Walpole—the greatest of them all—had to discuss State affairs with him in Latin, which neither, perhaps, knew very well, and which, moreover, they pronounced in different ways!
As for his family, they hindered rather than helped his gaining popularity. His wife remained a prisoner in disgrace in Germany, and he was at variance with his son, who took her part.
Yet—unattractive, unromantic, and ungracious as George was—he had certain points not only excellent in themselves, but quite invaluable in his new position. He was courageous both in battle and in daily life. He was merciful to his enemies. He hated injustice and dishonesty. Above all, he had abundant sober common sense.
George II—king from 1727 to 1760—was in some ways more, and in others less, fortunate. Like George I, he hated his son and heir. But in this case the son, Frederick, Prince of Wales, was a worthless creature, even if he did not quite deserve his mother's description of him as "the greatest ass, and the greatest liar, and the greatest beast in the whole world." And, unlike George I, the king loved his wife, and owed more than tongue could tell to her faithful and sensible advice.
Again, though he too was a foreigner by birth, and much more at home in Hanoverian than in English business, yet he knew more than his father of the language and character and institutions of his English subjects. And, though he was short, and fidgety in his movements, his features were good and his expression lively—a great contrast to the dull plainness of his father's face.
On the other hand, he was spiteful and abusive. He was always sneering at everyone round him. And his manner, even to those he really loved, was harsh and rough. The very virtues of punctuality and exactness, too, which were his pride, became hateful and ridiculous, to such an absurd length did he carry them. And his carefulness of money was so extreme that the only present he ever gave his greatest minister was—a cracked diamond! Yet, like his father, he was brave, honest, loyal to his friends, moderate, and blessed with much common sense.
Both kings, moreover, had the wit to see that, however unwillingly, they must accept certain very important checks on their own power. These checks were due virtue partly to the various laws and customs of government in England which are called "the English Constitution," and partly to their personal ignorance of English politics. Both kings, too, though keenly interested in Hanover, placed their duty to England first. And both valued and trusted Robert Walpole, the one man in England who could make their throne secure, the man to whom, more even than to their own common sense or the folly of their Stuart rivals, the firm establishment of their dynasty within thirty years was due.
2. The Old Pretender
No greater contrast to the Georges can be imagined than the two "Pretenders," Old and Young, the son and grandson of James II. Common sense was never very common in the Stuart princes, even in their prosperous days. And certainly none was shown by the Old Pretender when he made his great attempt to seize the British crown.
There were obstacles enough in any case to a restoration of the Stuart line. There was the memory of bitter quarrels in the seventeenth century between Stuart kings and Parliament. There was the anger caused by the alliance of exiled Stuart princes with the national enemy, France. There was the dread that a restored Stuart king would leave unpaid the thousands who had lent money to the English Government for the great wars of 1688-1713, since these wars had been fought largely to keep his family off the throne.
But perhaps all this might have been got over if the question of religion had not barred the way. For this was the greatest obstacle of all. The Pretenders were Roman Catholics, like James II, and it was much to their credit that they would not change their religion even to win back the crown. But the English Parliament had twice solemnly declared—in the Bill of Rights (1688) and in the Act of Settlement (1701)—that no Roman Catholic should ever reign in England. And on this point most Englishmen were agreed, however they might differ in other matters. Even Anne herself at last gave up her brother's cause when she realized that he would never give up his religion.
Yet James not only remained a Roman Catholic himself, but led people to think that as king he would try to force all his subjects to be the same. Lastly, he chose the worst possible time for an ill-judged attempt to seize the crown by force. And in this attempt he disgusted all his friends by his lack of every quality that wins men's loyalty and love.
It was in 1715 that he came to seek his kingdom, and it was then a year too late. Driven from France by the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), he had fled to Lorraine, on the French border, and from that refuge had begged for aid from nearly every Government in Europe. But by the Treaty of Utrecht these very Governments had just recognized George I's right to the English crown, and they were hardly ready as yet to break their promises. The Emperor gave no help at all. The Pope and the King of Spain gave only money, no ships or men. Louis XIV of France did indeed promise aid, but he died in September, 1715, and the new ruler of France had very strong reasons for keeping the peace with England. And, though Charles XII of Sweden was actually paid by the Pretender for attacking Newcastle-on-Tyne, the attack was never made.
Thus abroad everything went wrong. Nor was the situation at home much more encouraging. George's troops in England were certainly few, his troops in Scotland very few indeed. Prominent men, too, like Bolingbroke and the popular Duke of Ormonde, knowing that George distrusted them, were working for James; and others, such as Marlborough, would join him if success seemed likely. But Ormonde, whose business it was to win over the army to the Pretender's cause, had suddenly to flee abroad, for the Government discovered and defeated his plot for a rising in the West, and his two later attempts to land in England were both failures. And, though Bolingbroke went to Paris and was made James's Secretary of State, he was never really trusted, and his advice was often disregarded.
When, too, on September 6th, James's standard was actually raised in Scotland, it was against the wishes of his best advisers, perhaps even against his own orders. And the man who raised it was little likely to carry it to victory, for he was only the Earl of Mar, a jealous, unreliable man, nicknamed "Bobbing John" because he had already changed from side to side so often. Under his guidance the Jacobites quickly lost every advantage which they at first enjoyed over King George's army under the Duke of Argyll. Mar began by wasting time in waiting for James at Perth, though he knew that Highlanders kept long inactive would always go home. Then, meeting Argyll's far smaller force at Sheriffmuir, on November 13th, he contented himself with a drawn battle when he might have won a great victory. The old song well describes the fight:
For Mar routed Argyll's right wing, and Argyll did the same to Mar's right wing, and then Mar, by retreating, left Argyll all the advantages of a victory.
Meanwhile Thomas Forster, an M.P. for Northumberland, with the young Earl of Derwentwater and others, started a rebellion in the North of England. They joined a second Jacobite army in Scotland, and with it marched southwards into Lancashire.
But everything went wrong. Five hundred Highlanders deserted, refusing even to cross the English border. In England itself only a few individuals, instead of many thousands, joined the invaders. Forster was made commander, not because he knew how to command, but because, being a Protestant, he might be more acceptable to Englishmen than a Roman Catholic general. And he was useless. He marched to Preston, and the militia fled before him; for they were armed only with pikes. But he took no proper steps to defend the town, and on the very day of Sheriffmuir he surrendered to an army which only his own stupidity had allowed to hem him in.
In Scotland more disasters followed, and now every day Mar's forces dwindled and Argyll's increased. The rebellion had obviously failed. Yet it was just at this point that the Pretender himself at last appeared! He landed at Peterhead on January 2, 1716; he found on every side disappointment and despair; and his own gloomy countenance only depressed still more the spirits of his followers. Soon Perth had to be abandoned, and it became plain that James's presence now merely hindered the Jacobites from making their peace with the Government. So on February 4th he sailed away again, and thus "the '15" came to an untimely end.
The rebels quickly dispersed, and George and his ministers showed great forbearance in punishing them. Few were executed: even those sentenced to death were often spared. But two lords, Kenmure and Derwentwater, were beheaded, and a third, Lord Nithsdale, was saved only by the bravery of his wife. He escaped disguised as a woman, in clothes which she herself had cleverly smuggled into his prison.
Meanwhile James became once more an exile on the Continent. Driven from France and Lorraine, he retired at last to Rome. There he married a Polish princess, whose jealous temper made the rest of his life a misery to him. And by her he became the father of the last two descendants of James II—Charles Edward, "the Young Pretender," and Henry, Cardinal of York. Charles Edward was as unlike the Georges as his father, but in his case it was the charm rather than the folly of the Stuart race that made the contrast. The story of his adventure in 1745, however, belongs to a later chapter.
3. Kings and Councillors
The most important figure in England for a generation after 1714 was neither stolid king nor stupid Pretender, neither a Hanoverian nor a Stuart prince, but Robert Walpole, the Norfolk squire whose great fame has earned for this period the title of "The Age of Walpole."
This importance of the minister rather than of the king had begun in Stuart days. Ever since the Restoration the management of national affairs had belonged far less than before to the king and far more to his ministers and Parliament.
Parliament, and especially the House of Commons, had indeed gained immense power. It met every year. It completely controlled taxation. It alone made laws. And it demanded that the king should be advised by men whose names it knew and on whose good conduct and ability it could rely.
It had not, indeed, been wholly successful on the last point. It had tried to make the king bring all important business to be discussed publicly in the large Privy Council which was supposed to advise him. It had even tried so to arrange matters that the advice given to the king by every councillor might be known. But it had failed. The Privy Council had lost all real power, and all important affairs were managed by a small body of councillors, chiefly ministers holding high office, called the Cabinet. And the Cabinet debated and voted secretly, so that not even the Commons could pry into its doings.
Yet, as Parliament met constantly, and the king depended on the House of Commons for money, he had at any rate to choose ministers who by some means or other could manage to get on with it. The means, certainly, were often bad. Bribing of Members of Parliament with well-paid offices, pensions, and the like, had been growing steadily ever since 1660, and many voted for the Government only because of what they got from it. Yet such corruption had its limits. There were many things which bribes could not do. No ministers could safely act in a way really detested by the House of Commons, and no king could long employ ministers to whom the House was really hostile.
The change of dynasty in 1714 lessened still further the power of the Crown. The Jacobite plottings of Bolingbroke injured the whole Tory party, of which he was the head. The king inclined to think all Tories disloyal, and their enemies did their best to make him think so. Thus his choice of ministers was still further narrowed: not only must they be men agreeable to the Commons, but they must all be Whigs.
Again, George I, being ignorant of English, had to depend greatly on the knowledge and advice of his ministers, and gave up attending Cabinet meetings, since he understood nothing that was said there. So the king no longer shared in the discussions of the ministers, or helped to guide their decisions. The result was not merely to lessen the royal power; for, as some one had to preside in the Cabinet, and the king was not there, a chance was now given for a clever and powerful man to take the lead in all public matters, and make himself a "Prime," or chief, Minister. Thus the office of Prime Minister grew up. And the first Prime Minister was Walpole.