The House of Hanover ruled Britain for nearly 200 years, and this dynasty oversaw the modernisation of Britain. Despite their not insignificant place in British history, the monarchs of the House of Hanover are often glossed over. But the six Hanoverian monarchs were some of Britain’s most colourful characters – their reigns were filled with scandal, intrigue, jealousy, happy marriages and terrible familial relationships.
They lost America but oversaw the rise of the British Empire to span nearly 25% of the world’s population and surface area. The Britain Victoria left in 1901 was dramatically different to the one the German-born George I arrived in in 1714.
George I (1714-27)
The second cousin of Queen Anne, George was born in Hanover, heir to the German Duchy of Brunswick-Lüneburg, which he inherited in 1698, along with the title Elector of Hanover.
Shortly after this, it became clear that George was much nearer to the English throne that first thought thanks to his Protestantism: in 1701 he was invested with the Order of the Garter, and in 1705, a law was passed to naturalise his mother and her heirs as English subjects so it would be possible for them to inherit.
He became heir presumptive to the English Crown in 1714 following the death of his mother, and a few months later, ascended to the throne when Queen Anne died. George was not initially very popular: riots accompanied his coronation and many were uncomfortable about a foreigner ruling them.
Legend has it he barely spoke English when he first arrived in England, although this is a dubious claim. Many were also scandalised by George’s treatment of his wife, Sophia Dorothea of Celle, who he kept a virtual prisoner for over 30 years back in her native Celle.
George was a relatively successful ruler, managing to quash numerous Jacobite rebellions. It was during his reign that the monarchy, whilst theoretically absolute, became increasingly accountable to Parliament: Robert Walpole became a de facto Prime Minister and George never really used many of the powers that were technically attributed to him as a monarch.
Historians have struggled to understand George’s personality and motivation – he remains elusive and to all accounts, was relatively private. However, he did leave the succession secure for his son, George.
George II (1727-60)
Born and brought up in northern Germany, George had received honours and titles from England since it became clear he was in the line of succession. He arrived with his father in England in 1714 and was formally invested as the Prince of Wales. George courted the English and quickly became much more popular than his father, which became a source of resentment between the two.
The King banished his son from the palace following a spat and prevented Prince George and his wife Caroline from seeing their children. In retaliation, George began to oppose his father’s policies and his house became a meeting place for leading members of the Whig opposition, including men like Robert Walpole.
George I died in June 1727 on a visit to Hanover: his son won further appeal in the eyes of England by refusing to travel to Germany for his father’s funeral, which was viewed as a mark of fondness for England. He also ignored his father’s attempts to divide the kingdoms of Hanover and Britain between his grandsons. George had little control over policy by this point: Parliament had grown in influence, and the crown was dramatically less powerful than it had been.
The last British monarch to lead his troops into battle, George reopened hostilities with Spain, fought in the War of Austrian Succession and quashed the last of the Jacobite rebellions. He had a strained relationship with his son, Frederick Prince of Wales, and like his father, had him banished from court. George spent most summers in Hanover, and his departures from England were unpopular.
George died in October 1760, aged 77. Whilst his legacy is far from a glorious one, historians have increasingly emphasised his steadfast rule and desire to uphold constitutional government.
George III (1760-1820)
The grandson of George II, George III inherited the throne aged 22, and became one of the longest reigning monarchs in British history. Unlike his two Hanoverian predecessors, George was born in England, spoke English as his first language and never visited Hanover, despite his throne. He had a remarkably loyal marriage to his wife, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, with whom he had 15 children.
Foreign policy was one of the dominating factors of George’s reign. The American War of Independence saw Britain lose many of its American colonies, and this has become one of George’s defining legacies despite notable victories against France in the Seven Years’ War and the Napoleonic Wars.
George also had a keen interest in the arts: he was a patron of Handel and Mozart, developed much of Kew under the influence of his wife, and oversaw the foundation of the Royal Academy of Arts. During his reign, there was something of an agricultural revolution, with huge growth in rural populations. He has often been nicknamed Farmer George for his interest in what many politicians saw as the mundane or provincial.
George’s legacy is perhaps most defined by his bouts of mental illness. Exactly what caused these is unknown, but they increased in severity throughout his life, until in 1810 a regency was officially established in favour of his oldest son, George Prince of Wales. He died in January 1820.
George IV (1820-30)
The eldest son of George III, George IV ruled for 10 years as Regent during his father’s final illness, and then subsequently 10 years in his own right. His interference in politics proved a source of frustration to Parliament, especially given the king had very little power by this point. Ongoing disputes over Catholic emancipation were particularly fraught, and despite his opposition to the matter, George was forced to accept this.
George had an extravagant and flamboyant lifestyle: his coronation alone cost £240,000 – a huge sum at the time, and over 20 times the cost of his father’s. His wayward lifestyle, and particularly his relationship with his wife, Caroline of Brunswick, made him markedly unpopular amongst ministers and the people.
Despite, or perhaps because of this, the Regency era has become synonymous with luxury, elegance and achievements across art and architecture. George embarked on several costly building projects, including most famously, Brighton Pavilion. He was nicknamed the ‘First Gentleman of England’ on account of his style: his life of luxury took a serious toll on his health, and he died in 1830.
William IV (1830-7)
George IV had died without any heirs – his only legitimate daughter Charlotte had predeceased him – so the throne went to his younger brother, William, Duke of Gloucester. As third son, William never expected to be king, and spent time abroad with the Royal Navy as a young man, and was appointed Lord High Admiral in 1827.
William inherited the throne aged 64, and his reign saw much needed reforms, including to the poor law and child labour legislation. Slavery was also finally (and almost entirely) abolished across the British Empire and the 1832 Reform Act removed rotten boroughs and provided electoral reform. William’s relationship with Parliament was far from completely peaceful, and he remains the last British monarch to appoint a Prime Minister against the will of Parliament.
William had 10 illegitimate children with his longstanding mistress Dorothea Jordan, before marrying Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen in 1818. The pair remained devoted in marriage, although they produced no legitimate children.
As it became apparent William’s niece, Victoria, was heir to the throne, conflict arose between the royal couple and the Duchess of Kent, Victoria’s mother. William was said to be desperate to live long enough to see Victoria reach her majority so that he knew he could leave the country in ‘safe hands’. On his death in 1837, the crown of Hanover finally left English control as Salic law prevented Victoria from inheriting.
Victoria inherited the throne as a relatively inexperienced 18 year old, having had a sheltered and somewhat isolated childhood in Kensington Palace. Her political dependence on Lord Melbourne, the Whig Prime Minister, quickly earned the resentment of many, and several scandals and ill-judged decisions ensured her early reign had several rocky moments.
She married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg in 1840, and the couple had a famously happy domestic life, producing 9 children. Albert died of typhus in 1861, and Victoria was distraught: much of her image of a sombre old woman dressed in black stems from her grief following his death.
The Victorian Era was one of immense change in Britain. The British Empire expanded to reach its zenith, ruling over approximately 1/4 of the world’s population. Victoria was granted the title of Empress of India. Technological change following the Industrial Revolution transformed the urban landscape, and living conditions began to gradually improve towards the end of Victoria’s reign.
Many historians have seen Victoria’s rule as the consolidation of the monarchy as a kind of constitutional figurehead. She curated an image of a solid, stable, morally upright monarchy in contrast to previous scandals and extravagance, and this appealed to the increased emphasis on the family in Victorian England.
Parliament, and especially the Commons, increased and solidified their power. She was the first monarch in British history at that point to have celebrated a Diamond Jubilee, marking 60 years on the throne. Victoria died aged 81 in January 1901.