1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/George II.

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21742831911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 11 — George II.Samuel Rawson Gardiner

GEORGE II. [George Augustus] (1683–1760), king of Great Britain and Ireland, the only son of George I., was born in 1683. In 1705 he married Wilhelmina Caroline of Anspach. In 1706 he was created earl of Cambridge. In 1708 he fought bravely at Oudenarde. At his father’s accession to the English throne he was thirty-one years of age. He was already on bad terms with his father. The position of an heir-apparent is in no case an easy one to fill with dignity, and the ill-treatment of the prince’s mother by his father was not likely to strengthen in him a reverence for paternal authority. It was most unwillingly that, on his first journey to Hanover in 1716, George I. appointed the prince of Wales guardian of the realm during his absence. In 1717 the existing ill-feeling ripened into an open breach. At the baptism of one of his children, the prince selected one godfather whilst the king persisted in selecting another. The young man spoke angrily, was ordered into arrest, and was subsequently commanded to leave St James’s and to be excluded from all court ceremonies. The prince took up his residence at Leicester House, and did everything in his power to support the opposition against his father’s ministers.

When therefore George I. died in 1727, it was generally supposed that Walpole would be at once dismissed. The first direction of the new king was that Sir Spencer Compton would draw up the speech in which he was to announce to the privy council his accession. Compton, not knowing how to set about his task, applied to Walpole for aid. Queen Caroline took advantage of this evidence of incapacity, advocated Walpole’s cause with her husband and procured his continuance in office. This curious scene was indicative of the course likely to be taken by the new sovereign. His own mind was incapable of rising above the merest details of business. He made war in the spirit of a drill-sergeant, and he economized his income with the minute regularity of a clerk. A blunder of a master of the ceremonies in marshalling the attendants on a levee put him out of temper. He took the greatest pleasure in counting his money piece by piece, and he never forgot a date. He was above all things methodical and regular. “He seems,” said one who knew him well, “to think his having done a thing to-day an unanswerable reason for his doing it to-morrow.”

Most men so utterly immersed in details would be very impracticable to deal with. They would obstinately refuse to listen to a wisdom and prudence which meant nothing in their ears, and which brought home to them a sense of their own inferiority. It was the happy peculiarity of George II. that he was exempt from this failing. He seemed to have an instinctive understanding that such and such persons were either wiser or even stronger than himself, and when he had once discovered that, he gave way with scarcely a struggle. Thus it was that, though in his domestic relations he was as loose a liver as his father had been, he allowed himself to be guided by the wise but unobtrusive counsels of his wife until her death in 1737, and that when once he had recognized Walpole’s superiority he allowed himself to be guided by the political sagacity of the great minister. It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of such a temper upon the development of the constitution. The apathy of the nation in all but the most exciting political questions, fostered by the calculated conservatism of Walpole, had thrown power into the hands of the great landowners. They maintained their authority by supporting a minister who was ready to make use of corruption, wherever corruption was likely to be useful, and who could veil over the baseness of the means which he employed by his talents in debate and in finance. To shake off a combination so strong would not have been easy. George II. submitted to it without a struggle.

So strong indeed had the Whig aristocracy grown that it began to lose its cohesion. Walpole was determined to monopolize power, and he dismissed from office all who ventured to oppose him. An opposition formidable in talents was gradually formed. In its composite ranks were to be found Tories and discontented Whigs, discarded official hacks who were hungry for the emoluments of office, and youthful purists who fancied that if Walpole were removed, bribes and pensions would cease to be attractive to a corrupt generation. Behind them was Bolingbroke, excluded from parliament but suggesting every party move. In 1737 the opposition acquired the support of Frederick, prince of Wales. The young man, weak and headstrong, rebelled against the strict discipline exacted by his father. His marriage in 1736 to Augusta of Saxony brought on an open quarrel. In 1737, just as the princess of Wales was about to give birth to her first child, she was hurried away by her husband from Hampton Court to St James’s Palace at the imminent risk of her life, simply in order that the prince might show his spite to his father who had provided all necessary attendance at the former place. George ordered his son to quit St James’s, and to absent himself from court. Frederick in disgrace gave the support of his name, and he had nothing else to give, to the opposition. Later in the year 1737, on the 20th of November, Queen Caroline died. In 1742 Walpole, weighed down by the unpopularity both of his reluctance to engage in a war with Spain and of his supposed remissness in conducting the operations of that war, was driven from office. His successors formed a composite ministry in which Walpole’s old colleagues and Walpole’s old opponents were alike to be found.

The years which followed settled conclusively, at least for this reign, the constitutional question of the power of appointing ministers. The war between Spain and England had broken out in 1739. In 1741 the death of the emperor Charles VI. brought on the war of the Austrian succession. The position of George II. as a Hanoverian prince drew him to the side of Maria Theresa through jealousy of the rising Prussian monarchy. Jealousy of France led England in the same direction, and in 1741 a subsidy of £300,000 was voted to Maria Theresa. The king himself went to Germany and attempted to carry on the war according to his own notions. Those notions led him to regard the safety of Hanover as of far more importance than the wishes of England. Finding that a French army was about to march upon his German states, he concluded with France a treaty of neutrality for a year without consulting a single English minister. In England the news was received with feelings of disgust. The expenditure of English money and troops was to be thrown uselessly away as soon as it appeared that Hanover was in the slightest danger. In 1742 Walpole was no longer in office. Lord Wilmington, the nominal head of the ministry, was a mere cipher. The ablest and most energetic of his colleagues, Lord Carteret (afterwards Granville), attached himself specially to the king, and sought to maintain himself in power by his special favour and by brilliant achievements in diplomacy.

In part at least by Carteret’s mediation the peace of Breslau was signed, by which Maria Theresa ceded Silesia to Frederick (July 28, 1742). Thus relieved on her northern frontier, she struck out vigorously towards the west. Bavaria was overrun by her troops. In the beginning of 1743 one French army was driven across the Rhine. On June 27th another French army was defeated by George II. in person at Dettingen. Victory brought elation to Maria Theresa. Her war of defence was turned into a war of vengeance. Bavaria was to be annexed. The French frontier was to be driven back. George II. and Carteret after some hesitation placed themselves on her side. Of the public opinion of the political classes in England they took no thought. Hanoverian troops were indeed to be employed in the war, but they were to be taken into British pay. Collisions between British and Hanoverian officers were frequent. A storm arose against the preference shown to Hanoverian interests. After a brief struggle Carteret, having become Lord Granville by his mother’s death, was driven from office in November 1744.

Henry Pelham, who had become prime minister in the preceding year, thus saw himself established in power. By the acceptance of this ministry, the king acknowledged that the function of choosing a ministry and directing a policy had passed from his hands. In 1745 indeed he recalled Granville, but a few days were sufficient to convince him of the futility of his attempt, and the effort to exclude Pitt at a later time proved equally fruitless.

Important as were the events of the remainder of the reign, therefore, they can hardly be grouped round the name of George II. The resistance to the invasion of the Young Pretender in 1745, the peace of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748, the great war ministry of Pitt at the close of the reign, did not receive their impulse from him. He had indeed done his best to exclude Pitt from office. He disliked him on account of his opposition in former years to the sacrifices demanded by the Hanoverian connexion. When in 1756 Pitt became secretary of state in the Devonshire administration, the king bore the yoke with difficulty. Early in the next year he complained of Pitt’s long speeches as being above his comprehension, and on April 5, 1757, he dismissed him, only to take him back shortly after, when Pitt, coalescing with Newcastle, became master of the situation. Before Pitt’s dismissal George II. had for once an opportunity of placing himself on the popular side, though, as was the case of his grandson during the American war, it was when the popular side happened to be in the wrong. In the true spirit of a martinet, he wished to see Admiral Byng executed. Pitt urged the wish of the House of Commons to have him pardoned. “Sir,” replied the king, “you have taught me to look for the sense of my subjects in another place than in the House of Commons.” When George II. died in 1760, he left behind him a settled understanding that the monarchy was one of the least of the forces by which the policy of the country was directed. To this end he had contributed much by his disregard of English opinion in 1743; but it may fairly be added that, but for his readiness to give way to irresistible adversaries, the struggle might have been far more bitter and severe than it was.

Of the connexion between Hanover and England in this reign two memorials remain more pleasant to contemplate than the records of parliamentary and ministerial intrigues. With the support of George II., amidst the derision of the English fashionable world, the Hanoverian Handel produced in England those masterpieces which have given delight to millions, whilst the foundation of the university of Göttingen by the same king opened a door through which English political ideas afterwards penetrated into Germany.

George II. had three sons,—Frederick Louis (1707–1751); George William (1717–1718); and William Augustus, duke of Cumberland (1721–1765); and five daughters, Anne (1709–1759), married to William, prince of Orange, 1734; Amelia Sophia Eleonora (1711–1786); Elizabeth Caroline (1713–1757); Mary (1723–1772), married to Frederick, landgrave of Hesse-Cassel, 1740; Louisa (1724–1751), married to Frederick V., king of Denmark, 1743.  (S. R. G.) 

See Lord Hervey, Memoirs of the Reign of George II., ed. by J. W, Croker (3 vols., London, 1884); Horace Walpole, Mem. of the Reign of George II., with notes by Lord Holland (3 vols., 2nd ed., 1847).