Hannah Smith. Georgian Monarchy: Politics and Culture 1714-1760. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. xiii + 296 pp. $85.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-521-82876-5.
Reviewed by Victor Stater (Louisiana State University)
Published on H-Albion (July, 2007)
Revising the First Two Georges
History has not been kind to the first two Hanoverian kings of Britain. In the nineteenth century poet Walter Savage Landor summed up the general attitude with "George the First was always reckoned Vile, but viler George the Second." Later generations of historians have described their reigns as marking a decisive decline in royal authority and influence. Marble-mouthed foreigners presiding over a dull and philistine court ("I hate all boets and bainters!" George I allegedly said when refusing a dedication.), there has been little historiographical interest in them. But now Hannah Smith, in this fine first book, has entered the lists in behalf of this undervalued duo.
The first two Georges were more significant than we have been led to believe, Smith argues. Our negative image has been shaped first by hostile contemporaries: disgruntled courtiers, Tories and Jacobites. The Victorians, while hardly sympathetic to the Stuarts, saw George I & II as insufficiently "constitutional" and, of course, unEnglish. Modern historians have tended to be more interested in other subjects--focusing upon popular participation in politics or the growth of the public sphere. But Smith’s research demonstrates that the early Hanoverians "enjoyed a hitherto unrealized degree of popularity" (p. 16).
Parts one and two of the book identify the most significant elements of the new dynasty’s image. Georgian popularity rested upon a foundation of martial Protestantism and Enlightened values--the one harkening back to William III and beyond to Frederick the Elector Palatine, and the other looking forward to scientific modernity. Both George I and II led troops on the battlefield, and their supporters depicted them as Protestant heroes fighting for true religion. The fact that both kings were usually more interested in dynastic issues than religious ones does not negate the power of the image for eighteenth-century Britons. No less important than this identification of the Hanoverians with militant Protestantism was the monarchy’s embrace of the early Enlightenment. The Georges rejected medieval notions of royal sacrality--refusing to touch for the evil, for example, and abandoning rituals such as the washing of poor subjects’ feet on Maundy Thursday. Interestingly, Smith shows how George II and his Queen, Caroline of Ansbach, eagerly adopted the new-fangled (and not altogether safe) practice of inoculation for small pox. Thus the Hanoverians managed to appeal in equal measure to traditionalists and newly-emerging social groups. In addition, the monarchy impressed many by cultivating an image of frugality (in the case of George I frugality at times shaded into meanness). While the monarchy had not yet become the cozy bourgeois institution developed by George III and perfected by Victoria, Smith points out that the first Georges pointed the way ahead.
The image of monarchy projected by George I and II was, Smith rightly points out, quite different from that of their Stuart predecessors, and in some ways in the Hanoverians allowed that image to be created in default of their own actions. Neither king did much to employ traditional means of influencing public opinion--proclamations, speeches, or public appearances. Nor did they make any systematic attempt to cultivate the press--government patronage of the press was directed towards sustaining the ministry. But Smith shows that there was no shortage of individuals who worked to burnish the royal image for reasons of their own. Royal portraits, statues, and symbols appeared everywhere--peers and gentlemen added the King’s image to their galleries, and humbler folk snapped up cheap prints and crockery adorned with the royal visage. Corporations sponsored statues of the kings on horseback or in classical garb, hoping to curry favor. An investigation of a number of churchwarden’s accounts revealed that many parishes celebrated royal birthdays with bell-ringing. And where enthusiasm for the dynasty was lacking, there were institutions in place to manufacture it. Although she admits that many in the Church were lukewarm in the beginning, systematic appointment of loyalists to the bench of bishops did have an impact. More important, Smith argues, was the army. Soldiers were among the regime’s most loyal backers, and they linked patriotism and the dynasty firmly together. She shows quite effectively that loyalism flourished in both city and country under the early Hanoverians--to a degree that has been underappreciated.
Part three of Smith’s book focuses upon the Court. Historians have tended to dismiss the Court, preferring instead to focus upon Parliament and the growth of the public sphere. While she accepts that the significance of the Court declines in some respects, she does a service by pointing out that it remains an institution of great importance. By 1760, she says, the Court "has lost its political function as an institution," but "it still operated as an avenue for the brokering and staging of politics." (p. 243) That political function should not be underestimated, nor should we ignore the fact that the Court continued to have important social and cultural influence. The ambitious still flocked to Court, and the king used it to reward and punish. One obvious reflection of the Court’s continued relevance was the way it became the cockpit for the Hanoverian custom of strife between the sovereign and his heir. George I used access to the Court as a weapon in his feud with George II when he was Prince, and in turn George II did the same to his son Frederick.
Culturally the first two Hanoverians played an ambiguous role, and here Smith has some interesting things to say about the monarchy and the public sphere. She rightly points out that while the monarchy was in some ways dependant upon the public sphere for maintaining the royal image and enforcing loyalty, the public sphere also felt royal influence. George II, for example, was Handel’s most important patron and a strong supporter of the opera. Both kings patronized the commercial theater, and their presence undoubtedly encouraged the production of loyal drama. Smith certainly does not attempt to depict George I as a "merry monarch," for in truth he was socially awkward and the royal family’s "routine social activities were fairly mundane." (p. 203) George II on the other hand was rather more lively--at least until the death of the Queen in 1737, after which the Court became more somber.
Using a variety of sources, both central and local, and demonstrating a firm command of her subject, Hannah Smith has shed new light on the early Hanoverians. We will have to revise our opinions of these two irascible kings--for despite the undoubted loyalty they inspired in many, no one can deny that they were not always charming. But Smith’s book makes it easier to understand why, despite the serious challenge posed by Jacobitism, the new dynasty survived.
. Notes and Queries, 3d ser., 1 (28 June 1862): 518.
. John, Lord Campbell, Lives of the Lord Chancellors and Keepers of the Great Seal of England, from Earliest Times Till the Reign of George IV, 3rd ed., vol. 3 (London: John Murray, 1857): 183.
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Victor Stater. Review of Smith, Hannah, Georgian Monarchy: Politics and Culture 1714-1760.
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