George II: 8 facts about the British king and German elector
Mocked by his subjects as an absentee king for spending a great deal of time in Hanover rather than Britain, George II has not been treated well by the history books. He doesn’t even have a grand memorial befitting a king. Who was the second and perhaps least known of the Hanoverian monarchs?
The man destined to be the second Hanoverian king George Augustus, or Georg August in German, was the only son of the future elector of Hanover and George I. A name is essentially the only thing the two men shared, as they had a fractious relationship – the elder George banished his son from court and kept his children, which he had with his wife Caroline, under guardianship.
George succeeded his father in 1727 and ruled as King of Great Britain, as well as a prince-elector of the Holy Roman Empire, until his death in 1760. He was not overly popular among his subjects due to his periods away from Britain, so it was up to the queen to govern as regent. But he exerted his influence over foreign policy as Britain became involved in the Wars of Jenkins' Ear and Austrian Succession during his reign, and he defended the monarchy against the Jacobite rebellion of 1745.
George II: key dates and facts
Born: 10 November 1683, in Hanover, Germany
Died: 25 October 1760, in London, England
Reigned: King of Great Britain and Ireland, Prince-Elector of Hanover, 1727-60
Parents: George I of Great Britain and Sophia Dorothea of Celle
Spouse: Caroline of Ansbach (m1705–37)
Children: Frederick, Prince of Wales, and seven others
Succeeded by: His grandson, George III
Here are eight facts about the king and elector, George II…
He is the last foreign-born British monarch
George Augustus was born on 10 November 1683 to George Louis of Brunswick-Luneberg and his wife Sophia Dorothea of Celle in the German city of Hanover. To date, he is the last British monarch not born in Britain. His eventual successor would be his grandson, another George, who was born in 1738 in Norfolk House, London. Every monarch since has been born in or around the capital, except for George VI (r 1936-52), who was born at Sandringham.
George’s first language was not English… or German
Growing up in Hanover, it is unsurprising that George’s first words weren’t in English. He was not expected to take the throne of Britain – that came about by his distant cousin, Queen Anne, dying without an heir and the Act of Settlement 1701 named George I as heir. But the young George did not learn German first, either. He grew up initially speaking French, seen as the noble language of the Hanoverian court and diplomacy, and started learning German second at the age of four. As part of his education, which included history and military tactics, he would then go on to be taught English and Italian.
George continued conversing in French, though, and that would be the language of choice for his letters to his wife Caroline.
The rivalry with his father led to tensions with the prime minister
While he was Prince of Wales, George’s residence in London, Leicester House, turned into something of a rival court and the base for a dissident Whig faction opposed to George I’s policies. Among them was Sir Robert Walpole.
It was Walpole who encouraged a reconciliation between the king and his son, for which he was rewarded with royal favour and a ministerial position. He would be the first official prime minister. But the young George, who had agreed to the reconciliation reluctantly, came to believe that Walpole had tricked him in order to seize power for himself. When George became king, he wanted to dismiss Walpole entirely, but Caroline persuaded him not to. And he was surely thankful for that: Walpole, eager to earn the new king’s favour, granted an extravagant civil list (an annual allowance to the crown) of £800,000.
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Music, architecture and education received his patronage
In 1737, George founded the first university in the Electorate of Hanover, which still bears his name as the Georg August University of Gottingen, and it was during his reign that the charter for two major US institutions were issued: King’s College in New York, which became Columbia; and the College of New Jersey, now called Princeton.
A lover of music, especially the opera, George became the patron for the German composer George Friedrich Handel. For George’s coronation in 1727, Handel composed Zadok the Priest – as well as three other so-called Coronation Anthems – which has been performed at the anointing of every new monarch since. George then commissioned Handel to compose another piece, Music for the Royal Fireworks, to celebrate the end of the War of the Austrian Succession and the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748.
Both George and Caroline shared an interest in architecture. Under their direction, the gardens of Kensington Palace and Hyde Park were extended, which included the creation of the Round Pond and the Serpentine lake. Names like Charles Bridgeman, a pioneer of naturalistic landscape gardening, and William Kent, the architect involved in the refurbishment of Kensington Palace, would help define the Georgian architectural style.
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George liked his elaborate wigs
While the Georgians are famous for their oversized powdered wigs, George II especially favoured elaborate hairpieces of long, white, curly locks that extended well below his shoulders. The style grew in popularity during his reign as a result. Wigs were a status symbol for the wealthy – the bigger the wig, the richer the owner.
Although, George was not always careful with his headgear: when throwing a tantrum, something he was liable to do, he would kick his hat or stamp on his wig. Once George’s grandson, George III, took the throne, wigs began to shrink to match the style seen in France.
His marriage went ahead after he had visited his bride-to-be in disguise
In 1705, George became involved in marriage negotiations with Caroline of Ansbach, the former ward of his aunt. It was a sound match politically, but it seemed that George wished to know something about her first. He visited the Ansbach court under a false name so that he could see what she was like.
Besotted by her charming character, good manners and beauty, he agreed to the marriage contract within a month and the pair were married in Hanover in September 1705. Despite having several mistresses during his life, it could be said that George was devoted to Caroline. When she became gravely ill with smallpox in 1707, George stayed by her bedside even though that meant he contracted the disease himself.
The king and queen had a son, Frederick, and then five daughters and two more sons, but complications with the final birth in 1724 would eventually lead to her death, when her strangulated bowel burst, in 1737. When she urged George to remarry after she was gone, he reportedly exclaimed: “No! I shall have mistresses!” Indeed, the king never remarried.
Like his relationship with his father, George II did not get on with his heir
When George and Caroline came to Britain in 1714, their eldest son Frederick remained in Hanover. They did not meet again for 14 years, until George was king. The 21-year-old Frederick quarrelled openly with his father and became the leader of a faction at court that opposed the administration. By 1742, the opposition had gained enough popularity that it was able to force Prime Minister Robert Walpole to resign.
George was not along in his dislike for Frederick. It was an opinion shared with the boy’s own mother Caroline too, allegedly once saying of him: “There he goes, that wretch, that villain! I wish the ground would open this moment and sink the monster to the lowest hole in hell.”
George does not have a major monument celebrating his reign
After 33 years on the throne, George II died on 25 October 1760 shortly before turning 77. Frederick had predeceased him, so his grandson George inherited the throne. Despite the poor reputation of his usual historical legacy, George II made some considerable achievements during his reign, such as being the last reigning British sovereign to lead an army personally when he fought at the battle of Dettingen in 1743.
Also, the monarchy survived the Jacobite rebellion of 1745, when the ‘Young Pretender’ Charles Edward Stuart, better known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, invaded England to overthrow the Hanoverian regime.
Yet no grand or magnificent memorial exists for the second King George. Inside Westminster Abbey is a large statue of Handel, a recipient of George’s patronage, but for George himself is nothing other than a small tile on the floor of the Lady Chapel. Below that spot he is buried alongside his wife, Caroline. It was his wish that the sides of their coffins be removed so that their remains could mix and be together forevermore.
These facts were partially excerpted from an interview with Norman Davies, Professor Emeritus of the University of London, who authored George II: Not Just A British Monarch (2021), part of the Penguin Monarchs series
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