George I (May 28, 1660 – June 11, 1727) was King of Great Britain and Ireland from August 1, 1714 and ruler of the Duchy and Imperial Electorate of Brunswick-Lüneburg (Hanover) within the Holy Roman Empire from January 23, 1698 until his death in 1727. He was the first British monarch of the House of Hanover.
George Louis was born on May 28, 1660 in the city of Hanover in the Duchy of Brunswick-Lüneburg in the Holy Roman Empire. He was the eldest son of Ernst August, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg, and his wife, Sophia of the Palatinate.
Sophia was the granddaughter of King James I-VI of England, Scotland and Ireland through her mother, Elizabeth Stuart, Queen of Bohemia, the wife of Elector Friedrich V of the Palatinate, who was briefly King of Bohemia.
George in 1680, aged 20, when he was Prince of Hanover. After a painting by Sir Godfrey Kneller.
For the first year of his life, George was the only heir to the German territories of his father and three childless uncles. George’s brother, Frederick Augustus, was born in 1661, and were brought up together. Sophia bore Ernst August another four sons and a daughter. In her letters, Sophia describes George as a responsible, conscientious child who set an example to his younger brothers and sisters.
By 1675 George’s eldest uncle had died without issue, but his remaining two uncles had married, putting George’s inheritance in jeopardy as his uncles’ estates might pass to their own sons, should they have had any, instead of to George.
In 1679 another uncle died unexpectedly without sons, and Ernst August became reigning Duke of Calenberg-Göttingen, with his capital at Hanover.
George’s surviving uncle, Georg Wilhelm of Celle, had married, morganatically his mistress, Eléonore Desmier d’Olbreuse (1639–1722), Lady of Harburg, a French Huguenot noblewoman, in order to legitimise his only daughter, Sophia Dorothea, but looked unlikely to have any further children. Sophia Dorothea appears to have grown up in a carefree and loving environment.
Under Salic law, where inheritance of territory was restricted to the male line, the succession of George and his brothers to the territories of their father and uncle now seemed secure. However, in 1682, the family agreed to adopt the principle of primogeniture, meaning George would inherit all the territory and not have to share it with his brothers.
The same year, George married his first cousin, Sophia Dorothea of Celle, thereby securing additional incomes that would have been outside Salic laws. The marriage of state was arranged primarily as it ensured a healthy annual income and assisted the eventual unification of Hanover and Celle.
His mother at first opposed the marriage because she looked down on Sophia Dorothea’s mother, Eleonore (who came from lower nobility), and because she was concerned by Sophia Dorothea’s legitimated status. She was eventually won over by the advantages inherent in the marriage.
George, Elector of Hanover, Duke of Brunswick-Lüenburg in 1705.
In 1683 George and his brother Frederick Augustus served in the Great Turkish War at the Battle of Vienna, and Sophia Dorothea bore George a son, George Augustus. The following year, Frederick Augustus was informed of the adoption of primogeniture, meaning he would no longer receive part of his father’s territory as he had expected.
This led to a breach between Frederick Augustus and his father, and between the brothers, that lasted until his death in battle in 1690. With the imminent formation of a single Hanoverian state, and the Hanoverians’ continuing contributions to the Empire’s wars, Ernst August was made an Imperial Elector of the Holy Roman Empire in 1692. George’s prospects were now better than ever as the sole heir to his father’s electorate and his uncle’s duchy.
Sophia Dorothea had a second child, a daughter named after her, in 1687, but there were no other pregnancies. The couple became estranged—George preferred the company of his mistress, Melusine von der Schulenburg, and Sophia Dorothea had her own romance with the Swedish Count Philip Christoph von Königsmarck.
Threatened with the scandal of an elopement, the Hanoverian court, including George’s brothers and mother, urged the lovers to desist, but to no avail. According to diplomatic sources from Hanover’s enemies, in July 1694 the Swedish count was killed, possibly with George’s connivance, and his body thrown into the river Leine weighted with stones.
Sophia Dorothea of Celle, Electress of Hanover, Duchess of Brunswick-Lüenburg with her two children George Augustus and Sophia Dorothea
The murder was claimed to have been committed by four of Ernest Augustus’s courtiers, one of whom, Don Nicolò Montalbano, was paid the enormous sum of 150,000 thalers, about one hundred times the annual salary of the highest-paid minister.
Later rumours supposed that Königsmarck was hacked to pieces and buried beneath the Hanover palace floorboards. However, sources in Hanover itself, including Sophia, denied any knowledge of Königsmarck’s whereabouts.
George’s marriage to Sophia Dorothea was dissolved, not on the grounds that either of them had committed adultery, but on the grounds that Sophia Dorothea had abandoned her husband. With her father’s agreement, George had Sophia Dorothea imprisoned in Ahlden House in her native Celle, where she stayed until she died more than thirty years later.
She was denied access to her children and father, forbidden to remarry and only allowed to walk unaccompanied within the mansion courtyard. She was, however, endowed with an income, establishment, and servants, and allowed to ride in a carriage outside her castle under supervision.
Melusine von der Schulenburg acted as George’s hostess openly from 1698 until his death, and they had three daughters together, born in 1692, 1693 and 1701.
Ernst August died on January 23, 1698, leaving all of his territories to George with the exception of the Prince-Bishopric of Osnabrück, an office he had held since 1661. George thus became Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg (also known as Hanover, after its capital) as well as Archbannerbearer and a Prince-Elector of the Holy Roman Empire. His court in Hanover was graced by many cultural icons such as the mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Leibniz and the composers George Frideric Händel and Agostino Steffani.
Within a few years of George’s accession to his paternal duchy, Prince William, Duke of Gloucester, the only Surviving son of future Queen Anne of England, Scotland and Ireland and her husband, Prince George of Denmark, died on July 30, 1700.
Prince William, Duke of Gloucester
Prince William, Duke of Gloucester had been second-in-line to the English, Scottish and Irish thrones. By the terms of the English Act of Settlement 1701, George’s mother, Sophia, was designated as the heir to the English throne if the then reigning monarch, William III, and his sister-in-law, Anne, died without surviving issue.
The succession was so designed because Sophia was the closest Protestant relative of the British royal family. Fifty-six Catholics with superior hereditary claims were bypassed. The likelihood of any of them converting to Protestantism for the sake of the succession was remote; some had already refused.
In August 1701 George was invested with the Order of the Garter and, within six weeks, the nearest Catholic claimant to the thrones, the former King James II-VII, died. William III died the following March and was succeeded by Anne.
Sophia became heiress presumptive to the new Queen of England. Sophia was in her seventy-first year, thirty-five years older than Anne, but she was very fit and healthy and invested time and energy in securing the succession either for herself or for her son.
However, it was George who understood the complexities of English politics and constitutional law, which required further acts in 1705 to naturalise Sophia and her heirs as English subjects, and to detail arrangements for the transfer of power through a Regency Council.
In the same year, George’s surviving uncle and former father-in-law Georg Wilhelm, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg died on August 28, 1705, and he inherited further German dominions: the Principality of Lüneburg-Grubenhagen, centred at Celle.
George I, King of Great Britain and Ireland, Elector of Hanover and Duke of Brunswick-Lüenburg
Though both England and Scotland recognised Anne as their queen, only the Parliament of England had settled on Sophia, Electress of Hanover, as the heir presumptive. The Parliament of Scotland (the Estates) had not formally settled the succession question for the Scottish throne.
In 1703, the Estates passed a bill declaring that their selection for Queen Anne’s successor would not be the same individual as the successor to the English throne, unless England granted full freedom of trade to Scottish merchants in England and its colonies.
At first Royal Assent was withheld, but the following year Anne capitulated to the wishes of the Estates and assent was granted to the bill, which became the Act of Security 1704.
In response the English Parliament passed the Alien Act 1705, which threatened to restrict Anglo-Scottish trade and cripple the Scottish economy if the Estates did not agree to the Hanoverian succession.
Eventually, in 1707, both Parliaments agreed on a Treaty of Union, which united England and Scotland into a single political entity, the Kingdom of Great Britain, and established the rules of succession as laid down by the Act of Settlement 1701. The union created the largest free trade area in 18th-century Europe.
Whig politicians believed Parliament had the right to determine the succession, and to bestow it on the nearest Protestant relative of the Queen, while many Tories were more inclined to believe in the hereditary right of the Catholic Stuarts, who were nearer relations.
In 1710, George announced that he would succeed in Britain by hereditary right, as the right had been removed from the Stuarts, and he retained it. “This declaration was meant to scotch any Whig interpretation that parliament had given him the kingdom [and] … convince the Tories that he was no usurper.”
George’s mother, the Electress Sophia, died on May 28, 1714 at the age of 83. She had collapsed in the gardens at Herrenhausen after rushing to shelter from a rain shower. George was now Queen Anne’s heir presumptive.
He swiftly revised the membership of the Regency Council that would take power after Anne’s death, as it was known that Anne’s health was failing and politicians in Britain were jostling for power.
Queen Anne of Great Britain and Ireland suffered a stroke, which left her unable to speak, and she died on August 1, 1714. The list of regents was opened, the members sworn in, and George was proclaimed King of Great Britain and King of Ireland.
George I, King of Great Britain and Ireland, Elector of Hanover and Duke of Brunswick-Lüenburg
Partly due to contrary winds, which kept him in The Hague awaiting passage, the new King George of Great Britain and Ireland did not arrive in Britain until September 18.
King George was crowned at Westminster Abbey on October 20, 1714. His coronation was accompanied by rioting in over twenty towns in England.
George mainly lived in Great Britain after 1714, though he visited his home in Hanover in 1716, 1719, 1720, 1723 and 1725; in total George spent about one fifth of his reign as king in Germany.
A clause in the Act of Settlement that forbade the British monarch from leaving the country without Parliament’s permission was unanimously repealed in 1716.
During all but the first of the king’s absences power was vested in a Regency Council rather than in his son, George Augustus, Prince of Wales.