Hello, I'm Wilson Pruitt, and you are listening to the History of Methodism Podcast. Today’s episode: King George I.
In 1714, the same year that John Wesley left his family home in Epworth to attend the Charterhouse School in Surrey, England, Queen Anne died without a living heir (her only son, Prince William, had died in 1700). The politics of exactly who would succeed her were exceedingly complicated. Her half-brother, James Francis Stuart, had the greater claim to the thrown by birth, but the Act of Settlement of 1701 had demanded that the English monarch be a protestant and James was Catholic. There were forces that wished to convince James to convert to the Church of England, but his main supporters in France and Spain did not. England had signed a separate peace with France in 1712 which some thought could be a precursor the succession of James Francis.
The other claimant was Georg Ludwig of Brunswick-Lüneburg, whose mother Sophia was the daughter of Frederick V, Elector of Palatine, and Elizabeth Stuart, daughter of James I of England. George had been educated at home by his mother and was fluent in several modern and ancient languages. He was also an accomplished soldier, having fought with his father in the Great Turkish War of the 1680s.
During the Wars of Spanish Succession, George had befriended the Duke of Marlborough (who you may remember from previous episodes), who led the Anglo-Dutch armies during the war. Marlborough had been instrumental in the Glorious Revolution which had put William III on the thrown, and Marlborough helped to pave the way for his friend to claim the thrown of England. George had also influenced the union of England and Scotland, which he knew would strengthen his own claim to the thrown, since his grandmother, Elizabeth Stuart, had been born before James had been named King of England. It was not a surprise to George when he was declared King. It was, instead, the culmination of many years of political maneuverings.
John Wesley described the royal transition, in his History of England Volume IV, in the following way.
The queen (Anne) had no sooner resigned her last breath, than the privy-council met, and three instruments were produced, by which the elector appointed several of his known adherents to be added as lords justices to the seven great offices of the kingdom . Orders also were immediately issued out for proclaiming George king of England, Scotland and Ireland.1
There ended up being little controversy in the matter. James Francis Stuart tried to invade in the 1715 uprising which I described in Episode 22, but it was quashed quickly. The army knew and respected George. Many of the nobles also knew and respected George, and so after 1715, there was little to challenge his reign or the incredible expansion of English wealth at this time.
John Wesley introduces George in the following way.
His mature age, he being now fifty-four years old , his sagacity and experience, his numerous alliances, the general tranquility of Europe, all contributed to establish his interests, and to promise him a peaceable and happy reign . His virtues, though not shining, were solid. Soon after his arrival in England, he was heard to say ; " My maxim is, never to abandon my friends : to do Justice to all the world, and to fear no man ." To these qualifications of resolution and perseverance, he joined great application to business. However, one fault with respect to England remained behind ; he studied the interests of those subjects he had left, more than of those he came to govern.2
George was not a person of totally upright character. He divorced his wife, Sophia Dorothea (who was also his first cousin), which was not as bad as imprisoning her for the rest of her life. They had two children together: George Augustus (the future George II of Great Britain) and Sophia Dorothea (the future Queen of Prussia and mother of Frederick the Great). After the divorce and imprisonment, George lived openly with his mistress, Melusine von der Schulenburg, from 1698 until his death in 1727, throughout his reign as king.
When George became king, in 1714, he was a wealthy man from his estates on the continent. This allowed him to be less dependent relationship upon the Parliament for every need he would come across. Still, the England he came to was as great deal more prosperous than the England of 1688. As Ragnhild Hatton writes:
“William III had been a hard taskmaster at the treasury; he and his pupils, as well as French Protestant refugees and Dutch-trained bankers, had brought about the ‘financial revolution’ which enabled Britain to fit out large navies and pay considerable armies (the greater part of which consisted of foreign auxiliary troops) with less stress than was imposed on Louis XIV's France.”
“Its eight and a half million inhabitants were not impressive; but its trade was highly profitable thanks to its favourable geographical position, its colonial possessions and overseas trading posts and, even more, to its skillful manipulation of navigation laws which gave preference, and monopoly when and where it was judged necessary, to British ships and British citizens.5 The wars against France had given impetus to manufactures of all kinds, and towns like Manchester and Birmingham were thriving. Though the domestic market was the more important, exports continued to rise for a greater variety of goods than the pre-war dominant woollen cloth. The slave-contract obtained from Spain in 1713 led to rapid development for western ports, especially Bristol;”3
This increase in national wealth led to two rival camps of foreign policy before and during the reign of George I. One camp looked to war and colonial conquest to increase national wealth and power. The other sought peace. This side came out of the landed classes whose taxes supported the wars. Wesley was not a fan of either camp. He wrote, concerning the politics of court during the reign of George I, the following.
It was [George’s] misfortune, that he was hemmed round by men who soured him with all their own prejudices. None but the leaders of a party were now admitted into employment. The Whigs, while they pretended to secure the crown for their king, were with all possible arts confirming their own interests, extending their connexions, and giving laws to their sovereign. An instantaneous and total change was made in all the offices of trust, honor, or advantage. The Whigs governed the senate and the court; whom they would, they oppressed ; bound the lower orders of people with severe laws, and kept them at a distance by vile distinctions; and then taught them to call this—Liberty.4
This became even worse, in Wesley’s view, after the quashing of the Jacobite uprising. Wesley writes,
The king himself being a foreigner, and ignorant of the laws and constitution of the country, was kept under the controul of his ministers.5
In foreign affairs, though, even Wesley would admit that George I was active in judiciously pursuing the interests of England, Scotland, and Ireland. In 1717, George signed a treaty with France and the Dutch Republic against Spain. Later, the Hapsburgs were added to this treaty. In 1718, the War of the Quadruple Alliance began, with Philip V of Spain attempting to regain Spanish territory in Italy that had been lost in the Peace of Utrecht of 1713, which had ended the War of Spanish Succession.
During this war, in 1719, Spain attempted to land an army in Scotland in order to support James Francis Stuart, but the fleet was dispersed at sea and only 300 marines were able to land.
One of the more contentious moments of George I’s reign took place in 1720 with the bursting of the South Sea Bubble. The South Sea Company had been created in 1711 and then granted a monopoly on the Spanish slave trade in 1714. Because of war with Spain, the company was never able to generate a profit, even though the stock price went up, creating an economic Bubble which burst in 1720. Thousands of investors were ruined and the government and king took a huge hit with public support. Isaac Newton even owned stock in the company and when asked about it, he said, “that he could not calculate the madness of people.”6
John Wesley was at Oxford at the time the South Sea Bubble burst, and so probably knew classmates whose families had become impoverished by the Bubble.
Sir Robert Walpole, a vital figure in the history of England, was Lord of the Treasury at the time the bubble burst, and he skillfully navigated the country through the financial turmoil and away from any new protracted wars. This led to peace, at home and abroad, during the last 7 years of George I’s reign. Even though George didn’t have a great relationship with his son, George Augustus, there was no doubt about who would succeed him.
Throughout the 13 years he was king, George returned to Hanover numerous times. It was on his 6th journey in June of 1727 that George became sick and died in Osnabrück. He was buried in the Leine Palace in Hanover. George II was declared King of Great Britain and Ireland, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg, and Prince-Elector of the Holy Roman Empire in June 11, 1727.
The reign of George I had covered most of John Wesley’s formal education, from boarding school through Oxford and his election as a fellow of Lincoln College. Wesley’s memory of George was mostly positive. He writes.
George I was plain and simple in his person and address; grave and composed in his deportmant, though easy, familiar, and facetious in his hours of relaxing…With these qualities, it cannot be doubted that he came to England extremely well disposed to govern his new subjects, according to the maxims of the British constitution, and the genius of the people: and, if ever he seemed to deviate from these principles, we may take it for granted, that he was misled by the venal suggestions of a ministry, whose power and influence were founded on corruption.
The reign of George I covered an extraordinarily formative time for Great Britain, the Church of England, and for John Wesley. In order to better understand what was going on in the Church of England at this time, we will have an interview with Dr. Ryan Danker, who is the Director of the John Wesley Institute in Washington, DC, and the author of Wesley and the Anglicans: Political Division in Early Evangelicalism. Next time on the History of Methodism Podcast.
Ragnhild Hatton, George I: Elector and King (London: Thames and Hudson, 1978).
Joseph Spence, Anecdotes, Observations, and Characters, of Books and Men (1820)
John Wesley, The History of England Vol. 4