After the amorphous turmoil of the previous century, with its civil war, Regicide and Reformation, the Georgian era was a magical time for Britain. British society was dragged into modernity as agriculture and industry were revolutionised, and the iron foundations of Empire were erected.
Culture blossomed as literary giants such as Charles Dickens , Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott rose to prominence. The Westminster Model of parliament took shape, with Sir Robert Walpole holding office as the first prime minister – he didn’t officially hold that title, but the job description was the equal of it. Britain’s social fabric became more progressive. The slave trade was abolished.
But Georgian Britain was not without crisis. War and economic nightmares amplified tensions throughout the period. From King George I’s coronation in 1714, to the death of King George IV in the summer of 1830, wars with Napoleon Bonaparte’s France and rebellion at home added a fraught backdrop for this bold period of change.
To a degree, the Reformation determined the Georgian era. The 1701 Act Of Settlement preserved the monarchy’s position as head of the Church Of England in the judicious aspic of statute law. Paranoia that subsequent monarchs may cede the church’s doctrinal independence to Rome was still rife. In some quarters, the defeated Stewart line was still the legitimate succession for the British throne. This belief sired the Jacobite Rebellions of the late 17th Century, 1715 and 1719.
Born on the 28th May 1660, the son of the Duke Of Brunswick-Lüneberg, George I was a bona fide German. He couldn’t speak English. But he was the great-grandson of James I , and he was a Protestant. When William III and Queen Anne died without issue, he was the closest Protestant heir. The last fact may have courted favour amongst the ecclesiastical arm of British society, but not all were enamoured of the foreign ruler. George I was crowned on the 20th October 1714. The first issue he had to contend with was a Jacobite insurgency.
On the 6th September 1715, with James Stewart exiled in France, onetime Unionist John Erskine , 6th Earl Of Mar, raised the Stewart standard at Braemar and recruited an army of Highlanders, their ranks bolstered with support from Irish Guards and dissenting Scottish Lowlanders. The 12,000 strong Jacobite army took Perth and headed south towards Stirling . To take Stirling, the very cradle of Scottish patriotism, would have galvinised the movement. But the Duke Of Argyll headed Mar’s men off at Sheriffmuir . In the cold of a Scottish winter, Argyll’s men, though outnumbered, repelled the Jacobites, killing their momentum and sending the uprising into hibernation.
Back in parliament, a man by the name of Robert Walpole, a Whig, was making startling progress in a political landscape which was being increasingly polarised by party politics as the Tories and Whigs fought it out for ideological supremacy. In eight years, Walpole had risen from relative obscurity to treasurer of the Navy. With their opposition to Jacobitism, the Whigs were favoured by the King: Walpole was already in George I’s good books. But another slice of good fortune helped him to reach the summit of British politics and preside over the King’s cabinet.
The South Sea Company was set up in 1711 as Lord Treasurer Robert Harley was granted exclusive trading rights with Spanish America. With huge potential, investors threw money at the venture. It was a speculative proposition; success depended on the result of the War Of Spanish Succession. In 1720, shares in the company collapsed. The South Sea Bubble as it was known, lost the government and aristocracy a fortune. Through luck or good judgement, Walpole lost nothing. It was enough to convince the King of his fiscal wisdom. Amid spiralling discontent, with George I shouldering much of the blame for the company’s collapse and the subsequent economic hardships that resonated throughout the country, Walpole was made Paymaster General that year, and by the next he was effectively prime minister .
George I died in Hanover on the 11th June 1727. An unpopular figure, whose personal life and lack of ‘Englishness’ did nothing to endear him to the populace, he nonetheless left a legacy of parliamentary sovereignty. Though any hope that his successor, George II , would be more anglicised were unfounded – he too struggled with the language. But if he had trouble conjugating a verb, he had no bother attracting funds. The £800,000 civil list afforded to him by Walpole’s administration allowed him to live like no king had lived before.
In many ways, granting the king a riches was the only way for Walpole to keep the king onside. It wasn’t all one way; in 1835 the King gave Walpole Number 10 Downing Street. For though George I afforded Walpole a degree of autonomy, George II viewed Walpole as an ally of his father’s. If it wasn’t for the affection afforded to Walpole by Queen Caroline, he may not have had such latitude over government business. Their relationship was one of fraught symbiosis.
Walpole’s influence couldn’t prevent Britain from careering into European conflict. First, in 1739, the War Of Jenkins’ Ear brought Britain into war with Spain. The ‘ear’ in question belonged to Robert Jenkins, who alleged that the Spanish had relieved him of it in the South Seas. As was the fashion with warfare, another conflict inhaled this grievance and applied it to a broader international context. The Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI died the following year, leaving a crisis of succession. His daughter could not inherit his throne, and the Austrian War Of Succession invited most of Europe to the party.
Walpole’s more hawkish rivals in parliament eventually forced him to resign in 1742. He was replaced by Spencer Compton, 1st Earl Of Wilmington, before Henry Pelham took Wilmington’s place the following year. All of which did not hugely affect George II’s policy making. His confidant was Lord Carteret, a man who had a profound phobia of France’s potential power in European politics. Cavalier in some respects, George II at least took part in some European action, leading his troops to victory at Dettingen, becoming the last monarch to fight in battle. At home, this gallantry failed to convince the public that their second German speaking monarch had Britain’s interests at the top of his agenda. They had a point. Jacobitism, that simmering grievance that was missing presumed dead after the desultory rebellion of 1719, was about to rear its head once more. Charles Edward Stewart – The Young Pretender – landed on British shores and readied an army that so nearly changed history.
Bonnie Prince Charlie , as he was known, was James I’s son. After spending an exiled youth in France, he arrived home in 1745 to reclaim his right to the throne. He made a hurried campaign in the Highlands , raised men and his father’s standard at Glenfinnan . The Jacobites marched south. For a time they were relentless. There was panic in London that the rebels had travelled as far south as Derby . But with poor military intelligence, Stewart lead his men on a retreat. The Duke Of Cumberland was waiting. Hounded across the Highlands, on the 16th April 1746, Jacobitism died on the heavy fields of Culloden . It was a rout, one from which Scotland took centuries to recover from. The last battle to be fought on the British mainland was decisive – Jacobitism was relegated to romantic ideology, the Stewart line was finished.
Two years later, the Austrian War Of Succession was over. But the Seven Year’s War succeeded it and killed over a million people. The same Mary Theresa, whose right to rule Austria Britain had fought in the previous decade, had made an alliance with the French and the Russians. Again fears for the King’s homeland saw Britain march on Europe. British soldiers would be forgiven for cursing their King’s Hanoverian loyalties.
While barbarism on the battlefield marked the country’s foreign policy, there were more meritorious events going on at home. In 1755, Samuel Johnson published his Dictionary Of The English Language. The Staffordshire man left an enduring impression on the English language. The textiles industry was embracing new methods: John Kay ’s 1733 invention of the flying shuttle expedited the weaving process, while Richard Arkwright was working on a powered loom, the spinning frame – though we wouldn’t see it in action until 1768.
George II’s reign ended when he died in his bathroom on the 25th October 1760. Having outlived his son, Frederick, his grandson, George, became king. After two German sovereigns, the new King was more like it. George III was the first Hanoverian king to be born in Britain. Moreover, he could speak English. He inherited a realm which had looked upon land ownership as the key to agricultural prosperity. The Industrial Revolution had made great strides in rationalising the nation’s production. The population was rising. The economy was becoming more efficient. But the roads were terrible. Turnpike trusts were set up to alleviate the problem. George III was roundly welcomed, but he soon found himself politically isolated.
Economic woes were gnawing away at the country’s morale. The Seven Years’ War was exacerbating the situation. George III’s mentor, the Earl Of Bute, was a bad choice. A Tory and a Scotsman, he had too many enemies in parliament, too many agendas to guard against. Bute resigned on a high; surrendering his position after the 1763 Treaty Of Paris brought an end to the Seven Years’ War and secured peace with Spain and France. He was replaced by the Whigs under George Grenville. In introducing Stamp Duty in 1765 he not only outraged publishers in the UK, momentarily halting the rise of the newspaper, but the American Colonies on the North-eastern seaboard went into open rebellion. They questioned where their taxes were going. Stamp Duty was hated. But like Grenville, it didn’t last too long.
1770, and Lord Frederick North was prime minister. Dissent was spreading in the American colonies. Stamp duty was unpopular, but the government argued that taxes were the cost of maintaining the colonies and protecting them from attacks from Native Americans. The Americans remained unconvinced. When Stamp Duty was repealed, taxes were levied on tea instead. In 1773, American colonists unloaded a cargo of tea into the sea at Boston. The Boston Tea Party, as the incident became known, was a defining moment in the growing enmity between the colonists and the British government. The American Revolution arrived two years later. On the 4th July 1776, America had declared her independence. North officially lost the colonies in 1781, the British defeat prompting his resignation. The whole affair profoundly hurt the King.
Britain’s reinvention carried on at pace. Adam Smith ’s ‘Wealth Of Nations’ was published in 1776. Steam power was developing and Britain’s constitutional problems manifested themselves once more with the Irish Rebellion of 1789, and the North-Fox coalition controlling parliamentary affairs. Charles James Fox, foreign secretary, and North were hated by the King. Even though George III agreed with some of their policies – like those concerning India – he undermined them, pressurising statesmen with the threat of withdrawing peerages. George III’s interference was abhorred by parliament. But he succeeded in forcing the North-Fox coalition into resignation. Enter Britain’s youngest prime minister, aged 24.
William Pitt was the man to lead government and protect the King from the Whiggish Fox. When Pitt was defeated in parliament in 1783, George III threatened to abdicate his throne. Their relationship would not always be so profoundly solid. Pitt The Younger as he became known, (his father the Earl Of Chatham earned the name, Pitt The Elder), had his work cut out. The America Revolution had emptied the nation’s purse. Income tax was introduced and there was a movement towards legitimising the economy, with customs and excise to tackle the problems of smuggling and fraud.
In 1793, France declared war on Britain. The French Revolution resonated strongly in Ireland, where the 1798 rebellion lead a coalition of republicans, dissenters and radicals in an armed campaign to repel the British administration. Napoleon Bonaparte had promised to send troops to bolster the uprising but bad weather prevented them from landing. The uprising was chaotic, falling someway short of its goals. As one of its leaders, the Protestant lawyer Theobald Wolfe Tone, cut his own throat to cheat the hangman, Britain and Ireland became united in the 1800 Act Of Union.
The United Kingdom Of Great Britain And Ireland was in its infancy when Pitt resigned, to be replaced by Henry Addington in the row over Catholic Emancipation. George III conferred no restoration of civil liberties to the country’s Catholics and Pitt was out. Not only was he out, but Addington started to reverse his policies; income tax was abolished, emancipation was erased from the agenda as he sought to reshape the country. An uneasy peace with France was achieved through the Treaty Of Amiens. It didn’t last. Invasion paranoia was grounded in the reality that Napoleonic France was indeed planning an attack on British shores.
In 1805, Admiral Horatio Nelson saved Britain from the French, in triumphing over Villeneuve’s men at the Battle Of Trafalgar . Victory was a decisive, sending what remained of the French fleet back to Cadiz, ending Napoleon’s offensive. By the end of the battle, nineteen enemy ships had been taken, and Britain’s hero, Lord Nelson was fatally wounded.
The King’s ailing health was a huge problem. In 1811, he agreed to the Regency Act that saw the Prince Of Wales assume the King’s duties. Suffering from what is thought now to have been porphyria, George III spent his final days in torment and seclusion at Windsor Castle .
King George IV was the eldest son of George III. He was something of a rebel, marrying a Catholic in 1785, and associating with the Whigs to the consternation of his father. On the 29th January 1820 he became King after a successful Regency which saw off the threat of Napoleon Bonaparte. He was a roly-poly ruler, with a love of the good life and an appreciation of the arts. Indeed, for all his love of the bottle and the female form, he was an enthusiastic and intelligent patron of the arts.
Under his rule, Britain saw its first passenger locomotive service as the Stockton-Darlington railway opened for business in 1825. George IV became the first British King to visit Scotland since the 17th Century. His influence over the country’s politics waned as his health deteriorated and his waist expanded. His taste for literature put him in contact with Sir Walter Scott, the man who popularised historical literature with works such as ‘The Waverley’. Having dined together in 1815, it is ironic that Scott, a former Jacobite sympathiser, should make the acquaintance of the Hanoverian Regent.
After George IV died on the 26th June 1830, at Windsor Castle, his son, Prince William, Duke Of Clarence, became King William IV , and the Georgian era ended. When it began, Britain was country yet to embrace democracy, and lived an agrarian existence under the twin threats of war in Europe and political dissent at home. When it ended, Britain’s appetite for industry had been whetted. Party politics became more pronounced The country would become the world’s factory: powered by coal and steam, Britain would cast an Empire that would last for the next 100 years.
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