Reproduced from Majesty Magazine, Volume 31, number 4, April 2010, pp. 26-30...
In her hugely engaging book about the men and women who lived and worked at Kensington Palace, LUCY WORSLEY, chief curator at Historic Royal Palaces, throws new light on the dramatic lives of George II and Queen Caroline.
King George II has an entirely undeserved reputation for being deadly dull.
Hot-blooded and passionate, our second Hanoverian monarch was a courageous soldier and a writer of stirring love-letters.
While I was researching George II’s life for my book Courtiers, The Secret History of Kensington Palace, I discovered that he also had terrible temper tantrums, during which he would kick his hat and even his wig around the room.
Over time, though, I began to feel some sympathy for the crosspatch king. I came to believe that the key to his grumpy character lies in the trials he endured as Princeof Wales, long before coming to the throne in 1726 at the age of 42.
The future George II inherited throne through a strange turn of events. Born in 1683 as Georg August, son of the Elector of Hanover, he was heir to nothing more than a sleepy German state. But his life was transformed when his family was summoned to London in 1714.
There, Queen Anne’s death had ended the Stuart line. Despite enduring 17 pregnancies, not one of the queen’s children outlived her. So her nearest Protestant relative, Georg Ludwig, Elector of Hanover, was drafted in to become King George I, and his son Georg August became Prince of Wales.
But many British people did not want a new royal family, and the Hanoverian dynasty would clearly have to work hard to win over their new subjects. It was an uphill struggle. For a start, George I had great difficulty with English: he could only speak it very slowly, and with typically German errors in grammar. (‘It was their own faults’, for example).
The new Prince of Wales’sown difficulties with the English language led to a catastrophic quarrel which, as well as causing lasting psychological damage to the future king, nearly destabilised the youthful Hanoverian monarchy.
It all began in November 1717, when the Prince’s second son, another George, was born. King George I selected the Duke of Newcastle to be the baby’s godfather. The Prince of Wales would not have chosen the duke himself, but he grudgingly gave in to his father’s request.
So the duke turned up in the baby’s bedroom for the christening, butsomehow he came away from the event with the impression that the Prince had challenged him to a duel!
Although the Prince had better English than his father’s, it was still far from perfect. He compensated for any mistakes by speaking very loudly, yet failed to eliminate his ‘bluff Westphalian accent’.
The day following the christening, King George I sent messengers to his son, asking if there was any truth in the outrageous reports he had received.
Was it the case, he asked, that the prince ‘had said to the Duke of Newcastle these words: You Rascal I will fight you’?
The prince didn’t deny that he’d called the duke a rascal. But he answered angrily that he’d said ‘You Rascal I will find you’. He had wanted to find, notfight, the Duke, he explained, in order to give him a tongue-lashing.
Although this was a silly misunderstanding, the prince would not apologise, and the king would not forgive. George I now expelled his son and daughter-in-law from their apartments at St James’s Palace, turning them out on the street.
What was even worse, the king also insisted that the Prince and Princess of Wales’s children, their three young daughters and baby boy, were all to stay behind.
So, on 2 December 1717, the royal couple left their home and were parted from their beloved children. According to the Duchess of Orléans, a relative, the Princess of Wales ‘went into one faint after another when her weeping little Princesses said goodbye’.
Gossip about these events flashed through the courts of Europe, with the Duchess of Orléans stridently taking the side of the Waleses: ‘The King of England is really cruel to the Princess of Wales. Although she has done nothing, he has taken her children away from her’.
Something even more dreadful would follow. Early in 1718, King George I planned his court’s move to the summer palace of Kensington.
At Kensington Palace, though, the king’s baby grandson developed a cough and ‘straitness of breathing’. After a short illness, he ‘fell into convulsions’ and died. Orders were placed for a pitiful amount of black velvet, just ‘sufficient to cover the coffin’ of a baby.
The Princess of Wales was utterly distraught; perhaps if she had swallowed her pride and convinced her husband to make up the quarrel with his father, her infant son would still be alive. Or at least he might have died in her care.
Parting a mother from her tiny baby appears to be outrageously over-the-top punishment for a petty breach of etiquette. But in fact there were hidden, deeper reasons for the bad feeling between king and prince.
The explanation lies in the sad fate of Prince George’s mother, Sophia, who had long been imprisoned in a remote German castle. During Prince George’s childhood, his mother had embarked upon a prolonged, flagrant and ultimately doomed affair with a Swedish count.
Her grand passion came to a dark and horrible end. One night in 1694, Sophia’s lover was creeping towards her room along the shadowy corridors of the riverside Leine Palace at the heart of the old city of Hanover. Suddenly he was ambushed, set upon and strangled. It was said that an Italian assassin threw his corpse into the river.
Sophia was relieved when George I divorced her, but dismayed when he placed her under house arrest and kept her from her son. From this point on, it seems that King George I included his son in the malevolence he directed towards his unfaithful wife.
In addition, father and son were egged on in their quarrel of 1717 by Britain’s politicians. The Hanoverians were kings by invitation, not by indisputable right of birth. Their power was much weaker than that of the Stuarts. Their new subjects sought to diminish it further by a policy of divide and rule.
As a result, the apology that the king required of his prince after the ‘christening quarrel’ remained unforthcoming. Father and son did not speak to each other for more than two years. The royal pair only ended their quarrel when the politicians concluded that they should. Britain’s first Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, eventually decided that to engineer a royal reconciliation would be a fine demonstration of his power.
Though fat, and often coarse, Sir Robert had a magnificently magnetic personality. His fabled eloquence persuaded King George I that reconciliation with his son was worth what was promised in return: £600,000 to be paid against the debt on the Civil List. Meanwhile Prince George was demoralised, under financial pressure, and short of friends. Walpole persuaded him, too, to apologise at last.
So, in April 1720, the Prince returned, with a heavy heart, to St James’s Palace. Up the stairs and into his father’s private closet he went. He stayed only five minutes, but it was long enough to make a powerful symbolic statement: father and son were upon speaking terms once again.
At the news of this grudging but official reconciliation within the royal family, London went wild. There were celebrations like those usually seen after the winning of a battle.
And yet, this was a temporary truce, not a lasting peace. The antagonism caused by the death of the baby boy would endure. His absent mother, his hostile father, his stolen children and the trouble-making politicians would all cast a pall over the life of the Prince of Wales.
Dull his life certainly wasn’t, and the more you learn about him, the more you pity him. I find him a flawed but fascinating human being.
© 2013 Lucy Worsley