Accession of King George I, 1714
by Claudia Willetts
The background to the accession of King George I to the British throne is composed of a German and an English strand. Jessica Gorst-Williams begins the story in Elizabeth the Winter Queen, with the birth to King James VI of Scotland (later King James I of England), of Princess Elizabeth in 1596, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, after whom she was named. Princess Elizabeth married Prince Frederick, Elector Palatine and King of Bohemia (Czechoslovakia), and had thirteen children. The twelfth, a daughter, Princess Sophia born the same year as King Charles II, was to prove the focal child. All the other twelve children or their descendants, died or were disqualified in some way by 1714.
Josephine Ross writes of plans for the marriage of Princess Sophia in The Winter Queen: The Story of Elizabeth Stuart. She was unmarried at the age of twenty-seven, and when the Protestant Duke George William of Brunswick-Luneburg proposed, she accepted. However the Duke soon regretted his decision, and arranged for his youngest brother Duke Ernest Augustus of Hanover to marry Princess Sophia. In exchange, he signed a contract guaranteeing never to marry, in order to preclude his legitimate children from ever taking precedence over those of his younger brother. The first child of Ernest Augustus and Sophia was born in 1660, the year of the restoration of the British monarchy under King Charles II, and no one could have foreseen that this George Louis would one day become King George I of Great Britain.
The author of The Life and Times of George I, Joyce Marlow, writes that Duke Ernest Augustus was a descendant of the ancient Guelph family of northern Italy. He was ambitious to assume the succession of the dukedoms of his older brothers and to institute primogeniture in his own realm. He planned the marriage of his heir George Louis to Sophia Dorothea, the daughter of his elder brother with a Frenchwoman, for if she married elsewhere and had sons, they would challenge his son George Louis, according to Ragnhild Hatton in George I Elector and King. The marriage negotiations were successful, but unfortunately the marriage itself was unhappy, with George soon taking mistresses. When Sophia Dorothea attempted a relationship with an army officer, George immediately took steps to dispatch the lover (though never proven), divorced her, and placed her under house arrest in obscurity for the next thirty-two years of her life, since the system of primogeniture would be unworkable if a ruler could not be definitely sure of the paternity of his heir.
Meanwhile in Great Britain, the restored Stuart line from King Charles II through to Queen Anne, had died out, precipitating strong political and social factions between supporters of Catholics and Protestants, writes Alvin Redman in The House of Hanover. Parliament decided to settle the issue of succession to the Throne on the heirs of Princess Sophia of Hanover, as being next closest Protestant in line to the Stuart kings and queens. Her son George was created Duke of Cambridge, while a delegation was dispatched to Germany to invite him to claim the “throne of his ancestors”.
The accession of King George I took place in an atmosphere of intense drama during the final hours of Queen Anne, writes JH Plumb in The First Four Georges. The new king was fifty-four years of age, and his personality and age were such that his habits could not be changed. He possessed the bulbous eyes and irascible expression of the Guelphs, was peremptory, and lacked interest in the arts except music. The sinister side of his reputation was further enhanced by his uncharitable treatment of his former wife, Sophia Dorothea.