For my first article I have put together a short introduction to the Georgian era, just to give readers a taste of the period and its monarchs.
Let’s start with some facts. The reign of the Hanoverian monarchs in Britain lasted 123 years (that’s if you don’t include Queen Victoria). The era witnessed 42 Prime Ministers, including Spencer Percival, the only British Prime Minister to be assassinated (1812).
The Georgian era was one of extremes. Long periods of war, slavery and empire building occurred alongside increasing humanitarianism, piety, and religious and social reform. Art, literature, and music evoked elevating aspirations, while the brutal penal system, squalor, and debauchery reigned. Industrialisation, the rise of consumerism, and economic growth did nothing to combat the extreme poverty many endured.
To top it all off, the period was led by five generations of dysfunctional monarchs and their families. Let’s take a closer look at them.
Before I begin, please note that the monikers I use to label the monarchs were given to them by their contemporaries. No insult is intended on my part.
George I – The German One 1714 – 1727
Upon the death of Queen Anne, the British government chose her second cousin, George, Elector of Hanover, to be the next monarch. They overruled the higher claim of her half-brother, James Edward Francis Stuart (son of James II and father of Bonnie Prince Charlie). At a time of continuing religious conflict, a protestant monarch was deemed preferable to a Catholic. The Jacobites, Catholic supporters of the Stuarts, immediately rose up in rebellion. They campaigned on and off to remove the Hanoverians over the next thirty years.
George I was an unpopular monarch. When he first arrived her could not speak English. In public he appeared wooden and foreign. He was classed as too German, yet he was believed to be better than a Catholic. Despite taking the throne at a contentious time, he still established a dynasty that lasted over one hundred years.
George II – The Boorish One 1727 – 1760
While George II was born in Germany, from 1714 he chose to live in England. According to the masses, this made him less German than his father. He had to deal with numerous attempts to remove him by the Jacobites until their final defeat at the Battle of Culloden in 1745. The last rising of the Jacobites led to a surge in support for George II in England, despite his reputation as a boorish, short-tempered lothario. He had a poor relationship with his son and heir, Frederick, who died in 1751. George’s grandson, also George, then became heir to the throne.
George III – The Mad One 1760 – 1820
George III’s reign was dominated by war and periods of mental illness. George III was the first George born and educated in Britain. He was popular with the people because he was devoted to his family, faithful to his wife, pious, and thrifty with the public purse. To his children, particularly his sons, he was moralistic, over-bearing, and tight-fisted, as he expected them to live on a frugal budget.
He ruled during the Seven years War, AKA the French & Indian War, 1756 – 1763, the American Revolutionary War 1775 – 1783, The French Revolutionary War 1792 – 1802, The Irish Rebellion 1798, and the Napoleonic Wars 1803 -1815.
The loss of the American Revolutionary War was considered a disaster (by the British). Many of their enemies hoped it would herald the end of Britain as a dominant power. However, explorers like Captain Cook, who charted the east coast of Australia in 1770, sowed the seeds for the establishment of the British Empire.
Towards the end of his reign George III became permanently delusional and unable to rule. In 1811 George, Prince of Wales, became Prince Regent until his father’s death in 1820.
George IV – The Fat One 1820 – 1830 (Prince Regent 1811-1820)
Some historians argue that “Prinny”, with his intelligent mind, charm, and cultivated manners, had the potential to become one of Britain’s greatest monarchs. It is unfortunate that he was dissolute, lazy, and gluttonous. His extravagance, poor relationship with his parents and later his “second” wife, made him very unpopular. Many believed he damaged the prestige of the British monarchy.
His lazy approach to rule meant he had a massive impact on government and society. He left all governing decisions to the Prime Minister whose party had the majority of parliamentary seats. This set the precedent for the governing of Britain to this day.
He and his brothers, along with his one-time friend, Beau Brummell, also influenced fashion and manners. His contributions were mostly a result of his vanity. When the government levied high tariffs on wig powder, he and his brothers abandoned wearing wigs . He wore dark colours and lose pantaloons to disguise his figure. To hide his double chin his chose high collars. His friendship with Brummell ended when they had a disagreement and Brummell publicly called him fat.
George IV’s pet project, Brighton Pavilion, was trashed as an example of his misuse of public funds. Today it stands as one of the finest examples of architecture and interior decoration of the time.
His fondness for food and alcohol impacted his health. He became obese and suffered from gout and peripheral oedema (dropsy). In 1797 he was already 17 stone 7 pounds (111 kg/245 lbs). He spent his last years blind and breathless.
His only legitimate child, Princess Charlotte, died in 1817, twenty-four hours after delivering a still born son. This event triggered a race between George’s brothers to finally marry (which they had previously resisted simply to thwart their dictatorial father) and produce an heir.
William IV – The Sailor King 1830 – 1837
William IV succeeded his brother following a long career in the Royal Navy. He eventually married but had no surviving legitimate children.
William was a conscientious monarch and endeared himself to the populace by cutting royal spending. He oversaw the passing of the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833, which finally criminalised slavery in the British Empire.
Upon his death, his only surviving heir was his niece, Princess Victoria, daughter of the fourth son of George III, Edward, Duke of Kent, and the last member of the house of Hanover.
Some Famous Georgians
Capability Brown – to some, he is one of the finest landscape gardeners of all time. To others, a destroyer of years of gardening history. Historical box gardens like those at Chatsworth and Blenheim were replaced by rolling fields and open countryside.
Mary Wollstonecraft – an advocate for women’s rights and education when women had very little of either. She was also the mother of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein and wife of romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley.
William Wilberforce – politician, philanthropist, and leader of the movement to abolish the slave trade.
Arthur Wellesley, First Duke of Wellington – led the allied forces that finally defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. He went on to be become Prime Minister in 1828. Despite his prestige, he was once refused entrance to Almacks by the formidable matrons because he turned up seven minutes after last admittance.
Lesser Known Georgians
Anne Lister – her story has become more widely know since the television series, Gentlemen Jack. Anne has been labelled as the first modern lesbian. Her diaries offer a wonderful insight into Georgian life, as well as her personal relationships.
Joseph Antonio Emidy – the first African composer in England. While still a slave he was deemed to be a musical prodigy. He tutored, played concerts, and had a huge influence on the music scene in Cornwall.
Olaudah Equiano – his biography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789) was a best seller. It tells the story of slavery from the point of view of the enslaved. He travelled the country promoting his book and speaking out against slavery.
Kitty Fisher – Catherine Maria “Kitty” Fisher was a celebrity courtesan. Her celebrity status was attained through her capacity for self-publicity and a series of rich lovers. (The Kardashians could learn a thing or two from her). She collaborated with artists and writers to bring her image to public attention. She was Joshua Reynolds favourite model, and yes, she is the Kitty Fisher from the children’s nursery rhyme. Apparently, Lucy Locket’s pocket may be a metaphor for a lover Lucy lost to Kitty.
I hope you have enjoyed this brief foray into the Georgian era and some of its people. If you would like me to expand upon any of the subjects or people I have mentioned here, please leave a request in the comments.
All images are in the Public Domain via Wikipedia