GEORGE I. [George Louis] (1660-1727), king of Great Britain and Ireland, born in 1660, was heir through his father Ernest Augustus to the hereditary lay bishopric of Osnabrück, and to the duchy of Calenberg, which formed one portion of the Hanoverian possessions of the house of Brunswick, whilst he secured the reversion of the other portion, the duchy of Celle or Zell, by his marriage (1682) with the heiress, his cousin Sophia Dorothea. The marriage was not a happy one. The morals of German courts in the end of the 17th century took their tone from the splendid profligacy of Versailles. It became the fashion for a prince to amuse himself with a mistress or more frequently with many mistresses simultaneously, and he was often content that the mistresses whom he favoured should be neither beautiful nor witty. George Louis followed the usual course. Count Königsmark - a handsome adventurer - seized the opportunity of paying court to the deserted wife. Conjugal infidelity was held at Hanover to be a privilege of the male sex. Count Königsmark was assassinated. Sophia Dorothea was divorced in 1694, and remained in seclusion till her death in 1726. When George IV., her descendant in the fourth generation, attempted in England to call his wife to account for sins of which he was himself notoriously guilty, free-spoken public opinion reprobated the offence in no measured terms. But in the Germany of the 17th century all free-spoken public opinion had been crushed out by the misery of the Thirty Years' War, and it was understood that princes were to arrange their domestic life according to their own pleasure.
The prince's father did much to raise the dignity of his family. By sending help to the emperor when he was struggling against the French and the Turks, he obtained the grant of a ninth electorate in 1692. His marriage with Sophia, the youngest daughter of Elizabeth the daughter of James I. of England, was not one which at first seemed likely to confer any prospect of advancement to his family. But though there were many persons whose birth gave them better claims than she had to the English crown, she found herself, upon the death of the duke of Gloucester, the next Protestant heir after Anne. The Act of Settlement in 1701 secured the inheritance to herself and her descendants. Being old and unambitious she rather permitted herself to be burthened with the honour than thrust herself forward to meet it. Her son George took a deeper interest in the matter. In his youth he had fought with determined courage in the wars of William III. Succeeding to the electorate on his father's death in 1698, he had sent a welcome reinforcement of Hanoverians to fight under Marlborough at Blenheim. With prudent persistence he attached himself closely to the Whigs and to Marlborough, refusing Tory offers of an independent command, and receiving in return for his fidelity a guarantee by the Dutch of his succession to England in the Barrier treaty of 1709. In 1714 when Anne was growing old, and Bolingbroke and the more reckless Tories were coquetting with the son of James II., the Whigs invited George's eldest son, who was duke of Cambridge, to visit England in order to be on the spot in case of need. Neither the elector nor his mother approved of a step which was likely to alienate the queen, and which was specially distasteful to himself, as he was on very bad terms with his son. Yet they did not set themselves against the strong wish of the party to which they looked for support, and it is possible that troubles would have arisen from any attempt to carry out the plan, if the deaths, first of the electress (May 28) and then of the queen (August 1, 1714), had not laid open George's way to the succession without further effort of his own.
In some respects the position of the new king was not unlike that of William III. a quarter of a century before. Both sovereigns were foreigners, with little knowledge of English politics and little interest in English legislation. Both sovereigns arrived at a time when party spirit had been running high, and when the task before the ruler was to still the waves of contention. In spite of the difference between an intellectually great man and an intellectually small one, in spite too of the difference between the king who began by choosing his ministers from both parties and the king who persisted in choosing his ministers from only one, the work of pacification was accomplished by George even more thoroughly than by William.
George I. was fortunate in arriving in England when a great military struggle had come to an end. He had therefore no reason to call upon the nation to make great sacrifices. All that he wanted was to secure for himself and his family a high position which he hardly knew how to occupy, to fill the pockets of his German attendants and his German mistresses, to get away as often as possible from the uncongenial islanders whose language he was unable to speak, and to use the strength of England to obtain petty advantages for his German principality. In order to do this he attached himself entirely to the Whig party, though he refused to place himself at the disposal of its leaders. He gave his confidence, not to Somers and Wharton and Marlborough, but to Stanhope and Townshend, the statesmen of the second rank. At first he seemed to be playing a dangerous game. The Tories, whom he rejected, were numerically superior to their adversaries, and were strong in the support of the country gentlemen and the country clergy. The strength of the Whigs lay in the towns and in the higher aristocracy. Below both parties lay the mass of the nation, which cared nothing for politics except in special seasons of excitement, and which asked only to be let alone. In 1715 a Jacobite insurrection in the north, supported by the appearance of the Pretender, the son of James II., in Scotland, was suppressed, and its suppression not only gave to the government a character of stability, but displayed its adversaries in an unfavourable light as the disturbers of the peace.
Even this advantage, however, would have been thrown away if the Whigs in power had continued to be animated by violent party spirit. What really happened was that the Tory leaders were excluded from office, but that the principles and prejudices of the Tories were admitted to their full weight in the policy of the government. The natural result followed. The leaders to whom no regard was paid continued in opposition. The rank and file, who would personally have gained nothing by a party victory, were conciliated into quiescence.
This mingling of two policies was conspicuous both in the foreign and the domestic actions of the reign. In the days of Queen Anne the Whig party had advocated the continuance of war with a view to the complete humiliation of the king of France, whom they feared as the protector of the Pretender, and in whose family connexion with the king of Spain they saw a danger for England. The Tory party, on the other hand, had been the authors of the peace of Utrecht, and held that France was sufficiently depressed. A fortunate concurrence of circumstances enabled George's ministers, by an alliance with the regent of France, the duke of Orleans, to pursue at the same time the Whig policy of separating France from Spain and from the cause of the Pretender, and the Tory policy of the maintenance of a good understanding with their neighbour across the Channel. The same eclecticism was discernible in the proceedings of the home government. The Whigs were conciliated by the repeal of the Schism Act and the Occasional Conformity Act, whilst the Tories were conciliated by the maintenance of the Test Act in all its vigour. The satisfaction of the masses was increased by the general well-being of the nation.
Very little of all that was thus accomplished was directly owing to George I. The policy of the reign is the policy of his ministers. Stanhope and Townshend from 1714 to 1717 were mainly occupied with the defence of the Hanoverian settlement. After the dismissal of the latter in 1717, Stanhope in conjunction with Sunderland took up a more decided Whig policy. The Occasional Conformity Act and the Schism Act were repealed in 1719. But the wish of the liberal Whigs to modify if not to repeal the Test Act remained unsatisfied. In the following year the bursting of the South Sea bubble, and the subsequent deaths of Stanhope in 1721 and of Sunderland in 1722, cleared the way for the accession to power of Sir Robert Walpole, to whom and not to the king was due the conciliatory policy which quieted Tory opposition by abstaining from pushing Whig principles to their legitimate consequences.
Nevertheless something of the honour due to Walpole must be reckoned to the king's credit. It is evident that at his accession his decisions were by no means unimportant. The royal authority was still able within certain limits to make its own terms. This support was so necessary to the Whigs that they made no resistance when he threw aside their leaders on his arrival in England. When by his personal intervention he dismissed Townshend and appointed Sunderland, he had no such social and parliamentary combination to fear as that which almost mastered his great-grandson in his struggle for power. If such a combination arose before the end of his reign it was owing more to his omitting to fulfil the duties of his station than from the necessity of the case. As he could talk no English, and his ministers could talk no German, he absented himself from the meetings of the cabinet, and his frequent absences from England and his want of interest in English politics strengthened the cabinet in its tendency to assert an independent position. Walpole at last by his skill in the management of parliament rose as a subject into the almost royal position denoted by the name of prime minister. In connexion with Walpole the force of wealth and station established the Whig aristocracy in a point of vantage from which it was afterwards difficult to dislodge them. Yet, though George had allowed the power which had been exercised by William and Anne to slip through his hands, it was understood to the last that if he chose to exert himself he might cease to be a mere cipher in the conduct of affairs. As late as 1727 Bolingbroke gained over one of the king's mistresses, the duchess of Kendal; and though her support of the fallen Jacobite took no effect, Walpole was not without fear that her reiterated entreaties would lead to his dismissal. The king's death in a carriage on his way to Hanover, in the night between 10th and 11th June in the same year, put an end to these apprehensions.
His only children were his successor George II. and Sophia Dorothea (1687-1757), who married in 1706 Frederick William, crown prince (afterwards king) of Prussia. She was the mother of Frederick the Great.
(S. R. G.)
See the standard English histories. A recent popular work is L. Melville's The First George in Hanover and England (1908).
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)