How England Got a German King – the Origin of the Georgians

Portrait of King George I of England

George I of England


On 18 September 1714, a 54-year-old German Prince, who had never set foot in the British Isles, arrived in Greenwich, England.  32 days later, without bloodshed or force of arms, he was crowned George the First, King of Great Britain, France and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, Archtreasurer and Prince-Elector of the Holy Roman Empire, and Duke of Brunswick-Luneburg.  How did this stranger come to sit on the throne of England and found the House of Hanover?  To understand the events that led to the rise of the Hanoverians, we have to look back more than 100 years before George’s arrival to the first of the Stuart Kings.

James I, son of Mary, Queen of Scots (and descended from Henry VII’s daughter Margaret), had been King of Scotland for 36 years when he became King of England in 1603  Although united on paper, and James was King of both countries, his attempt to create a full governmental union between the two nations proved premature.  Scotland was firmly under the control of the Church of Scotland (Presbyterianism), while England was solidly under the control of the Church of England.  The attempted Spanish invasion of England, thwarted by the destruction of the Spanish Armada only 15 years earlier and approved by Pope Sixtus V, as well as the ongoing but undeclared Anglo–Spanish War (1585–1604) caused great fear and suspicion between the two faiths.

James himself was tolerant in terms of religious faith, however, freedom of worship for Catholics in England continued, to be a major aim of Spanish policy, causing constant dilemmas for James, distrusted abroad for repression of Catholics while at home being encouraged by the Privy Council to show even less tolerance towards them.  The Gunpowder Plot (an attempt by Guy Fawkes and other Roman Catholic conspirators to blow up the Houses of Parliament) in 1605, put aside any chance for James to build trust and peace between the two faiths and resulted in the re-imposition of strict penalties on Roman Catholics.

The outbreak of the Thirty Years War in Europe, initially a conflict between Protestants and Roman Catholics, led to further suspicion between the two faiths in England and increasing tensions with Spain.  On James’s death in 1625, the kingdom was on the edge of war with Spain.

Charles I was born in Fife on 19 November 1600, the second son of James I and Anne of Denmark.  He became heir to the throne on the death of his brother, Prince Henry, in 1612.  He succeeded, as the second Stuart King of England, in 1625.

Controversy and disputes dogged Charles throughout his reign. They eventually led to civil wars, first with the Scots from 1637 and later in England (1642-46 and 1648).  Charles was also deeply religious.  He favored the high Anglican form of worship, with much ritual, while many of his subjects, particularly in Scotland, which was solidly Presbyterian, wanted plainer forms.  In 1625, Charles married a Roman Catholic, Henrietta Maria of France, and this only made matters worse.  Although Charles had promised Parliament in 1624 that there would be no repeal of the penalties for recusants (people refusing to attend Church of England services), were he to marry a Roman Catholic bride, the French insisted on a commitment to remove all restrictions upon Roman Catholic subjects.  Charles demonstrated his lack of scruple by secretly adding this commitment to the marriage treaty, despite his promise to Parliament.

Tensions between the King and Parliament centered on finances, made worse by the costs of war abroad, and by religious suspicions at home.  At a time when plots against Elizabeth I and the Gunpowder Plot in James I’s reign were still fresh in the collective memory, and the Protestant cause was going badly in the 30 Years War in Europe, the English public saw Charles’ marriage as ominous, .

Portrait of Guy Fawkes, one of the Gunpowder Plot Conspiritors

Guy Fawkes, one of the Gunpowder Plot Conspirators

Scotland proved the catalyst for rebellion.  Charles’s attempt to impose a High Church liturgy and prayer-book in Scotland had prompted a riot in 1637 in Edinburgh, which escalated into general unrest.  The Scots occupied Newcastle and, under the treaty of Ripon, Northumberland and County Durham were to be ceded to the Scots as an interim measure, Newcastle was to be left in the hands of the Scots, and Charles was to pay them £850 a day to keep up their armies there.  This treaty was a factor leading to the calling of a  Parliamentry session, known as the Long Parliament; which was one of the major stepping-stones to the outbreak of the First English Civil War.

The Irish uprising of October 1641 further raised tensions between the King and Parliament, this time over the command of the Army.  Parliament issued a Grand Remonstrance repeating their grievances, impeached 12 bishops, and attempted to impeach the Queen.  Charles responded by entering the House of Commons in a failed attempt to arrest five Members of Parliament, who had fled before his arrival.  Parliament reacted by passing a Militia Bill allowing troops to be raised only under officers approved by Parliament.  Finally, on 22 August 1642 Charles raised the Royal Standard calling for loyal subjects to support him. The English Civil Wars had begun.

The Battle of Edgehill in October 1642 quickly showed that the fighting forces were evenly matched.  Broadly speaking, Charles retained the north, west and south-west of the country, and Parliament had London, East Anglia and the south-east, although there were pockets of resistance everywhere, ranging from solitary garrisons to whole cities.  The Navy sided with Parliament (which made continental aid difficult), and Charles lacked the resources to hire substantial mercenary help.  Parliament entered an armed alliance with the main Scottish Presbyterian group under the Solemn League and Covenant of 1643, and from 1644 onward, Parliament’s armies gained the upper hand – particularly with the improved training and discipline of the New Model Army.

In May 1646, Charles placed himself in the hands of the Scottish Army, who handed him to the English Parliament after nine months.  Charles did not see his action as surrender, but as an opportunity to regain lost ground by playing one group off against another; he saw the monarchy as the source of stability and told parliamentary commanders ‘you cannot be without me: you will fall to ruin if I do not sustain you’.  In Scotland and Ireland, factions were arguing, whilst in England there were signs of division in Parliament between the Presbyterians and the Independents, as well as alienation within the Army, all of which Charles hoped to take advantage of.

Charles’ negotiations continued from his captivity at Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight and led to an alliance with the Scots, under which the Scots would provide an army for Charles in exchange for Charles imposing Presbyterianism on England.  This led to the second Civil War of 1648, which ended with Cromwell’s victory at Preston in August.

On 20 January 1649, Charles found himself charged with high treason ‘against the realm of England’.  Charles refused to plead, saying that he did not recognize the High Court’s legal authority.  The Court sentenced the King to death on 27 January.  Three days later, Charles was beheaded on a scaffold outside the Banqueting House in Whitehall, London.  To avoid the automatic succession of Charles’ son Charles, Parliament passed an Act on 30 January forbidding the proclaiming of another monarch and Charles’ son, went into foreign exile.  On 7 February 1649, the office of King was formally abolished.

Portrait of Oliver Cromwell

Oliver Cromwell

From 1649 to 1660, England was a republic, with Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector, during a period known as the Interregnum (‘between reigns’).  Throughout the Interregnum, Cromwell’s relationship with Parliament was a troubled one, with tensions over the nature of the constitution and the issue of supremacy, control of the armed forces, and debate over religious toleration.  After Cromwell’s death in 1658, and the failure of his son Richard’s short-lived Protectorate, the army under General Monk invited Charles I’s son, to return to England to become King.

In April 1660, fresh elections had been held and a Convention met with the House of Lords. Parliament invited Charles to return, and he arrived at Dover on 25 May.  Despite the bitterness left from the Civil Wars and Charles I’s execution, there were few detailed negotiations over the conditions of Charles II’s restoration to the throne, but under the Declaration of Breda of May 1660, Charles II promised pardons, arrears of Army pay, confirmation of land purchases during the Interregnum and ‘liberty of tender consciences’ in religious matters, but several issues remained unresolved.

Charles II’s foreign policy was a wavering balance of alliances with France and the Dutch in turn.  In 1670, Charles signed the secret treaty of Dover under which he would declare himself a Catholic and England would side with France against the Dutch.  In return, he would receive subsidies from the King of France (thus enabling Charles some limited room for maneuver with Parliament, but leaving open the possibility that King Louis could publicly disclose the terms of the treaty, thus causing political issues for Charles and his government.)  Practical considerations prevented Charles making such a public conversion to Catholicism, but he issued a Declaration of Indulgence, using his prerogative powers to suspend the penal laws against Catholics and Nonconformists. In the face of an Anglican Parliament’s opposition, Charles was eventually forced to withdraw the Declaration in 1673.

In 1677, Charles II married his niece Mary to William of Orange, partly to restore the balance after his brother’s second marriage to the Catholic Mary of Modena and to re-establish his own Protestant credentials.  This assumed an increased importance as it became clear that Charles II’s marriage to Catherine of Braganza would produce no legitimate heirs, and his Roman Catholic brother James’ position as heir apparent raised the prospect of a Catholic king.

Throughout Charles II’s reign, issues of religious toleration dominated the political scene.  The 1662 Act of Uniformity had imposed the use of the Book of Common Prayer, and insisted that clergy subscribe to Anglican doctrine (some 1,000 clergy lost their livings). Anti-Catholicism was widespread; the Test Act of 1673 excluded Roman Catholics from both Houses of Parliament. Parliament’s reaction to the Popish Plot of 1678 (a fictitious allegation by Titus Oates that Jesuit priests were conspiring to murder the King, and involving the Queen and the Lord Treasurer, Danby) was to impeach Danby and present a Bill to exclude James (Charles’ younger brother and a Roman Catholic convert) from the succession. Although the debate over this bill raged for several years, in 1681 the bill was finally defeated, clearing the way for Catholic James II to ascend the throne.

Charles II died in 1685, becoming a Roman Catholic on his deathbed.

Born in 1633 and named after his grandfather James I, James II grew up in exile after the Civil War (he served in the armies of Louis XIV) and, after his brother’s restoration, commanded the Royal Navy from 1660 to 1673.  James converted to Catholicism in 1669.  Despite his conversion, James II succeeded to the throne peacefully at the age of 51.

His position was a strong one – there were standing armies of nearly 20,000 men in his kingdoms and he had a revenue of around £2 million.  A rebellion led by Charles’s illegitimate son, the Protestant Duke of Monmouth, was easily crushed after the battle of Sedgemoor in 1685.  James’s reaction to the Monmouth rebellion was to increase the size of the standing army and appoint loyal and experienced Roman Catholic officers.  This, together with James’s attempts to give civic equality to Roman Catholic and Protestant dissenters, led once again to conflict with Parliament, as his actions were seen as James showing favoritism towards Roman Catholics.

Fear of Catholicism was widespread (in 1685, Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes which gave protection to French Protestants), and the possibility of a standing army led by Roman Catholic officers produced protest in Parliament.  James attempted to promote the Roman Catholic cause by dismissing judges and Lord Lieutenants who refused to support the withdrawal of laws penalizing religious dissidents, appointing Catholics to important academic posts, and to senior military and political positions.  Within three years, James’ actions had alienated most of  his subjects.  In 1687 James issued the Declaration of Indulgence aiming at religious toleration; seven bishops who asked James to reconsider were charged with seditious libel, but later acquitted to popular Anglican acclaim.  Several years earlier, Sir Henry Capel had summarized the popular feeling in the Kingdom when he said in a parliamentary debate in the House of Commons on 27 April 1679:

From popery (Catholicism) came the notion of a standing army and arbitrary power… Formerly the crown of Spain, and now France, supports this root of popery amongst us; but lay popery flat, and there’s an end of arbitrary government and power. It is a mere chimera, or notion, without popery (Kenyon, 2000)

When his second (Roman Catholic) wife, Mary of Modena, gave birth on 10 June 1688 to a son (James Stuart, later known as the ‘Old Pretender’ and father of Charles Edward Stuart, ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’), it seemed that a Roman Catholic dynasty would be established.

William of Orange, was seen by many protestants throughout Europe as a champion of their faith due to his participation in several wars against the powerful Catholic king of France, Louis XIV.  When James II had first taken the throne in England, William had at first attempted a conciliatory approach, at the same time trying not to offend the Protestants in England.  William, ever looking for ways to diminish the power of France, hoped that James would join the League of Augsburg, but by 1687 it became clear that James would not join the anti-French alliance. (Troost, 2005)  Once it became obvious that James would have a Catholic heir, many English politicians began to urge an armed invasion of England.  In order to gain the favor of English Protestants, William wrote an open letter to the English people in which he disapproved of James’ pro-Roman Catholic policy of religious toleration.

On 30 June 1688 a group of political figures known afterward as the “Immortal Seven”, sent William a formal invitation to come to the aid of England.  William’s intentions to invade were public knowledge by September 1688 with no large-scale public opposition. William of Orange, Protestant husband of James’s elder daughter, Mary, was therefore welcomed when he landed with a Dutch Army on 5 November 1688 at Brixham in southwest England  He came ashore proclaiming “the liberties of England and the Protestant religion I will maintain”. William had come ashore with about 11,000-foot and 4,000 horse soldiers.

James’s support began to dissolve almost immediately upon William’s arrival; Protestant officers defected from the English army (the most notable of whom was Lord Churchill of Eyemouth, James’s most able commander), and influential noblemen across the country declared their support for the invader.  The Army and the Navy (disaffected despite James’s investment in them) deserted to William, and James fled to France.  James spent the rest of his life in exile in France, dying there in 1701.

In 1689 Parliament declared that James had abdicated by deserting his kingdom and offered  William and his wife Mary the throne as joint monarchs.  They accepted a Declaration of Rights, drawn up by a Convention of Parliament, which limited the Sovereign’s power, reaffirmed Parliament’s claim to control taxation and legislation, and provided guarantees against the abuses of power which James II and the other Stuart Kings had committed.  The exclusion of James II and his heirs was extended to exclude all Catholics from the throne, since “it hath been found by experience that it is inconsistent with the safety and welfare of this protestant kingdom to be governed by a papist prince.”  The Sovereign was required in his coronation oath to swear to support the Protestant religion.

In order to further solidify the status of England as a Protestant Kingdom, William III of England encouraged the passage of the Act of Toleration, which guaranteed religious toleration to certain Protestant nonconformists.  It did not, however, extend toleration as far as William wished, still restricting the religious liberty of Roman Catholics, non-Trinitarians, and those of non-Christian faiths.

Portrait of King William III and Queen Mary II

King William III and Queen Mary II

In December 1689, one of the most important constitutional documents in English history, the Bill of Rights, was passed.  This Act, which restated and confirmed many provisions of the earlier Declaration of Rights, established restrictions on the royal prerogative. It provided, among other things, that the Sovereign could not suspend laws passed by Parliament, levy taxes without parliamentary consent, infringe the right to petition, raise a standing army during peacetime without parliamentary consent, deny the right to bear arms to Protestant subjects, unduly interfere with parliamentary elections, punish members of either House of Parliament for anything said during debates, require excessive bail or inflict cruel and unusual punishments. (Davies, 1999).  However, the Sovereign could still call and dissolve Parliament, appoint and dismiss Ministers, veto legislation and declare war.

The Bill of Rights established the order of succession to the throne by the heirs of Mary II, Anne and William III in that order. However, by 1700 Mary had died childless, Anne’s only surviving child (out of 17 children), the Duke of Gloucester, had died at the age of 11 and William was dying. The succession had to be decided before another crisis of succession triggered war between the Exiled Stuarts and England and Scotland’s Protestant majority.

The Act of Settlement of 1701 ensured the Protestant succession to the throne, and strengthened the guarantees for ensuring a parliamentary system of government.  Mary had died of smallpox in 1694, aged 32, and without children. Therefore, according to the Act, succession to the throne went to Princess Sophia, Electress of Hanover who was James I’s granddaughter, and her Protestant heirs.  The Act also laid down the conditions under which the Crown could be held. No Roman Catholic, nor anyone married to a Roman Catholic, could hold the English Crown and the Sovereign now had to swear to support the Church of England (and after 1707, the Church of Scotland).

Never of robust health, William III died as a result of complications from a fall whilst riding.  Upon William’s death in 1702, his sister-in-law Anne (Protestant younger daughter of James II and his first wife) succeeded him.

Within months, the War of the Spanish Succession, which was to overshadow most of Anne’s reign had started in Europe. A series of military victories by John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, strengthened England’s negotiating position at the end of the war.  Under the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, France recognized Anne’s title (and exiled James II’s Roman Catholic son, James Stuart, from France) – the treaty also confirmed England’s possession of Gibraltar.

Anne suffered from ill-health throughout her life.  From her 30s onward, she grew increasingly lame and obese.  Despite seventeen pregnancies by her husband, Prince George of Denmark, she died without any surviving children and was the last monarch of the House of Stuart.  Under the terms of the Act of Settlement, her second cousin Georg Ludwig of the House of Hanover, who was 52nd in line for the throne, but the nearest Protestant, succeeded her..

Well it has been a long trip through the history of the English Monarchs but we have finally arrived at the answer to how a German Prince ended up on the throne of England and established the Hanoverian dynasty.  It was all because of the animosity between Protestants and Catholics and that he happened to be Protestant.  I hope you enjoyed this journey, or if not enjoyed, at least learned something that you did not already know.  If you enjoy this blog then give us a like and don’t forget to subscribe so you won’t miss future posts.


Works Cited

Davies, N. (1999). The Isles: A History. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kenyon, J. (2000). The Popish Plot. London: Phoenix Press.

Troost, W. (. (2005). William III, The Stadholder-king: A Political Biography. Hants, England: Aldershot.



© 2015
Chuck Hudson



2 comments on “How England Got a German King – the Origin of the Georgians

  1. A very nice, detailed summary. The Germanic influence on the British Monarchy was very prominent all the way up to World War One when the monarchy changed its name from Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to the Windsors.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. NSUBUGA SAADI says:

    I’m very happy to read and know the history of England


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