The British Empire reached its peak under foreign rule with four king Georges, William IV and Queen Victoria
It is ironic that Britain’s power, Empire and mastery of land and sea, its sense of national identity, patriotism and confidence, should reach a high point under a royal dynasty that was a blatant foreign import. Yet that is the story of Hanoverian Britain and the four kings George (who gave their name to the Georgian era), William IV and Queen Victoria.
The beginning was inauspicious. George I, dragged over from Hanover, Germany, in 1714 to succeed childless Queen Anne, was only 52nd in line to the throne, but the nearest Protestant as required by the Act of Settlement. Struggling to speak English, he showed no interest in state affairs, effectively promoting party politics and the establishment from 1721 of the country’s first Prime Minister, Robert Walpole.
Yet George and his son George II survived uprisings in 1715 and 1745 by Stuart claimants to the throne; indeed, the British National Anthem was first sung in support of the Hanoverian monarchy.
The madness of King George III
George III, Britain’s longest reigning king (1760–1820), is remembered for losing the colonies in the American War of Independence and “going mad” (some form of mania). But he was deeply committed to family and country, a hardworking polymath whose interests in agriculture earned him the affectionate nickname ‘Farmer George’. It was during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1792–1815) that Nelson won the iconic naval Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 and the Duke of Wellington triumphed at Waterloo a decade later. Ireland joined with Great Britain as the United Kingdom in 1801 and today’s Union flag was created.
Life under George IV and William IV
Royal popularity plummeted again with George III’s profligate son, who ruled first as Prince Regent from 1811 (his father being deemed unfit) and then King George IV from 1820. William IV fared better (1830–37), but expectations remained low when his niece Victoria became Queen at 18, “an age at which a girl can hardly be trusted to choose a bonnet for herself”. By the end of her near 64-year reign and despite her long mourning from 1861 of the death of her beloved husband Albert, she was cherished as the Grandmother of Europe.
Queen Victoria and the restoration of the monarchy
With Albert, Victoria had restored respect in the monarchy and promoted the idea of the Royal Family as a domestic role model. The British Empire accounted for around a quarter of the world’s land mass and population; the Industrial Revolution had transformed Britain into the Workshop of the World.
Many people straggled behind in poverty, but Victorian values of self-improvement, including public provision of museums, libraries and parks, built upon moves towards a ‘fairer’ society that had already seen Britain’s abolition of the slave trade, Catholic Emancipation and a widening of the electorate.
Jane Austen and Charles Dickens wrote memorably of high and low society; architects cast Georgian harmony across places like Bath or indulged Victorian nostalgia for all things Gothic. But the overriding mood of the Hanoverian age was for hurtling progress, by pioneering steamship and train, industry and commerce.
Words: Diana Wright
Read more in our British monarchy series
The Modern Era, 1901-today: see the Oct/Nov 2017 issue of Discover Britain