UK Constitution and Government/House of Hanover
The House of Hanover (1714-1901)
Previous Chapter | Next Chapter
George, Duke and Elector of Hanover became King George I in 1714. His claim was opposed by the Jacobites, supporters of the deposed King James II. Since James II had died, his claim was taken over by his son, James Francis Edward Stewart, the "Old Pretender." In 1715, there was a Jacobite rebellion, but an ill James could not lead it. By the time he recovered, it was too late, and the rebellion was suppressed.
King George was not deeply involved in British politics; instead, he concentrated on matters in his home, Germany. The King could not even speak English, earning the ridicule of many of his subjects. George, furthermore, spent much time in his native land of Hanover. Meanwhile, a ministerial system developed in Great Britain. George appointed Sir Robert Walpole as First Lord of the Treasury. Walpole was George's most powerful minister, but he was not termed "Prime Minister"; that term came into use in later years. Walpole's tenure began in 1721; other ministers held office at his, rather than the King's, pleasure. George's lack of involvement in politics contributed greatly to the development of the modern British political system.
George died in 1727 from a stroke while in Germany. He was succeeded by his son, who ruled as George II.
George II was naturalised as a British citizen in 1705; his reign began in 1727. Like his father, George transferred political power to Sir Robert Walpole, who served until 1742. Walpole was succeeded by Spencer Compton, 1st Earl of Wilmington, who served until 1743, and then by Henry Pelham, who served until his death in 1754. During Pelham's service, the nation experienced a second Jacobite Rebellion, which was almost successful in putting Bonnie Prince Charlie—son of the Old Pretender, himself called the Young Pretender—on the throne. The rebellion began in 1745 and was ended in 1746 when the King's forces defeated the Jacobites at the Battle of Culloden, the last battle ever to be fought on British soil.
Before George II's death in 1760, he was served by two other Prime Ministers: Henry Pelham's elder brother the Duke of Newcastle, and the Duke of Devonshire. George II's eldest son, Frederick, had predeceased him, so George was succeeded by his grandson, also named George.
George III attempted to reverse the trend that his Hanoverian predecessors had set by reducing the influence of the Prime Minister. He appointed a variety of different people as his Prime Minister, on the basis of favouritism rather than ability. The Whig Party of Robert Walpole declared George an autocrat and compared him to Charles I.
George III's reign is notable for many important international events. In 1763, Great Britain defeated France in the Seven Years' War, a global war that also involved Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands and was fought in Europe, America and India. As a result of the Treaty of Paris, New France (the French territory in North America, including Quebec and land east of the Mississippi) was ceded to Britain, as was Spanish Florida. Spain, however, took New Orleans and Louisiana, the vast French territory on the west of the Mississippi. Great Britain came to be recognised as the world's pre-eminent colonial power, displacing France. The nation, however, was left deeply in debt. To overcome it, British colonies in America were taxed, much to their distaste. Eventually, Britain lost its American colonies during the American War of Independence, which lasted from 1776 to 1783. Elsewhere, however, the British Empire continued to expand. In India, the British East India Company took control of many small nation-states nominally headed by their own princes. The island of Australia was also occupied, and Canada's population increased with the number of British Loyalists who left the newly formed United States of America.
In 1801, Parliament passed the Act of Union, uniting Great Britain and Ireland into the United Kingdom. Ireland was allowed to elect 100 Members of Parliament to the House of Commons and 22 representative peers to the House of Lords. The Act originally provided for the removal of restrictions from Roman Catholics, but George III refused to agree to the proposal, arguing that doing so would violate his oath to maintain Protestantism.
George was the last British monarch to claim the Kingdom of France. He was persuaded to abandon the meaningless claim dating to the Plantagenet days in 1801 by the French ruler Napoleon.
In 1811, George III, who had previously suffered bouts of madness, went permanantly insane. His son George ruled the country as Prince Regent, and became George IV when the King died in 1820.
George IV is often remembered as an unwise and extravagant monarch. During his Regency, London was redesigned, and funding for the arts was increased. As King, George was unable to govern effectively; he was overweight, possibly addicted to a form of opium and showing signs of his father's mental disease. While he ruled, George's ministers were once again able to regain the power that they had lost during his father's reign.
George opposed several popular social reforms. As his father, he refused to lift several restrictions on Roman Catholics. Upon his death in 1830, his younger brother began to reign as William IV.
Early in William's reign, British politics was reformed by the Reform Act of 1832. At the time, the House of Commons was a disorganised and undemocratic body, unlike the modern House. The nation included several rotten boroughs, which historically had the right to elect members of Parliament, but actually had very few residents. The rotten borough of Old Sarum, for instance, had seven voters, but could elect two MPs. An even more extreme example is of Dunwich, which could also elect two MPs despite having no residents, the entire borough having been eroded away into the North Sea. Other boroughs were called pocket boroughs because they were "in the pocket" of a wealthy landowner, whose son was normally elected to the seat. At the same time, entire cities such as Westminster (with about 20,000 voters) still had just two MPs.
The House of Commons agreed to the Reform Bill, but it was rejected by the House of Lords, whose members controlled several pocket boroughs. The Tory Party, furthermore, opposed the bill actively. William IV agreed with his Prime Minister, the Earl Grey, to flood the House of Lords with pro-reform members by creating fifty new peerages; when the time came, he backed down. The Earl Grey and his Whig Party government then resigned, but returned to power when William finally agreed to co-operate. The Reform Act of 1832 gave urban areas increased political power, but allowed aristocrats to retain effective control of the rural areas. Over fifty rotten boroughs were abolished, while the representation of some other boroughs was reduced from two MPs to one. Though members of the middle class were granted the right to vote, the Reform Act did not do much to expand the electorate, which amounted after passage to just three percent of the population.
In 1834, William became the last British monarch to appoint a Prime Minister who did not have the confidence of Parliament. He replaced the Whig Prime Minister, the Viscount Melbourne, with a Tory, Sir Robert Peel. Peel, however, had a minority in the House of Commons, so he resigned in 1835, and Melbourne returned to power.
In 1837, William died and was succeeded on the British throne by his niece Victoria, who was just eighteen years old at the time. The union of the Crowns of Britain and Hanover was then dissolved, since Salic Law, which applied in Hanover, only allowed males to rule. Therefore, Hanover passed to William's brother Ernest.
A few years after taking power, Victoria married a German Prince, Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, who was given the title of Prince Consort. Albert originally wished to actively govern the United Kingdom, but he acquiesced to his wife's requests to the contrary. The extremely happy marriage ended with Albert's death in 1861, following which Victoria entered a period of semi-mourning that would last for the rest of her reign. She was often called the Widow of Windsor, after Windsor Castle, a Royal home.
In 1867, Parliament passed another Reform Act. Like its predecessor, the Reform Act of 1832, true electoral reform was not achieved; the property qualifications limited the electorate to about eight percent of the population. Therafter, power was held by two Prime Ministers—Benjamin Disraeli (a Tory and a favourite of Victoria) and William Ewart Gladstone (a Liberal whom Victoria disliked)—from 1868 to 1885. In 1876, Disraeli convinced Victoria to take the title of Empress of India.
Many of Victoria's daughters married into European Royal Houses, giving her the nickname Grandmother of Europe. All of the current European monarchs descend from Victoria.
Victoria died in 1901, holding the record for longest serving British Sovereign. She was succeeded by her son Edward, who became King Edward VII. Edward was deemed to belong not to his mother's House of Hanover, but instead to his father's dynasty, Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.