Andrew C. Thompson’s new biography of George II, Britain’s last foreign-born monarch, presents a detailed portrait of the king as a vital part of the governing process and as a dynastic patriarch, patron of the arts and political survivor. In this exclusive article, Thompson discusses the particular challenges of writing a biography of a monarch, explaining how this ambitious project came about and why George II is such an interesting subject for a writer.
Article by Andrew C. Thompson
Undergraduate lectures are not always a source of memorable remarks. But I still recall vividly the comment of one of my own lecturers that all serious works are at least ten years in the making. He was thinking of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (and perhaps also reflecting on the speed of production that is now expected of British academics) but the idea stayed with me. Not that I am making the (extremely hubristic) claim that George II should be compared with Adam Smith. Rather, the origins of this book lie in an earlier project that considered British and Hanoverian attitudes to foreign policy in early eighteenth century that, in turn, was based on a Ph.D. dissertation that I started in 1999. When I was searching for a publisher for that work, someone suggested that I might be well placed, given my previous research, to write a biography of George II and so, having given it some thought, that was what I decided to do and now this particular project has been completed. While some researchers like to claim an overarching plan and logic behind their choices, my experience has been that one often gets drawn in rather unexpected directions.
My reason for mentioning this is that one of the things that has struck me, working on a biography, is that history written in this way has to be very alive to the importance of the serendipitous. Had events unfolded in another way, then outcomes would have been considerably altered as well. One example that springs immediately to mind was the death in 1751 of Frederick, Prince of Wales. Frederick’s opposition to his father had already proved to be politically serious in the late 1730s and momentum had been building again since 1747. His death led to a cooling of the political temperature and helped consolidate the Old Corps whigs in power.
Writing the biography of a king, particularly an early modern one, brings with it particular challenges and opportunities. The danger of over-identification with the subject, of which most biographers have to be wary, is largely absent but it can be harder to recreate a sense of the emotional world that the subject inhabited. Much of the material that survives comes from official sources and there is little that sheds light on inner life. This is particularly true of George II, whose tendency towards economy often meant that he would scribble a reply on a letter and return it, rather than writing a separate missive. Very little of his private correspondence is now extant. George III’s purchase of the Stuart papers means that the Royal Archives in Windsor probably have more material on George’s Jacobite rivals than they do on him.
On the other hand, George’s centrality to the political process means that writing about his life is about much more than a single individual. George was still incredibly important within British politics, to an extent that has often been unappreciated by previous historians. By looking at what the eighteenth-century British state did and the king’s involvement in foreign-political and military decision-making, a new and rather different picture of eighteenth-century British politics emerges from the traditional account of the inevitable rise of the House of Commons. The continued importance of patronage and the king’s position at the centre of patronage networks becomes apparent, as does the extent of ministerial squabbles to win the king’s favour. George’s interests mean that any work on his life has to be a general political history of the period as well.
Moreover, George’s tendency to travel back to Hanover frequently also had a number of important consequences. At one level, popular resentment at the trips was not hard to find. In 1736, during one of George’s sojourns abroad, John, Lord Hervey, vice-chamberlain and acid-tongued commentator on court life, noted that a paper had been posted in the Royal Exchange stating that ‘it is reported that his Hanoverian Majesty designs to visit his British dominions for three months in the spring’.
Yet, George’s need to ensure that both Britain and Hanover were governed appropriately when he was away led to the development of sophisticated regency structures and also contributed significantly to the development of cabinet government in Britain. Faced with a situation in which one minister was abroad with the king and the rest were left behind in London, the core ministerial group in London got into the habit of not only offering advice on the conduct on policy but insisting that they were heard when matters of importance, such as British participation in war, were being discussed.
The study of court life cannot, however, be restricted to the purely political. The court remained a social and cultural, as well as a political, centre. Some have suggested that the court, as an institution, was entering a period of terminal decline but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the court was able to respond to the challenges of emergent commercial society. Using royal attendance at the theatre as a marketing ploy illustrates just one of the ways in which the royal ‘brand’ could be economically profitable. The speed with which black cloth sold out on royal deaths also indicates the importance of doing things in the right way and a degree of respect for the institution of monarchy.
George has often been seen as a cultural bore, who gloried in philistinism. Yet Horace Walpole, hardly a fan of the king, noted that the accusations of ‘bookish men’ needed to be taken with a pinch of salt: had the king provided pensions for even a handful of writers the world would have ‘heard of nothing but his liberality’. George was confident in his own tastes (he had a penchant for military music and voluptuous Venuses!) and not afraid to state his own opinions. The picture that I have tried to paint of him is of a competent, engaged and hard-working monarch who was adept at navigating the rather different political circumstances of a north German Electorate and the British Kingdoms.
Andrew C. Thompson is fellow and director of studies in history, Queens’ College, Cambridge. He lives in Cambridge. George II: King and Elector is part of Yale University Press’s English Monarchs series, and is out now.