Tired of Harry and Meghan? Meet the Hanovers.

View of Hanover. Matthuis Merian. 1641.

If you’ve had enough of the Windsor family dramas you may be surprised to learn that they are far from the worst in the annals of dysfunctional British royal families. Meet the Hanovers! Forget the scandal of divorce; they just threw a discarded queen in prison for the rest of her life. Feuding fathers and sons? They set up rival courts. And no voluntarily “stepping back” from royal duties; one prince was thrown out of the palace, his belongings dumped in baskets outside the gates. As for royal babies, they weren’t always greeted with open arms.

It all began when the last of the Stuarts, Queen Anne, died without an heir in 1714. She had endured seventeen pregnancies, all but one ending in miscarriage, stillbirth, or babies who died very young. Her only child to survive infancy, William, died age eleven. The question of who should succeed her came down to religion. By the Act of Settlement passed in 1701 Catholics were disqualified from inheriting the throne. That excluded James II’s son and grandson, James Francis, known as The Old Pretender, and Bonnie Prince Charlie. Instead the throne passed to the descendants of James I’s daughter Elizabeth Stuart, whose daughter Sophia had married the Elector of Hanover, a tiny German province. Sophia died shortly before Queen Anne so the throne passed to her son who became George I, the first king of the House of Hanover.

By all accounts George of Hanover was an unpleasant fellow. His own mother said of him:

The most pigheaded, stubborn boy who ever lived, who has round his brains such a thick crust that I defy any man or woman ever to discover what is in them.

When his future wife Sophia Dorothea of Celle was shown his portrait miniature she threw it across the room screaming “I will not marry that pig snout.” And when they met for the first time she fainted. But it was useless to resist the arranged dynastic marriages of the time and she duly became his wife, bearing two children, George and Sophia. (Yes, keeping track of the Hanovers is tricky with all the repeated names). George treated Sophia Dorothea with contempt for her lowly birth and lack of etiquette. It became “a bit crowded” in the marriage with George taking on not one but two mistresses. Lonely Sophia inevitably started an affair of her own when she was reunited with a childhood friend, a Swedish soldier, Philip von Konigsmarck. Of course the rules were different for men and women and though George carried on his affairs openly Sophia’s caused a scandal. In one violent fight over her behavior George tried to strangle her. Sophia and Philip decided to flee to Saxony. But someone betrayed them and Philip disappeared, murdered on George’s orders, his body weighted with stones and thrown into the river. Sophia was imprisoned in Ahlden Castle for the rest of her life, never to see her children again. She was only in her late twenties at the time and lived in the gloomy castle under guard till the age of sixty.

An unrepentant George, Elector of Hanover, traveled in triumph to assume the English throne, his mistresses in tow. The pair became know at court as The Elephant and The Maypole, unkind comments on their physiques. The Maypole was Ehrengard Melusine von der Schulenburg who had been a maid of honor to George’s mother. She was his official mistress. The Elephant, Sophia von Kielmansegg, was actually George’s illegitimate half sister, the reason for her unofficial status. Georgian England may not have had tabloids and twitter but that was no obstacle to salacious gossip, which managed to fly around London in broadsheets and letters, and by word of mouth in coffee shops and salons. There was no shortage of nasty tongues. The waspish Horace Walpole wrote of The Elephant:

an enormous figure… two fierce black eyes, large and rolling beneath two lofty arched eyebrows, two acres of cheeks spread with crimson, an ocean of neck that overflowed and was not distinguished from the lower part of her body, and no part restrained by stays; no wonder that a child dreaded such an ogress, and that the mob of London were highly diverted at the importation of so uncommon a seraglio… indeed nothing could be grosser than the ribaldry that was vomited out in lampoons, libels, and every channel of abuse, against the sovereign and the new court, and chaunted even in their hearing about the public streets.

That certainly sounds as nasty as the tabloid treatment of Harry and Meghan.

George I also brought his son George Augustus, the future George II, to England, along with his wife Caroline and their daughters. Their son Frederick Augustus, still a young child, was left in Hanover. Thus began a multi-generational saga of enmity between fathers and sons. George I appointed his son Prince of Wales although they hated one another. George Augustus could not forgive his father for the treatment of his mother, and George I had a very low opinion of his son calling him “foul-mouthed.” As Prince of Wales George Augustus became a popular figure, especially after surviving an assassination attempt, making his father jealous. George I, who made barely any attempt to fit into English culture or even speak the language, was never very popular with the British public. Things came to a head in a ridiculous scene at the baptism of George Augustus and Caroline’s new baby (a son, inevitably called George, who would not live long). George Augustus disliked the Duke of Newcastle, the man his father had chosen as a baptismal sponsor, and verbally abused him at the ceremony, an insult that was mistaken for a challenge to a dual. In retaliation George I banished his son and daughter-in-law from St. James’s Palace and refused them access to their children. Heartbroken, George Augustus and Caroline managed to secretly visit their children; overwhelmed with emotion she fainted and George “cried like a baby.” The king eventually relented and allowed them limited visits with the children. But after this there were two rival courts, the Prince and Princess of Wales presiding at Leicester House which became a magnet for political opponents of the government.

Once George Augustus succeeded his father as George II in 1727 the miserable father son dynamic repeated itself. Let’s return to Hanover where George had left his eldest son Frederick Augustus when he moved to England. Frederick had been a sickly unattractive baby; George even suggested the child couldn’t be his. When his parents left for England Frederick was just seven and he wouldn’t see them again until he was twenty-one. He had a neglectful and free-wheeling upbringing at the Hanover court but somehow managed to grow into a pleasant and cultured young man, albeit with the usual vices of his class: gambling, drinking, and womanizing. When George I died Frederick was unceremoniously grabbed in the middle of a ball and rushed to London to assume the title of Prince of Wales. Reacquaintance with his son didn’t improve George II’s opinion of him. Frederick’s mother Queen Caroline was even more scathing:

My dear first-born is the greatest ass and the greatest liar and the greatest canaille (a low-born common person) and the greatest beast in the whole world and I heartily wish he was out of it.

Prince Frederick

She would eventually get her wish. But the first order of business was to find Frederick a suitable wife. Several negotiations fell through, including a possible match with a Lady Diana Spencer. Finally in 1736 Frederick married sixteen year old Augusta of Saxe-Gotha. It was the birth of their first child that precipitated the dramatic break with Frederick’s parents. George II and Queen Caroline wanted to witness the royal birth to ensure a genuine heir but Frederick and Augusta did not want them there. As soon as Augusta went into labor at Hampton Court Frederick took her in a carriage to St. James’s Palace to evade his parents. When they heard the news they rushed to the palace in a fury. The baby was a girl, so they were relieved not to have to worry about the authenticity of an heir. But in a most un-grandmotherly outburst of venom Caroline described the baby as “a poor, little, ugly she-mouse” who would soon die. Princess Augusta would defy her grandmother’s prediction, living until 1813.

In the aftermath of this ugly scene history repeated itself and this time it was Frederick and Augusta who were unceremoniously thrown out of St. James’s Palace, their possessions left in baskets on the street like any poor evicted family. Once again there were rival courts, Frederick Prince of Wales establishing himself at Leicester House like his father before him. Marriage had matured him. He genuinely loved his wife though he kept up the royal tradition of taking mistresses. He was a devoted father to nine children including the future George III. Unlike his father’s court, his was a center of culture. He was musically talented playing the cello and singing French madrigals. Unlike his father and grandfather he learned to speak English fluently. He was a patron of the arts and a friend to poet Alexander Pope. Politically the rival courts became enemy camps with factions divided between loyalty to the King or to his heir. Frederick even feared that his father was plotting to remove him from the succession in favor of his younger brother William, his parents’ favorite. But by the late 1740’s Frederick believed his father would die soon and he began promising cabinet posts to his friends and supporters.

Leicester House in 1748

Meanwhile Frederick was very involved in his children’s education, especially that of his heir George. He wanted his son to grow up into a proper English gentleman. The future George III was by all accounts a sweet gentle boy but no scholar. His education seemed to pass right through his head. Nevertheless Frederick was proud of him, and perhaps he had a premonition for he wrote:

I shall have no regret never to have worn the crown if you do but fill it worthily.

In March 1751 Frederick caught a cold while working in his beloved Kew Gardens. He was unwell for a few days before dying suddenly from what is now believed to be a pulmonary embolism. He was forty-four, his son and heir George only twelve. His father George II did not attend his funeral and commented: “I lost my eldest son, but I am glad of it.” Frederick left behind one of the great What Ifs of history. How would things have been different if he had assumed the throne and his Leicester House set had run the government?

George III as Prince of Wales

Frederick’s son George succeeded his grandfather in 1760 as George III, the first Hanoverian King to speak English as his first language. He may not have benefited from his royal education but he had learned two important lessons from his parents, obedience to duty and loyalty to family. His reign may be remembered for that little matter of the loss of the American colonies and his later madness, but his private life was exemplary. Although he was in love with a Lady Sarah Lennox he gave her up for an arranged marriage to Sophia Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. He fell in love with her and remained faithful, breaking with Hanoverian tradition by taking no mistresses. One observer said of the royal couple: “the heartfelt regard of the King was particularly manifest.” 

While his private life offered no scandal for the London gossips, the political turmoil of his reign provided plenty of fodder for the new wave of political caricatures and cartoons, notably those of James Gillray and Isaac Cruikshank. The daily barrage of cruel and crude drawings, including one of the King and Queen seated on a latrine, were as intrusive of any of today’s tabloid stories.

William Pitt brings news to King George and Queen Charlotte
King George and Queen Charlotte recommend sugarless tea. James Gillray.
King George and Queen Charlotte follow their son and daughter-in-law into the wedding chamber.
Isaac Cruikshank.
King George leads his ministers into the abyss of the American war

The scandal-mongers of the age could rest assured that once George III was gone his sons George IV and William IV would provide plenty of drama for them to cover. Both had multiple mistresses and numerous illegitimate children. But they left no legitimate heirs, paving the way for Queen Victoria and a new era of family values.

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