When Britain got a German king

Queen AnneQueen Mary died of smallpox in 1694 and, in 1702, William died after his horse tripped over a molehill.  Jacobites may have raised a toast to ‘the little gentleman in a black velvet waistcoat’ but it was a typically futile, and puerile, gesture.  Next in line to the throne after WilliamandMary was Mary’s sister, Anne.  Despite 15 pregnancies, Anne had no living heir.   In 1701, Parliament passed the Act of Settlement to ensure that no Catholic descendant of the Stuarts should inherit the throne – the King of France provocatively recognised the deposed King James II’s son as ‘King of England’.  The English Parliament, however, settled on the 70-year old Sophia of Hanover, Protestant granddaughter of James I (VI), who had married the Elector of Hanover.  The Act also stipulated that monarchs swore allegiance to the Church of England and were unable to wage war without the consent of Parliament.

Meanwhile, the death of the King of Spain (also in 1701) heralded a crisis because his successor was Philip, 16-year old grandson of the King of France.  This would have seen the French Bourbon dynasty ruling over a grossly inflated realm that included Spain, France, large parts of Italy and the Spanish Netherlands (Belgium).  An alliance of Britain and Austria opposed this massive increase in French power – and the ‘War of the Spanish Succession’ was the result.  John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough, commanding a combined British, Dutch and Austrian army with Prince Eugene of Savoy, defeated France and her Bavarian ally at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704, preventing a French invasion of Austria and knocking Bavaria out of the war.  In 1706, Marlborough’s victory at the Battle of Ramillies was decisive and drove the Franco-Spanish armies out of the Spanish Netherlands.  The subsequent treaties of Utrecht in 1713 benefitted Britain commercially as well as territorially; France generously donated major parts of Canada (including Nova Scotia and Newfoundland) whilst Spain parted with Gibraltar and Menorca.

Blenheim PalaceA grateful nation gave the Duke of Marlborough an enormous pad in Oxfordshire, Blenheim Palace, by way of a small thank you.  Nice work if you can get it.

Negotiations between the English and Scottish parliaments over union between the two countries had been taking place since the 1690s.  The two nations had much in common – not least landmass, language, religion and monarch.  Still, many in England were disinterested, though others saw advantages in securing the northern border from possible French invasion.  The Scots had not been consulted on the Act of Settlement and could easily have passed the Scottish throne to an unfriendly monarch; indeed, an act of the Scottish Parliament in 1704 threatened to do just that.  For Scotland, the advantages of union were primarily economic, though many bitterly opposed the idea nonetheless.  In 1705, the English parliament passed the Alien Act, which threatened harsh trade and property restrictions in England and English colonies unless Scotland negotiated terms for union and accepted the Hanoverian succession by Christmas Day.  After lengthy discussions, and a bit of bribery (the poet Robert Burns wrote that Scottish MPs were “bought and sold for English gold”), the Act of Union was passed in 1707 by both parliaments and Scotland and England officially became one country.  Scotland retained its separate legal system and church, but government, defence, currency, taxation, sovereignty and trade were united.  There was still widespread unhappiness, particularly in Scotland, which remains the case 300 years later.

In 1714, Queen Anne, the last Stuart monarch, died.  The Electress Sophia having died shortly before that, it was her son, 54-year old German-speaking George, Elector of Hanover, who ahead of dozens of Catholic candidates with a better claim to the prize, became King George I – and Britain entered a new age with a constitutional Protestant monarch, guaranteed to be independent of Rome, and a united nation.  Whatever would happen next?

King George I


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