Laura Purcell

Humanising King George

George II

Bust of George II

There’s no denying it: the Hanoverian kings were an odd bunch. But while this makes them fascinating to study, it also makes them difficult to write. I recently attended a talk by Tracy Borman, in which she described George IV as the ‘most normal’ amongst the Hanoverian monarchs. When the ‘normal’ one is a vain fantasist addicted to drink and opium, you know you have a problem.

It is amazing just how readily these kings lend themselves to farce. Now, while I like a little bit of comedy in my novels, I also want people to take the characters seriously as human beings. When working on George III for Queen of Bedlam, I had to prize away the image of a tyrant passed down in American legend and the anecdotes of his madness, such as the one where he shook hands with a tree (this didn’t actually happen, but many people still believe it did). Fortunately, George III had so many good qualities and such tragically bad health that it was not hard to redeem him. But what of his predecessor, George II?

I have to admit that George II has been my greatest challenge yet. Many of his failings were just so . . . funny. At the time of his reign, he was the subject of intense satire. Every contemporary account has some comic element; his short temper, his obsession with lists or his boring conversation. It was important to me that I got this peppery character across and made use of the comedy, but I was not content with letting him become a mere caricature. As I considered him through the eyes of his women, he began to change.

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Bust of Caroline

George’s wife Caroline was a clever woman who undoubtedly used her beauty to manipulate him. In her last years, she endured cruel insults and humiliation from him. But I found that some elements of George and Caroline’s relationship could have come straight from a romance novel. At their first meeting, George was in disguise. He visited her court posing as a travelling count – rather like the games Henry VIII used to play, but with much more success. He was able to observe Caroline and decide she was the wife for him. Despite  taking many mistresses over the course of his life,  George never really lost his devotion to Caroline. He wrote her beautiful love letters and was inconsolable when she died. One account says that all the queens had to be removed from his deck of cards to save him from bursting into tears. He asked to be buried beside her with the side of his coffin removed, so that their ashes might mingle. These actions do not tie up with the coarse, unfeeling man that history has traditionally presented to us.

Then we have Henrietta Howard, George’s long-serving mistress. It is generally agreed that George and Henrietta shared a highly cynical relationship; she needed his money, he needed a mistress for his masculine pride. But I think there may have been a little more to it than that. George was famous for being a miserly king, yet he gave Henrietta many gifts, long after he was supposedly tiring of her. One present was a whopping £11,500 in the stocks. This was specifically designed to free Henrietta from dependence on her abusive husband – a special contract was drawn up to specify that he could not touch it. Thanks to George’s foresight, Henrietta was able to build Marble Hill, her home for the rest of her life.

Henrietta’s awful husband continued to plague her for money, but miraculously her allowance increased by just the sum he was demanding each year. Since it is recorded by Hervey that Caroline turned down all Henrietta’s requests for pecuniary aid, we are safe to assume that the extra money came from George. It would have been easy for him to leave Henrietta to her fate and take up with a new mistress, but he didn’t. In fact, even when she left him in disgrace, she still received a court pension.

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Marble Hill

None of this ties up with the comical George II so often portrayed. While we usually see a king that no woman could tolerate, let alone love, the real man seems to have inspired some affection in return. Caroline may have relied on him mainly for power, but during a time of crisis she preferred to sacrifice her children rather than leave him. In her own words, they were not worth ‘a grain of sand’ in comparison to her husband. To Henrietta, George was ‘dearer than my own brother’. And while we must allow for some court sycophancy, the last letter she wrote to him suggests that real feeling had once been there. She writes of ‘the honour of [his] esteem’ and how it had made ‘the happiness of my life’. She ends mournfully, ‘The years to come must be employed in the painful task to forget you as my friend; but no years can ever make me forget you as my King.’

So was there something about women that softened George? I found my own key to his character in this portrait.

Sophie Dorothea and children

Sophia Dorothea and her children

Isn’t it beautiful? It’s not difficult to see who the favourite child is. The son and heir is lovingly held in his mother’s arms and clings to her in return. The daughter is somewhat in the shadows, a little apart from the group. Well, this little boy is George II and the woman is his mother Sophia Dorothea.

George was close to his mother, resembling her in feature and quick feelings. But his world was torn apart when, at the age of nine, his parents separated for good. Caught in adultery, his mother was banished to the Castle of Ahlden and never saw him again. Her portraits were taken down; he was not allowed to mention her. His father mocked him for his grief; the only comfort left was his grandmother. I don’t think we can underestimate how fundamentally this episode would have affected a child. It could offer an explanation for both his gruff behaviour and his softer attitude toward some women. Is it too much of a leap to conjecture that he saw his mother in Henrietta Howard, another desperately unhappy young wife? Was Caroline, with her firm advice and unswerving loyalty, the maternal figure he yearned to replace?

While the legends of George trying to swim across a moat to reach his mother have been proved false, I think the spirit of the story is very true. He certainly intended to free Sophia Dorothea and make her Regent of Hanover if she outlived his father. Sadly, this did not happen. Mother and son were kept apart by less than a year; she died at the end of 1726, he gained his throne too late in June 1727.

Where George's mother was imprisoned

Where George’s mother was imprisoned

Interestingly, George’s mother crops up in my research again a few years after her decease. Once more she seems to herald a change to her son’s behaviour. On a trip to Herrenhausen, George stumbled across his mother’s personal papers. He evidently found something he did not like there. Perhaps he had always believed her innocent of adultery and had a nasty shock. Whatever it was, it shattered his image of her. He never spoke of his mother again.

Perhaps it is a coincidence that his behaviour toward Henrietta and Caroline deteriorated after this trip. However, I think that George’s discovery about his mother may have had a direct impact on his relationship with the woman he clung to for reassurance, and the woman he was trying in some small degree to save.

Looking through the eyes of a little boy caught in a family crisis, I hope I have managed to make George into a more three-dimensional and believable character. But I am conscious that in doing so, I have come down rather hard on the father he despised, George I. Rest assured that George I will get his own humanising treatment – watch this space!

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2 Comments

  1. chasbaz 18/08/2014

    I haven’t much knowledge about George II (too early) but you present him in an engaging and sensitive way which makes he like him. Most of the dynasty were messed up as children so we shouldn’t be too surprised at how they turned out. I can’t wait to see what you will say about George IV!

    • lauradpurcell 19/08/2014 — Post author

      Ah yes, George IV is so complicated that I’m writing two novels about him – one to show the good side and the other to show the bad parts!

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