Monday 1 August 2016

The Act of Settlement, 1701 and the Hanoverian Succession

Michael Dahl [Public domain]
via Wikimedia Commons
On this day in 1714, Anne, Queen of Great Britain died, having suffered a stroke days previously that left her unable to speak. Her death paved the way for the Hanoverian succession to the throne of the Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland as, under the terms of the Act of Settlement of 1701, the lawful descendants of the Electress Sophia of Hanover and her non-Roman Catholic heirs would accede to the throne in the event that Queen Anne should die childless, which is what happened.

George I, the eldest son of Sophia, was crowned at Westminster Abbey on 20 October, under the terms of the Act of Settlement, 1701. Bad weather had prevented him from arriving in Britain until 18 September. It is said that his coronation was accompanied by rioting in over twenty English towns (source: Wikipedia). Nevertheless, the event ushered in a new era in British politics. "Within a year of George's accession the Whigs won an overwhelming victory in the general election of 1715. ... George's distrust of the Tories aided the passing of power to the Whigs. Whig dominance would grow to be so great under George that the Tories would not return to power for another half-century." (source: Wikipedia).

In observance of this important anniversary, we are reproducing here an article by historian and biographer, J.N. Duggan, which appeared in 2014 to mark the tercentenary of the Hanoverian Succession.

On the Tercentenary of the Hanoverian Succession

by J.N. Duggan

The 300th anniversary of the Accession of George I to the thrones of Great Britain and Ireland, which occurs on August 1st 2014, will probably be overlooked amidst the commemorations and remembrances of the First World War. This is understandable but, nevertheless, regrettable. Over the centuries, the Hanoverians have served their adopted realms well and Britain should be proud of them. The last eleven monarchs have borne different surnames: Welf, Wettin and Windsor, but they are all Hanoverians, since their succession to the throne of Great Britain was due, in each case, to their legitimate descent from the body of Sophia, Electress of Hanover, as had been laid down by the Act of Settlement of 1701.

Their success in holding onto the Crown over three centuries, probably owes a great deal to the fact that they arrived with no illusions about their Divine Right, or entitlement to rule. They understood from the start that they were there only by the Will of Parliament - which, over the 19th and 20th centuries, gradually became the will of the people - and that they could be dismissed at any time, as easily as they had been summoned. Sophia did, in fact, have scruples about disinheriting her Stuart cousins, but she soon overcame them, believing that she and her descendants could succeed where James II and his Catholic progeny were doomed to failure.

In 1701, there were 54 people who had a greater right to the British throne, in strictly hereditary terms, than the House of Hanover, but then, the English throne had never been bound by strict rules of inheritance. William the Conqueror had, after all, been a bastard, with a very dubious title to the crown and the Tudor claim was equally tenuous. Furthermore, it was on account of their Tudor blood that the Stuarts based their own claim to the English crown.

In spite of being thirty-five years older than Queen Anne, Sophia was optimistic about her chances of mounting the throne, although she wrote to her niece, Ameliese, in June 1703:

"There is little likelihood that I will ever go to England. The Queen doesn’t want me and she may well live longer than I. ‘Krakende Wagens gaan lang’ (creaking wagons travel far) says the Hollander, and the healthy, as God be praised and thanked I am, often die first. Everything is in God’s hands. I keep myself as calm as I can, which preserves my health."

However, she died (in her beloved garden at Herrenhausen, in her 84th year) on June 8th 1714, just 52 days before the Queen. Even the timing of her death facilitated her family in their aspirations. Had she died a few years earlier, the link between Hanover and Great Britain might have been seen as less compelling. If, on the other hand, she had survived long enough to actually be crowned Queen and set up her own court, that would have provided the Jacobites with innumerable opportunities to make mischief: especially as Sophia was accustomed to obey her eldest son in his position as Elector of Hanover, which she could not have been seen to do as Queen of Great Britain. Furthermore, George was a consummate politician, whereas Sophia, for all her intelligence, intellect and wit, was a political innocent and the dynasty might well have begun and ended with Queen Sophia.

For the last 300 years, her descendants have provided their subjects with a regal figurehead and rallying point in times of both triumph and tragedy. Over the centuries, they have transformed themselves, from German autocrats into thoroughly British constitutional monarchs, (who have, incidentally, gained a hundredfold in influence what they have lost in actual power). They have given their names and put a face to different periods of our history. The epithets Georgian, Regency, Victorian, Edwardian conjure up a far more evocative picture than the mention of actual dates.

The Hanovers have also conserved, preserved and added to our national heritage - George III deserves to be remembered for his additions to the Royal Library and The Royal Art Collection, rather than as the mad old King. Above all, they have provided stability and continuity for the Nation, and a fascinating family saga that has kept us all spellbound.

If only for their many contributions to the entertainment of the Nation, in the shape of Coronations, Royal Weddings, Royal Births, Royal Scandals, Royal Jubilees and even Royal Funerals, the Hanoverian tercentenary should not be allowed to pass unremarked!

J.N. Duggan's historical biography, Sophia of Hanover: Winter Princess published by Peter Owen Publishers, is available to buy online, in print and e-book editions.

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