George II: Not Just a British Monarch is a succinct and witty memorial to a king who hasn’t an official one. Part of the Penguin Monarchs series, the work is at the vanguard of twenty-first scholarship meant to recover the reputation of this largely forgotten monarch; a man whose thirty-three year reign was – for a host of reasons, none being very convincing – ‘consigned to oblivion’ in the decades and centuries after his death in 1760. The rescue attempt has fallen to Prof. Norman Davies, renowned historian of European history and author of Beneath Another Sky: A Global Journey into History (Penguin, 2017), who it has been said is not inclined to speak well of the English given his own Welsh ancestry. This is perhaps fitting as George II – or George II Augustus as Prof. Davies would see him styled – was himself not inherently English but a Hanoverian-Guelph from the Continent whose provincial, Protestant family were duke-electors in the Holy Roman Empire until the anti-Stuart Act of Settlement in 1701 catapulted them into the echelons of British royalty.
Thus, upon the passing of his regnal father in 1727, a middle-aged Protestant native of Hanover became ‘George the Second, by the Grace of God, King of Great Britain, France [in name only] and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg, Archtreasurer and Prince-Elector of the Holy Roman Empire’. Yet, writes Prof. Davies in a prose that is equally elegant and energetic, and likewise interspersed with quotes of contemporary verse or song, George Augustus ‘finds no niche in the national pantheon’ of British sovereigns. While he was an accomplished military man and warrior-king, he was neither Crusader nor invader; his daring in the field paling in comparison to the feats of Richard or William. Nor was he an abject or detestable king such as John or Henry VIII; and ill-tempered though he was, he was far from despotic, never losing half of his kingdom in the heat of battle or beheading his wife in a fit of rage. Therein seems to lie the greatest problem with George II Augustus: his was a reign of no enduring glory, scandal or disaster; largely unremarkable apart from the stability it wrought.
Under his watch the ship simply sailed on: British influence in Europe and elsewhere expanded while the combined Anglo-Hanoverian realm he ruled over experienced something of a military, cultural and economic awakening. And for these many blessings past historians were want to shout ‘George II be damned!’; this Prof. Davies explains due largely to a combination of anachronism – the judging of one ‘by the yardsticks of later times’ – and the rise of the Whig Interpretation ‘which habitually degraded monarchs to the greater glory of Parliament’. Of such degradation the memory of George Augustus certainly fell victim.
However, far from the cliché he has devolved into today – that of the fat, weak-minded, penny-pinching, Germanic stickler – Prof. Davies, through detailed exploration of the elector-king and his many complicated relationships – specifically, those with his family; with Parliament and his prime ministers; with his adopted nation and his homeland – paints a portrait of George II Augustus as a rarified political animal: a force of nature who confounded his critics and showed resolve in the face of adversity, outliving or outfoxing his opponents with his grip always firmly on the helm. In George II: Not Just a British Monarch readers are reminded that the ‘considered judgment’ of those contemporaries who worked with or knew him ‘was a great deal better than the cursory treatment accorded him by historians’, the author leaving us with the words of Lord Hardwicke (1690-1764), who of George Augustus wrote: ‘He died in the height of his glory, loved, honoured and respected by all Europe.’
George II: Not Just a British Monarch, by Norman Davies is out now.
Andrew Darden is a post-graduate researcher at University College London and was most recently appointed lecteur d’anglaisat the Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris. A graduate of the universities of Texas (Austin), Columbia and Cambridge, his dissertation explores legendary swords in the Angevin, Habsburg and Capetian royal courts of medieval and early modern Europe.