We look at Prince George’s colourful royal namesakes and how they fared on the throne.
From the moment the son of The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge was born in July 2013, speculation ran riot over the choice of his first name. George was the public’s favourite, with James in second spot. William and Catherine plumped for George Alexander Louis, sticking firmly to royal traditions, and they duly did so in double-quick time.
His Royal Highness Prince George of Cambridge was just two days old when the announcement was made – William had been unnamed for a week after his birth while his father, Charles, remained anonymous for a whole month after he was born in 1948.
It has been suggested that in choosing ‘George’ the Duke and Duchess are paying tribute to The Queen’s father, George VI; others say the couple merely liked the name, and no doubt they have set a trend for a generation of boys to come. But royal names are also important because they define eras. So, what sort of kings were young George’s namesakes, and how did they handle the role that he will inherit one day?
There have been six British monarchs called George. The first four ruled consecutively from 1714 to 1830 to provide history with the resplendent Georgian age that we recall through the harmonious Palladian architecture of great stately homes, the Battles of Trafalgar (1805) and Waterloo (1815), the social whirl of Jane Austen novels, and the grind of the Industrial Revolution.
The four Georges, all from the House of Hanover, were an unlikely cast of kings. The first, the Elector of Hanover, was only 52nd in line to the British throne, but he was the closest Protestant claimant: following the 1701 Act of Succession, Roman Catholics were excluded from the inheritance. So when Queen Anne died childless in 1714, he was plucked from his tiny German kingdom to become Britain’s George I.
Already 54 years old at his accession, George is infamous for his German mistresses, for imprisoning his wife because of her indiscretions with a Swedish cavalry officer, and for scarcely speaking any English. Used to getting his own way, he quickly tired of the English parliamentary system of negotiation and mostly left a minister to represent him at Cabinet meetings – unwittingly initiating the role of Prime Minister.
Less well known is that George loved music and we at least can thank him for bringing George Frideric Handel to England where, among other things, the composer produced his famous Water Music for a royal party on the River Thames.
Despite his unpopularity, George I survived the 1715 Jacobite uprising that sought to put James Stuart, Roman Catholic son of James II, on the throne, and the Crown passed to George’s son in relative calm.
George II (reigned 1727-1760) made the effort to speak English and the public warmed more to this ‘foreigner’ than the last, though like his father he had a penchant for mistresses preferring Hanover to Britain.
He also liked to meddle in politics, unable to accept the increasingly constitutional role of the monarchy. “I am sick to death of all this foolish stuff,” he once exploded. But he stayed and, at the age of 61, he even became the last British monarch to lead his troops into battle, against the French at Dettingen in 1743.
Two years later, further Jacobite trouble in Scotland threatened the Hanoverian reign, this time with the attempt to put ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’, the grandson of James II on the throne. The uprising was brutally quashed at the Battle of Culloden in 1746 and any realistic Stuart hopes for the Crown were now at an end. A curious consequence of the episode was the emergence of ‘God Save the King’, now the British National Anthem, which was played as a sign of patriotic support for George II.
George’s heir Frederick died, so the succession skipped to his grandson George III (r. 1760-1820). Poor George III is chiefly remembered for the loss of Britain’s American colonies following the War of American Independence and, as portrayed in the film The Madness of King George, for becoming deranged: he probably suffered from porphyria.
But there was so much more to the most likeable of the Hanoverian sovereigns. The first Georgian king to be born in England and speak English without a telltale accent, he was master of the common touch. He preferred to live simply and was nicknamed ‘Farmer George’ on account of his interest in agriculture, writing pamphlets on the subject under the nom de plume Ralph Robinson.
He was also highly cultured and founded the Royal Academy of Arts, and he was a devoted family man, fathering no fewer than 15 children by his wife Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz.
When the king became too ill, his son acted as Prince Regent from 1811, and then from 1820 to 1830 reigned as King George IV. To get the measure of this George we need look no further than his flamboyant pleasure palace, the Royal Pavilion in Brighton with its Indian-style domes and exotic Chinese interiors. Here, beneath lotus-shaped chandeliers, George entertained his racy friends, tinkling the royal fingers on the pianoforte.
When still a prince, George IV had illegally married a Roman Catholic widow, then been forced into a more ‘suitable’ marriage with Caroline of Brunswick, a match of mutual loathing. His debauched lifestyle – so at odds with the hardships of the common man – was mercilessly lampooned by cartoonists of the day.
And yet, loose cannon that he was, George presided over a glittering era for the arts and had the vision to commission John Nash to develop London’s West End. He also converted Buckingham House, acquired by his father, into a palace – the principal official residence of the British monarchy. He loved pageantry and squeezed his corpulent body into Highland dress for a visit to Edinburgh in 1822, stage-managed by Sir Walter Scott, to schmooze the Scots and begin to heal the wounds of Culloden.
The House of Hanover survived George IV’s excesses, via the reigns of William IV and Queen Victoria to 1901, and the Edwardian years provided an elegant interlude to 1910. When George V ascended the throne (r. 1910-1936), 80 years after his last namesake, much had changed in Britain. The British Empire had reached its height and would soon shape-shift into the British Commonwealth; the old social order was fading and new challenges demanded a reinvention of the sovereign’s role. In George V and George VI, the country was given two reluctant kings who yet fashioned the modern monarchy.
Post-war, he continued to show a quiet understanding of what was needed to help draw people together in challenging times. He encouraged the idea of a National Government, formed in 1931, to tackle the country’s social and economic woes. And in 1932, he inaugurated the tradition of a Christmas Day broadcast that, to this day, continues to bring sovereign and subject a little closer.
The accession of George’s younger son Albert was more traumatic. When the heir Edward VIII suddenly abdicated in order to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson, Bertie had to step into his brother’s shoes. He was totally unprepared and terrified of public office, not least because he suffered from a stammer (as portrayed in The King’s Speech). Staunchly supported by his wife Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, he nevertheless grasped his duty, at no little cost to his health.
Choosing to be known by his fourth name to stress the continuity of the succession, George VI (r. 1936-1952) set about restoring the dignity of the Crown. He presented a strong image of family life: “Us Four”, including his wife and daughters Elizabeth and Margaret Rose. When the Second World War broke he maintained a high public profile visiting factories, troops and bomb-damaged homes, and during the Blitz he and the queen refused to leave Buckingham Palace, though it received a direct hit in 1940. Such behaviour endeared them to the nation.
George VI, in wartime prime minister Winston Churchill’s words “a model and a guide to constitutional sovereigns”, reinvigorated the monarchy as a ‘family monarchy’ given to public service, and it is this legacy that he passed to his daughter, Queen Elizabeth II.
What the future holds for Prince George of Cambridge is impossible to predict: it will be many decades before he is likely to be king, with HRH Prince Charles and HRH Prince William ahead of him in the succession. What is clear already is that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge plan as ‘normal’ an upbringing for him as possible, among the Middleton family as much as the Windsors. Whatever his colourful namesakes, he will be encouraged to be his own man.
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