The 300th anniversary of George I coming to the British throne on 1 August 1714 is big news in his home town of Hanover in Lower Saxony. Five shows are being put on in Hanover and the Hanoverian country schloss in nearby Celle, an utterly charming town that largely escaped the attentions of Allied bombers in the war.
The same can’t be said for Hanover, an important railway and manufacturing city flattened by our boys. Still, enough has been restored to make it worth a visit, not least the Herrenhausen Palace, the Hanovers’ austerely classical summer residence, burnt to the ground in 1943 and rebuilt last year by Volkswagen at vast expense.
My God, the German devotion to high culture is quite shaming — can you imagine a British car company rebuilding a British country house; that is, if most British car companies hadn’t already been rescued by foreign interests, many of them German.
Most of the Hanoverian art collection remained in Germany when George I came over to Britain. But he did bring 100 servants here with him, and a German menu, too; bratwurst, and lots of offal dishes, became favourites at the British royal table. As late as 1803, George III raised a special German corps under British command, the King’s German Legion, which fought under Wellington during the Peninsular war and at Waterloo. How things would change a century or so later.
Many of the exhibits in Hanover are borrowed from Britain, such as George I’s state crown, on loan from the Queen, used at all the coronations of our Hanover kings. Also on show is George III’s Hanover dinner service, borrowed from the Rothschild collection at Waddesdon Manor.
Less familiar is George IV’s gold rococo 1782 State Coach, taken back to Hanover in 1814. The kingdom of Hanover split from the kingdom of Britain soon after, in 1837. Because the Germans followed Salic law, meaning women couldn’t inherit the throne — Queen Victoria succeeded here. Her uncle, Ernest Augustus I, younger brother of George IV and William IV, became King of Hanover. It’s his great-great-great-grandson, Prince Ernst August, married to Princess Caroline of Monaco, who owns the State Coach and now heads the House of Hanover. He would be our king, too, if we weren’t so keen on queens.
Also on show in Hanover is the certificate that explains the whole extraordinary story — the original copy of the Act of Settlement ceremoniously handed to Sophia, the Electress of Hanover, in 1701. This was the law that ensured the succession to the throne of the nearest non-Catholic relation to Queen Anne in 1714 — Sophia’s son, George I.
Germany being Germany, they tell the whole enthralling story with a high-minded historical seriousness. And how utterly intriguing it is to visit this relatively small kingdom that so influenced the course of our island story.
We’ve got much the best things over here — and the best palaces, too, which the Luftwaffe largely avoided in the war, their direct hit on Buckingham Palace notwithstanding. For the 300th anniversary, three great royal palaces are being divided between the Georges. Hampton Court is devoted to George I. At Kensington Palace, the King’s State Apartments recreate the court of King George II and Queen Caroline. And Kew Palace — a forgotten gem — is given over to George III.
Some exceptional royal ephemera have been pulled out of the archives for the anniversary. At Hampton Court, there’s a 1727 book of drawings, with the inimitable title The Exact Head Dress of ye British Court Ladyes and Quality, by George I’s miniaturist, Bernard Lens III, a Dutch immigrant artist. It was in the 1720s, as the drawings reveal, that the fashion for dangerously short wigs took off.
Hampton Court also shows George II’s broadsword, with its appropriately hybrid mixture of manufacturers: the hilt was made in Glasgow, the blade in Germany. It’s a reminder that George II was the last British monarch to fight in battle, at Dettingen, near Frankfurt, in 1743. He was no mere figurehead held back from the front; at the Battle of Oudenarde, fought against the French in 1708, he had his horse shot out from underneath him.
Kensington Palace has some even more delicious royal bibelots, among them the leather collar of Peter the Wild Boy. The tragic feral child was another German import. In 1725, he was discovered in a forest near Hanover, from where he was promptly whisked over to Kensington Palace for the court’s entertainment. He can still be seen in a mural on the east wall of the King’s Staircase, with a poignantly proud, befuddled expression, clutching acorns and oak leaves in his hand. After George I’s death, Peter was sent to live with James Fenn, the farmer in Hertfordshire who made him a collar in case he got lost. On it is written, ‘Peter, the Wild Man of Hanover. Whoever will bring him to Mr Fenn at Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, shall be paid for their trouble.’
Many of the things on show at the royal palaces are of human more than aesthetic interest, but they are no worse for that. Some of them combine both qualities, like the Rockingham Mantua, the staggeringly wide dress worn by the Marchioness of Rockingham, whose husband became prime minister in 1765. It’s so wide that the marchioness had to squeeze through doors sideways — what a sight the striped and garlanded silk, with its shimmering silver lace, must have made.
The Kew show sheds useful light on Rockingham’s head of state, George III. Before porphyria-induced madness did for him, he was no fool. Tutored in architecture by the great neoclassicist Sir William Chambers, he produced some skilled architectural drawings, among them one on show at Kew, of a delicate Corinthian capital. Unlike his father and grandfather, George III was born in Britain, not Germany, and he was desperate to emphasise the fact. He inserted the line ‘Born and bred in this country, I glory in the name of Britain’ into his accession speech to Parliament.
I’m sure he did glory in Britain’s name. But still, take a walk round George I’s mausoleum in Hanover and the Hanoverian chapel at Celle, a dazzling chunk of Protestant High Renaissance beauty, and you see quite how intensely German, and European, the roots of the modern royal family are.
The Glorious Georges is at Hampton Court, Kensington Palace and Kew Palace until 31 December; The Hanoverians on Britain’s Throne 1714–1837 is in Hanover at the Lower Saxony State Museum; Herrenhausen Palace Museum; Museum of History; Wilhelm Busch German Museum of Caricature and Critical Graphic Art; and Celle Castle Residenzmuseum, Celle, between 17 May and 5 October.