The centenary of the start of the first world war is getting much more attention than the tricentenary of the accession of George I, which also falls this week. As far as I can tell, no new biographies of the first Hanoverian king are imminent, whereas books on the great war are pouring forth. You can see why. The replacement of a plump, if benign, queen by an ‘obstinate and humdrum German martinet with dull brains and coarse tastes’ (Winston Churchill’s words), who presided over a huge financial scandal and died unlamented after a short reign, need hardly detain us.
But forget the royals and focus on what we might call the reshuffle among politicians that accompanied the change. Here’s how Henry St John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke, described the last week of July 1714 in a letter to Dean Swift: ‘The Earl of Oxford was removed on Tuesday. The Queen died on Sunday. What a world this is, and how does fortune banter us.’
The fall of the Jacobite-leaning Tories, led by Bolingbroke and his rival and former friend Oxford, with a coup d’état in the Privy Council by the Hanoverian-favouring Whigs, led by the Duke of Shrewsbury, on 30 July turned out to be a key moment in British history. It was never reversed, despite several attempts. In its own way it was as significant as 1216 and 1688.
The Tory Bolingbroke, a dazzling orator and spectacular libertine, had been stuffing positions of power with fellow Jacobites since becoming secretary of state and overshadowing his erstwhile ally the Earl of Oxford. But at an emergency privy council meeting on 30 July following the Queen’s stroke, he found himself outwitted by Shrewsbury, who unexpectedly summoned two fellow Whigs, the Dukes of Argyll and Somerset. The council got the barely conscious Queen to make Shrewsbury Lord Treasurer, then sat late into the night dispatching messages to alert garrisons and ensure that the Hanoverian succession was proclaimed.
Had Bolingbroke prevailed at that meeting, we would probably have had a King James III, though there would almost certainly have been a civil war (instead of the minor fiasco of the Fifteen).