“Real” or “Expedient”?: Hannah Smith’s Georgian Monarchy: Politics and Culture and the Question of Hanoverian Loyalty

Toni Bowers
University of Pennsylvania

Georgian Monarch: Politics and Culture, 1714-1760 (Cambridge 2006) sets out to revise received historical wisdom regarding George I and George II.   (Despite the book’s title, George III is a comparatively shadowy presence here, and George IV is mentioned only once.)   Beginning with a bold attack on the historians’ truism that the early Hanoverians “inspired little popular support or enthusiasm,” Hannah Smith argues that a vibrant and consequential “culture of monarchy” flourished between 1714 and 1760, a ground-up “cult of kingship” that, once perceived, “requires us to reconsider–even rethink–the dynamics of politics and society in early Georgian Britain” (2).   Royal imagery under the first two Georges was seldom promulgated by the monarchs themselves, Smith contends, but emerged nevertheless, by long habit, from several sources including institutions (e.g., the established churches and the army), and the efforts of enthusiastically loyal individuals and communities.   Often, she observes, such imagery was produced because of commercial motivations.   In short, though “it has been widely argued” that George I’s reign “saw but slight evidence of any cult of kingship or culture of monarchy,” Georgian Monarchy argues to the contrary with a particular aim of furthering the “rehabilitation of the first two Georgian kings” (246).

Smith is straightforward about the circumstances that worked against the popularity of the early Hanoverians.   George I, famously, spoke no English when he ascended.   He also arrived in London in 1714 with two “ugly mistresses” (3) but without his consort, Sophia Dorothea of Celle, whom he had divorced and locked up in Hanover twenty years earlier (she died, never having visited Britain, in 1726).   He practiced Lutheranism, not Anglicanism, and he presided over bitter, public family infighting.   Compounding all these detriments to the Georges’ likeability, Smith notes, is the fact that their history “was mainly written by the Victorians,” who were looking for “the heroic, the tragic, the sentimental, the emotive” and found it not in the Hanoverians, but in the fallen Stuarts (3-4).

Smith places her discussion of the Hanoverian “cult of kingship” within the recent scholarly discourse concerning seventeenth- and even sixteenth-century court culture, citing Peter Burke, Richard Cleary, Mary Cole, John Adamson, Kevin Sharpe, Brian Weiser, Malcolm Smuts, Clarissa Campbell Orr, and Sydney Anglo, among others.   She assumes continuity between eighteenth-century Britain and the “structural features” and “ideological preoccupations” of centuries past, and repeatedly claims that the work of early-modern historians offers useful models for historical study of the early eighteenth century (123-24; 246).   The choice provides Smith with some valuable tools, and she has learned her lessons well.   Eighteenth-century “monarchical culture . . . did not just serve the king,” she writes, directly transposing recent arguments about earlier dynasties:

it also served the needs of . . . subjects, who readily used it as a tool for negotiation . . . and as a commercial commodity . . . .   Monarchical culture must be seen as part of a much broader political, social, and economic process, in which both kings and subjects had vested interests. (245)

Like many recent historians of Britain, Smith strives to keep alive a European, rather than narrowly British, perspective (63-64), and she is a fine interpreter of texts.

Its orientation toward earlier epochs allows Georgian Monarchy to consider representations of the first Hanoverians (by the monarchs themselves and by others) in fresh ways.   Smith cogently traces the shift from earlier monarchs’ efforts to “promote the royal image . . . through art or literature” (for instance, in the work of a poet laureate) to George I’s more austere court and self-representational habits (78).   She argues persuasively that the “shift in mentalities about kingship” revealed in this development can help us to understand not only the attitudes of George I and II, but also “the emergence of early Enlightenment ideas about kingship” (75).

But Smith’s stance as an historian of the eighteenth century whose methods are largely borrowed from historians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries comes at a cost.   Except for George I’s resistance to “touching” and to lavishly commemorating military victories, both features of Queen Anne’s reign, there is virtually no discussion of the Hanoverians’ “monarchical style” in relation to that of their immediate predecessor, the last of the Stuart monarchs.   William III, too, makes only shadowy appearances here as a king shaping and shaped by his public representations.   The comparisons Smith wants to draw are primarily between the Georges, on one hand, and Elizabeth I and the early Stuarts, on the other.   But might not George I’s representational habits, obviously very different from those of the Tudors and early Stuarts, have been more largely in line with those of his nearer predecessors, both in Britain and in Hanover, than they seem to be in Smith’s account?   In the absence of these comparisons, the representational habits practiced by and surrounding George I and II seem to mark a significant break, but is that impression accurate?   How far may we assume that Anne, and William before her (not to mention William and Mary and, even further back, James II, who also go unaccounted for), continued the strategies of earlier monarchs?   How far was George I’s representation like or unlike that of his mother, Sophia Electress of Hanover?   Smith does not say–indeed, representations of Sophia get even shorter shrift than those of Anne and William: the subject occupies a single sentence on page 206.   Also left unaddressed is the fundamental question: how appropriate are the methods of historical scholarship on the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries to eighteenth-century subjects?

It may be that Smith’s frequent recourse to early-modern scholarly models functioned at Cambridge as a rationalization for this book’s inclusion in the Studies in Early Modern British History series.   But Georgian Monarchy is a noticeable outlier there –the only title in an eighty-volume series that is devoted to an eighteenth-century subject.   Inclusion of this book in the early-modern series is, in my opinion, somewhat far-fetched, and does not necessarily serve Georgian Monarchy well, despite its frequent references to scholarship on the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.   Smith’s book needs to be positioned to appeal as directly as possible to scholars of the British eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

In any case, we learn from Smith that, unlike their Tudor and early Stuart predecessors, “neither George I nor George II set down their thoughts on the nature and practice of kingship”; indeed, she admits that it is not too much to question whether by comparison they had “a style of kingship at all” (62).   Undismayed, Smith deftly recruits and elaborates familiar themes.   George I and George II, she argues, revealed their understanding of monarchy in practices such as their well-known frugality, which revealed both their consensual subordination to Parliament and their care not to emulate “extravagant ‘absolutist’ kingship” (75).   By the eighteenth century, Smith suggests (paraphrasing Frederick II of Prussia), paying his bills did more for a monarch’s reputation than grand spectacles or artistic patronage (76).

Smith also mines the archives for evidence of spectacles and patronage at the local level, including churches’ efforts to display the royal arms, for instance, or locally quartered soldiers’ roles in enforcing the ban on Highland dress, or in promoting local celebrations of Georgian anniversaries and achievements.   Such work “appears to have been generally undertaken by the officers and men on their own initiative, rather than in response to a directive from the government,” Smith claims more than once, though she acknowledges that the kings did order observances and specify the forms they would take, and that even as late as the time of George III there were parishes and individuals who resisted celebrating the Hanoverian monarchy (182).

Smith is an admirably alert and skeptical interpreter.   She makes compelling the need for more work on George I and II as Enlightenment figures, and argues, against the grain, that George III’s kingship was directly indebted to that of the first two Hanoverians (which she sees as much alike, despite George II’s greater sociability and the influence of Queen Caroline) and largely consistent with it (160).   She gives attention to queenship as well as kingship: the book includes well-informed and useful discussions of Caroline’s activities (33-37, 88-95) and emphasizes the importance the regime placed on its descent from Elizabeth of Bohemia, James I’s Protestant daughter (40-45).   Smith argues (not, to my mind, convincingly, but with originality) that the ideal of the Protestant Miles Christianus may have made George I and II even more “romantic and appealing” than the Stuart princes (58; 21-29).   And she displays an engaging wit: “[J. C. D.] Clark’s brave old world met with a host of criticisms,” she nicely observes (11); the “Reformation ideal of the manly magistrate who wielded a Bible in one hand and a sword in the other” was “supplemented by a thoroughly English enthusiasm for beating up the French” (32).

Yet despite all these strengths, when it comes to its largest claim, Georgian Monarchy is not entirely convincing.   This has more to do with the way Smith frames the claim itself, than with how she gathers and considers evidence.   The sweeping old-style argument–“everyone has been wrong before, and I’m here to set the record straight at last”–simply doesn’t stand up to the cacophonous material Smith marshals, or to her scrupulous consideration of many sides of each question she addresses.   The evidence often seems to do as much to undermine as to further the idea that the early Hanoverians, contrary to received wisdom, in fact enjoyed popular support so enthusiastic that they mostly did not even have to solicit it.   Smith does demonstrate that some British subjects supported the regime not only so far as was necessary but also with considerable initiative and energy of their own.   But as a scrupulous historian, she must also acknowledge that the dynasty did in fact require and enforce a great many commemorations, celebrations, disseminations of symbols, re-wordings of the prayer book, and so on; that these met, with some frequency, with local resistance (148-51; 162); and that many of the most willing advocates of Hanover stood to make money from their “loyalty.”   In a winning instance of how thoroughly Smith’s inductive habits and common sense tend to overwhelm her thesis, consider her recognition of the fact that even the apparently spontaneous celebrations that she enumerates as instances of “popular support and enthusiasm” relied heavily on alcoholic irrigation “to get the festive spirit flowing” (158).

It is difficult to understand, then, why the initial claim goes unrevised.   Why not recast the central argument in more nuanced language, in response to the insistent tendency toward multiplicity and complication that the details provoke?   The question arises not only when it comes to the book’s central claim, furthermore, but also, sometimes, when it comes to specific arguments.   A carefully modulated discussion of the many, often conflicting, motives behind various clerical players’ gestures of support for the dynasty, for instance, is disappointingly corralled into an overly neat conclusion: “we might, for our particular purposes, view it [i.e., the Church] as an agent of the early Georgian Monarchy” (162; elsewhere “it” is more accurately considered as two churches, Anglican and Presbyterian).   Here, as often, the evidence Smith presents clearly suggests a much richer and more complex situation than the summary can adequately account for.   In response to many such moments when reductive “this-and-not-that” claims falter, Smith consistently chooses to back off not from the grandiosity of the claims, but from the nuance present in the evidence.

“Historians, past and present, have given little consideration to the idea that there existed any enthusiasm, real or expedient, for the early Georgian Monarchy” (3), Smith declares in an attempt to carve out space for her own project.   But Smith knows as well as anyone that few historians have ever doubted the power of expediency in producing British support for the early Hanoverian kings.   Expediency is a given; the pivotal word here is “real.”   At the very moment when she claims to be raising the question of whether indeed there was “popular . . . enthusiasm” for the regime–what Smith calls “real” enthusiasm–she throws in “or expedient,” oddly diverting readers’ attention to a red herring.   Only if a distinction between “real” and “expedient” dynastic popularity pertains, only if the two are not interchangeable, is Smith’s project coherent.

Now, of course, “real” political support is difficult, perhaps impossible, to define and demonstrate.   Smith does try.   Sometimes she implicitly equates “real” with “sincere,” as when she contends that “‘Liberty’ [was] a benefit believed by Whigs to have been secured by George’s accession” (2).   More often, “real” support seems to mean simply admiring acts or declarations that were not solicited and so are somehow more authentic than obedience to commands.   But of course, purportedly autonomous acts are always subject to the insidious workings of coercion, overdetermination, and interest; there is no way, finally, to be certain about whether a specific expression of loyalty was sincere and unprovoked or whether it was motivated in some other way.   The problems exposed in the phrase “real or expedient” reveal a persistent fault line in Smith’s work.

Smith has done her homework and writes with a confidence born of thorough research.   But her tone occasionally slips into an unbecoming archness, a kind of insider-speak that does her work no favors.   Thus the reader is informed that John Hervey’s Some Materials towards Memoirs of the Reign of George II is “a tricky text,” but not enlightened about what that may mean (7); Namier’s work spawned a “preoccupation with counting heads”; and “liberated by the ‘cultural turn,’ few historians of the court would now deign to omit such an approach from their analyses” (13).   It must be said, as well, that the haughtiness sits poorly against some awkward prose.   “That ‘Merry England’ was finally destroyed by a Protestant stooge from Germany,” we read, “seemed to Chesterton as being supremely telling” (7); “The City of London owned portraits of monarchs from Charles II’s reign” (132); and “A memorial of 1717 flagged how the clergy’s lot remained harsh” (168).   Such moments are legion.   The writing is also marred by a tendency to overdo commas, by sentences repeated almost verbatim, and by telling slips: occasionally Smith says “England” when she means “Britain,” for instance.   Part III repeats a great deal of what came before.   In addition to these setbacks, there are quotations for which corresponding entries cannot be found in the bibliography (the headnote to chapter 4 does not even give the title of the poem it quotes); in any case the bibliography has too many subheadings to be easily negotiated by readers.

These weaknesses do add up to a diminished reading experience and some loss of authority for Smith.   Nevertheless, Smith shows herself to be a subtle reader capable of original thinking.   She should be applauded for taking on a still-neglected subject and breathing new life into it.