Britain under King George I, 1714-1727



On August 1, 1714, Queen Anne died, and the orderly succession of Hanover’s Elector Georg Ludwig proclaimed him King George I of Britain and Ireland as the closest Protestant relative of Anne.


By Dr. Sanderson Beck
Author and Historian


Henry St John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke. Attributed to Alexis Simon Belle, c.1712. / National Portrait Gallery, London, Wikimedia Commons

In 1714 about six million people lived in England and Wales. George was 54 years old when he arrived on September 18 with his private secretary Jean de Robethon and his courtiers. Fourteen of the eighteen lords justices who had acted as regents were Whigs, though the Tories still controlled Parliament. King George began by dismissing Henry St. John (Viscount Bolingbroke) and Captain-general Ormonde. All but two of the new ministers were Whigs. Charles Townshend became secretary for the northern department and James Stanhope secretary for the southern department. Parliament dissolved on January 5, 1715, and ten days later a royal proclamation called for an election that gave the Whigs a 341-217 advantage. They met in March and impeached four men in June. Bolingbroke and Ormonde had fled to France in March, and Robert Harley, the Earl of Oxford, and Thomas Wentworth, the Earl of Strafford, were held for two years in the Tower. Parliament passed the Riot Act in July to give magistrates more power over unlawful assemblies, and the Habeas Corpus Act was suspended for six months. On August 18 an Act of Attainder was passed against Bolingbroke for having joined the exiled James Francis Edward Stuart.

“Jacobites” by John Pettie (1874): romantic view of Jacobitism / Wikimedia Commons

After Queen Anne’s death Francis Atterbury, Bishop of Rochester, urged the Duke of Ormonde, Viscount Bolingbroke, the Earl of Bathurst, and William Wyndham to proclaim the Catholic James Francis Edward Stuart king, but they decided not to do so, thus delaying Jacobite attempts. The Jacobite party had only about 25,000 supporters. John Erskine, Earl of Mar, had favored the Union of Scotland into Great Britain that was achieved in 1707, but in 1713 he proposed repealing the Act of Union. He and Highland chiefs signed a letter of loyalty to George; but after the King snubbed him in public, Mar joined the Jacobites and organized them in the Grampian Highlands on September 6, 1715. That month Wyndham and five other members of the Commons and two peers of the Lords were arrested for plotting a Jacobite uprising in the west. Ormonde’s two attempts to land a force on the coast of Devonshire failed in October and December, and he went back to France. Thomas Forster led some Jacobites from northeast England into Scotland, gathered about 4,500 men, and went to Lancaster in northwest England, but on November 14 at Preston they were surrounded and capitulated to the government’s forces.

Mars Wark: The Earl of Mar’s house in Stirling, situated on the approach to Stirling Castle, the Earl of Mar was governor of the castle during the mid-16th century. / Photo by QuintusPetillius, Wikimedia Commons

The strongest revolt was in Scotland led by the Earl of Mar who raised an army of 12,000 and fought against a British force of 6,000 led by the second Duke of Argyll at Sheriffmuir on November 13; but Argyll was reinforced by 6,000 Dutch allies in December. On the 22nd the pretender James VIII landed at Peterhead in Scotland, and in January 1716 he set up a court at Perth; but he and Mar fled to France on February 4, and by April the Jacobite rebellion was suppressed. Hundreds of Jacobites were imprisoned; two peers and thirty others were executed, and about 700 were sent to indentured servitude in the West Indies; but in July 1717 Parliament passed the Act of Grace and Free Pardon that granted amnesty to hundreds, though large estates had been confiscated. The Disarming Act of 1716 offered compensation for weapons, but Jacobite clans retained theirs. James took refuge with Pope Clement XII and in 1719 married his god-daughter Maria Clementina Sobieska who gave birth to Charles Edward in 1720 and in 1725 to Henry Benedict Stuart who became a cardinal.

Portrait of Robert Walpole (1676–1745), by Arthur Pond (1742) / National Portrait Gallery, London, Wikimedia Commons

Robert Walpole became Chancellor of the Exchequer in October 1715 until 1717. Members of Parliament did not want to face an election after three years and so passed the Septennial Act that delayed the elections due in 1718 by four years. Britain made a commercial treaty with Spain in December 1715. English diplomats negotiated an alliance with the Dutch on January 26, 1716 (OS) and another with the Habsburg Emperor Charles VI in May. King George went to Hanover in July until January 1717, leaving his son George advised by Townshend and Walpole. George I never learned English, but his son did and spoke with a German accent. A long negotiation resulted in a treaty with France in November 1716, and it became a Triple Alliance with the Dutch on December 24 (OS). Townshend left, and Walpole resigned in April 1717, making James Stanhope and Charles Spencer, the Earl of Sunderland, the chief ministers. The British army had been increased to 36,000 men by 1716 but was back down to 16,300 by 1718 and to 12,400 in 1721. In 1717 the Golden Lion was the first coffee house in London to admit women. On June 4 the secretive freemasons established their first Grand Lodge in Covent Garden.

A painting of Mary Wortley Montagu by Jonathan Richardson the Younger / Wikimedia Commons

In 1718 Parliament passed a law for the transportation of convicts to Maryland and Virginia where they were sold at auction for the terms of their sentences, and this would go on until the American War of Independence. Also in 1718 the first English bank notes were issued. Many Scots and Irish began emigrating to America. Matthew Prior wrote poetry while in prison 1715-17, and in 1718 published Alma; or, The Progress of the Mind and Solomon, and other Poems on several Occasions. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu wrote “Inoculation Against Smallpox,” about early efforts in which 98% survived. After testing it on eleven charity children and six prisoners whose death sentences were commuted, she gave it to her own daughter and to two of George I’s grandchildren. George I tolerated dissenters, and in January 1719 the Whig Parliament repealed the Occasional Conformity and Schism Acts. On April 28 the Commons rejected Sunderland’s Peerage Bill to close the House of Lords and to limit the number of peers.

In August 1718 Britain, France, the Dutch, and the Austrian Empire formed the Quadruple Alliance against Spain’s Bourbon Felipe V. Stanhope moved between Paris and Madrid to negotiate; but the Spaniards rejected the terms, and 29 British ships led by Admiral George Byng defeated them off Cape Passaro on July 31 (OS), capturing 3,600 men. The Quadruple Alliance declared war against Spain on December 17 (OS). Eight days later the British allied with Hanover, Saxony, Poland, and the Austrian Emperor against Russia and Prussia. A fleet of 27 ships led by the Duke of Ormonde was devastated by a storm near Cape Finisterre on March 29, 1719, and about 1,150 Jacobites were defeated at Glenshiel on June 10. On August 11 (NS) a British fleet of 29 ships led by Admiral George Byng defeated 25 Spanish vessels by sinking, burning, or capturing all but five of them off Cape Passaro near Sicily. In November 1719 Stanhope reported that the King had agreed to send his German advisors back to Hanover. The Swedish ambassador Karl Gyllenborg was suspected of intriguing with Jacobites, but the death of Karl XII in November 1718 reduced the Swedish threat. Stanhope sent John Carteret to Stockholm, and the Quadruple Alliance made peace with Felipe V at The Hague on February 17 (NS), 1720, resolving issues in southern Europe. Stanhope continued to negotiate with Spain, but the British public did not want to give up Gibraltar.

Walpole in December 1719 gave a speech in Parliament that led to the defeat of the Peerage Bill of ministers Stanhope and Sunderland that would have secured their majority in the lords by limiting it to current families. The Whig Party was split, but on June 11, 1720 Townshend became President of the Council and Walpole Paymaster-General. The Parliament authorized workhouses for petty offenders. George Frideric Handel had moved to England in 1712, and his Water suites had been performed in July 1717. In 1720 the Royal Academy of Music made him director, and his oratorio Esther was performed. In 1721 Nathaniel Bailey published his Universal Etymological Dictionary, and it had several editions.

1754 engraving of Old South Sea House, the headquarters of the South Sea Company, burned down in 1826,[1] on the corner of Bishopsgate Streetand Threadneedle Street in the City of London, by Thomas Bowles, 1754 / Harvard University, Baker Business Historical Collections, Wikimedia Commons

The South Sea Company had been formed in 1711 to exploit South American trade. In 1714 the national debt was £52 million with annual interest payments of £3.5 million. In one month in 1719 the share price of the South Sea stock went from £77 to £123.5. In January 1720 Treasury head Sunderland and Parliament were persuaded to accept the South Sea Company’s offer to take over three-fifths of Britain’s national debt of £51,000,000 for a payment of £7,000,000 and receive 5% interest from the government until 1727 and 4% after that. On April 12, 1720 new stock was offered at £300 a share. It rose quickly, and on June 11, 1720 Parliament passed the Bubble Act which prohibited the forming of joint-stock companies unless they had a royal charter, which was expensive and difficult to obtain. In July a new issue sold for £1,000. That month they learned that Law’s Mississippi Bubble had burst in Paris. John Blount and other South Sea directors began secretly selling their stock. In September the stock fell drastically from £700 to £135.

Those accused of accepting bribes from the Company included two of the King’s mistresses, the Duchess of Kendal and Madame von Platen, as well as Chancellor of the Exchequer John Aislabie, Stanhope’s cousin Charles, and Postmaster James Craggs and his son. Walpole came up with a plan to transfer shares back to the East India Company and the Bank of England. In January 1721 Parliament prohibited South Sea directors from leaving the country, but the Company’s secretary destroyed important evidence and then fled anyway. Parliament expelled four directors and arrested two of them. James Stanhope died of a stroke on February 5 and was succeeded by Walpole’s brother-in-law Townshend as Northern Secretary. The Southern Secretary Craggs died of smallpox; Aislabie resigned and on March 9 was sent to the Tower for having accepted stock to help pass the South Sea Bill. On April 3 Walpole was appointed First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer to restore finances after the South Sea Company’s bubble burst. He restored public credit by equally dividing the South Sea Company’s stock between the East India Company and the Bank of England. Britain joined the March alliance between Spain and France in June, and Townshend resigned on the 21st. An investigation revealed that directors had spent £574,000 bribing government leaders. Also in 1721 Parliament prohibited using imported calicos to help the English textile industry. On March 8, 1722 the first Parliament of George I was dissolved.

Robert Walpole was born on August 26, 1676. He learned Latin well enough to converse with King George I. He drank with others and discussed hunting. In 1701 he became a member of Parliament from Castle Rising, and he chose the Tower rather than become a Tory in 1710. He supported writers who wrote pamphlets favoring his views, and he urged Parliament to censor the theater. Walpole declined a peerage which strengthened his control in the Commons but weakened his influence in the Lords.

After Sunderland died on April 19, 1722, Robert Walpole became in effect England’s first prime minister for the next twenty years. That month he learned of another Jacobite plot, and the next month Bishop Atterbury’s secretary Kelly was put in the Tower. Atterbury was arrested on September 24 for contacting the pretender, and in the trial of Christopher Layer in November the plot was exposed. Parliament met on October 3 and two weeks later suspended the Habeas Corpus Act for one year. Roman Catholics and non-jurors had to pay a special tax of 5 shillings per pound. Layer was executed in May 1723, and that month Parliament banished Bishop Atterbury. Bolingbroke was pardoned and returned from exile in June but was not allowed to sit in the House of Lords. Walpole’s vigilance helped prevent any more Jacobite plots during his long ministry, and he reduced the duties on tea. On October 2 Britain banned trading with the Austrian Ostend Company. Also in 1723 White Kennett in his satirical poem “Armour” referred to condoms that could free English wives from a “big belly and the squalling brat.” Jews in Britain were allowed to take oaths without saying “on the true faith of a Christian.”

Etching of Rob Roy MacGregor, by W.H. Worthington / Wikimedia Commons

Rob Roy MacGregor (1671-1734) had fought at Kiliecrankie in 1689. In 1712 he sold his cattle but was not paid and went after the buyer. The Duke of Montrose outlawed him and confiscated his land, evicting his wife and children. Rob Roy fought against Montrose and took to cattle rustling and robbing. He became an ally of the Duke of Argyll and fought for Mar in 1715 and with the Jacobites at Glenshiel in 1719. In 1723 Daniel Defoe published the biographical novel Rob Roy, the Highland Rogue. In June 1725 Scots in the Lowlands rioted against the imposition of the Malt Tax. That year General George Wade disarmed the Highlands, and in the next eleven years he supervised the construction of Fort George and Fort Augustus as well as 250 miles of metallic roads.

Thomas Parker had been Chief Justice of the King’s Bench 1710-18 and was made Baron of Macclesfield in 1714. In 1718 he was appointed Chancellor with a pension for life, but in 1725 he was impeached, removed, and fined £30,000 for taking more than £100,000 in bribes for judicial offices. Efforts were made to reform the Chancery as the fees gave the wealthy great advantage over the poor.

Thomas Guy made a fortune selling books and increased it by investing in the South Sea Company. He contributed to St. Thomas hospital in London, and after his death in 1724 his legacy funded nearby Guy’s Hospital that Parliament chartered in 1725. Within a decade they were admitting nearly 2,000 patients annually. In April 1725 the London Journal reported that seven homosexuals were arrested, and in May three others were hanged for sodomy. Police had discovered twenty clubs where homosexuals met. London had nearly 2,000 coffee houses.

In 1723 Walpole expanded the bonded warehouse system so that re-exported goods paid no duties. He began applying it to tea, coffee, and cocoa, but his attempt to extend it to wine and tobacco ten years later would be blocked by public opposition. Walpole implemented the mercantile policy of importing commodities and exporting manufactured goods. British exports would increase from about £8 million in 1720 to £15 million by 1763. Acts were passed in 1721 and 1726 so that justices of the peace could keep wages low through regulation and by prohibiting workers from combining to get better pay and labor conditions. On April 3, 1724 Carteret and Townshend were dismissed. Thomas Pelham-Holles, Duke of Newcastle, became Southern Secretary, and his brother Henry Pelham was appointed Secretary of War. Carteret was sent to govern Ireland in October. When George I became king, England had eight provincial newspapers; but by the end of his reign there were seventeen more. In December 1726 Bolingbroke and William Pulteney, Earl of Bath, began editing the journal, The Craftsman, to criticize Walpole’s government.

In September 1723 Townshend had negotiated two marriages and a defensive alliance with Prussia’s Friedrich Wilhelm, but difficulties prevented a treaty. He went with King George to Hanover in the second half of 1725, and on September 3 they included France in their military alliance. Townshend also allied Britain with the Dutch in August 1726 and with Sweden and Denmark in 1727 after Spain’s armed forces began besieging Gibraltar and attacking British ships in February 1727. The cost of getting elected to Parliament had increased so much that in 1727 the Earl of Egmont spent £900 to win his seat. That year Quakers began a campaign to abolish the slave trade. Parson Stephen Hales published Vegetable Staticks, initiating the study of plant physiology.


Originally published by Sanderson Beck, Europe and Reason, 1715-1788, free and open-access, republished for educational, non-commercial purposes.

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