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The Hanoverians: The History of a Dynasty.

The Hanoverians: The History of a Dynasty, by Jeremy Black. London, Hambledon and London, 2004. xiv, 266 pp. $36.33 US (cloth), $19.95 US (paper).

Jeremy Black, professor of history at the University of Exeter, is a prolific author whose particular expertise has been the eighteenth century. This has not stopped him from writing military histories of the world wars, any more than his customary focus on traditional kinds of history has prevented him from writing on cultural topics such as the aristocratic grand tour and the rise of newspapers. Black also has a reputation as a political conservative, having written for such influential American journals as The National Interest and Orbis. One wonders how one man can write so much.

Black's Hanoverians is a part of a larger series on European dynasties by Hambledon. Among the present and planned volumes, the Hanoverians are the most recent British royal dynasty to be treated, and this is perhaps appropriate, given that the Hanoverians were the last such dynasty to exercise executive authority. Black traces the process by which, over a century or more, these imported kings lost much of their real power, slowly, inexorably, and not without resistance, but becoming in the process central symbols of Britishness.

The eighteenth century, dominated by the Hanoverians, had the misfortune to fall between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. Both the seventeenth century, scene of the British civil wars and the constitution of 1689, and the nineteenth, with its liberalism and its reform bills, lend themselves without too much historical manipulation to a whiggish narrative of progress to the democracy of the twentieth century. The eighteenth century thus appears a hiatus, a century often passed over quickly with brief references to events in America and India, perhaps enlivened by a few witticisms from Johnson. Black's book does an able job of restoring to the high politics of the eighteenth century their true significance in British constitutional development.

The first Hanoverian, George I, also the Elector of Hanover--that title referring to his role in the Holy Roman Empire--was proclaimed king of the newly United Kingdom on the death without issue of Queen Anne in 1714. Anne was the daughter of William of Orange, crowned William III on the ostensible abdication--flight in the face of rebellion would be a more accurate description--of the Catholic James VII/II in 1688. The Act of Settlement of 1701 conferred the English (and hence also the Scottish) succession on George's Protestant mother, a descendant of James VI/I, who had been king almost a century earlier, superseding the superior dynastic claims of the Stuart "Charles III" and fifty-three other Catholics. It was clear that the ruling classes would now choose their royal masters.

George I arrived in England a man in his fifties with considerable political and military experience, but no knowledge of the English language. He, thus, depended extensively on his ministers: this period marks the beginning of cabinet government as it came to be known, and George I's most eminent "prime" minister, Sir Robert Walpole, was the first to wear that title (originally a somewhat pejorative label for a royal favourite). The Hanoverian succession provoked an uprising on the part of the Jacobites, and thirty years later the succession of George II provoked another rebellion, the famous 1745 rising of "Bonnie Prince Charlie" in Scotland. The threat of Jacobite rebellions and the proscription of their "tory" sympathizers kept the new dynasty and its whig supporters together through the first half of the eighteenth century.

It was only with the accession of George III that tories came back into royal favour. The sixty-year (1760-1820) reign of "Farmer George" is remembered for its association with the governments of Lord North, Pitt the Younger, and Lord Liverpool, and also for George's opposition to American independence and to Catholic emancipation, and has much to do with the tendency of too many students to equate toryism with royalism. Black's book, among its other virtues, disentangles the eighteenth-century labels of "tory" and "whig" from the nineteenth-century baggage of the terms "conservative" and "liberal." The last Hanoverian, William IV, was succeeded by Victoria in 1837. As Black argues, the Hanoverian achievement was to leave their Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (and hence Windsor) successors a much more secure, if less powerful, dynasty. It cannot be argued--and Black does not try--that they intended this result, but they did in the end lay the institutional, and indeed much of the ideological, groundwork for the profound constitutional changes of the Victorian era.

The present volume is neither a popular history nor a scholarly monograph: it falls into the sometimes-denigrated category of synthetic narrative. But it is a synthesis by a historian uniquely qualified to synthesize, it refers to well-chosen and illustrative primary documents, and it has the advantage of making a clear, tersely phrased argument. Series on grand themes like dynasties can degenerate into coffee table books permeated with nostalgic grandeur, but this one is solid history. The volume would be suitable for senior undergraduates and for others needing a brief introduction, or even a refresher, of British high politics in the long eighteenth century.

Mark F. Proudman

Toronto, Ontario
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Author:Proudman, Mark F.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2006
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