George III and the ‘German Empire’

Dr Michael Rowe, Senior Lecturer in Modern European History, King’s College London


George III’s relationship with Germany was less obviously intimate than that enjoyed by his two predecessors. He proudly and very publicly asserted his British identity, at the expense of his Hanoverian roots: ‘Born and educated in this country, I glory in the name of Britain’, he famously stated in his accession speech to Parliament on 18 November 1760. The Electorate of Hanover, which he inherited at the same time, he in contrast disparaged as an encumbrance.

Documents from the Royal Archives provide a more nuanced picture. Notes and essays written by George himself reveal a considerable depth of knowledge on his part of the history and constitution of the Holy Roman Empire, of which Hanover was a part. Especially interesting is the file GEO ADDL MSS 32/481-524, and within this file an essay of over forty pages [ff 489-511] on the Empire’s government. The relevant foundational constitutional documents and agreements are all identified and described, including the Golden Bull (1356), Diet of Worms (1495), Peace of Augsburg (1555), Peace of Westphalia (1648) and various ‘capitulations’ or undertakings made by emperors upon their election. In George’s time the Empire possessed nine princes with the title of Elector, a dignity to which Hanover’s rulers had been raised comparatively recently (1692). Not surprisingly, the essay lavishes much attention to this office, including details on the important rights that came with it. These included that of ‘non appellando’, which meant that the judgments of electoral courts could not be appealed to one of the higher imperial tribunals. Electors also had the authority to raise taxes and in terms of precedence were broadly equivalent to kings, who addressed electors as ‘brother’ in correspondence. Electors could sign treaties with foreign powers and claim forfeitures in their own dominions. Their main role, as reflected in their title, was of course to elect the Holy Roman Emperor.

Interestingly, the essay makes no reference to the Electorate of Hanover as a territorial entity that might be prized because of its resources. This is hardly surprising given that Hanover was if anything a geopolitical liability, open to occupation by Britain’s most constant eighteenth-century foe, France. Seen in these terms it really was a ‘horrid Electorate’, as George described it in 1759. The value of Hanover to George derived not from the territory, but from the attendant office of Elector, a distinction historians tend to overlook. Possession of this title might be viewed as the eighteenth-century equivalent of occupying a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. However arcane the Holy Roman Empire appears, the electorship meant a seat at the top table within an entity still integral to European politics. Furthermore, Elector George occupied this seat independent of his role as Britain’s sovereign; to put it another way, it allowed him a role in international politics free from the usual parliamentary and ministerial constraints to which Kings of Great Britain were generally subject.

Essay on the German Empire’s governance by George III (RA GEO/ADD/32/481). Royal Archives/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017

A second file – GEO ADDL MSS 32/525-554 – contains additional material relating to the Holy Roman Empire. It includes handwritten copies of two published French-language texts on the Bavarian succession: “Memoire succinct sur la Succession de l’Electeur de Baviere” (ff 551 – 553) and “Memoire sur la Succession aux Fiefs de la Couronne de Bohême dans le Haut Palatinat après la mort du dernier Electeur de Baviere décedé le 30. Decembre 1777” (f 554). The contested Bavarian succession, which was triggered when the Elector of Bavaria Maximilian III Joseph died at the end of 1777 without leaving an heir, came close to triggering all-out war between Austria and Prussia in the following year. With hindsight the conflict might seem trivial compared to the war then raging across the Atlantic over American independence. Yet at the time, the forces deployed by Prussia and Austria – respectively, 160,000 and 190,000 troops – far exceeded anything fielded by Great Britain and her enemies in the western hemisphere.

Both French texts provide a detailed exposition of the competing claims to the Bavarian inheritance, concluding that those made by the Austrian Habsburgs were without foundation. That George III should have given any attention at all to the Bavarian succession whilst fighting for the Thirteen Colonies seems bizarre. However, other notes and essays in the same file (ff 529 – 550) devoted to another Habsburg (Charles V, who was Holy Roman Emperor from 1519 to 1556) suggest a motive for this interest. The material presents Charles as a threat to the Empire’s liberties which were upheld by the German princes including especially those influenced by Martin Luther’s teachings. The role of members of the house of Brunswick-Lüneburg, from whom the Hanoverians were descended, is highlighted. Indeed, it is noted that Brunswick-Lüneburg supplied two of the six princes whose ‘protest’ against Charles V at the Diet of Speyer (1529) gave birth to the term ‘Protestantism’ to describe the religious reform movement. The Protestant Reformation, according to this version of history, was as much about preserving German liberties from Habsburg encroachment as it was about religion. Was George III, in resisting the pretensions of a later Habsburg Emperor (Joseph II, 1765-1790), self-consciously following a venerable Hanoverian family tradition?

What is clear is that George III, in opposing Emperor Joseph II, was going against the policy of his British ministers. These favoured rapprochement with the Emperor as a means of isolating France at a time when Britain’s fortunes looked pretty bleak. The Bavarian succession crisis was concluded without major fighting, and without Joseph II gaining any significant advantage. Meanwhile, George III was compelled to accept the loss of the greater part of his North American Empire, acknowledging the sovereignty and independence of the United States in the Treaty of Paris of 1783. The style he adopted in the Treaty itself – ‘George the Third, by the grace of God king of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, defender of the faith, duke of Brunswick and Lunebourg, arch-treasurer and prince elector of the Holy Roman Empire, etc.’ – reflected the fact that whilst his trans-Atlantic empire was no more, his status within the Empire remained intact.

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