Britain was at the moment when a great change, believed to be settled
some years earlier, might be overturned. It would only take a little push, and
all those years of effort, and the confidence in peace, would be cast down. Freedom
was in peril, a foreign power across the Channel waited, social and political
unrest could break out. The nation was on edge. The year was 1714.
The Settlement to end the crisis
The healing peace of King Charles II’s reign was followed by three
years’ turmoil and the Revolution of 1688, as I recalled in a previous article.
The settlement of 1688 was solid in establishing the balance of authority and
rights, but fragile as King William and Queen Mary were childless and the hopes
of the nation rested on Mary’s sister Anne, who was fertile indeed. However although she was almost constantly pregnant,
Anne lost all but one of her children in childbirth or infancy. In 1700, Anne
lost her one surviving child at the age of 11: she was the last Protestant of
the House of Stuart and now she was a dead-end. At her passing, Anne’s deposed father
would cross the Channel again and reverse the revolution.
There was time yet – the King and Parliament looked for an heir and found that the nearest Protestant heirs had inexplicably turned Papist, so they turned to a granddaughter of King James I, Sophie of Hanover, and the Act of Settlement was passed in 1701 to settle the succession on her. King James II died in exile in the same year, but was succeeded by a son, born the year of the Revolution, bred a Frenchman and a Roman Catholic and looking to reclaim his father’s throne. William died a few months later and Anne succeeded to the throne.
Queen Anne was a popular queen (and was nothing like her portrayal by Olivia Coleman). She achieved the union between her two realms and presided over a flowering of culture. Hers though was a barren throne with no son to succeed her.
All surely was settled by the Act of Settlement? An Act though is only as strong as the next election
and the willingness of the establishment to uphold it.
By 1713 the Queen was ailing.
Those who supported the exiled king and his line, the Jacobites, had
been quiescent while his daughters and his son-in-law sat on the throne, but as
the end of their line approached, they began to move. Suddenly the issues of the Revolution and
even of the Civil War all those years ago were appearing again.
Queen Anne’s own thoughts are uncertain: she refused to allow her
Hanoverian cousins to move to Great Britain, but we cannot know if that was to
avoid an intimation of mortality or because she had sympathy with the idea of letting
her half-brother’s succeed her, or if it was her Tory ministers who insisted on
The government and the Commons were dominated by Tories and the leading
Tories were certainly playing both sides. It is known that there were contacts
across the Channel. The War of the Spanish Succession was ended precipitously
to make a rapprochement with France and Louis XIV. Harley and Bolingbroke were
both in contact with the Jacobites and Bolingbroke had even met the Pretender
in person. Outwardly they stood for the Settlement and the Hanoverian
succession, but they were open to renouncing their pledges to the people and handing
the Crown to the young James Edward Stuart.
If only James would renounce the Church of Rome and become Protestant,
then the Tories in Parliament would most likely have repealed the Act of Settlement
at once. They also knew that as soon as
the new Hanoverian monarch succeeded, they would be out of office and the Whigs
would supplant them, and this, ambition for office, outweighed in some the
The Settlement was looking very fragile indeed.
In 1714, there was an alehouse in Stamford known as The George Tap, which was kept by a Mr Bolton, who had Jacobite sympathies. The Jacobites had a custom of drinking to the Queen kneeling and bareheaded, which was a harmless defiance, but these were not normal days. A dragoon was in The Tap, and when he saw Bolton on his knees and uncovered; his anger burst forth – he drew his sword and ran the man through. A riot broke out, a mob surrounded the house and threatened to tear it down unless the soldier were handed over to them – he fled through the back gate.
The nation was on edge.
The little, bloody vignette in Stamford was just one eruption amongst
the dramas played out up and down the land. Parliament had pledged to the Hanoverian
succession, and spoken for it, both sides, but they were not trusted: the
Tories were suspected of playing both sides and they were, or at least some were.
In June, the Electress Sophie of Hanover died; the heir was now
George Louis of Hanover, one step further from the Stuart House.
On 29 July, Queen Anne was on her deathbed: this was the moment on
which all would turn. The Queen realised it and acted: she dismissed Harley and the next day appointed
the Duke of Shrewsbury as Lord Treasurer; effectively as prime minister. Shrewsbury
had been instrumental in the overthrow of James II and so was to be relied upon
to support the Settlement. Two days later the Queen was dead and Shrewsbury held
supreme power, and he ensured that the Settlement was honoured, and that King
George succeeded peacefully.
It was a month and a half before the new King arrived in London,
and he was a hated foreigner, but he was received and took the throne.
There were riots on the day of the coronation and the next year a rebellion was put down in the Highlands, and other risings that were snuffed out before they began. The Hanoverian succession and the rights enshrined in the settlement of 1688 were secured, but it all turned on a moment at the Queen’s death-bed.