John Norris by Godfrey Kneller in 1711. As a flag officer, Norris was sent with a fleet to the Baltic Sea to support a coalition of naval forces from Russia, Denmark and Hanover taking in the Great Northern War. Tsar Peter took personal command of the coalition fleet and appointed Norris as his deputy in 1716: together they protected British and other allied merchant vessels from attack by warships of the Swedish Empire. In November 1718, following the death of Charles XII of Sweden, Britain switched sides and Norris returned to the region to protect British merchant shipping from attack by Russian raiders. Norris also acted as a commissioner in the negotiations leading to the Treaty of Nystad which ended the War in September 1721.
The Battle of Grengam, 1720 by Ferdinand Victor Perrot. The Battle of Grengam of 1720 was the last major naval battle in the Great Northern War that took place in the Åland Islands, in the Ledsund strait between the island communities of Föglö and Lemland. The battle marked the end of Russian and Swedish offensive naval operations in Baltic waters. The Russian fleet conducted one more raid on the Swedish coast in spring 1721, whereupon the Treaty of Nystad was signed, ending the war.
If George’s British and Hanoverian ministers agreed on Sweden, they were bitterly divided over how to proceed in the southern Baltic. Here too the Hanoverians feared Russian power, which still threatened the Electorate from Mecklenburg in the north-east and, more remotely, from Poland in the east, where Russian troops were stationed. One Hanoverian described the Tsar’s forces, sent to Mecklenburg to support its Duke against his nobility, as ‘as much Vandals as Russians’. Bernstorff turned to the Austrians for help. The treaty he proposed in July 1718 was intended to block passage through Poland, and thereby ‘prevent the Tsar and Sweden from intimidating the King [George] or the Polish Republic into joining them and thus opening the door for them to return to the [German] Empire whenever it pleased them’. Before entering into any such alliance, however, the Austrians wanted to know whether George would ‘join the alliance as King as well and [whether] he would support it with an adequate fleet’. It was exactly the same issue which had complicated the coalition against Sweden and contributed to the Whig split in England. But Bernstorff had in the meantime fallen out with Stanhope and Sunderland and was in no position to make any such commitment on Britain’s behalf. In the end he had to go behind Stanhope’s back and provide a written undertaking that George would protect Danzig and Elbing with the naval resources at his disposal.
The resulting Austro-Hanoverian treaty of January 1719 was designed to stabilize the situation in Poland and Mecklenburg. It was concluded by George in his capacity as Elector only, not as King of England. Both parties undertook to maintain the territorial integrity of Poland; external powers should not be permitted to meddle in Poland’s internal affairs or to undermine the domestic cohesion necessary for it to act as a buffer state. The parties to the contract also undertook to enforce a resolution of the Reichstag – which Charles had blessed two years earlier – calling upon the Duke of Mecklenburg to come to terms with his nobility. In reality, of course, the intention was not so much to uphold imperial law as to contain the Tsar: after all, what was the point of slamming the front door shut in Poland if the Russians could arrive by sea through the back entrance in Mecklenburg? This intervention – known as a Reichsexekution – went ahead successfully in late February and early March 1719. The Russians abandoned Karl Leopold, Duke of Mecklenburg, and withdrew from Poland. To everybody’s relief, George was never called upon to fulfil his commitment to use the Royal Navy to defend the Polish ports of Danzig and Elbing against the Russians.
Stanhope watched these developments with alarm. He had been deliberately sidelined over the Austrian treaty, which was directed at least as much against Prussia as against Peter the Great. Bernstorff’s worries about Russia in 1716–18 had been genuine, but they were largely limited to Mecklenburg; even the ejection from Poland was secondary. In fact, most Hanoverians were relatively relaxed about the Russian threat once the situation in Mecklenburg was resolved and the Royal Navy was on its way. Prussia, by contrast, was a much more immediate threat in geopolitical terms. Bernstorff’s view was also heavily coloured by the fact that he owned three villages which the King of Prussia had promised to cede to Hanover by the Treaty of 1715, but which he had so far stubbornly refused to evacuate. Stanhope, on the other hand, saw Berlin as crucial to the ring of containment around Russia in the Baltic. He was horrified by Bernstorff’s unconstitutional and – as he saw it – impolitic promise to use the Royal Navy to defend Polish ports against the Prussians and Russians. As Schulenburg reported at the height of Bernstorff’s discussions with the Austrians, ‘the English ministers are very unsettled by the fact that one does not keep them at all informed on the plans and views one has on the affairs of the north. They would be seriously embarrassed if called to account by the House of Commons, or to explain the cost of the squadron that has been sent there.’
Instead, Stanhope was determined to conclude an alliance with Berlin in 1719, so that the Prussian army and the Royal Navy might combine to rein in Peter the Great. In this spirit, the British ambassador in Berlin approached the Prussian king and ‘represented the advantage and necessity of establishing such a friendship on a solid foundation in respect to the ties of blood, the situation of their states, their common interests in the Empire and the Protestant religion’. As far as Stanhope was concerned, Bernstorff’s policy was bad for both British and Hanoverian interests. The resources necessary to take on both Frederick William and Peter were simply not available. ‘We should not be able at the same time to break with the Tsar and the King of Prussia,’ Stanhope told Carteret. ‘The King’s territories would thereby be exposed to too evident dangers to which we should not be in a condition to resist.’ This in turn would expose him to another round of parliamentary clobbering at a time when his northern policy was already under pamphlet attack. The ministry, in fact, could ill afford the continuing divisions between Whig and Tory, and among Whigs. Re-establishing domestic unity was central to a strong foreign policy, and yet the direction of policy was a matter of intense political controversy. Thus when George and Stanhope tried to conciliate the Tories over domestic issues, even offering to drop measures in favour of Dissenters in return for parliamentary support on foreign policy, they found that continuing differences over that policy proved insuperable.
These concerns interacted with a developing high-political confrontation between the Hanoverians, particularly Bernstorff, and the court Whigs over the Peerage Bill of 1718–19. This measure was the brainchild of Sunderland and was enthusiastically adopted by Stanhope. It severely limited the number of new peerages which George’s successor would be able to confer. Ostensibly this was intended to prevent a repeat of the massive surge of Tory peerages in the years before 1714, and to make Britain a more reliable partner on the international scene by reducing instability. The real motive, however, was the determination of the court Whigs to secure themselves against the reversionary interest after George’s death. The King himself was persuaded of its merits, if only in order to torment the Prince. Predictably, the Bill was rejected by the Tories, by Townshend and by Walpole, in his case on the not altogether plausible grounds that it precluded the upward corporate mobility which made the English system go around. It was also, of course, furiously opposed by the Prince of Wales, who saw in it a means not only of ‘attacking’ him but perhaps a first step towards excluding him from the throne altogether. As Caroline reported to Mrs Clayton, she and the Prince were ‘working like dogs’ to prevent it; she recounted with some pride and clear Germanic intonation her success in mobilizing ‘Torries’ and ‘Vecks’ (Whigs) against the Bill.
What Stanhope and Sunderland had perhaps not reckoned with was the resistance or at best ambivalence of the Hanoverian ministers. To be sure, Germans were keen to do the King’s bidding; but they were not prepared to be a party to depriving the Prince of his birthright. For this reason, they not only persisted with their attempts to bring about a reconciliation between father and son, they also opposed anything which tended to deepen the rift or force them to take sides. Besides, Bernstorff was unhappy with any measure that tended to curb the royal prerogative. The result was a rapid breakdown in relations between him and the court Whigs. Moreover, the German ministers seemed to be on the verge of successfully mediating the royal split. From the point of view of Stanhope and Sunderland, the reconciliation threatened to endanger their relationship with George, which had been at least partly based on their staunch partisanship during the estrangement. Unbolting the ‘German’ ministers now became a priority.
Against this background, the gulf that was opening up between Stanhope and Bernstorff on the Prussian issue was a threat, but it was also an opportunity. Crucially, George himself came around to the Prussian alliance, and had always differed with Bernstorff about the magnitude of the Russian threat. Just as Stanhope had used Baltic policy in 1716–17 to supplant Townshend, he now exploited the question of a Prussian alliance to consolidate his position yet further with the King and to wrap himself in the patriotic rhetoric of British interests over Hanoverian sectionalism. Bernstorff’s concern with Mecklenburg and his three villages, which had formed such an important part of the opposition Whig critique in 1716–17, now made Stanhope’s breeze to blow. The fact that an alliance with Lutheran and Calvinist Prussia could be spun in favour of the ‘Protestant interest’ in Germany – whereas Bernstorff had just concluded a pact with the Empire’s foremost Catholic prince – did Stanhope no harm at all with British public opinion. This was because a row had erupted in the Empire which was to set the tone for British foreign policy in the coming decade.
In September 1719, the Catholic Elector Palatine Charles Philip banned the Protestant catechism in his territories, and evicted the reformed congregation from the Heiliggeistkirche in his capital of Heidelberg. This was a direct violation of the Treaty of Westphalia, which had laid down that Catholics and Protestants should enjoy the Simultaneum, that is share the church in question. Even if they had wanted to, George and the ministry could not have ignored this challenge to the religious status quo in central Europe. A cry went up not only in Germany itself, but also in Britain. Almost immediately, the September 1719 edition of the Political state of Great Britain warned that the Elector’s coup was regarded as part of a pan-European attack on Protestantism. Two months later, the House of Lords passed an address in support of the Palatine Protestants. Their cause and that of European Protestants was thought by many to be one and the same. The Palatinate, after all, was where the fatal critique of the Stuarts had begun exactly one hundred years earlier. The Protestant outworks of Britain were once again under threat.
As in the seventeenth century, this was not so much a religious as a strategic judgement. Austria had exhausted its potential usefulness to George: the Spanish threat in the Mediterranean had been seen off, and Vienna was of limited use in the Baltic. Moreover, the Austrians were dragging their heels on the investitures for Bremen and Verden. Taking on Vienna over the Palatine also enabled George to bid for control of the Corpus Evangelicorum, still nominally presided over by the Catholic King of Poland, and to pre-empt Prussian ambitions there. But the really decisive factor was the growing sense that the ambitions of Emperor Charles VI in Germany and the Mediterranean represented a threat to European stability, and thus to the security of Britain itself. It was in this context that the spectre of another Catholic League in Germany revived memories of the bitter defeat of the Elector Palatine and European Protestantism in the 1620s. Only by shoring up the Empire, therefore, could Britain’s security be guaranteed. Indeed, in October 1719 and again in May 1720, Stanhope went so far as to suggest that Britain should join France and Sweden as a guarantor power of the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia. So when George took up the cause of the Palatine Protestants he was motivated by more than just religious solidarity, however genuine, or the desire to improve Hanover’s standing in the Empire. He was positioning himself within a Protestant English discourse about grand strategy.
In these circumstances, Bernstorff’s strongly pro-imperial leanings were a liability. The showdown took place in Hanover, in the course of George’s visit in the summer of 1719. He was accompanied, once again, not only by his retinue, his German ministers, some favoured English aristocrats and various foreign diplomats, but also by Stanhope as Secretary of State. If at first sight Stanhope appeared outnumbered and on foreign turf, he had taken the precaution of loosening some of Bernstorff’s teeth in advance by conspiring with his rivals in Hanover, particularly George’s Hanoverian secretary, Johann Philip von Hattorf and Görtz. In late June/early July, they struck: Hattorf presented a memorandum of complaint against Bernstorff’s management of business, while Stanhope used the question of a Prussian alliance to undermine his position with the King. Their victim does not seem to have put up very much resistance, perhaps because he was no longer in the best of health. Even before his departure for Hanover, Schulenburg had noted with a certain schadenfreude that Bernstorff was ‘extremely weak and dispirited’ from gout, and that he was ‘declining strongly and losing his memory’. Bernstorff received no help from Robethon, with whom he had also fallen out. The movements of the various parties in late June 1719 say it all: Bernstorff repaired to his estates to lick his wounds, Robethon stayed in Hanover, while the triumphant Hattorf and Stanhope joined George for the waters at Bad Pyrmont. On the first day of August, Admiral Norris was told henceforth to take instruction only from Stanhope.
Court Whigs were quick to claim this as a victory of English over ‘German’ interests, and later generations of historians were inclined to agree. As Sunderland reported to Newcastle from George’s hunting lodge in Hanover, ‘The world will be convinced by what the King will both say and do that neither Bernstorff nor Cadogan [William, Earl of Cadogan, a Privy Councillor and a highly influential Whig] have any credit & that he will not suffer any foreigner to meddle in our affairs, this you may depend upon.’ Stanhope echoed this view a week later: ‘I cannot promise that the old man [Bernstorff] will be left behind,’ he wrote, ‘but I may safely assure your grace that though he should come the King will do whatever shall be proposed to him to make everybody sensible that he is not to meddle in English business.’ Back in London, Newcastle faithfully spread the word. What the King had done, he wrote, ‘must please all those that pretend to be Englishmen and Whigs. He has told Mr Bernstorff & all the rest of the Germans that if ever they pretend in any manner whatsoever to meddle in English affairs, he will turn them out of his service & have nothing more to do with them.’ It now appeared that, as Sunderland claimed, ‘our affairs in all parts go as well as can be wished’. Newcastle also exulted that ‘Everything goes as well abroad as possible. As to the south, the Catalans will all take up arms for the recovery of their liberties. The courts of Sweden and Prussia do just what we would have them.’ He added that with the ‘figure our King makes abroad, the few enemies he has must be forced to submit’. Stanhope could now press ahead with his plans for a Prussian alliance directed against Russia, which was concluded in September 1719. A pact to support the Protestant cause in the Empire was agreed in May 1720. These negotiations were carried out with the full support and involvement of George, as Elector, and with the cooperation of his Hanoverian diplomats. The sidelining of Bernstorff and the conclusion of the Prussian alliance was therefore hardly the reassertion of British over ‘German’ interests, though it suited Stanhope to give that impression. Rather, it was the triumph of one form of ‘German’ policy over another.
The time seemed right to make a last effort to push through the Peerage Bill, which had been withdrawn after a first attempt in 1718. As Stanhope argued in late October 1719, now was the time to parlay diplomatic success into domestic political gain. The good news from Europe, he wrote, ‘prepares us to expect speedily the submission of Spain to our terms. Even the Tsar… is said to put water in his wine.’ He hailed ‘the prospect of seeing a peace both in the south and the north before next spring. This good situation will probably put our friends in good humour at our opening the parliament and it seems to us very advisable to make the best use and advantage possible of this good humour by getting the Peerage Bill.’ It was now or never for the Peerage Bill. Stanhope and Sunderland pulled out all the stops, even appealing to the Tories. ‘You are mad,’ one of the supporters of the Peerage Bill told a Jacobite: ‘if this Bill fails, there may be reconciliation in the royal family & then where is your hope?’ ‘Are these not honest people,’ Caroline commented bitterly, fearing the Bill would be the signal for a general assault on the Prince. ‘The prince,’ she wrote, ‘has reliable information that if the bill passes the House of Commons, one will attack him even to the point of excluding him [from the succession].’ But the combined forces of Walpole and the Prince and the Princess of Wales proved too strong. The Peerage Bill was finally defeated in the Commons in December 1719. This damaged the ministry, though as yet not fatally.
Despite a promising start, things also began to go badly in the Baltic. It was not the diplomacy that was at fault. As we have seen, Carteret had executed the difficult manoeuvre of allying with Sweden against Russia while despoiling her of Bremen and Verden on behalf of his monarch. At the same time, the British mediated a settlement between the Prussians and the Swedes, at some territorial cost to the latter; this was designed to enable a common front against the Tsar. The rhetoric of the Protestant cause was now deployed to rally Lutheran Sweden and Prussia against Russia. The Danes returned most of what they had grabbed, but were permitted to retain Schleswig, which they seized from the Swedish ally, the Duke of Holstein-Gottorp. Hostilities between Sweden and Poland were brought to an end in 1720, again with significant British involvement. Stanhope’s grand plan for the reorganization of the North was taking shape. Peter the Great was now on his own.
The problem lay in the fraught and unpredictable application of military power. As soon as agreement with Sweden had been reached, Carteret began to implore Admiral Norris to move against the Russians. Norris, however, was a Baltic veteran, and he had been badly burned by the controversy over Bremen and Verden. He insisted on more explicit instructions from London before he would move. In the meantime, Carteret frantically urged him on. ‘The scales of the north are in your hand,’ he wrote in late August 1719. ‘You can cast the balance as you please. The cause of Liberty and the Protestant religion will be served by rescuing this brave nation [Sweden] and I know by experience how true a friend you are to those sentiments both at home and abroad.’ When Norris finally did take on the Russians, all he could do was to deter the Tsar from launching a landing on Sweden or from establishing an effective blockade. What he could not deliver was a decisive blow against the Russian navy. This was because the Tsar’s main fleet sheltered under the cover of shore batteries along the Baltic coast. Moreover, the Russians possessed numerous galleys and shallow draught vessels which could operate off islands and inlets where they could not be engaged by Norris’s force. There was thus no way of preventing the devastation of the Swedish coast, the consequent growth of war-weariness in Stockholm, and the progressive disintegration of the anti-Russian coalition.
To make matters worse, Stanhope failed to mobilize Prussian, Polish and Austrian ground forces to attack Peter the Great across his western border. The principal reason for this lay in Berlin: Frederick William of Prussia could just about grasp that a residue of Swedish power should be preserved to counterbalance Russia, but he was too terrified of Peter and too mistrustful of Britain to move to open conflict. In short, by late 1720 the policy of containment of Russia was in ruins. Sir Josiah Burchett, Secretary of the Admiralty, summed up the British predicament in the Baltic in a pamphlet published that year. ‘What will be the event of the accession of so great a power by Sea and Land,’ he wrote, ‘in the hands of a Prince, Master of so wide a Dominion, peopled with such infinite multitudes, and what alterations in the affairs and interests of Europe it may occasion, I leave to the politicians to discuss.’ Six years into the Hanoverian succession, therefore, there was still no cause for complacency.
All the same, a great deal had been achieved. Britain’s traditional European alliances with the Emperor and the Dutch had been restored. France had been first contained, and then – from 1716–co-opted into a collaborative management of the European balance. As the Undersecretary of State, George Tilson, put it in October 1721 after Stanhope’s death, ‘I think he made… use of France both in the North and the South, for things which were necessary to us.’ The sense of isolation and disengagement which had characterized British policy immediately before and after the Treaty of Utrecht had been overcome. Britain was now a German power, and the better for it. The new King had brought with him a wealth of expertise in himself and his Hanoverian ministers, which was to stand Britain in good stead in central and northern Europe. A sustained popular and parliamentary critique of the German connection had been weathered, though by no means suppressed. Jacobite challenges, particularly in 1715 and 1719, had been seen off; no effective collaboration between the Pretender and a foreign power had been established. The threat of Spanish expansionism in the Mediterranean had been contained, at least for the time being, and British naval ascendancy there was copper-fastened by the French destruction of Spanish dockyards during the invasion of 1719. Above all, the interventionist orthodoxy in foreign policy, which had been eclipsed under the Tories, was re-established. Overseas interests were not neglected, but kept in proportion to Britain’s primary concern of maintaining the European balance of power. The Royal Navy had been used extensively, but generally as an instrument in European politics: in 1715–17 against the Swedes in the Baltic, in 1718 against the Spaniards in the Mediterranean, and in 1719–20 in the Baltic again, this time to intimidate Russia. At the beginning of 1720, therefore, the Whig ministers had some grounds for satisfaction. They could not have foreseen that British politics were about to be thrown into turmoil by a bolt, if not quite out of the blue, then at least from the deep blue sea. The first of many eighteenth-century colonial bubbles was about to burst in their faces.