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Key Personalities

George I (1660-1727)

Three kings named George ruled the throne of England for nearly a century. George I, Elector of Hanover, inherited the throne of England under the Act of Settlement in 1714. Family tensions (George imprisoned his wife in 1694) and political intrigue led to differences and intense dislike between George I and his son, George II. In 1719 and 1720, and during most of the King's absences in Hanover, power was delegated to a Regency Council and not to the Prince of Wales. Unfamiliar with the customs of the country and lacking fluent English, George I was dependent on his ministers, Whigs who dominated Parliament during his reign. His Cabinet had broad power to formulate policies, and the King essentially became a powerless figurehead.

George II (1683-1760)

George II reigned from 1727 through 1760. He was the last British sovereign to fight alongside his soldiers, at the Battle of Dettingen in 1743 in Germany, against the French. Like his father, for much of his reign George's political options were limited by the strength of the Jacobite cause. George's reign was threatened in 1745 when Charles Edward Stuart, the Young Pretender, landed in Scotland. After some initial success, Charles was defeated at the Battle of Culloden in April 1746 and the Jacobite threat was over. The foundations of the industrial revolution were laid during George's reign, with new levels of production in industries such as coal and shipbuilding and also in agriculture, together with a rapid rise in population. Overseas, trade was boosted by successes such as victories in India, which placed Madras and Bengal under British control, and the capture of French-held Quebec in 1759. As the country prospered and George's reign lengthened, his early unpopularity changed into a general respect. The King's eldest son, Frederick, died in 1751. George's grandson therefore inherited the throne, on George's death in 1760.

George II (1738-1820)

George III supported policies that resulted in the American War of Independence (1776-1783). Some members of Parliament, led by Charles Fox and William Pitt, criticized the conflict as an "unjust war" and urged the government to bring it to an end. Under George III's reign, England also experienced conflict with France. To pay for the war against France, the British government had to increase taxation, which made the King deeply unpopular. In fact, George III faced several attempts to assassinate him. Throughout his reign, the King suffered from ill-health and mental breakdowns in 1801 and 1804. In 1810, George III's insanity became permanent and his son, George, the Prince of Wales, was appointed regent.

Marie Antoinette (1755-1793)

Maria Antonia Josefa Johanna von Habsburg-Lothringen, known to history as Marie Antoinette, was born an Archduchess of Austria, and later became Queen of France. She was the daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Francis I and Maria Theresa of Austria. She was married to Louis XVI of France at age 14 and was the mother of "lost dauphin" Louis XVII. Marie Antoinette is perhaps best remembered for her legendary (and, some modern historians say, exaggerated) excesses, and for her death: she was executed by guillotine at the height of the French Revolution in 1793, for the crime of treason.

The stories of Antoinette's excesses are perhaps overstated. In fact, rather than ignoring France's growing financial crisis, she reduced the royal household staff, eliminating many unnecessary positions that were based solely on privilege. In the process she offended the nobles, adding their condemnation to the scandalous stories spread by royal hopefuls. It was the nobility that balked at the financial reforms the government ministers tried to make, not the King and Queen, who were in favor of change. In truth, Antoinette and Louis were placed in harms' way not only by elements of their personalities, but by the changing face of political and social ideology in the 18th and 19th centuries.

In 1789, a mob descended on the palace at Versailles and demanded the royal family move to the Tuilerie palace inside Paris. From that point on the King and Queen were virtual prisoners. Antoinette sought aid from other European rulers including her brother, the Austrian Emperor, and her sister, Queen of Naples. After a failed attempt to flee Paris in 1791 Antoinette continued to seek aid from abroad. When Austria and Prussia declared war on France, she was accused of passing military secrets to the enemy. On August 10, 1792 the royal family was arrested on suspicion of treason and imprisoned. On January 21, 1793 King Louis XVI was convicted and executed on the guillotine.

Antoinette was cruely treated during her final days of captivity. Her children were taken from her, and her best friend, the Princess de Lambelle, was killed and her severed head was put on a pike and paraded in front of the Queen. Antoinette followed her husband to the guillotine on October 16, 1793. She was executed without proof of the crimes for which she was accused. She was only 37 years old.