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Britain, Hanover and the Protestant Interest, 1688–1756 (review)

From: Eighteenth-Century Studies
Volume 44, Number 2, Winter 2011
pp. 303-305 | 10.1353/ecs.2010.0025

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This revisionist study of the foreign policy of the personal union of Britain with the electorate of Hanover concentrates on four episodes of European history: the Palatinate crisis of 1719–24; the "massacre" of Protestants at Thorn and its effects on European diplomacy 1724–27; George Il's support of persecuted Protestants, particularly those from Salzburg in the early 1730s; and finally on the implications and diplomacy of Britain and Hanover during the War of the Polish Succession, 1735–36.

These episodes serve as examples for Andrew C. Thompson's major and, as he repeatedly points out, revisionist thesis, that the Protestant interest and the concept of balance of power provided important motives in shaping British as well as Hanoverian foreign policies. Particularly in the first two chapters the author finds fault with both German as well as English historiography for neglecting or even ignoring the religious factor in earlier analyses of these episodes, or generally earlier accounts of British and Hanoverian foreign policy.

Thompson's quest for the importance of religion in foreign policy prompts him to reexamine British and Hanoverian foreign policy. His conclusion is not surprising: from the first two Georges down to the British and Hanoverian ambassadors and residents at continental European courts British foreign policy was not only subordinated to the "blue-water policy" (9) concept, but also in the first half of the eighteenth century the "continental interest" played a vital role in Britain's perception of its foreign relations. Both concepts interacted in the decades prior to the outbreak of the Seven Years' War. While the Protestant interest as a motive for British foreign policy gradually declined, by the mid-eighteenth century, to the dismay of the Hanoverian Privy Council, the blue-water policy shaped and dominated British foreign policy.

Research design as well as Thompson's critique of British and German historiography prompted him to turn to the Hauptstaatsarchiv at Hanover where he found the material basis for his foreign policy analysis. It is one of the major accomplishments of this study to present new sources and insights into British and Hanoverian foreign policy particularly within the context of the Holy Roman Empire. In doing so the author has redrafted the foreign policy map of Germany: Vienna and the imperial court are shuffled into the background. Instead he correctly stresses the importance of Regensburg as the seat of the imperial Diet and the clearing house of continental European policy issues—among them especially those affecting the religious policies in the member states of the Holy Roman Empire. Johann Rudolf von Wrisberg, the Hanoverian representative at Regensburg, acquires importance and stature as one of the major players in the parleys at the Diet about defending the Protestant interest against real and imagined Catholic violations of imperial laws.

Thompson's thesis about the importance of the Protestant interest and the subordinate importance of the blue-water concept for British foreign policy prior to the middle of the eighteenth century is convincing—up to a point. According to David B. Horn:

At no point in the century did the cause of religion determine the foreign policies of the European states. Yet in Britain at least the influence of religious feeling can be traced in the prevailing approaches to policy, and sometimes in the reasons actually given for supporting the foreign policy adopted by the government of the day for other reasons. Naturally enough, governments sought to enlist support both at home and abroad by representing their policies at being in accord with religious prepossessions of their own subjects and of certain foreign powers. I do not know of any case after 1714 where British foreign policy ran counter to the dominant religious feeling in the country. It would be equally difficult to find a British government adopting a concrete policy on any important question primarily because that line of policy would appeal to the religious prepossessions of its subjects.

(D. B. Horn, Great Britain and Europe in the Eighteenth Century [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967], 33.)

Besides the many works of Jeremy Black on Britain's foreign policy cited by Thompson, Horn's book is the locus classicus for Britain's foreign policy in the eighteenth...



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