A tender letter from George I urging his only daughter to use the risky new technique of inoculation to protect her children against smallpox has resurfaced from a box of documents that was about to be dispatched for storage in an old mine in Wales.
The letter sheds fresh light on a king who spent little time in England, spoke only a few words of English and is regarded as singularly unsympathetic by his contemporaries and posterity.
“George is certainly not a man one particularly warms to – but I think this shows him in at least a slightly more human light,” Richard Aspin, head of research at the Wellcome Library, said. “I find it quite touching that he addresses Sophia Dorothea quite informally as ‘ma chere fille’, my dear daughter.”
Informality only went so far: he did sign himself “George R” for George Rex, in case his daughter had unaccountably forgotten that he was now king of England, not the mere elector of Hanover.
Aspin recognised George’s distinctive sprawling looped handwriting – “it’s not elegant, but unlike many of our letters, George has at least the virtue of being easy to read” – while sorting through a box of documents acquired almost a century ago for their autograph value, part of the gigantic collection related to medical history assembled by the patent medicine millionaire Sir Henry Wellcome, the basis of both the Wellcome Collection and the Wellcome Trust research body.
“They had been catalogued but very approximately,” Aspin said. “They were a very miscellaneous bunch, acquired for the autographs of pretty obscure figures in medical history, and they were destined for storage far from the light of day. This letter had obviously just been completely overlooked – as far as I can make out it has never been published or displayed, and probably not even looked at properly since it was acquired.”
George’s affectionate letters to his daughter, written in slightly wonky French, were known and published in the 1930s, but this one had gone missing from the collection and was bought for Wellcome at a Paris auction.
The Hanoverians were infamous for their extraordinarily unhappy family lives, with mutual hatred between fathers and sons across several generations, and many wretched marriages. By the time George I wrote this letter to his daughter, from St James’s Palace in May 1724, her mother had been under house arrest for years after an alleged affair with a penniless Swedish count.
The Swede had been murdered, allegedly on Hanoverian orders. Sophia Dorothea’s state was not much better: married to her cousin, Frederick William I of Prussia, they had loathed one another on sight when they first met as children and never changed their minds.
George wrote that he was concerned to learn that her son, the future Frederick the Great, was recovering from an attack of smallpox. Sophia herself bore the scars. Since his other grandson Frederick – “mon ptit Fils a Hanover” – later Prince of Wales – had been inoculated against the disease with complete success, he hoped she would follow the example: “Je voudrais … que toute votre familie eut le mesme sort.”
Since George was writing more than 70 years before the country doctor Edward Jenner inoculated his garden boy with the much milder disease cowpox, proving it gave protection against the terrifying killer smallpox, the king’s advice was brave. Early inoculation was carried out with smallpox-infected material taken from a sufferer – usually the pus from the swellings – inserted into a scrape in the skin of the unfortunate patient. In successful cases it resulted in a mild fever and lifelong protection. When it failed it could kill.
George, who signed off: “I rely entirely on your friendship, dear girl”, died of a stroke aged 67. The grandson who was inoculated, Frederick Prince of Wales, did indeed escape smallpox, but never became king, dying aged 45 of complications after being hit on the head by a cricket ball.
“You still might find it hard to like George,” Aspin said, “but he does emerge as a more sympathetic and interesting character here than in many other sources.”
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