“Born and educated in this country, I glory in the name of Briton,” declared the new king to the House of Representatives upon his succession. George III was proud to announce he was the first British-born king since the reign of the Stuarts. He was also the first Hanoverian monarch to speak native English, in fact, George III never even visited Hanover during his lifetime. He viewed himself as a man of the people, a noble and virtuous patriot-king, an Englishman to the core, although his opponents rarely missed an opportunity to brand him an alienating tyrant hell-bent on subverting the constitution. Indeed it is common today to associate George III with tyranny, particularly in the United States. Perhaps the sobering effects of several centuries has muted this controversial king’s legacy to some degree, but a growing modern revisionist reassessment of George III’s legacy is not enough to overcome his reputation for being “the mad king” who lost the American colonies. Despite the king’s many troubles, this was a transformative era for the British Empire. Everywhere saw a rise in trade, industrialism, and capitalism. The invention of men like James Watt and the ideas of Adam Smith permeated culture and spawned an industrial revolution the world over. The British Empire stretched from America to India, with most citizens being non-white and non-Christian, leading to a host of new challenges and bureaucracy to emerge from Westminster. In conjunction with the rise of the Empire came a late 18th century rage for order as the great bibliophile and antiquarian Samuel Johnson published his eloquent Dictionary (1775) along with the publication of the Encyclopedia Brittanica (1768). And with a rising middle class came the English novel, perhaps best exemplified in Henry Fielding. It was an era of shocking new possibilities that was soon met with a reactionary backlash as the American colonies and France faced starkly distinct revolutions against the rule of monarchy. In spite of King George III’s mounting problems, both personal and political, he was the fortunate beneficiary of over a dozen Prime Ministers, the two most notable being Lord North (1770-82) and then William Pitt the Younger (1783-1801).
George III was the grandson of King George II (young George was the son of Frederick prince of Wales who predeceased his father when he died in 1751). As was standard among the Hanoverians, the young George was raised with a particular ire toward his elders, particular his grandfather the king. Under the tutelage of Lord Bute, George was fed a healthy diet of antipathy for the political power of the Whigs, an ideology he came to view as self-serving and sycophantic, corrupted by their own compromises. In contrast to the Whigs, George III was something of an idealist, believing himself to be above the dirty backroom handshakes and capitulations necessary for political life. When George was a mere 12 years-old his father Frederick the prince of Wales died (1751) and then the king himself passed almost ten years later in 1760, thus leaving the crown to the young 22 year-old George. He was crowned king on September 22, 1761 at Westminster Abbey.
Per Winston Churchill, “George III had very clear ideas of what he wanted and where he was going. He meant to be King, such a King as all his countrymen would follow and revere. Under the long Whig regime the House of Commons had become an irresponsible autocracy. Would not the liberties of the country be safer in the hands of a monarch, young, honourable, virtuous, and appearing thoroughly English, than in a faction governing the land through a packed and corrupt House of Commons?” (443).
With his succession secured, George needed a wife. Lord Bute set about finding a suitable Protestant German princess for the king. When Bute returned to London in September 1761 with a demure Charlotte Sophia of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, she and George were married that same day. As it turns out, their marriage became a great success lasting some 57 years and producing no less than 15 children, 13 of whom survived into adulthood including two future monarchs of England: George IV and William IV. Throughout his life George was a doting husband and a loving family man. Unlike his predecessors, George made special efforts to raise his children rather than leave them to the attendance of a governess. In addition, George was relentlessly infatuated with his queen, and so he refused the standard royal mistresses afforded a king. He purchased the “Queen’s House” for Queen Charlotte, located near St. James Palace (later enlarged to become Buckingham Palace).
Abroad, Britain was fighting a war with France –the Seven Years War (otherwise known as the “French and Indian War” in America). George came to the throne at the height of the war –the product of the “Whig Supremacy” under Prime Minister William Pitt the Elder. The war had already been fought for four years and had ballooned into a world war by the time George III came to power, and the new king despised it. George III brought about a shake-up among the ministers. The landscape of domestic politics had bred infighting between the king’s top advisor Lord Bute against the more capable and experienced Whig ministry of the duke of Newcastle and William Pitt the Elder. Like a serpent in the king’s ear, Lord Bute had poisoned the king against the predominant Whig ministers, and when conflict ensued, it meant the end of Newcastle’s ministership. However, this was only the beginning of a tumultuous period of internal squabbles as various prime ministers cycled through Westminster. Their chief battle dispute the Seven Years War. Following Newcastle’s resignation, he was replaced as Prime Minister with the king’s closest confidant, Lord Bute himself, who quickly negotiated the Treaty of Paris in 1763 effectively ending the Seven Years War. However, despite orchestrating the cessation of France from the New World, many nations in Europe gained very little from the peace and the treaty caused popular outrage. Outspoken satirists and journalists who criticized the king were charged with libel, most notably in the case of John Wilkes, but this repression in turn transformed the accused into a cause célèbre among the common people. It was an unenviable position for a new monarch. The king was widely suspected of being a tyrant, and his Prime Minister Bute was blamed for the nation’s enormous war debts (the national debt had more than doubled, and suddenly the munitions trade ceased to turn a profit). Amidst the financial fallout Bute was forced to resign and he was then followed by a clutch of different ministers attempting to secure the newly expansive imperial Treasury, but to little avail. It was in this climate that the Crown and his ministers decided to test the expanding prosperity of the American colonists. During the Seven Years War, the security and defense of the colonies had hitherto been underwritten by the British taxpayer, thus both the Crown and the House of Commons saw fit to tax the colonists who, they assumed, would only be gracious and humbled to contribute to the Empire’s coffers.
However, a new rising mercantilist class had emerged in the colonies. Now a prosperous gentry came forth ensconced in Enlightenment philosophy and thoroughly resentful of a foreign king’s whims. British investors poured into these new centers of commerce: Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and Charleston. The chief commodities being slaves, sugar, and tobacco. There were now two million people living across the colonies, a geographic land mass four or five times the size of England, with most denizens living rurally. In this milieu, the colonies had become mostly self-governing, with thirteen different assemblies mirroring Parliament in Westminster.
During the 1760s various taxes were levied on the American colonists under the Prime Ministership of Lord North: the Stamp Act (1765) but it was immediately repealed following a colonial outcry. This was followed by the Townshend Duties (1767-1768) on imports into the colonies. Other restrictions and regulations followed, each of which affected various corners of an already independent economy established far from the prying eyes of the king. The previously disparate colonies began to unite under one banner. At the Virginia Convention in 1765, a vocal planter named Patrick Henry denounced the Stamp Act and loudly compared King George III to Caesar or Charles I (both assassinated rulers). For this he was shouted down with accusations of “Treason!” but an air of revolution nevertheless hung heavily over the colonies. Thomas Paine circulated a radical series of pamphlets condemning the government of George III. The fire of revolution burned brightest in Boston where Samuel Adams and the “Sons of Liberty” raided a group of British ships in the dead of night dressed as Mohawk Indians and they dumped all the tea into the harbor. It became known as the “Boston Tea Party” and it was followed by further attempts to crack-down on the colonists leading to the “Boston Massacre” and skirmishes at Lexington and Concord. A new war broke out, one which pitted a fatigued and indebted British military against a disorganized band of colonists. However, despite the early victories for the British under General Howe, the war stretched on for years because in truth the war had been lost in the hearts and minds of the colonists. In the end, the Americans were saved by France which was seeking to punish Britain for losses incurred in the Seven Years War. Meanwhile, war also broke out against both Spain and France back in Europe, but George III remained defiant to the last, refusing to cede the colonies, even though the English people had begun to turn against the effort. At one point, the king even considered abdicating over the mess. The war dragged on and George III was actually slower than many of his ministers to realize the fight against the colonies was futile, even after the disastrous and embarrassing surrender at Yorktown in 1781. Finally in 1785, when the colonies were fully severed from the mother country, George III was able to greet John Adams, the first U.S. Ambassador to London with the following words:
“I was the last to consent to the separation, but the separation having been made… I say now that I would be the first to meet the friendship of the United States as an independent power.”
Despite his obstinance through it all George III preferred to take a backseat. He still wished to be known by his chosen sobriquet “Farmer George” –a nickname given to the king acknowledging his preference for strolling through the fields of his farm. In addition to his interest in agriculture, George was also an amateur astronomer, correctly observing a once-in-a-century passing of Venus across the heavens. He was a ceaselessly curious man.
Lord North’s government collapsed in March 1782 after the loss of the colonies leading to a further prolonged period of ministerial infighting and instability. Meanwhile Parliament sought to significantly reduce or restrict the power of the King. The conflict dragged the Whigs back into the fray, and George III sought to subvert the constitution by unilaterally appointing William Pitt the younger as Prime Minister (a popular choice among the people). He was a Tory, the youngest Prime Minister at 24 years-old, and the son of William Pitt the Elder who had previously served as Prime Minister. But the king’s own son George the Prince of Wales drew lines with his father and supported the opposition. The intensity of the situation led to a mental breakdown for the king in 1788. It was neither the first nor the last such mental lapse for George III, and while his son served as regent, a political battle was fought over the Prime Ministership as legal questions arose: did regency grant the power to appoint a Prime Minister while the king was incapacitated? Luckily the king managed to recover his faculties just in time for a greater crisis to emerge: The French Revolution swept like a firestorm across the continent in 1789 and the execution of King Louis XVI came in January 1793. The Jacobin guillotine fell hard upon the complacent French aristocracy, but as with most revolutions it degenerated into a horrid and bloody tyranny. Almost immediately Britain was at war with France, first against the varying revolutionary regimes and then against the Napoleonic rule. During this period, Prime Minister Pitt tabled his priority of Parliamentary reform and instead he focused on harsh punishments for any Jacobin radicals found in Britain. Reformers were dubbed traitors to the Constitution. It was an era of revolutionary paranoia. Meanwhile the aging king was content to leave the nation’s governance in the capable hands of Pitt, satisfied that revolution would not spread to Britain, though in Ireland it did come in the form of a militant insurrection among disenfranchised Catholics and Presbyterians. Amidst the uproar Pitt devised a hopeful plan to emancipate the Catholics and unite the Irish government with England in Westminster, however the king tragically opposed the compromise feeling it was a betrayal of his oath to uphold the Protestant religion. To the Prime Minister’s credit, Pitt resigned over the issue. On William Pitt the Younger Winston Churchill offers the following reflections: “William Pitt ranks with Marlborough as the greatest English man in the century between 1689 and 1789. He was not the first English statesman to think in terms of a world policy and to broaden on to a world scale the political conceptions of William III… His heroic period was now over” (443).
Despite the absence of Pitt, The French Revolution raged onward, permanently altering the landscape of Europe. It was the most shocking event to emerge from France since the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in 1572. The Revolution represented a new era: testing the survival of European monarchy. Edmund Burke, a lone Whig voice crying out for reason, had publicly decried the slave trade, pled for amnesty with the American colonies, and prophesied the coming Terror in France, but alas his guidance was rarely heeded. In Europe, old alliances shifted, and the Revolution brought about a great reshuffling among neighbors as well as a rapid devolution into military dictatorship under Napoleon Bonaparte, a latter-day Caesar or Alexander the Great. Fighting occurred on both land and sea, the most famous of which was the great naval victory of Lord Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar (1805) which successfully deterred the alliance of Spain and Napoleonic France from invading Britain, as well as further cementing British naval dominance. Trafalgar became a patriotic rallying cry in Britain, and its hero Lord Nelson, fatally wounded during the battle, was buried at St. Paul’s Cathedral with the highest honors. Whereas earlier in the king’s reign, many Englishmen had blamed George III for losing to those traitorous American colonies, by now the king’s reputation was salvaged by the advent of the French Revolution and subsequent Napoleonic Wars whose philosophical underpinnings were viewed with a mixture of skepticism and contempt by British elites.
However, at the height of his popularity George III was not of sound mind. Gradually the aging king was growing blind and deaf, and his mental challenges returned with a further mental break in 1801 and again in 1810. Apart from a few lucid intervals he remained violently insane for the rest of his life. He prattled on incoherently for hours at a time, gabbing incessantly to himself while confined to Windsor Castle, mostly restrained to a chair or a straight jacket. In 1811 his elder son George the Prince of Wales was made regent in his father’s stead. The dapper and effervescent prince despised his father, and the feeling was mutual. The old king finally gave up the ghost on January 29, 1820 at Windsor Castle after reigning for nearly 60 years –the third longest in British history (behind only Victoria and Elizabeth II). The king’s son George IV, who had been Prince Regent since 1811, was crowned king in 1820.
For this reading I used Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples, David Starkey’s Crown and Country, and Peter Ackroyd’s Revolution: The History of England From The Battle of the Boyne To The Battle of Waterloo.