King George III of Great Britain

Full-length portrait in oils of a clean-shaven young George in eighteenth century dress: gold jacket and breeches, ermine cloak, powdered wig, white stockings, and buckled shoes.

 

Graphic credit: English painter, Allan Ramsay – vgGv1tsB1URdhg at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23604082

 

 

Editor’s note: We are including extra information about King George III, not only because all of Europe was seething during his reign, and because the King’s illness is curious because there’s no real diagnosis to this day, and also because American history at the time of King George III, is inextricably bound. Finally, we thought readers should know more than the average educated American, that King George III was not the tyrant that most Americans believe, but an astute politician, a curious intellectual, a highly cultured person, and a moral person within his own family, very dear to him and on behalf of his beloved country. We hope you come away, understanding King George III better after you read this short piece. Readers may not realize that this king was exceedingly popular with the people of Great Britain.

George III (George William Frederick; 4 June 1738 – 29 January 1820) was King of Great Britain and King of Ireland from 25 October 1760 until the union of the two countries on 1 January 1801. After the union, he was King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland until his death. He was concurrently Duke and prince-elector of Brunswick-Luneburg (?Hanover’) in the Holy Roman Empire before becoming King of Hanover on 12 October 1814. He was the third British monarch of the House of Hanover, but unlike his two predecessors, he was born in England, spoke English as his first language, and never visited Hanover. His life and with it his reign, which were longer than those of any of his predecessors, were marked by a series of military conflicts involving his kingdoms, much of the rest of Europe, and places farther afield in Africa, the Americas and Asia. Early in his reign, Great Britain defeated France in the Seven Years’ War, becoming the dominant European power in North America and India. However, many of Britain’s American colonies were soon lost in the American War of Independence. Further wars against revolutionary and Napoleonic France from 1793 concluded in the defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

 

In the later part of his life, George III had recurrent, and eventually permanent, mental illness. Although it has since been suggested that he had the blood disease porphyria, the cause of his illness remains unknown. After a final relapse in 1810, a regency was established, and George III’s eldest son, George, the conniving Prince of Wales, ruled as Prince Regent. On George III’s death, the Prince Regent succeeded his father as George IV. Historical analysis of George III’s life has gone through a ?kaleidoscope of changing views’ that have depended heavily on the prejudices of his biographers and the sources available to them. Until it was reassessed in the second half of the 20th century, his reputation in the United States was one of a tyrant; and in Britain he became, for (a minority) ?the scapegoat for the failure of imperialism’.

 

George was born in London at Norfolk House in St James’s Square. He was the grandson of King George II, and the eldest son of Frederick, Prince of Wales, and Augusta of Saxe-Gotha. As Prince George was born two months prematurely and he was thought unlikely to survive, he was baptized the same day by Thomas Secker, who was both Rector of St James’s and Bishop of Oxford. One month later, he was publicly baptized at Norfolk House, again by Secker. His godparents were the King of Sweden (for whom Lord Baltimore stood proxy), his uncle the Duke of Saxe-Gotha (for whom Lord Carnarvon stood proxy) and his great-aunt the Queen of Prussia (for whom Lady Charlotte Edwin stood proxy). George grew into a healthy but reserved and shy child. The family moved to Leicester Square, where George and his younger brother Prince Edward, Duke of York and Albany, were educated together by private tutors. Family letters show that he could read and write in both English and German, as well as comment on political events of the time, by the age of eight. He was the first British monarch to study science systematically. Apart from chemistry and physics, his lessons included astronomy, mathematics, French, Latin, history, music, geography, commerce, agriculture and constitutional law, along with sporting and social accomplishments such as dancing, fencing, and riding. His religious education was wholly Anglican. At age 10 George took part in a family production of Joseph Addison’s play Cato and said in the new prologue: ?What, tho’ a boy! It may with truth be said, A boy in England born, in England bred.’ Historian Romney Sedgwick argued that these lines appear ?to be the source of the only historical phrase with which he is associated’. Clearly, this historian, was one of the minority who downplayed King George’s many talents.

 

George’s grandfather, King George II, disliked the Prince of Wales, and took little interest in his grandchildren. However, in 1751 the Prince of Wales died unexpectedly from a lung injury, and George became heir apparent to the throne. He inherited his father’s title of Duke of Edinburgh. Now more interested in his grandson, three weeks later the King created George Prince of Wales (the title is not automatically acquired). In the spring of 1756, as George approached his 18th birthday, the King offered him a grand establishment at St James’s Palace, but George refused the offer, guided by his mother and her confidant, Lord Bute, who would later serve as Prime Minister. George’s mother, now the Dowager Princess of Wales, preferred to keep George at home where she could imbue him with her strict moral values.

 

In 1759, George was smitten with Lady Sarah Lennox, sister of the Duke of Richmond, but Lord Bute advised against the match and George abandoned his thoughts of marriage. ?I am born for the happiness or misery of a great nation,’ he wrote, ?and consequently must often act contrary to my passions.’ Nevertheless, attempts by the King to marry George to Princess Sophie Caroline of Brunswick-Wolfenbuttel were resisted by him and his mother; Sophie married the Margrave of Bayreuth instead. The following year, at the age of 22, George succeeded to the throne when his grandfather, George II, died suddenly on 25 October 1760, two weeks before his 77th birthday. The search for a suitable wife intensified. On 8 September 1761 in the Chapel Royal, St James’s Palace, the King married Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, whom he met on their wedding day. A fortnight later on 22 September both were crowned at Westminster Abbey. George remarkably never took a mistress (in contrast with his grandfather and his sons), and the couple enjoyed a genuinely happy marriage until his mental illness struck. They had 15 children – nine sons and six daughters. In 1762, George purchased Buckingham House (on the site now occupied by Buckingham Palace) for use as a family retreat. His other residences were Kew and Windsor Castle. St James’s Palace was retained for official use. He did not travel extensively, and spent his entire life in southern England. In the 1790s, the King and his family took holidays at Weymouth, Dorset, which he thus popularized as one of the first seaside resorts in England.

 

George, in his accession speech to Parliament, proclaimed: ?Born and educated in this country, I glory in the name of Britain.’ He inserted this phrase into the speech, written by Lord Hardwicke, to demonstrate his desire to distance himself from his German forebears, who were perceived as caring more for Hanover than for Britain. Although his accession was at first welcomed by politicians of all parties, the first years of his reign were marked by political instability, largely generated as a result of disagreements over the Seven Years’ War. George was also perceived as favoring Tory ministers, which led to his denunciation by the Whigs as an autocrat. On his accession, the Crown lands produced relatively little income; most revenue was generated through taxes and excise duties. George surrendered the Crown Estate to Parliamentary control in return for a civil list annuity for the support of his household and the expenses of civil government. Claims that he used the income to reward supporters with bribes and gifts are disputed by historians who say such claims ?rest on nothing but falsehoods put out by disgruntled opposition’.

 

Debts amounting to over3 million pounds over the course of George’s reign were paid by Parliament, and the civil list annuity was increased from time to time. He aided the Royal Academy of Arts with large grants from his private funds and may have donated more than half of his personal income to charity. Of his art collection, the two most notable purchases are Johannes Vermeer’s Lady at the Virginals and a set of Canalettos, but it is as a collector of books that he is best remembered. The King’s Library was open and available to scholars and was the foundation of a new national library. In May 1762, the incumbent Whig government of the Duke of Newcastle was replaced with one led by the Scottish Tory Lord Bute. Bute’s opponents worked against him by spreading the calumny that he was having an affair with the King’s mother, and by exploiting anti-Scottish prejudices amongst the English. John Wilkes, a member of parliament, published The North Briton, which was both inflammatory and defamatory in its condemnation of Bute and the government. Wilkes was eventually arrested for seditious libel but he fled to France to escape punishment; he was expelled from the House of Commons, and found guilty in absentia of blasphemy and libel. In 1763, after concluding the Peace of Paris which ended the war, Lord Bute resigned, allowing the Whigs under George Grenville to return to power. Later that year, the Royal Proclamation of 1763 placed a limit upon the westward expansion of the American colonies. The Proclamation aimed to divert colonial expansion to the north (to Nova Scotia) and to the south (Florida). The Proclamation Line did not bother the majority of settled farmers, but it was unpopular with a vocal minority and ultimately contributed to conflict between the colonists and the British government.

 

With the American colonists generally unburdened by British taxes, the government thought it appropriate for them to pay towards the defense of the colonies against native uprisings and the possibility of French incursions. The central issue for the colonists was not the amount of taxes but whether Parliament could levy a tax without American approval, for there were no American seats in Parliament. The Americans protested that like all Englishmen they had rights to ?no taxation without representation’.In 1765, Grenville introduced the Stamp Act, which levied a stamp duty on every document in the British colonies in North America. Since newspapers were printed on stamped paper, those most affected by the introduction of the duty were the most effective at producing propaganda opposing the tax. Meanwhile, the King had become exasperated at Grenville’s attempts to reduce the King’s prerogatives, and tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade William Pitt the Elder to accept the office of Prime Minister. After a brief illness, which may have presaged his illnesses to come, George settled on Lord Rockingham to form a ministry, and dismissed Grenville. Lord Rockingham, with the support of Pitt and the King, repealed Grenville’s unpopular Stamp Act, but his government was weak and he was replaced in 1766 by Pitt, on whom George bestowed the title, Earl of Chatham. The actions of Lord Chatham and George III in repealing the Act were so popular in America that statues of them both were erected in New York City. Lord Chatham fell ill in 1767, and the Duke of Grafton took over the government, although he did not formally become Prime Minister until 1768. That year, John Wilkes returned to England, stood as a candidate in the general election, and came at the top of the poll in the Middlesex constituency. Wilkes was again expelled from Parliament. Wilkes was re-elected and expelled twice more, before the House of Commons resolved that his candidature was invalid and declared the runner-up as the victor. Grafton’s government disintegrated in 1770, allowing the Tories led by Lord North to return to power.

 

George was deeply devout and spent hours in prayer, but his piety was not shared by his brothers. George was appalled by what he saw as their loose morals. In 1770, his brother Prince Henry, Duke of Cumberland and Strathearn, was exposed as an adulterer, and the following year Cumberland married a young widow, Anne Horton. The King considered her inappropriate as a royal bride: she was from a lower social class and German law barred any children of the couple from the Hanoverian succession. George insisted on a new law that essentially forbade members of the Royal Family from legally marrying without the consent of the Sovereign. The subsequent bill was unpopular in Parliament, including among George’s own ministers, but passed as the Royal Marriages Act 1772. Shortly afterward, another of George’s brothers, Prince William Henry, Duke of Gloucester and Edinburgh, revealed he had been secretly married to Maria, Countess Waldegrave, the illegitimate daughter of Sir Edward Walpole. The news confirmed George’s opinion that he had been right to introduce the law: Maria was related to his political opponents. Neither lady was ever received at court. Lord North’s government was chiefly concerned with discontent in America. To assuage American opinion most of the custom duties were withdrawn, except for the tea duty, which in George’s words was ?one tax to keep up the right [to levy taxes]’. In 1773, the tea ships moored in Boston Harbor were boarded by colonists and the tea thrown overboard, an event that became known as the Boston Tea Party. In Britain, opinion hardened against the colonists, with Chatham now agreeing with North that the destruction of the tea was ?certainly criminal’. With the clear support of Parliament, Lord North introduced measures, which were called the Intolerable Acts by the colonists: the Port of Boston was shut down and the charter of Massachusetts was altered so that the upper house of the legislature was appointed by the Crown instead of elected by the lower house. Up to this point, in the words of Professor Peter Thomas, George’s ?hopes were centered on a political solution, and he always bowed to his cabinet’s opinions even when skeptical of their success. The detailed evidence of the years from 1763 to 1775 tends to exonerate George III from any real responsibility for the American Revolution.’ Though the Americans characterized George as a tyrant, in these years he acted as a constitutional monarch supporting the initiatives of his ministers.

 

George III is often accused of obstinately trying to keep Great Britain at war with the revolutionaries in America, despite the opinions of his own ministers. In the words of the Victorian author George Trevelyan, the King was determined ?never to acknowledge the independence of the Americans, and to punish their contumacy by the indefinite prolongation of a war which promised to be eternal.’ The King wanted to ?keep the rebels harassed, anxious, and poor, until the day when, by a natural and inevitable process, discontent and disappointment were converted into penitence and remorse’. However, more recent historians defend George by saying in the context of the times, no king would willingly surrender such a large territory, and his conduct was far less ruthless than contemporary monarchs in Europe. In early 1778, France (Britain’s chief rival) signed a treaty of alliance with the United States and the conflict escalated. The United States and France were soon joined by Spain and the Dutch Republic, while Britain had no major allies of its own. As late as the Siege of Charleston in 1780, Loyalists could still believe in their eventual victory, as British troops inflicted heavy defeats on the Continental forces at the Battle of Camden and the Battle of Guilford Court House. In late 1781, the news of Lord Cornwallis’s surrender at the Siege of Yorktown reached London; Lord North’s parliamentary support ebbed away and he resigned the following year. The King drafted an abdication notice, which was never delivered, finally accepted the defeat in North America, and authorized peace negotiations. The Treaties of Paris, by which Britain recognized the independence of the American states and returned Florida to Spain, were signed in 1782 and 1783. When John Adams was appointed American Minister to London in 1785, George had become resigned to the new relationship between his country and the former colonies. He told Adams, ?I was the last to consent to the separation; but the separation having been made and having become inevitable, I have always said, as I say now, that I would be the first to meet the friendship of the United States as an independent power.’

George III was extremely popular in Britain. The British people admired him for his piety, and for remaining faithful to his wife. He was fond of his children and was devastated at the death of two of his sons in infancy in 1782 and 1783 respectively. By this time, George’s health was deteriorating. He had a mental illness, characterized by acute mania, which was possibly a symptom of the genetic disease porphyria, although this has been questioned. A study of samples of the King’s hair published in 2005 revealed high levels of arsenic, a possible trigger for the disease. The source of the arsenic is not known, but it could have been a component of medicines or cosmetics.

 

The King may have had a brief episode of disease in 1765, but a longer episode began in the summer of 1788. At the end of the parliamentary session, he went to Cheltenham Spa to recuperate. It was the furthest he had ever been from London – just short of 100 miles (150 km) – but his condition worsened. In November he became seriously deranged, sometimes speaking for many hours without pause, causing him to foam at the mouth and making his voice hoarse. His doctors were largely at a loss to explain his illness, and spurious stories about his condition spread, such as the claim that he shook hands with a tree in the mistaken belief that it was the King of Prussia.

 

Editor’s note: The King’s German wife, Charlotte, was intelligent, educated and cultured. She brought German musicians into the Court of George III. Mozart and his family lived for a while there. Handel was such a favorite of the English Court that not only did he compose some of his greatest pieces while living there, but he became an English citizen. As many readers may know, the first aria in Handel’s great opera, Xerxes, depicts a man singing to a tree. For your enjoyment, this aria can be clicked on below.

 

Treatment for mental illness was primitive by modern standards, and the King’s doctors, who included Francis Willis, treated the King by forcibly restraining him until he was calm, or applying caustic poultices to draw out ?evil humors’. In February 1789, the Regency Bill, authorizing his, always scheming, oldest son, the Prince of Wales to act as regent, was introduced and passed in the House of Commons, but before the House of Lords could pass the bill, George III recovered. After George’s recovery, his popularity, and that of Pitt, continued to increase at the expense of Fox and the Prince of Wales. His humane and understanding treatment of two insane assailants, Margaret Nicholson in 1786 and John Frith in 1790, contributed to his popularity. James Hadfield’s failed attempt to shoot the King in the Drury Lane Theatre on 15 May 1800 was not political in origin but motivated by the apocalyptic delusions of Hadfield and Bannister Truelock. George seemed unperturbed by the incident, so much so that he fell asleep during the intermission.

 

The French Revolution of 1789, in which the French monarchy had been overthrown, worried many British landowners. France declared war on Great Britain in 1793; in the war attempt, George allowed Pitt to increase taxes, raise armies, and suspend the right of habeas corpus. The First Coalition to oppose revolutionary France, which included Austria, Prussia, and Spain, broke up in 1795 when Prussia and Spain made separate peace with France. The Second Coalition, which included Austria, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire, was defeated in 1800. Only Great Britain was left fighting Napoleon Bonaparte, the First Consul of the French Republic. At about the same time, the King had a relapse of his previous illness, which he blamed on worry over the Catholic question. On 14 March 1801, Pitt was formally replaced by the Speaker of the House of Commons, Henry Addington. Addington opposed emancipation, instituted annual accounts, abolished income tax and began a program of disarmament. In October 1801, he made peace with the French, and in 1802 signed the Treaty of Amiens. George did not consider the peace with France as real; in his view it was an ?experiment’. In 1803, the war resumed but public opinion distrusted Addington to lead the nation in war, and instead favored Pitt. An invasion of England by Napoleon seemed imminent, and a massive volunteer movement arose to defend England against the French. George’s review of 27,000 volunteers in Hyde Park, London, on 26 and 28 October 1803 and at the height of the invasion scare, attracted an estimated 500,000 spectators on each day. The Times said, ?The enthusiasm of the multitude was beyond all expression.’ A courtier wrote on 13 November that, ?The King is really prepared to take the field in case of attack, his beds are ready and he can move at half an hour’s warning.’ George wrote to his friend Bishop Hurd, ?We are here in daily expectation that Bonaparte will attempt his threatened invasion … Should his troops effect a landing, I shall certainly put myself at the head of mine, and my other armed subjects, to repel them.’ After Admiral Lord Nelson’s famous naval victory at the Battle of Trafalgar, the possibility of invasion was extinguished.

 

In 1804, George’s recurrent illness returned. In late 1810, at the height of his popularity, already virtually blind with cataracts and in pain from rheumatism, George became dangerously ill. In his view the malady had been triggered by stress over the death of his youngest and favorite daughter, Princess Amelia. The Princess’s nurse reported that ?the scenes of distress and crying every day were melancholy beyond description.’ He accepted the need for the Regency Act of 1811, and the Prince of Wales acted as Regent for the remainder of George III’s life. Despite signs of a recovery in May 1811, by the end of the year George had become permanently insane and lived in seclusion at Windsor Castle until his death. Prime Minister Spencer Perceval was assassinated in 1812 and was replaced by Lord Liverpool. Liverpool oversaw British victory in the Napoleonic Wars. The subsequent Congress of Vienna led to significant territorial gains for Hanover, which was upgraded from an electorate to a kingdom.

 

Meanwhile, George’s health deteriorated. He developed dementia, and became completely blind and increasingly deaf. He was incapable of knowing or understanding either that he was declared King of Hanover in 1814, or that his wife died in 1818. At Christmas 1819, he spoke nonsense for 58 hours, and for the last few weeks of his life was unable to walk. He died at Windsor Castle at 8:38 pm on 29 January 1820, six days after the death of his fourth son, the Duke of Kent. His favorite son, Frederick, Duke of York, was with him. George III was buried on 16 February in St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle. George was succeeded by two of his sons George IV and William IV, who both died without surviving legitimate children, leaving the throne to the only legitimate child of the Duke of Kent, Victoria, the last monarch of the House of Hanover. George III lived for 81 years and 239 days and reigned for 59 years and 96 days: both his life and his reign were longer than those of any of his predecessors. Only Victoria and Elizabeth II have since lived and reigned longer.

 

George III was dubbed ?Farmer George’ by satirists, at first to mock his interest in mundane matters rather than politics, but later to contrast his homely thrift with his son’s grandiosity and to portray him as a man of the people. Under George III, the British Agricultural Revolution reached its peak and great advances were made in fields such as science and industry. There was unprecedented growth in the rural population, which in turn provided much of the workforce for the concurrent Industrial Revolution. George’s collection of mathematical and scientific instruments is now owned by King’s College London but housed in the Science Museum, London, to which it has been on long-term loan since 1927. He had the King’s Observatory built in Richmond-upon-Thames for his own observations of the 1769 transit of Venus. When William Herschel discovered Uranus in 1781, he at first named it Georgium Sidus (George’s Star) after the King, who later funded the construction and maintenance of Herschel’s 1785 40-foot telescope, which was the biggest ever built at the time. In the mid-twentieth century the work of historian, Lewis Namier, who thought George was ?much maligned’, started a re-evaluation of the man and his reign.

 

The very cultured court of King George III would have invited creative composers like Handel and Mozart to perform there often. The most talented opera singer of the time, Farinelli, would have performed at this King’s court for King George and his wife Charlotte.

 

George Frederic Handel (1685-1759); Painting is by Balthasar Denner – National Portrait Gallery: NPG 1976; Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6364709

 

Carlo Broschi Farinelli, (1705-1782) wearing the Order of Calatrava, by Jacopo Amigoni c1750-52; Painting by Jacopo Amigoni – Manuel Parada Lopez de Corselas User: Manuel de Corselas ARS SUMMUM, Centro para el Estudio y Difusion Libres de la Historia del Arte. Summer 2007., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2568895

 

Farinelli was the most celebrated Italian castrato singer of the 18th century and one of the greatest singers in the history of opera. Farinelli has been described as having soprano vocal range and sang the highest note customary at the time.

 

 

For your enjoyment

 

Counter tenor, David Daniels, Xerxes, by George Frederic Handel

(The first aria in Xerxes, is the well known Ombra Mai Fu. A man sings to a tree about his love and admiration for it’s existence. Could Handel have heard the malicious gossip after King George III had one of his episodes, that the King was seen talking to a tree? We’ll never know, but the coincidence seems too great, not to come to this conclusion.)

 

Handel’s opera Rinaldo sung in the film, Farinelli

 

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