An Enlightenment king vindicated

Andrew Roberts dispels the myths and sticks to the facts about George III

This article is taken from the December/January 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

George III: The Life and Reign of Britain’s Most Misunderstood Monarch by Andrew Roberts (Allen Lane, £35)

This outstanding new biography of George III is timely. The first of the Hanoverians to identify as British was mocked, slandered and vilified during his lifetime and is still regularly cited in the American media as the epitome of tyranny. Over the past two centuries historians have dismissed him as incompetent and despotic.

George III: The Life and Reign of Britain’s Most Misunderstood Monarch by Andrew Roberts (Allen Lane, £35)

Andrew Roberts has no time for such ill-founded nonsense. Delving deep into hitherto unexplored royal archives, he reveals a sensitive boy who lost a loving father when he was only twelve and was subjected to unsympathetic tutors appointed by his grandfather, the thoroughly unpleasant George II.

He found solace in the love of his mother, and a mentor in the Earl of Bute, who guided his inquisitive mind into a wide range of interests and channelled his aptitude for hard work into the study of political history. At an early age George embraced Bolingbroke’s vision of the Patriot King and constitutional limited monarchy. Familiar with the writings of the Enlightenment, he nourished remarkably progressive views, notably holding the slave trade “in execration”.

One of his first acts on succeeding to the throne at the age of 22 was to find himself a wife, settling on Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg Strelitz. Naturally pious and virtuous, he entered into the union with his innate sense of duty, and it rapidly became a remarkably loving one resulting in fifteen children (most of whom caused him only grief).

Though he believed in the need for public magnificence, he was frugal in his private life. In 1762 he bought Buckingham House to accommodate himself and his growing family. It was a home rather than a palace. There were no banquets and the monarch dined en famille (during the food shortages following the failed harvests of the 1790s, he set an example by eating “only rice and a single slice of bread a day”).

George was a slave to duty, rising at six to go riding for a couple of hours before getting down to work. His levees and drawing-rooms were dull affairs, but they provided him with an opportunity to keep in touch with his subjects.

He had the common touch, and on the walks he and his wife liked to take he was chatty with people of all conditions. When they went out to the theatre or opera, they did so like any middle-class couple in their sedan chairs, unattended by anyone. Both loved music. George, who played the harpsichord, was particularly fond of Corelli and Handel, whom he supported, and he tried to persuade the young Mozart to remain in London.

A generous and informed patron of both the arts and the sciences, he added to the royal collection, founded the Royal Academy, encouraged John Harrison to produce an instrument to measure longitude and took a keen interest in astronomy, horology and agriculture. He was an avid collector of books and maps, and shared the four libraries at Buckingham House with any scholar wishing to use them.

Roberts crisply dismisses the myths that have grown up since 1776 and sticks to the facts

All of this set him apart from the rackety world of the aristocracy, and his attempts at governance were bedevilled by the factionalism and personal hatreds of his ministers. Roberts provides a lucid and unpartisan account of George’s efforts and while acknowledging his obstinacy and self-righteousness, as well as his reluctance to be parted from ministers he had got used to, he shows how after much effort and many a failure, by the 1790s they did result in strong ministries and responsible cabinets.

Roberts also applies a refreshingly mature overview of the geopolitical context. Britain was at war when George ascended the throne, yet the peace he managed to bring about was seen as insufficiently glorious after the annus mirabilis of 1759. And hardly had the cost of war been counted when a new crisis loomed in the American colonies.

Roberts crisply dismisses the myths that have grown up since 1776 and sticks to the facts, backed up by contemporary sources which highlight the attendant ironies, not to mention the humbug; the American colonists were the least oppressed, on average the wealthiest and the most under-taxed society in the world at the time. The famous Boston “tea-party” was staged by merchant smugglers anxious not to be undercut; the treaties between Britain and nations such as the Cherokee were resented by speculators (including George Washington) who wanted to take their land; British court rulings outlawing slavery alarmed American slave-owners, and so on.

The 13 colonies had by then achieved a social cohesion and political maturity which called into question the existing relationship with the mother country. The colonists were mostly happy to remain subjects of the King; an equestrian statue of him was erected in New York as late as 1770. But they did not see why they should be governed by a parliament elected by others.

George was well-disposed towards the Americans, but believed it his duty to uphold the supremacy of parliament. He felt the matter “required more deliberation, candour, and temper than I fear it will meet with”. There was too much mutual suspicion and misunderstanding, exacerbated by the four- to six-week transatlantic delay in communication.

When faced with outright rebellion, Britain had to react, if only to protect the large number of American loyalists, but did not do so decisively or ruthlessly enough. The outcome was predictable, particularly when France and Spain joined the fray, and inevitable in the long run. As Roberts points out, the colonies were lost because George III was not the tyrant of legend.

The war, which lasted eight years, cost 43,000 lives, almost doubled the national debt, and lost Britain half a million square miles of her empire and around two and a half million subjects. The damage to her reputation was severe.

Yet during George’s reign Britain gained valuable colonies elsewhere, notably in India. And it was the same obstinacy with which he confronted the American rebels that made him pursue the war with revolutionary and then Napoleonic France, which would culminate in a victory that placed Britain at the pinnacle of power for most of the nineteenth century.

Although he lived on for another five years after Waterloo, it was not given to him to relish this success. In 1765 he was struck down with what the most recent findings have identified as manic depression and bipolar disorder (and not, as had been thought since the 1960s, porphyria).

The next bout occurred in October 1788 and lasted some four months, with wild mood swings making him feverish, voluble and incoherent at times (on one occasion he talked without ceasing for nineteen hours), and quite normal at others. He was subjected to various painful and debilitating “remedies” by baffled physicians before the “malady” was identified as a mental health issue.

His recovery was greeted by a service of thanksgiving at St Paul’s and wild celebrations going on for months throughout the country. But in 1801 he suffered a severe relapse, followed by others, which made it impossible for him to continue living with his wife and eventually necessitated his moving to isolation at Windsor. While his son became regent, he lived on, blind, deaf and racked with rheumatic pain.

George has found a true champion in Andrew Roberts, who has ridden up gallantly to challenge unfounded prejudice

George’s coronation back in 1761 had provided a mixture of splendour with farce as vital symbols of state were mislaid, the heralds got everything wrong and the Hereditary Champion messed up. Today, 260 years on, George has found a true champion in Andrew Roberts, who has ridden up gallantly to challenge unfounded prejudice, unhorse mendacious detractors and skewer hoary myths.

We learn, for instance, that George was remarkably brave, displaying astonishing sang-froid at times of danger to his own life; when he was shot at in his box at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, he stepped forward to calm the horrified audience, and “slept as quietly as usual during the interval”. He was kind and generous, loved by his servants, remarkably open-minded and gracious to his critics. And how many sons visit their dying mother every evening for weeks?

This impressively researched and scholarly account of the King’s life and travails is compulsively readable and, in its tragic end, deeply moving. It is full of fascinating detail, insightful vignettes and vivid local colour.

Roberts’s sensitive use of reliable sources allows the King’s personality, with all its faults as well as its virtues, to emerge from the caricatures in which it had been imprisoned, and reveals a civilised, unassuming, amiable, slightly bumbling and ineffably English gentleman — “the finest gentleman I have ever seen”, asserted Samuel Johnson.

He had been dealt a rotten hand in a difficult game, yet according to John Wesley his words and actions were “worthy of an Englishman, worthy of a Christian, and worthy of a king”.

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