George III – The Life and Reign of Britain’s Most Misunderstood Monarch
Andrew Roberts, London: Allen Lane, 2021, 758pps, £35
Andrew Roberts is renowned for Winston Churchill scholarship, starting with the lacerating Eminent Churchillians of 1994 and culminating in 2018 with his exemplary Churchill: Walking with Destiny. But he has always had other interests, as shown by his superb 1999 biography of Lord Salisbury (Salisbury: Victorian Titan), his able editorship of Art of War, about military commanders from Alexander the Great onwards, and notable studies of Napoleon and the House of Windsor. With King George III, he has taken on a subject who is not only rarely examined, but rarely admired – who almost 200 years after his expiration is still reviled or ridiculed on both sides of the Atlantic, as a blunderer, philistine and tyrant.
With the assistance of over 200,000 pages of newly-released Georgian papers from the Royal Archives, Roberts proves that George’s historical reputation has been grossly distorted by American propaganda ranging from The Rights of Man to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, and generations of British Whig, Radical and Liberal writers. He aims not just to rehabilitate the King personally, but give the whole eighteenth and early nineteenth history of the Anglosphere a more conservative colouration. The result is an impressive and overdue landmark in royalist revisionism, and Anglophone awareness.
George was twenty-two when he acceded in 1760, succeeding his grandfather, George II. He was the first Hanoverian monarch born in Britain, to have English as his first language, and to have a more than nominal commitment to Anglicanism. His House’s hold on the throne was still uncertain; fifteen years previously, a Jacobite army loyal to Charles Edward Stuart (‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’) had advanced as far south as Derby, before turning back towards a last stand at Culloden the following April, and savage suppression at the hands of George’s uncle, the Duke of Cumberland, nicknamed ‘Butcher.’
An inchoate sense of regnal illegitimacy was not helped by Georges I and II, neither of whom attempted to ingratiate themselves with their new, non-German subjects, or even their own families. George I had detested his own son, and George II his – Frederick, Prince of Wales, George III’s father. Frederick broke the dysfunctional Brunswick habit, being very fond of his son, but he died in 1751. George II was so indifferent to Frederick’s fate that his corpse was left for three days to putrefy in the princely apartments. Later, the King reflected ‘I have lost my eldest son, but I was glad of it.’ Such egregious dysfunction had a galvanising effect on the teenaged George, whose married life would be a model of domesticity.
In 1748, Frederick had authored a political testament that appears to have been a guiding influence on George. Policy proposals were few – avoidance of war, repayment of the National Debt, and decoupling the English throne from the electorship of Hanover – but his testament was infused by The Idea of a Patriot King, by the Tory philosopher, Viscount Bolingbroke. Bolingbroke was accused of supporting Stuart absolutism, but he actually advocated a limited monarchy linked to the land and national church, ruling through genuine patriotic consensus, and protecting the people from factions and corrupt special interests. Frederick saw not only the necessity but also the desirability of embracing his family’s new English destiny. He exhorted his son,
Convince this nation that you are not only an Englishman born and bred, but that you are also this by inclination, and that as you will love your younger children next to the elder born, so you will love your other countries, next to England.
George absorbed this advice, and when he acceded, his English identity and sincerity were accepted even by some who would be later amongst his severest critics, even enemies. During his reign, he never left England, and hardly even the Home Counties – which impressive degree of commitment unfortunately limited his comprehension of the wider world. George had the advantages of acceding at a time when English arms were triumphing in Europe and America, and of not being his grandfather, but he also brought personal qualities. One commemorative medal marking the occasion was inscribed ‘Entirely British’, and another ‘Felicitas Britanniae.’ He had ‘a noble openness in his countenance,’ gushed a duchess, and ‘a cheerful good-natured affability.’ Edmund Burke – whose Whig prejudices would warp his views of George – originally hailed him as one who had ‘united all sects and all parties.’ The burghers of Boston, Mass., fired celebratory cannonades, and acknowledged ‘all faith and obedience…with all hearty and humble affection.’ But unity or even heartiness could not last, in the face of the Seven Years War, America’s struggle for independence, the French Revolution, and Napoleon – not to mention the terrible trauma of spasmodic ‘madness’ (not porphyria, but manic-depressive psychosis), which even when in abeyance cast a penumbra over his whole reign, the ultimate darkly irrational obverse for a ruler in the Age of Enlightenment.
In 1760, power in Britain resided in a small number of Whig aristocratic families, who had enjoyed virtually unbroken control since the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688, promoting family and friends, gerrymandering constituencies, and excluding Tories from all offices. They had easily dominated the arriviste and intellectually underpowered Georges I and II, and were displeased to discover this latest George had his own ideas – and a Scot, the 3rd Earl of Bute, as chief adviser. George was, if anything, too loyal to Bute, who had been his tutor and would become Prime Minister, and later other Prime Ministers, even when this proved counterproductive. Legendarily sybaritic Whigs found George’s abstemiousness, marital loyalty, parsimony and rectitude risible, but they were also a permanent reproof.
The Hanoverians were and are accused of lack of culture, but George III played several musical instruments, and was a devotee of Handel. He liked being with intellectuals like Samuel Johnson, astronomers William and Caroline Herschel, and music historian Charles Burney – father of the novelist Fanny, whose diaries are an incomparable source of information about the King and Queen at home. George founded the Royal Academy of Arts, and invested in artworks, amassing almost half of the 30,000 items in today’s Royal Collection. He employed the architects Robert Adam, William Chambers, and James Wyatt. He had a personal library of almost 80,000 volumes, bought cartographical works and sponsored explorations, commissioned scientific instruments, and ensured the chronometer-maker John Harrison was paid for solving the problem of longitude. Even when one of his children died after being inoculated against smallpox, George continued to advocate vaccination. He was also famously interested in agriculture, which earned him the mocking nickname ‘Farmer George’, but endeared him to a still predominantly rural populace, on top of his accessibility and lack of pretension.
George’s willingness to submit to his ministers, when he could have stopped them, alone shows that he was not the arbitrary tyrant of overheated imaginations, including that of Burke. Burke does not come especially well out of this book, not until the French Revolution shocked him into non-partisan magnificence, but others fare worse. Readers are slightly sadistically reminded that some sainted advocates of liberty were slaveholders, whereas the allegedly despotic George had no slaves, and always abhorred the trade (although he did nothing to end it). Thomas Paine was a histrionic fanatic, impelled into rebellion by rejection in the Old World, and little liked in the New. The reckless rhetorician Charles Fox was ‘the most personally corrupt politician of the age.’ The future George IV was a boastful, callous, mendacious and selfish voluptuary, who took his friends to gawp at his father when in his most pitiable bouts of ‘madness.’
Roberts admires the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, but the second part, with its specific accusations, is dismembered and almost completely dismissed. Americans were taxed much less than Britons, and revenues raised stayed in America, but on top of Stamp Act anomalies and unfair tariffs, restive Americans resented the 1763 Proclamation which had guaranteed territorial rights west of the Alleghenies to tribes which had fought against France, yet hypocritically allowed English investors to buy in those areas. Many factors fed a growing yearning for freedoms, yet had George been more knowledgeable of America, and less tolerant of floundering Lord North (whose frequent offers to resign he declined) independence might have been avoided. Alternatively, had he been really ruthless during the early stages of the war, perhaps rebellion could have been quashed.
George’s innate decency, restraint, and steadfastness of purpose served much better during the French Revolution and aftermath, when England looked like a haven of ordered liberty in a disastrously disordered Europe. George was fortunate in having the political services of ‘Pitt the Younger’ for much of this period (in a rare misstep, the author says Pitt’s house was in Middlesex rather than Kent), and the martial assistance of Admiral Nelson and the Duke of Wellington. But by 1804, the year Napoleon anointed himself emperor, George was going blind, and his ‘madness’ was returning. After thirty-three years of sharing a connubial bed, Queen Charlotte finally moved out.
In 1811, George IV took over as Regent, and the ‘cheerful good-natured’ and affable hopeful of 1760 lived increasingly forgotten at Windsor, deafness and senility aggravating his depression, interspersed with fits of guilty lucidity. He was little visited even by Charlotte, and after she died in 1818, by almost no-one. He never even knew of the downfall of Napoleon or the birth of a grandchild, one Princess Victoria. Yet when he died in January 1820, after fifty-six years on the throne, it felt to many like the felling of an ancient oak. In a single sad stroke, Britain had lost her proven patriot king, and gained a popinjay son.
This review first appeared in Chronicles, and is reproduced with permission