An improbable success: crowned in 1760 aged 22, George III remains Britain’s longest reigning king. Photo: Classic Image / Alamy Stock Photo

The sanity of King George

Why the man who lost America was a misunderstood monarch
November 3, 2021
George III: The Life and Reign of Britain's Most Understood Monarch
Andrew Roberts
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On 14th July 1789, the Bastille in Paris was stormed and France descended into an orgy of revolution and bloodshed, culminating in the guillotining of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie-Antoinette. It took a decade before stability was ruthlessly imposed by Napoleon’s military dictatorship, but that too collapsed in a megalomaniacal European war. For the next century and a half, France lacked fundamental strength and legitimacy of government.

On 14th July 1789, King George III was on holiday in Weymouth. “The King bathes, and with great success,” wrote a companion of Queen Charlotte, to whom he was uxoriously devoted. “A machine follows the royal one into the sea, filled with fiddlers, who play ‘God Save Great George Our King’ as His Majesty takes the plunge!” She added: “They have dressed out every street with labels of ‘God Save the King’: all the shops have it over their doors; all the children wear it in their caps, all the labourers in their hats, and all the sailors in their voices for they never approach the house without shouting it out loud.” Tens of thousands turned out to cheer the king’s carriage on its way to and from Windsor.

Over two centuries later Britain remains a popular monarchy, reigned over from Buckingham Palace, which George bought, by his great-great-great-great-granddaughter Elizabeth II. Her benignity, moderate splendour, longevity and rectitude make her reign—like that of her equally adamantine great-great-grandmother, Victoria—in some ways a continuation of his. But George ruled as well as reigned and was significantly better educated than either Elizabeth or Victoria, and had far greater interest in science, architecture, agriculture and the arts. He was Victoria and Albert, Elizabeth and Prince Charles, rolled into one.

Andrew Roberts makes a strong revisionist case for the generally maligned George III in this engrossing, brilliant biography, and it is one I am largely persuaded by. “George III more than filled the role of King of Great Britain worthily; he filled it nobly,” Roberts concludes. It was nobility with Lear-like pathos, given his famous loss of sanity in 1788, which Roberts attributes to bipolar disorder and not the blood disease porphyria depicted in Alan Bennett’s 1991 play The Madness of George III. Roberts, along with Bennett, gives due recognition to the early mental health specialist Francis Willis, who saved the king from his quack physicians. However, until his final confinement at the age of 73, after half a century on the throne, George’s four episodes were incapacitating for a total duration of less than a year; so to describe him as the “mad king” is as historically awry as to regard his only major legacy as losing America.

George III was an improbable success. Half a century before his accession, his great-grandfather was an obscure German Protestant princeling recruited during a dynastic crisis in 1714 to fill a chronically unstable British throne. Two recent occupants had been beheaded or expelled, the first after a civil war won by the military dictator Oliver Cromwell. (A kind of British Napoleon.) George I of Hanover spoke little or no English and was initially in two minds about whether to reside in his new kingdom. He immediately faced an armed uprising, led by the son of the ousted James II and VII, who had support in Catholic Ireland and disaffected Scotland, which had been locked into political union with England only seven years earlier.

“To describe George III as the ‘mad king’ is historically awry”

The first Hanoverian’s son, George II, faced another rebellion in 1745, led by James’s grandson and with French support. He died aged 76 to be succeeded in 1760, in the middle of yet another war with France, by his then priggish 22-year-old grandson, George III. At first he appeared clueless about government and quickly fell out with the aristocratic magnates who were indispensable to managing the oligarchic but highly disputative parliament, required by law to meet annually after the 1688 “Glorious Revolution.”

The monarch described in pointillistic detail by Roberts was the linchpin of mid-18th century government—head of government as well as state, church and armed forces. But he or she nonetheless had to engage with an effective parliamentary manager to secure majorities (by hook or crook) in the Commons and Lords in support of the Crown’s demands. Hence the new office of “prime minister.”

For most of the reigns of George I (under whom the post was created) and George II, there were just three dominant premiers: Robert Walpole, a brilliant, thuggish manager who wisely steered clear of wars; he was succeeded by two of England’s principal oligarchs, Henry Pelham and Thomas Pelham-Holles (better known as the Duke of Newcastle). It was Pelham who recruited talented, lesser aristos of parliamentary standing to deal with emergencies, notably the elder William Pitt during an initially disastrous war with France in the late 1750s. “I am sure I can save this country and no one else can,” the inspirational Great Commoner boasted, and he was probably right.

Obtusely, within two years of his youthful accession, as soon as that war was won, George III dismissed both Newcastle and Pitt, replacing them with his ex-tutor Lord Bute, a dilettante Scots peer devoid of parliamentary skill. Bute urged his pupil to “be a king” but became himself a national hate figure and was soon pleading to be released. Within a decade, a struggling George was on to his seventh prime minister, Lord North, another childhood friend, who was as clueless as his royal master over how to handle a growing dispute over self-government with Britain’s increasingly self-confident American colonies.

George and North proceeded by 1782 to lose the American war to George Washington. “Upon military matters, I speak ignorantly and therefore without effect,” North told the king. (Roberts observes: “That sentence alone ought to have disqualified him as leader in a time of war.”) Forced to stop the war by bitter parliamentary opponents led by Charles James Fox, George contemplated abdication. To his ministers, his reign was a constant, frenetic monarchical melodrama even before his illness was diagnosed. Dating all his letters to the minute (“0759” typically heading the day’s first screed), he punctuated them with declarations such as: “I shall never lose an opportunity in declaring that no consideration shall ever make me in the smallest degree an instrument in a measure that I am confident would annihilate the rank in which the British Empire stands among the European States, and would render my situation in this country below continuing an object to me.”

It is debatable whether the dynasty would have long survived George’s abdication then, or when—amid the drama of his most serious four-month bipolar episode of 1788-1789—he nearly died a decade later. The vast licentiousness of the 26-year-old Prince of Wales would have known few bounds as regent, not least because he would have appointed his equally licentious friend Fox as prime minister, a supporter of the unfolding French revolution.

Instead, the next 22 years were the apotheosis of George III. By the time his 48-year-old son finally took over in 1811, after Fox’s death, there were no tremors of state or changes of policy or ministers. The Hanoverian dynasty was so strong that it withstood even George IV’s extravagances. Roberts attributes this to three essential causes.

First, for all the melodrama and poor judgment of his early years, George III’s rootedness in the 1688 version of limited monarchy—ironically instilled in him by his tutor Bute, before his disastrous turn as PM—constituted an anchor in the alarms and excursions of national strife and international revolutions. Although an opponent of further reform, and prepared to indulge and fund the corruption of the age, George never sought autocracy or to abolish or seriously undermine parliament, which met freely in every year of his reign.

“George was not a reactionary so much as a natural conservative,” says Roberts, a noted conservative himself. “He did not believe in the Divine Right of Kings, but he did believe in the near-divinity of the British constitution.” His anti-revolution-itis faced all ways: against the American separatists and the French Jacobins, but equally against populist anti-Catholic demagogues at home like George Gordon, and against fellow monarchs going despotic. “I will never acknowledge that the king of a limited monarchy can on any principle endeavour to change the constitution and increase his own power,” he declared after Gustav III overthrew Sweden’s constitution in 1772.

Roberts demonstrates, article by article, that virtually all the famous charges against “the tyrant” George III in the American Declaration of Independence were fictitious. The issue was simply one of whether the king-in-parliament had continuing legislative power of any kind over colonies with their own elected assemblies. Roberts gives a moving account of John Adams’s reception by George as the first American ambassador to the Court of St James. The king received him with a “gracious and heartfelt” speech, declaring: “The separation having been made… I have always said, and I say now, that I would be the first to meet the friendship of the United States as an independent power. The moment I see such sentiments and language as yours prevail, the moment I shall say, let the circumstances of language, religion and blood have their natural and full effect.” British-American friendship is rooted in that moment.

Adams called George “the most accomplished courtier in his dominions,” and therein lies his second essential strength. However beleaguered, he not only avoided despotism, but he was thoroughly professional and generally popular, outside parts of the “liberal metropolitan elite.” In particular, for all the Hanoverian heritage, he was quintessentially British and proud of it. He never travelled outside southern England. His accession declaration, “I glory in the name of Briton,” became ever more poignant as Britannia struggled for survival against Napoleon and the threat of invasion. He was personally brave, generous and affable, with a reputation as the farmer’s friend. After one of many assassination attempts—at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in 1800—the playwright Sheridan, formerly a bitter critic, penned a new verse to “God Save the King” which captured the popular mood:

From every latent foe
From the assassin’s blow,
God save the King!
O’er him Thine arm extend,
For Britain’s sake defend,
Our father, Prince and friend,
God save the King!

This fundamental stability and constitutional consensus of George’s reign within England and Scotland—Ireland remained semi-revolutionary—was a vital platform for economic progress, investment, trade (including slavery) and industrialisation. Britain’s industrial revolution flourished after his demise, but its roots lay in his reign. And for all the loss of America, the colonisation of India advanced dramatically, a process that endured for another century and a half.

Finally, in 1783, after 23 years of almost continuously weak, divided or disastrous governments, George found his ministerial match in William Pitt the Younger. Having appointed Pitt, he backed him to the hilt for the next 17 years. Barely older than he had been himself in 1760 but already an accomplished parliamentarian at 24, Pitt was a shrewd prime minister for most of the rest of George’s effective reign. The two men were never friends but the mutual respect was formidable. Pitt became “the pilot who weathered the storm” of the Napoleonic wars. In the process, he established the modern form of Cabinet, progressively removing the monarch from the business of government. One of George’s gifts to history was to acquiesce in this.

If George came back today, he would recognise so much. Buckingham Palace. Windsor. Eton. The state opening of parliament, the changing of the guard, trooping of the colour—public rituals still adorned by the music of Handel, his favourite composer and another German immigrant, who wrote what Roberts calls the “dynastic soundtrack” for the Hanoverians. Oh, and a vituperative popular media lapping up the “heirs and spares” trashing the good name of a popular, dutiful, aged monarch. As the Manchester Guardian concluded in its obituary in 1820: “In the perplexity of nations, the throne of the King of England was the only one unshaken, and its stability was the work of his virtue.”