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George III: A Picture Portfolio Of A Long And Troubled Reign

July 2024
10min read

The King’s Ancestors

GEORGE I (1660–1727): The American colonies which would eject his great-grandson were a mere strip of coastal settlements, distant, insecure pawns in European dynastic wars, when an accident of ancestry brought George Louis, Elector of Hanover, to the throne in 1714. There were closer claimants by blood, not to mention more attractive personalities, among the ousted Catholic Stuarts, and they had some Tory help as old Queen Anne approached death without an heir. But the great Whig families supported George Louis, grandson of the daughter of James I and an undoubted Protestant, and through this rather blunt Hanoverian instrument they ruled England for almost a century.

This first George spoke no English, and much preferred his castle, Herrenhausen, and the German chamberlains and gross mistresses he brought to England with him. Only his wife was left behind. Years before, this unhappy princess, Sophia Dorothea of Celle (left), had been caught in an illicit love affair. Her lover was murdered and Sophia imprisoned for the rest of her life. George I is not an admirable figure, but he left government alone and, ruled by his prime minister, Robert Walpole, the Empire could prosper.


GEORGE II (1683–1760): Hanover-born George II was personally brave—he was the last English king to fight in battle—and he learned English, after a fashion; but he was choleric, stingy, and minutely methodical. He liked to count his money, coin by coin; his only present to Robert Walpole (his minister also) was a cracked diamond. Literature and the arts were beyond him, although, to his credit, he brought his great countryman Handel over from Hanover. He was aware of some of his weaknesses, and of the greater wisdom of his Queen, Caroline of Anspach (below). His intimate, the witty Lord Chesterfield, remarked that the King “well knew that he was governed by the Queen, while she lived; and that she was governed by Sir Robert Walpole.” To her George II was devoted, if conspicuously unfaithful, and when on her deathbed Caroline urged the aging rake to marry again, he could only sob, “No, no, I shall have mistresses.” He kept both promises.

Like all his house, George II squabbled disgracefully with his heirs, notably his son Frederick, who was banished from the palace. George II was as Germanic as his father, and loved Hanover greatly. His grandson was the first, as he put it, to “glory in the name of Briton.”


The Education of a King

“The cleverest tutors in the world could have done little probably to expand that small intellect,” muses Thackeray on young George III. “He did his best … He was forever drawing maps, for example, and learned geography with no small care and industry. He knew all about the family histories and genealogies of his gentry … He knew the whole Army List; and all the facings, and the exact number of the buttons and … the etiquettes of his own and his grandfather’s courts to a nicety, and the smallest particulars regarding the routine … These parts of the royal business he was capable of learning, and he learned.” What he could not learn, of course, was the heart of the matter.

In the emotional immaturity which never left him, young George turned passionately to others for help, to his brother the Duke of York (who appears with him at left in the portrait above, made in 1751 when George was thirteen), to his domineering mother, and to “his dearest friend,” as he addressed him, the handsome Earl of Bute. This weak but polished courtier he made his first minister on his accession in 1760—poor Bute, when he could have had Pitt the Elder, the great Chatham, builder of a new British empire, fresh from victoiies all over the world. Mean spirits disliked Chatham, who could be overbearing, but George went further. George thought him a traitor, “the blackest of hearts.” Why? Because he had accepted office under hated Grandpapa instead of joining the feeble Opposition court at dear Mamma’s. No amount of button-counting, or map-making, could make up for such a miscalculation as this on a major matter.


King and Parliament

The schoolboy myth about George III is that he aimed to be a tyrant. Actually he reverenced the “beauty, excellence, and perfection” of the British constitution with all the ardor of his limited soul, exercised no illegal powers, and respected the separate status of Parliament, and particularly the predominant Commons. This is not to say that this ancient, quarrelsome, and, on occasion, sublime house—which we can observe at right, taken in action in George III’s time by the biting brush of Thomas Rowlandson—was a democratic body, let alone a really representative one. Perhaps only a fifth of the Commons were popularly elected. A limited suffrage in the country sent many more, traditionally from the same few county families; about one third sat for pocket boroughs, owned, inherited, or bought by a handful of powerful figures. There were great men in all groups, and venal ones. Few men of that time thought it wrong to govern, as George’s ministers did, by alternately cajoling, brow-beating, and bribing legislators, and the King himself acquired great skill in that art. He was sure he was right, by God’s guidance, as sure as any Grand Inquisitor of Spain or hanging judge of Massachusetts. It was a few liberal aristocrats, not the people, who opposed him and his American war and his other follies. The vote in the Commons for coercing America in 1775 was 304 to 105, and it was cheered in the streets no less than the bloody proceedings at Toledo, Salamanca, and the town of Salem.

With his unerring instinct for the wrong man and the wrong policy, George III put the government in 1770 into the hands of Frederick North (left). Lord North then had a courtesy title, since his father, the Earl of Guilford, was still alive, and North sat in the Commons as member for Banbury. Save for North’s wit and lack of malice, he and the King were two peas in a pod: plump, lethargic men with a startling physical resemblance, occasional playmates in childhood, both moral family men, both imbued with the same mystical belief in the justness of the King’s cause.

After more than a decade of failure and defeat, the news of Yorktown was brought to North, who paced up and clown, moaning, “Oh God, it is all over, it is all over.” Then, and many times before, North had tried to resign, but he remained, as Macaulay says, “only because he had not sufficient fortitude to resist the entreaties and reproaches of the King, who silenced all arguments by passionately asking whether any gentleman, any man of spirit, could have the heart to desert a kind master in the hour of extremity.”

But fall North’s government must, for all the frantic King could do, and the independence of America must be recognized. Later on, George made himself civil to American representatives, but he was never really reconciled. After an attack of madness in 1788, when North, now blind and a private citizen, enquired for him, he said:

… he, poor fellow, has lost his sight and I my mind. Yet we meant well to the Americans;—just to punish them with a few bloody noses, and then make bows for the mutual happiness of the two countries. But want of principle got into the Army, want of skill and energy in the First Lord of the Admiralty and want of unanimity at home. We lost America. Tell him not to call again, I shall never see him.”

King and Countryman

“They had the simplest pleasures [says Thackeray]—little country dances, to which a dozen couples were invited, and where the honest King would stand up and dance lor three hours at a time to one tune; after which delicious excitement they would go to bed without any supper … or the Queen would play on the spinet—she played pretty well, Haydn said—or the King would read to her a paper out of The Spectator, or perhaps one of Ogden’s sermons. O Arcadia! what a life it must have been! … a model of an English gentleman’s household. It was early; it was kindly; it was charitable; it was frugal; it was orderly; it must have been stupid to a degree which I shudder now to contemplate. No wonder all the princes ran away from the lap of that dreary domestic virtue…”


George Restored to Favor

The loss of the American colonies, a long, undignified battle with the rabble-rousing John Wilkes, anti-Catholic riots which filled London with street-fighting, the profligate behavior of the King’s own heir, the collapse of his ministries and his policies—many misfortunes indeed had brought the reign of George III to a low ebb by 1783. He had seriously considered abdication. But of this sixty-year reign barely a third had passed, and now a strange thing happened: George III made one brilliant move. Forgetting all his dislike of Lord Chatham, he made Chatham’s twenty-four-year-old son, William Pitt the Younger, his Prime Minister. This was the man who, Macaulay said, “became the greatest master of the whole art of parliamentary government that has ever existed.” Where Bute and North had been weak, Mr. Pitt was heart-of-oak itself. The aging King, beset by his inadequacies and his recurring seizures, gave over trying to rule, and left most of the great business of state to his Prime Minister. He did supremely well.

Revolution rocked France, overturning the established order, and began to spread over Europe. In isolated England, a slow miracle now took place: poor, shambling George III became popular—the only one of his line, until Victoria, to win the heart of England. Plain people could suddenly appreciate this plain English squire, sympathize with his infirmities, and glory in his respectable middle-class virtues, his honest, sober good nature. He was a regular church-goer; he never missed a response. And brave? Six times, when attempts were made on his life, he had shown abundant personal courage.

The first trial of this kind came in 1786, when a barber’s daughter with the delusion that the Crown was hers by right tried to stab him twice with a knife (top right). “The poor creature is mad,” cried the King to the crowd that had seized her; “Do not hurt her; she has not hurt me.” She was taken off to Bedlam. He was stoned once in 1790, and shot at and stoned again in 1795 (center right) in the royal state coach on the opening day of Parliament. The cool sovereign removed one stone from his sleeve and presented it to an agitated lord in waiting. “My Lord,” he said, “keep this as a memorandum of the civilities which we have received.” There was a dramatic moment when, at the Drury Lane Theater in 1800, an insane ex-soldier fired a pistol from the pit at the King in his box, narrowly missing his target. Unruffled, George soon resumed his seat and dozed off as usual toward the end of the play. “God Save the King!” was sung with unusual gusto at the close of that evening, with the addition of a special verse, praying for divine protection from assassins, written on the spot by the theater’s director, the great dramatist Richard Brinsley Sheridan.


Satires on Farmer George

A life as dull and parsimonious as that of George’s household, reassuring as it was to many Englishmen, could not help but arouse satire. Even the King’s adored daughters—“all Cordelias” he called them, with considerable parental license—were bored stiff, and addressed their letters to their more independent brothers from “The Nunnery.” But no one came closer to the mark than the brilliant caricaturist, James Gillray. He had been a strolling player, and then an engraver, until he settled down to work and live with his printer and publisher, a Miss Humphrey of the Strand, and later of New Bond Street. Once they thought of marriage, and started out for the church, when Gillray said: “This is a foolish affair, methinks, Miss Humphrey. We live very comfortably together; we had better let well alone.”

For many years, before and after that false start, Miss Humphrey’s shop window displayed hundreds of superb Gillray drawings, slashing with fine impartiality at King and Parliament, and indeed at all political parties. Gillray’s work is an invaluable guide to manners and politics in the late clays of George III’s reign, and no less important because it shows us quite another world, and another king and court, from the majestic figures and settings in the works of Romney, Lawrence, and Gainsborough.


The King’s Millstone

“The damnedest millstones about the neck of any government that can be imagined.” So the bluff Duke of Wellington, who knew them well, characterized George III’s sons. Of that sorry group, the worst from almost any standpoint was a puffy, dishonorable liar and wastrel who liked to regard himself, without conscious irony, as “The First Gentleman of Europe”; this was the Prince of Wales, later the Prince Regent and, from 1820 to 1830, King George IV. Had he carried on a little longer, England might, in disgust, have turned republic. He certainly played no inconsiderable role in pushing George III over the thin edge of sanity. Like a true Hanoverian, he rebelled against his father and, as soon as he could break loose, set up his own Opposition court, to be toadied to by the King’s enemies. The nation and his father had to meet his ever-growing debts, to gamblers, to tailors, to workmen who built his architectural fantasies. His amours were notorious if puerile until he was married illegally, and to a Catholic at that, as if to snap his fingers in the face of the Revolution of 1688 and the Protestant succession. Nonetheless he lacked the courage to tell the truth about it, even to his friends. When it seemed that his father might die, during his attack of 1788, and the eager Prince waited, in full dress—and then the King recovered, and drove through the streets to a service of Thanksgiving—England never heard such cheering, or saw such a great and glad parade.

The Curtain Falls

From November, 1810, George III ceased to reign. All the world knows the story of his malady: all history presents no sadder figure than that of the old man, blind and deprived of reason, wandering through the rooms of his palace, addressing imaginary parliaments, reviewing fancied troops, holding ghostly courts. I have seen his picture as it was taken at this time, hanging in the apartment of his daughter, the Landgravine of Hesse Hombourg … The poor old father is represented in a purple gown, his snowy beard falling over his breast … He was not only sightless: he became utterly deaf. All light, all reason, all sound of human voices, all the pleasures of this world of God, were taken from him. Some slight lucid moments he had; in one of which, the Queen, desiring to see him, entered the room, and found him singing a hymn, and accompanying himself at the harpsichord. When he had finished, he knelt down and prayed aloud lor her, and then for his family, and then for the nation, concluding with a prayer for himself, that it might please God to avert his heavy calamity from him, but if not, to give him resignation to submit. He then burst into tears, and his reason again fled.

“What preacher need moralize on this story; what words save the simplest are requisite to tell it? It is too terrible for tears. The thought of such a misery smites me down in submission before the Ruler of kings and men, the Monarch Supreme over empires and republics, the inscrutable Dispenser of life, death, happiness, victory. ‘O brothers,’ I said to those who heard me first in America—’O brothers! speaking the same dear mother tongue—O comrades! enemies no more, let us take a mournful hand together as we stand by this royal corpse, and call a truce to battle! Low he lies to whom the proudest used to kneel once, and who was cast lower than the poorest: dead, whom millions prayed for in vain. Driven off his throne; buffeted by rude hands; with his children in revolt; the darling of his old age killed before him untimely; our Lear hangs over her breathless lips and cries, “Cordelia, Cordelia, stay a little!”

Vex not his ghost—oh! let him pass—he hates him/ T

hat would upon the rack of this tough world/ Stretch him out longer!

Hush! Strife and Quarrel, over the solemn grave! Sound, trumpets, a mournful march. Fall, dark curtain, upon his pageant, his pride, his grief, his awful tragedy.’ ”

                       William Makepeace Thackeray, The Four Georges, 1855-56

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