The coronation of George III on September 22, 1761, was a shambles from start to finish. It began with the officials losing the Sword of State, and rapidly descended into abject chaos, with the King forced to shout instructions to the befuddled clergy. Since the ceremony at Westminster Abbey lasted for six hours, many of the spectators had picnics sent in, and “at solemn moments a clattering of knives, forks and plates and a pinging of glasses could be clearly heard”.
At the dinner afterwards there weren’t enough chairs for all the guests, while the hereditary champion arrived on a horse hired from a circus that disgraced itself by backing into the King. “A wretched banquet, and a foolish puppet-show,” the writer Horace Walpole declared.
Poor George! He ruled Britain and Ireland for almost 60 years from 1760, which was at the time the longest reign in our history. Yet on the other side of the Atlantic he is remembered only as the blundering oaf whose insensitivity lost the American colonies, or as the “mad king” who supposedly held an earnest conversation with an oak tree under the impression it was the King of Prussia.
In the US he is remembered as the cruel tyrant whose exactions drove the colonists into rebellion. To quote the Declaration of Independence, George was the incarnation of “death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & Perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages”.
“This portrait of a heartless, absolute sovereign,” says the historian Andrew Roberts in his new book, The Last King of America, “is repeated almost every single day in America’s print and online media.” But is it true? Not remotely, says Roberts. George never came close to being an absolute monarch, let alone a tyrant. He was “well-meaning, hard-working, decent, dutiful, moral, cultured and kind”.
Unlike many early modern monarchs, he tried to do his best for his children and thought deeply about his responsibilities as King. And when he met his subjects he almost always behaved with admirable humility.
To quote the Declaration of Independence, George III was the incarnation of “death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & Perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages.”
Roberts tells a lovely story about an occasion when, strolling in the fields near Weymouth, George came across a woman milking a cow. Not recognizing him, the woman said she had been unable to go with her friends to see the King because she had five children and couldn’t afford to take the time off work. At that, George pressed a guinea into her hand. “Then you can tell your companions,” he said emotionally, “that the king came to see you.”
By the standards of Roberts’s previous subjects, such as Napoleon and Churchill, George III might seem a homespun, even slightly boring figure. Born to Frederick, Prince of Wales, in 1738, he lost his father when he was 12 and became King when he was 22. He barely traveled, and spent most of his life in a handful of palaces. He rarely drank, was faithful to his wife, Charlotte, and had no obvious vices. His enthusiasms included microscopes, music and paintings, and his political leanings were solidly conservative.
It says a great deal about him that his idea of fun was writing an article about farming. On another of his country strolls he came across a farmer driving sheep and discussed livestock prices with him. The man asked if he had ever seen the King, adding that he was said to be “a good sort of man, but dresses very plain”. “Aye,” George said, “as plain as you see me now.”
Tea and Sympathy
Any discussion of George’s reign naturally hinges on the loss of the American colonies, and here Roberts is pleasingly uncompromising. It is rubbish, he says, to talk of George’s tyranny — Americans were ruled with “the lightest of touches” and “paid the lightest of taxes in the empire”. If George had been a tyrant, he might well have won the American war; it was only because Britain fought half-heartedly that it lost.
The mantra of no taxation without representation was utter hypocrisy, since many secessionist agitators were dead set against American representation in Parliament anyway. Far from being a battle cry of freedom, the Boston Tea Party was partly motivated by the commercial interests of local smugglers.
And Roberts has great fun quoting Samuel Johnson on the flagrant hypocrisy of the Founding Fathers, many of whom, unlike the King, owned slaves. “How is it,” the great writer wondered, “that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”
If George had been a tyrant, he might well have won the American war; it was only because Britain fought half-heartedly that it lost.
As for George’s mental health, Roberts has no truck with the idea that he suffered from porphyria. Instead he thinks the King suffered from bipolar disorder. This was almost certainly exacerbated by the horrific treatments devised by his doctors, such as “cupping”, which involved applying heated glass to the skin before cutting it open to drain away supposedly infected blood — which was in reality perfectly healthy.
Even in his early episodes of depression in 1788-89 George spent his days weeping and obsessively rolling up handkerchiefs, as often as 50 times a day. When he faced another bout in 1801 it led to a lasting separation from Charlotte, and when he went under again in 1810 he never recovered.
For the last ten years of his life he was quite mad. “He would weep and then laugh uncontrollably for no reason,” Roberts writes. “He would tie and untie handkerchiefs and nightcaps, and button, unbutton and rebutton waistcoats.”
George ended his days as a lonely old man with a long white beard, sitting in a wheelchair playing music on a harpsichord he could no longer hear. It was a tragic end for a King who had always taken his responsibilities immensely seriously and had seen his country lose an empire, gain another, see off the French and enter the new century as by far the greatest industrial and naval power in the world.
George, Roberts writes, “more than filled the role of King of Great Britain worthily; he filled it nobly”. After reading this mammoth, elegant and splendidly researched biography, no open-minded reader could possibly disagree — not even an American.