Mad, yes – but not that BAD: George III – the king who lost America – is often portrayed as a wicked tyrant (most recently in the musical Hamilton), but a top British historian insists the myths are royally wrong
BOOK OF THE WEEK
GEORGE III: THE LIFE AND REIGN OF BRITAIN’S MOST MISUNDERSTOOD MONARCH
by Andrew Roberts (Allen Lane £35, 784pp)
Andrew Roberts is our most prodigious biographer. It seems only the other day (in fact three years ago) that he produced his monumental life of Winston Churchill, widely acclaimed as the best of the innumerable volumes on the triumphant war leader.
Now here he is again with a 784-page biography of the man whose name is above all associated with this country’s most chastening military defeat, the American war of Independence: King George III.
Andrew Roberts reflects on the life of King George III in a new 784-page biography. Pictured: George III (Nigel Hawthorne) and Queen Charlotte (Helen Mirren)
Churchill crops up in a note on page 660 of this beautifully produced volume, with his remarks in 1919 at a dinner held by the English-Speaking Union in honour of George Washington’s birthday: ‘George Washington was an English gentleman, who fought against a German king.’
As the author observes, this is nonsense: George III was the most determinedly British of the Hanoverian kings. On the occasion of his accession speech to Parliament, the 22-year-old monarch declared, in words he added to those already prepared for him: ‘Born and educated in this country, I glory in the name of Britain.’
Roberts notes: ‘Although George actually wrote “Britain”, it was reported as “Briton”, which makes much more sense in the context as he was speaking about himself and was attempting to tell his people that their new King gloried in his Britishness, thus differentiating himself from his German grandfather [George II] and great-grandfather [George I]’.
He was, in fact, strikingly insular, not only never setting foot in his family’s ancestral homeland of Hanover, but none of his own dominions, including Scotland and Wales: not even Manchester, heartland of the industrial revolution then transforming his country.
This is one of the paradoxes in this book: for George was a man of great intellectual curiosity, building up a remarkable collection of scientific instruments (which fascinated him) while, in the field of arts, founding the Royal Academy. And he welcomed scholars from overseas to visit the magnificent library he established at Buckingham Palace — the home he had bought as a wedding gift for his wife Charlotte.
Yet it follows that, as he never himself ventured west of Plymouth, George’s understanding of his American subjects was entirely without personal acquaintance. Perhaps such an encounter would have not changed anything — either in his view of their rebelliousness, or theirs of his alleged tyranny — but still, it might have done, in one of the most tantalising ‘what-ifs’ of history.
Roberts begins his book quoting the most fashionable modern depiction of his subject in Hamilton: An American Musical. ‘Singing three show-stopping numbers, King George III somehow manages to be comic, yet cruel, camp yet sinister . . . “You’ll remember you belong to me”, a sardonic, preening, pompous monarch sings . . . and “I will kill your friends and family to remind you of my love”’.
This depiction derives from the Declaration of Independence which, while best known for its inspirational opening passages on liberty and self-government, has a second section consisting of 28 charges against the person of George III, seeking to prove him a tyrant of almost unparalleled heinousness.
King George III (pictured) personally backed repeal of the Stamp Act — the imposition of taxes to fund a defensive army in North America
Roberts systematically refutes these accusations. He is not the first to have done so, but his demolition of the authors of the Declaration’s case against George III is elegant and comprehensive.
Other monarchs of the age did put down rebellions — for example the Spanish in their colony of Louisiana — savagely and with executions, but George did no such thing.
As Roberts writes: ‘During his reign, no American newspapers were closed, no popular meetings were banned, no arrests were made without trial.’
The fiscal measures to which the rebels had taken such exception (the tax on tea, notably) were not the monarch’s invention, but the will of the British parliament, whose constitutional rights, rather than his own personal power, George sought to defend.
Indeed, the King personally backed repeal of the Stamp Act — the imposition of taxes to fund a defensive army (against the French) in North America — which had been the initial cause of the American rebellion.
What Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration’s principal author, had wanted was for the King to reject the approach of his own ministers — in other words, to behave more like an absolute monarch.
King George III (pictured) had penned his thoughts about the slave trade as a teenager in the 1750s under the tutelage of the Earl of Bute
And I had not realised, until reading Roberts, that the original draft of the Declaration, ‘with breath-taking gall’, had even blamed the slave trade on George: ‘He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery.’
In fact, 41 of the 56 signatories of the Declaration had been slaveowners, so this part of the charge against George was removed.
Perhaps Roberts’s most interesting discovery — having become the first historian to gain access to the essays of the future King in the Windsor archives — is that as a teenager in the 1750s under the tutelage of the Earl of Bute (later George’s Prime Minister), he wrote: ‘What shall we say to the European traffic of black slaves: the very reasons urged for it will be perhaps sufficient to make us hold this practice in execration.’
However, although half a century later he gave royal assent to the parliamentary Act making the slave trade illegal, as monarch George III said nothing about the practice, apparently believing that the abolition of slavery would lead to the collapse of the economies of the Caribbean colonies.
Therefore, he had been, as Roberts points out — despite his devout Christianity — in reality a supporter of the iniquitous status quo.
Seen through modern eyes, that is the single thing which stands in the way of his rehabilitation as a great man and great monarch — which is the principal purpose of this epic work.
GEORGE III: THE LIFE AND REIGN OF BRITAIN’S MOST MISUNDERSTOOD MONARCH by Andrew Roberts (Allen Lane £35, 784pp)
The case for his good character is certainly convincing, especially in contrast to all the other Hanoverians, who were vicious in their family feuding, cruel to their children, profligate in their exploitation of the public purse and consistently faithless to their unfortunate spouses. George III was none of these things.
This makes Roberts’s accounts of the King’s episodes of insanity all the more sad to read, and especially his final ten years, when his son became regent during George III’s final psychosis, which appears to have been set off by the fatal illness of his beloved daughter Amelia.
The film The Madness Of King George popularised the line that he was not ‘really’ mad but suffering from the effects of porphyria, a rare metabolic disorder. But in 2017 this was refuted by Sir Simon Wessely, then president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, who was given access by the Queen to royal archives covering George’s care during these episodes.
Roberts follows this, agreeing that the King was a manic-depressive, with psychotic episodes.
I raised this with Sir Simon, who told me the final ten years’ ‘madness’— in which the intensely musical George also went completely blind and gained his only solace by playing on his harpsichord — ‘was perhaps caused by all the dreadful treatments he had over the years. Everything he was given would either have had no effect, or more likely made him worse. That’s the tragedy of the whole thing.’
Read it and weep.