George III (Great Britain) (1738–1820; Ruled 1760–1820)

views updated May 08 2018

GEORGE III (GREAT BRITAIN) (17381820; ruled 17601820)

GEORGE III (GREAT BRITAIN) (17381820; ruled 17601820), king of Great Britain and Ireland. George III was also elector of Hanover (17601815), king of Hanover (18141820), and the last monarch to rule the thirteen colonies that became the United States of America. George III's father, Frederick Louis (17071751), the son of George II (ruled 17271760), died in 1751, leaving his eldest son to succeed him first as Prince of Wales and then as king. As prince George III developed a sense of antagonism toward the prevailing political system, which he thought oligarchical and factional. The young prince and his confidant, John Stuart (17131792), third earl of Bute, favored the idea of politics without party and a king above faction.

Succeeding his grandfather, George II, in 1760, George III was a figure of controversy from the outset because of his determination to reign without party. Unlike George I (ruled 17141727) and George II, George III was not a pragmatist, and he did have an agenda for Britain. He thought that much about the political system was corrupt and ascribed this in part to the size of the national debt. As a consequence George's moral reformism, which drew on his piety, was specifically aimed against faction and luxury. Like other rulers, George found it difficult to create acceptable relationships with senior politicians at his accession, and this contributed powerfully to the ministerial and political instability of the 1760s. Nevertheless, there was no fundamental political crisis, and after George found an effective political manager in Frederick North (17321792) in 1770, the political situation within Britain became far more quiescent. However, George's determination to maintain royal authority played a major role in the crisis of relations with the American colonies that led to revolution there in 1775. In turn failure there brought down the North ministry in 1782, beginning a period of instability that lasted until 1784.

George matured in office, becoming a practiced politician and a man more capable of defining deliverable goals. His conscientious nature shines through his copious correspondence. George felt the monarch could reach out, beyond antipathy and factional self-interest on the part of politicians, to a wider, responsible, and responsive public opinion.

George remained politically influential during the long ministry of William Pitt the Younger (17591806), but his ill health in 1788 led to a serious political crisis. George's attack of porphyria, which led to symptoms of insanity, caused the regency crisis. George's recovery in 1789 ended the crisis, and he again became a factor to reckon with. His obduracy created problems for his ministers when in the 1790s he opposed the extension of rights to Catholics in Ireland or Britain. Arguing that such moves would breach his coronation oath, George stated that he would not give royal assent to such legislation. This helped precipitate Pitt's resignation in 1801 and the fall of the ministry of William Wyndham Grenville (17591834) in 1807.

George's attitude also made religious issues even more central in the politics of the early nineteenth century than they might otherwise have been. His firmness, not to say rigidity, contrasted with the more flexible attitude of his non-Anglican predecessors, George II, George I, William III (ruled 16891702), and arguably Charles II (ruled 16601685). It also helped focus the defense of order, hierarchy, and continuity much more on religion than would otherwise have been the case in a period of revolutionary threats. George was motivated not only by his religious convictions but also by the argument that the position of the Church of England rested on fundamental parliamentary legislation. Any repeal would also thus challenge the constitutional safeguards that were similarly founded and secured. It is not surprising therefore that Edmund Burke's emphasis, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), on continuity and the value of the Glorious Revolution found favor with George III.

The monarchy became a more potent symbol of national identity and continuity in response to the French Revolution. In 1809, when George celebrated his jubilee, the public event not only symbolized the stability he had provided in an age of volatile politics but also expressed the genuine affection and admiration his subjects now had for the monarch. The social elite and the bulk of public opinion had rallied around the themes of country, crown, and church.

George's health broke down permanently in 1811. The following year his eldest son, George, Prince of Wales, became regent; in 1820 he succeeded his father as George IV (ruled 18201830).

George III was a keen family man. His wife, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, whom he married in 1761, struck up a genuinely close relationship with him, but as their numerous children grew to adulthood (Charlotte bore a total of nine sons and six daughters), there arose a conflict between George's own sense of propriety and the dissolute lifestyle adopted by most of his boys. The members of the younger generation were especially loath to accept the king and queen's choices of marriage partners and entered into liaisons that, while often stable and personally fulfilling, hardly redounded to the increasingly prudish image George wished to promote. The alienation between the generations was represented most strikingly in the endless disputes between the king and the Prince of Wales.

George was a major art collector and a supporter of the astronomer Sir William Herschel (17381822). His cultural preferences, particularly his interest in the work of George Frideric Handel (16851759), were related to his moral concerns. George was interested in farming and was known as "Farmer George." Although this led to satire at his expense, his domestication of the monarchy and his lack of ostentatious grandeur was important to a revival in popularity for the monarchy that served it well in the political crisis of the 1790s caused by the French Revolution. He was the originator of the emphasis on domesticity in the British royal family. The contrast between the fates of the British and French monarchies was due to many factors, but the differences between the personalities and attitudes of George III and Louis XVI (ruled 17741792) were important. Similarly George was subsequently favorably contrasted by British commentators with the apparently tyrannical and bellicose Napoléon I.

See also American Independence, War of (17751783) ; George II (Great Britain) ; Handel, George Frideric ; Hanoverian Dynasty (Great Britain) ; Pitt, William the Elder and William the Younger ; Revolutions, Age of .


Black, Jeremy. Eighteenth-Century Britain, 16881783. Basingstoke, U.K., 2001.

Ditchfield, G. M. George III: An Essay on Monarchy. Basingstoke, U.K., 2002.

Newman, Gerald. Britain in the Hanoverian Age, 1714 1837: An Encyclopedia. New York and London, 1997.

Pares, Richard. George III and the Politicians. Oxford, 1953.

Thomas, P. D. G. George III: King and Politicians, 1760 1770. Manchester, U.K., 2002.

Jeremy Black

George III

views updated May 09 2018

George III

Born June 4, 1738
London, England
Died January 29, 1820
London, England

King of Great Britain and Ireland

King George III is widely blamed for Great Britain's loss of the American colonies in the Revolutionary War (1775–83). In some ways, George III was a capable king who stubbornly controlled the British government as best he could. But in the last decades of his life, George III suffered from a mental disorder that caused him to lose his hold on reality.

George III was the son of Frederick Louis, prince of Wales, who was the eldest son of King George II. Frederick Louis died in 1751, while George II was still king, leaving behind Augusta, his German-born wife, and their twelve-year old son, who later was crowned King George III.

George III was an emotionally immature boy and a poor student. His suspicious mother did her best to keep him from contact with other young people. She thought most of them had bad morals and would corrupt her children. The shy and somewhat lazy George grew up over-protected from the real world. He looked up to his tutor, John Stuart, the earl of Bute (pronounced BOOT), who would later serve as one of his prime ministers.

History of the Hanovers

George III's family, the Hanovers, originally came from Hanover, an area in northwestern Germany. In 1714, when Anne, queen of Great Britain and Ireland, died without any descendants to inherit the throne, the British, eager to have a Protestant king, invited George I of the German Hanovers to become their king. The Hanovers were distantly related to the Stuart family who had once ruled Great Britain.

The Hanovers' German ancestry is why English king George I was unable to speak English. His son, George II, who spoke with a heavy German accent, was, like his father, more interested in events in Germany than in England. This was the background in which George III grew up.

George III, the new ruler

In 1759 Britain enjoyed military victories in a number of battles around the world. That year, British general James Wolf began the destruction of French power in North America with the takeover of Canada's Quebec province. Americans, who feared falling under the French flag, were delighted at the victory. In 1760 George III became king of Great Britain at age twenty-two. His subjects, including the Americans, looked upon the young king with great enthusiasm.

Auburn-haired George III was a tall and well-built man with a long nose and a serious expression. He was also shy, insecure, and overly trusting of others. Some referred to his way of speaking rapidly and repeating himself as a "gobble." George III was a hard worker who did not drink liquor and prohibited the use of bad language in his court.

For a time George III was a capable leader, devoting himself to controlling Parliament, the British law-making body. He perfected the art of politics, playing one group against the other to achieve his desired ends and befriending people who would be helpful to him.

Members of the Whig Party were George III's chief opponents in Parliament. He weakened their power through the use of bribery (offering money to gain an advantage) and by bestowing honors on individuals who served him well. He could be flexible about minor matters, but when it came to matters of great importance to him, George firmly held his ground.

The king's personal life

In 1761 George III married a German Protestant, Princess Charlotte Sophia of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Although the new queen could not speak English, she learned the words to "God Save the King," the British national anthem, and sang them for the royal family upon first meeting them. George was devoted to his wife and the couple produced nine sons and six daughters. Once a week the entire family paraded around the palace garden so that the general public could view them.

The king enjoyed such hobbies as making metal buttons, writing articles on farming, playing cards, collecting coins and ship models, hunting, and playing musical instruments. George was also a supporter of the artists and writers of his day.

American attitudes toward the king

From 1763 to 1775, the American colonists increasingly balked at England's efforts to control and tax them. The harder England tried to bring them back in line, the more they rebelled.

At first, the anger of the American colonists was not toward the king, but toward the members of Parliament and their taxes and policies. Americans did not seem to understand that Parliament was carrying out George's wishes. They thought of themselves as his loyal subjects, but believed that he was being badly advised by his ministers (advisers) in government.

Finally, in 1776, America declared its independence. Long after Americans recognized George as their enemy, he continued to try to control them. George apparently never considered that the Americans' complaints might be justified. He once said, "I wish nothing but good, therefore everyone who does not agree with me is a traitor or a scoundrel."

George's right-hand men deal with the Americans

In ten years, George went through five prime ministers, who helped him to shape his policies towards the American colonies. Among them were George Grenville, the marquess

of Rockingham (pronounced MAR-kwis; a nobleman; Rockingham is pronounced with a silent "ha;" ROK-ing-m), and Charles Townshend.

George Grenville, who served as prime minster from 1763 to 1765, proposed taxing the colonists in America to raise money to support British troops there. This made Americans angry, especially at the Stamp Act of 1765, which required them to pay a tax on legal documents and other paper items. Facing fierce opposition, the British repealed the Stamp Act a year later and Grenville soon after left office over another matter.

In 1765 thirty-five-year-old Charles Watson-Wentworth, the marquess of Rockingham, was appointed to the position. With the Stamp Act gone, Watson-Wentworth put in place the Declaratory Act, in which the British government stated its right to tax Americans "in all cases whatsoever." Watson-Wentworth lost the job when his opponents, led by Grenville, persuaded the king to get rid of him.

Charles Townshend was then placed in charge of the British Empire's finances. In 1767 Townshend drew up the Townshend Act, requiring American businessmen and shop owners to pay new taxes on lead paint, glass, paper, and tea. Soon after, Townshend died from influenza, a dangerous and easily contagious disease.

George finally found a minister he really liked in Sir Frederick North, usually called Lord North. North was appointed first lord of the Treasury, and served from 1770 to 1782.

The era of Lord North

For the first fifteen years of his reign, George responsibly performed his royal duties. He put his seal on official documents, gave out titles and medals, oversaw how money was spent, and listened to the opinions of an endless stream of advisers. With the help of Lord North, the king also had to deal with the rebellion of the American colonies.

George III liked and trusted Lord North. He persuaded North to hold the job of prime minister for twelve years, even though most historians agree that North did not do a very admirable job. Historian Mark M. Boatner, for instance, wrote in the Encyclopedia of the American Revolution, "In 1770 the King found a [prime minister] who was to be as loyal as a dog, but fortunately for America he was no more qualified [than a dog] for the office."

A large, friendly man who had been a childhood friend of George III, Lord North neither strongly opposed nor supported America's interests. He was carrying out George's orders.

Americans unite to oppose Britain

In 1773, Prime Minister North helped pass the Tea Act, which Americans believed would allow the East India Company to have a monopoly on the tea market in North America. The Americans' response to this development was the Boston Tea Party, which took place in December 1773 in Boston, Massachusetts. Americans expressed their rage over North's policies by dumping hundreds of pounds of tea into Boston Harbor. This event was a major milestone on the road leading to the American Revolution.

The British punished Bostonians by passing a series of acts that the Americans came to call the "Intolerable Acts." These acts included closing the port of Boston until Americans paid for the ruined tea, taking away certain rights of self-government of the people of Massachusetts, and housing British soldiers in occupied buildings in Boston (including people's private homes). Americans, who previously had not acted as a unified people, responded to the harsh punishment of Boston with offers of help and food. The Intolerable Acts brought Americans closer together in opposition to Great Britain.

Americans were a people of independent spirit, selfreliance, and self-respect, who rejected notions of privilege received merely by birth and inherited wealth. The energetic, enterprising colonists began to have less and less in common with England, where following accepted customs and displaying formal manners guided the upper classes.

At the First Continental Congress (the legislative body of the American colonies) in 1774, thirteen acts that had been put in place by the British government beginning in 1763 were declared illegal by colonial delegates. They issued a document stating Americans' rights, wrote a petition to the king, and agreed not to import British goods. In 1776 the United States declared its independence, but the Revolutionary War between England and America had already begun.

Revolutionary War period

At first, George III was eager for war and wanted to show the world that England would not tolerate disobedience anywhere in its empire. He saw himself as a "kindly father" trying to deal with his disobedient American children. Once the Americans were brought back into line, he intended to tell them that he would impose no fresh taxes.

But when the Revolutionary War started to go badly for Great Britain, many members of the British upper classes came to oppose it and to disrespect King George. George III resisted ending the fighting, even following the big American victory at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781 that devastated the British army.

After the defeat at Yorktown, George III said to those who expressed fear that the war was lost, "I prohibit you from thinking of peace." The king carried on the disastrous war for two more years, following a course of action that most Englishmen knew to be self-defeating even as they followed it. The king's enemies in Parliament succeeded in making Lord North resign in 1782. In 1783 George III signed the Treaty of Paris that finally ended the Revolutionary War, with Britain finally recognizing the United States of America as an independent nation. For the first time in modern history, a dependent nation had thrown off a king and replaced him with a government of ordinary people.

Post-war problems

Following the Revolutionary War, political pressures forced George III to put men he detested in the post of prime minister. Finally, in 1783, William Pitt the Younger took the post. This brought about long-term stability in the government but also decreased the king's political influence as Pitt assumed greater power.

Pitt the Younger proved successful at the job, and devoted his efforts to reforming the country's finances and political system. George III faded into the background and paid more attention to his personal life. However, Pitt's punishing policies toward Catholics in Ireland and the resulting outcry from his opponents resulted in his 1801 resignation from office. George III then reclaimed some of his power.

Beset by mental illness

George III was struck with a bout of severe mental illness at age fifty and his mental stability began to fall apart rapidly. It caused him to experience emotional extremes, especially sadness. Medical experts have said that George's illness was caused by a rare hereditary disorder called porphyria (pronounced por-FEAR-ee-uh), from which several of his European cousins also suffered. His mental condition was made worse by political scandals involving members of his family and dejection over the loss of the war to America.

George III experienced four major attacks of mental illness. They lasted from less than one year to a final illness that extended from October 1810 until his death ten years later. During his final years he was a peculiar looking person with wild white hair and a beard, and he frequently appeared in a purple bathrobe. Near the end, George III was both blind and deaf, and became an object of sympathy among the British people. He died in 1820 at the age of eighty-two.

In 1811 George III's son, Prince George, had become prince regent, which meant that he took charge of governing Great Britain though he was not yet king. The prince regent suffered under the pressures of trying to run the empire according to the desires of his increasingly unbalanced father. His reign as King George IV, which lasted from 1820 until 1830, was to be a time of elegance in art and architecture, but of self-indulgence and immorality in his personal life.

For More Information

Ayling, Stanley E. George the Third. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972.

Boatner, Mark M. "George III" in Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1994, pp. 416–20.

Bourgoin, Suzanne M., and Paula Kay Byers, eds. "George IV" in Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed. Detroit: Gale, 1998, pp. 270–72.

Brooke, John. King George III. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1972.

Fleming, Thomas. Liberty! The American Revolution. New York: Penguin-Putnam, 1997, pp. 11–89.

Fritz, Jean. Can't You Make Them Behave, King George? New York: Coward-McCann, 1977.

Hibbert, Christopher. George III, A Personal History. New York: Basic Books, 1999.

Lloyd, Alan. The King Who Lost America: A Portrait of the Life and Times of George III. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1971.

Purcell, L. Edward, ed. "George III" in Who Was Who in the American Revolution. New York: Facts on File, 1993, pp. 182–83.

Stokesbury, James L. A Short History of the American Revolution. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1991, pp. 33, 47, 67, 86, 130.

Web Sites

[Online] "George III." From Monarch of Britain. [Online]. Available (accessed on May 25, 1999).

America's Attitude toward George III

Shortly after George III became king of England, American patriot John Hancock wrote after meeting him, "The new king was good-natured and well liked." The positive regard Americans had for George III proved to be short-lived. The king is probably best remembered in the United States as a tyrant whose unpopular taxes brought about the American Revolution. Thomas Jefferson's description of George III in the Declaration of Independence ensured that Americans would long remember the king unkindly.

The colonists laid the necessity for the American Revolution at the feet of George III. As John Brooke pointed out in his biography King George III, the monarch was considered by Americans as a "wouldbe tyrant whose wicked plans were foiled by the courage and resistance of the American people." Americans claimed that as the king strove to become an absolute despot (tyrant), it became their duty to protect themselves against further aggressions on his part.

In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson wrote: "The history of the present King of Great Britain, is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations [improper takeover of power. The document then pointed out eighteen of them]. He has refused his assent to laws the most wholesome and necessary for the public good… He has obstructed theadministration of justice… He hasplundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns… He has exciteddomestic insurrections amongst us [caused us to fight among ourselves]."

These are but a few of the crimes for which the king was held to be accountable. As a result, wrote Jefferson, "a prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people."

George III

views updated May 21 2018

George III

GEORGE III. (1738–1820). King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and elector of Hanover. George was born the eldest son of Frederick, Prince of Wales, and his wife, Augusta of Saxe Gotha, in the Duke of Norfolk's house in St. James's Square, London, on 24 May 1738. Baptised George William Frederick, he was far from being the backward unbalanced child of legend. Although shy and of only average intellect, he could read and write English and German at eight, and in later life was drawn to astronomy, clocks, chess, drawing and painting, art and book collecting and—above all—music. Although he travelled little and read fewer books than he collected, he could hold a cultivated conversation with the likes of Dr. Johnson and the astronomer William Herschel. Early tendencies to melancholy and anxiety stayed with him, but although he was plagued by porphyria—a genetically inherited physical malady—as early as 1762, there was nothing wrong with his mind. The young king was an idealist with an almost unbearable sense of duty, borne up by a narrow but deep religious faith and a desire to see the rule of virtue. His misfortune was that no one had taught him to deal with the realities of the political world.


George's alleged early slowness may have had more to do with a shy disposition and uninspiring tutors than with any intellectual inadequacies. From 1756, when he was given his own establishment, his tutor and close adviser was John Stuart, Earl of Bute, with whom he formed a close, at times pathetically dependent, relationship. Bute, as scores of George's marked essays testify, worked the adolescent prince hard and his rebukes cut deep. Indeed, Bute's school-masterly comments on his pupil's diligence were excessive, distressing, and—for later historians—misleading. While his influence tended to reinforce George's leanings to priggish puritanism, suspicion, and histrionics, Bute also inculcated a sense of patriotism and duty. George became the first Hanoverian to publicly "glory in the name of Briton."

There is no substance in the old accusation that Bute, whose politics were theoretical rather than practical, led George towards autocracy and the subversion of the constitution. On the contrary, both George and Bute saw the monarch as the proper defender of the constitution as established after 1688: a partnership between parliament's law making and fiscal powers and the king's rights to choose ministers and (when absolutely necessary) veto legislation. They were particularly anxious to guard against a possible coup by George's uncle, the Duke of Cumberland. Both, like George's late father Frederick, despised "party" (that is, political partisanship) not because they wished to undermine parliament but because—like many others—they disapproved of self-interested factionalism. George, with the extremism of idealistic youth, moved from this position to contempt for all politicians except for Bute. To him, the Duke of Newcastle (Thomas Pelham-Holles), William Pitt (the elder), Henry Fox, and their cronies were all obnoxious. Unfortunately for George, this phase in his development coincided with the moment when, as the new king, he was forced to work with these very villains.


George succeeded his grandfather, George II, on 25 October 1760. Bute at once assumed the office of secretary of state for the north, replacing Robert Darcy, the Earl of Holdernesse, in this position. The young king saw that this protected Bute against talk that he was a court favorite who gave ministerial advice in secret. George's immediate aim was not to create a party of "king's friends" but to encourage consensus by offering household posts to opposition Tories. Ironically, far from eliminating partisanship, the policy contributed to the political instability in the 1760s.

While royal patronage could be, and was, deployed to cement majorities and influence elections, eighteenth century political parties were kaleidoscopic and constantly shifting alliances of personal followings and interest groups. George's determination to have Bute as his prime minister contributed further to the uncertainty. Finally, the king's wish to end the Seven Years' War, and especially to withdraw from the German conflict, put him at odds with Pitt, then secretary of state for the south, and Newcastle, the prime minister. He was not sorry when Pitt fell in October 1761 after his cabinet colleagues refused to countenance a pre-emptive strike against Spain. However, it was not until July 1762 that he was rid of Newcastle and able to appoint Bute.

Although from this point on ministries rose and fell with bewildering rapidity, George behaved with impeccable constitutional propriety. In 1763 he had to reluctantly accept Bute's resignation and accept George Grenville, who could command a parliamentary majority. There was no disagreement on policy. He agreed with Grenville that John Wilkes had to be punished for attacking the king and his court in print, and accepted the new prime minister's insistence that the colonies must be taxed in order to spread the financial burden of the war and of keeping a garrison in North America. Nevertheless, Grenville's tediousness and his tendency to harangue the king at length, not to mention his hostility to Bute, soon made him unbearable.

When Charles Watson Wentworth, the Earl of Rockingham, succeeded Grenville, and ran into severe opposition to repeal the Stamp Act, George gave the repeal bill his personal backing, incidentally demonstrating his willingness to compromise on colonial questions. When William Pitt, the Earl of Chatham, succeeded Rockingham as prime minister, George overcame his earlier distaste for the man and gave the new administration his unstinting support. (At this time, Bute had withdrawn from public life.) Even when it became apparent that Chatham's body and mind were giving way, George continued to encourage him to stay on in office. It was Chatham himself who finally insisted on resigning. This left George with the stop-gap ministry of Augustus Henry Fitzroy, the third Earl of Grafton, which was brought down, not by the king, but by Chatham's unexpected attack on Grafton in the House of Lords in January 1770. Only then, almost in desperation, did George turn to the only politician capable of keeping a parliamentary majority together: Lord Frederick North. At no point was there any possibility of the king imposing a ministry upon an unwilling Parliament, nor did George III think in such terms.


Just as the instability of the 1760s had nothing to do with George's supposed autocratic tendencies, so the longevity of Lord North's ministry did not derive from the prime minister's supposed subservience to the king. If anything, the relationship was the other way about: having at last found a minister who could deliver stable majorities in parliament, George was very glad to follow North's lead. At first North led him, not to confrontation but to conciliation, by persuading his parliamentary followers to accept the withdrawal of all the Townshend duties except that on tea. George had as little interest in America as most of his subjects, so the idea that he wanted to exploit the American tax issue to build a popular following at home is as mythical as Rockingham's and Fox's allegations that he was secretly subverting both British and colonial liberties.

The turning point in George III's reign, with regard to the American colony, was the Boston Tea Party in 1773. Almost every serious politician, Chatham and Rockingham included, was outraged by this act of rebellion. Most concluded that the Americans would never be satisfied by concessions and must be brought firmly into line. George approved the Coercive Acts not as an enemy of liberty, but as the defender of the existing constitution: and in particular, of parliament's lawful supremacy over colonial assemblies. Indeed, he had very little choice. To do otherwise would have been both improper constitutionally and tantamount to giving his support to rebels. No eighteenth century sovereign could have done that.

Once hostilities began, George took little part in directing the conduct of the war. His principal contribution was to encourage his ministers to carry on—especially Lord North, who was thrown into acute depression by the disastrous battle at Saratoga and wanted to resign his office. While the king's opposition in Parliament was tiny, it was vociferous, and North's gifts for conciliation and parliamentary management were invaluable, so the king refused to let him go. Instead, George paid off North's debts in 1777 and for years monitored his state of mind through a correspondence with Charles Jenkinson and John Robinson. When all else failed, George used emotional blackmail, accusing North of wanting to desert him in his hour of need. The king was also concerned with the raising of troops, the building of warships, and the rewarding of successful commanders. Throughout this period George's aims were in tune with the majority of his members of Parliament and peers in the House of Lords and, after French entry into the war (on the American side) in 1778, with a significant share of popular opinion as well.


George III's insistence on victory, and his long resistance to the idea of American independence, did not significantly prolong the war. It is true that Rockingham's early commitment to independence made it impossible to include him in the ministry in 1780. His terms included full powers to negotiate peace with the Americans, laws limiting the power of the executive, and the sacking of the Lord North's entire cabinet. This not only offended George's determination to fight to the finish, it also challenged his prerogative to choose ministers. Moreover, the Rockingham Whigs by themselves did not have a majority in the House of Commons, or anything like it. George was therefore under no sort of obligation, constitutional or political, to accept their demands. At that stage, victory in America was still attainable, and even after Yorktown it was still a military, as opposed to a political, possibility.

Only at the end of 1781 did George's views part company with what most others saw as reality. He held onto Lord North as prime minister for as long as possible, but was obliged to let him resign when, on 15 March 1782, the ministry barely survived a vote of no confidence. George then seriously contemplated abdication and retirement to Hanover. In the end, however, he behaved as a constitutional monarch, accepting Rockingham as prime minister and William Fitzmaurice-Petty, Earl of Shelburne, and Charles James Fox as a secretaries of state, and acquiesced to their insistence on American independence.

Having once accepted it, however, he never looked back. When Shelburne fell from power, George accepted the a coalition headed by Fox and Lord North, despite his deep personal aversion to Fox, and allowed it to ratify the peace terms it had just censured in opposition. In 1785 he welcomed the former arch-rebel John Adams as America's ambassador to Britain:

I will be free with you, I was the last to consent to the separation; but the separation having been made and having become inevitable, I have always said, as I say now, that I would be the first to meet the friendship of the United States as an independent power.

With the peace treaties secure, George used the occasion of Fox's India Bill to get rid of the coalition and bring in William Pitt the younger as prime minister in December 1783. The king's partnership with Pitt lasted with only one short break until the latter's premature death on 23 January 1806.

In 1788 George suffered his first serious public bout of the porphyria that had been plaguing him since at least 1762. This is a peculiarly nasty disease, in which low hemoglobin production causes porphyrins to enter the blood stream and attack the nervous system. The physical effects are bad enough, but at the stage it had now reached in George, it causes delirium, loss of self-control, and hallucinations. In other words, it looked like madness. A specialist, complete with straight-jacket and restraining chair, was called in to treat the king. Although the king recovered, the attacks became increasingly frequent, severe, and distressing.

By 1801 the king's previously happy marriage was breaking apart as the queen became terrified of his periodic violence and obscene language. He became thinner, exhausted, less able to cope with crises, and his eyesight began to fail. By the end of 1810 he was permanently incapacitated and in January 1811 Parliament allowed his son to take over his kingly role as prince regent. The last decade of George's life was spent in an imaginary world of the past, as he slowly lost his eyesight altogether and his hearing declined. He died at Windsor on 29 January 1820.

George III was a highly moral man, whose personal life was beyond reproach. An able politician after overcoming the acute learning curve of the early 1760s, he never aspired to be more than a strictly constitutional monarch and had a painfully acute awareness of his constitutional duty. Sometimes that sense of duty was unimaginative, narrow. or even wrongheaded. For example, the reverberations of his refusal to countenance Catholic emancipation because, in his view, it violated his coronation oath, reverberates in Ireland even today. His abhorrence of French republicanism was dogmatic and his patriotism could be chauvinistic. Yet his very prejudices were shared by most of his countrymen, and his uprightness and respectability, combined with homely interests such as farming, made the monarchy a popular symbol of the nation. In a sense, it was his model of monarchy that was picked up by Queen Victoria and was further developed by her twentieth century successors.

SEE ALSO Intolerable (or Coercive) Acts; Stamp Act.


Brooke, J. King George III. London: Constable, 1972.

Christie, I. R. Wars and Revolutions. Britain 1760–1815. London: Edward Arnold, 1982.

――――――. "George III and the Historians: Thirty Years On." In History, new series, 71 (1986): 14-33.

Thomas, P. D. G. "George III and the American Revolution." In History, new series, 70 (1985): 15-31.

                                revised by John Oliphant

George III

views updated May 18 2018

George III (1738–1820), king of Great Britain and Ireland (1760–1820), and elector of Hanover. Popular misconceptions about George III are principally of three varieties: first, that he attempted systematically to subvert the traditional constitution; second, that he was personally responsible for the loss of the American colonies; third, that he became mad. None of these assertions has withstood detailed historical analysis. Consequently, the reputation of George III has been revised perhaps to a greater degree than any other British monarch.

He was born in England, the first of the Hanoverian monarchs to be a native of his own kingdom. Upon the death of his father Frederick in 1751, George succeeded as prince of Wales and heir to the throne. The young prince was not on good terms with his grandfather George II. He came to believe that the old king was the tool of a corrupt clique of politicians. A key influence on the formation of this naïve viewpoint was Lord Bute, tutor to the prince from 1755. Bute puffed up his protégé with unrealistic expectations of reforming the political system by royal initiative and assumed the character of essential partner in this putative reign of virtue. When George succeeded to the throne in 1760, Bute rapidly rose from courtier to cabinet minister and, in May 1762, became prime minister. Yet Bute proved a disappointment and resigned within a year. Ministries followed each other in swift succession: there were four different premiers between the fall of Bute and the appointment of North in 1770. Many contemporaries attributed these fluctuations to the influence, behind the scenes, of Bute. A more balanced assessment is that exaggerated suspicions of him poisoned the political atmosphere, though George III himself rapidly outgrew his youthful dependence. The accusation that the king aimed at increasing the royal prerogative or deliberately connived at secret influence will not bear scrutiny. His view of the constitution accorded with the contemporary interpretation that the monarch possessed the undoubted right to choose his own ministers. One practical constraint, however, was the necessity of managing the House of Commons, the key to both public confidence and national finance.

The advent of the North ministry, led by an able parliamentarian possessing the confidence of the king, inaugurated a lengthy period of political stability. The king behaved with impeccable constitutional propriety throughout North's twelve-year premiership. Ministers, not the crown, were responsible for policy. This was particularly the case with regard to America. Colonial propaganda prior to the outbreak of war recognized the realities of political authority in Britain, focusing on the ministerial and parliamentary dimension to the burgeoning conflict. Yet, once war had broken out, it became necessary for the rebels to describe matters differently and the Declaration of Independence of 1776 enshrined the king as villain of the piece. This was a necessary fiction (justifying recourse to foreign aid) but fundamentally untrue.

George III took a keen interest in the military struggle and refused to accept that America was lost, even after the disastrous defeat at Yorktown in 1781. Bowing to Parliament's refusal to continue the war, the king reluctantly parted with North. The king tried to maintain some freedom of manœuvre by playing upon the rivalry between Shelburne and Rockingham, the leading opposition politicians who now formed a ministry. When Rockingham died unexpectedly in July 1782, George III appointed Shelburne as his successor. But Shelburne was forced to resign following a concerted attack by the followers of Charles Fox and Lord North. The king viewed North's actions as personal betrayal, and, in the context of the unprecedented and recent humiliation of the war, remained implacably hostile to the Fox–North coalition. He withheld confidence from his new ministers, refused requests for peerages, and created difficulties over financial provisions for the prince of Wales. The king's obvious dissatisfaction persuaded the younger Pitt to negotiate secretly for the overthrow of the coalition, which was accomplished during the India Bill crisis of 1783. There was no constitutional justification for the king's interference in the House of Lords, nor was any public defence attempted. Pitt, at the head of a minority ministry, adroitly distanced himself from recent events and held out until it was safe to call a general election. Although the means had been underhand, the king's choice of Pitt proved excellent. Political stability was re-established and no serious threat arose until the king fell ill in the autumn of 1788. The ensuing Regency crisis was precipitated by the apparent madness of the king. According to modern diagnosis he was suffering from acute intermittent porphyria, a hereditary metabolic disorder. This condition, unknown to 18th-cent. medical science, gave rise to rival attempts at a cure, which shared ignorance and brutality in common. The king, in accordance with the pathogeny of the disease, recovered despite the treatment he suffered.

Pitt, having survived in office, continued to dominate parliamentary politics, but found it necessary, in the wake of the French Revolution, to strengthen the ministry by incorporating Portland and the conservative Whigs. An English revolution did not materialize, and the king benefited from a groundswell of enthusiasm for monarchy, becoming a personal symbol of the durability of the traditional political system. But the danger of revolution was not negligible, nor was George III universally popular. Indeed, disaffection and rebellion in Ireland convinced ministers of the necessity of parliamentary union. Having achieved this objective, Pitt resigned in 1801 over George III's refusal to countenance the removal of residual penalties against catholics. The king's views were never in doubt, nor had they changed substantially in the previous decade. He considered his coronation oath, with its pledge to uphold the protestant religion, to be absolutely binding and resisted what he regarded as sophistical arguments to the contrary. The fall of Pitt led to a period of factional instability, akin to the early years of the reign, but further complicated by fears for the king's mental state. Some politicians vowed never again to raise the catholic question; and a moderate proposal for relief, by the Talents ministry in 1807, precipitated a ministerial crisis, during which the king reaffirmed his intransigence.

In 1810 the king suffered a final decline into mental derangement, exacerbated by increasing deafness and blindness. The following year a regency was established under his eldest son, the future George IV. As a hard-working monarch, devoted husband, and sincere Christian, George III compares favourably with his dissolute successor. Although undeniably stubborn, he was prepared to admit some, though not all, of his errors. Three themes from his reign became benchmarks for opposition politicians: his involvement with Bute, his underhand conduct during the India Bill crisis, and his rejection of catholic emancipation. George III was not blameless on any of these counts, but contemporary myth should not be mistaken for historical assessment.

David Wilkinson


Ayling, S. , George the Third (1972);
Brooke, J. , King George III (1972);
Hibbert, C. , George III (1998).

George III

views updated Jun 27 2018

George III

George III (1738-1820) was king of Great Britain and Ireland from 1760 to 1820. His long reign witnessed the American Revolution, the defeat of Napoleon, the founding of the "second British empire," and the decline of monarchical power.

Born on June 4, 1738, in London, George III was the eldest son of Frederick, Prince of Wales. Frederick's death in 1751 left the young George heir apparent to the throne, to which he ascended when his grandfather, George II, died in 1760.

As a youth, George was a poor student whose emotional immaturity matched his mental underdevelopment. He formed strong attachments to older men whom he could respect as figures of authority. Abstemious, economical, and morally upright, he worked conscientiously, though unimaginatively, at being king, at preserving the Crown's dignity, and at maintaining England's power and honor. He knew the constitutional limits of monarchical power and had no wish to exceed them. With experience he grew adept at using all the Crown's considerable political influence, supporting one faction against another and employing "secret service money." Indeed, his skill at these activities lent color to Opposition cries that he exercised "personal rule" and "subverted" the English constitution.

Early Reign

One of the first matters to occupy the new king's attention was his own marriage. Suppressing his preference for an English woman, George chose, as was expected of him, a German Protestant princess, Charlotte Sophia of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Although she was homely and dull, George remained faithful to her after their marriage in 1761, and they had 15 children.

Early in his reign George made himself unpopular by ousting William Pitt the Elder (1761) and installing in the Treasury his adviser, Lord Bute. As a Scot, Bute was despised and distrusted by the English even before he made an unpopular peace with France. George relied utterly upon Bute, but his confidence was misplaced, for Bute had neither sagacity nor courage and soon resigned (1763).

Thus began the King's long search for a minister in whom he had confidence and who could also control the government. After Bute came George Grenville (1763-1765) and Lord Rockingham (1765-1766). Then George brought Pitt back and created him Earl of Chatham (1766). But Chatham suffered a mental breakdown, and George then entrusted the government to the Duke of Grafton (1768-1770). Grafton proved incompetent, and when he resigned in January 1770, the King appointed Lord North first lord of the Treasury (1770-1782). At last George III had a "prime minister" whom he liked and trusted. By this time experience had made George a master politician. His strength and determination kept the increasingly reluctant (and increasingly unsuccessful) North at the head of the government for 12 years.

Several explosive issues buffeted George and his government during the first 2 decades of his reign. Most significant were the turbulences created by the political reformer John Wilkes and by the American colonies. The pious King regarded the disreputable Wilkes with horror and hatred. By prosecuting the popular Wilkes, George further increased both his personal unpopularity and the public's lack of confidence in his government. But the exercise of power depended not on mob approval but on the favor of the gentry in the House of Commons. As the American war dragged on, the government's lack of success together with the haranguing of the Opposition alienated many of the gentry who had formerly voted for the King's policies. Furthermore, large segments of influential public opinion outside Parliament disapproved of the American war and of government policy and wished for administrative reform and economy. North's ministry fell in 1782, and the American colonies won their independence. These two events ushered in a new phase in British government and in the life of George III.

Later Reign

Once more George had to tolerate ministries headed by persons whom he detested: first Rockingham, until his death in 1782 brought Lord Shelburne to power, and then the "infamous" Fox-North coalition nominally headed by the Duke of Portland. By exceeding the strict bounds of his constitutional authority, George managed to bring down the coalition over the issue of Fox's East India Bill. To head the new ministry, he picked William Pitt the Younger.

Pitt was strong and capable, and his long tenure of office was markedly successful. His strength rebuffed, just as North's weakness had invited, the King's political maneuvering. While Pitt devoted himself to financial and administrative reforms and then to the struggle with France, George III retired more and more from political life into domestic concerns. He still had occasional political impact, most notably when by his adamant opposition to Catholic emancipation in Ireland he caused Pitt's resignation (1801). His domestic tranquility was disturbed by the coarse extravagances of his two eldest sons (George, Prince of Wales, and Frederick, Duke of York) and by his own ill health.

George III experienced mental incapacity on a number of occasions. His mental aberration, long deemed manic-depressive insanity, has recently been diagnosed by medical experts as the result of a rare metabolic disorder called porphyria. George had four major attacks: October 1788 to February 1789; February-March 1801; January-March 1804; and October 1810 to his death on Jan. 29, 1820. The last illness led to the establishment of Prince George's regency (February 1811). In his last years George III was also totally blind and deaf, a proper object of sympathy, even affection, for the public who despised the Regent's profligacy.

Further Reading

A full-length biography of George III is J. C. Long, George III: The Story of a Complex Man (1961). An interesting biographical essay is provided in J. H. Plumb, The First Four Georges (1956). For the King's mental condition, the long-accepted view of Manfred S. Guttmacher, America's Last King: An Interpretation of the Madness of George III (1941), has now been authoritatively challenged by Ida Macalpine and Richard Hunter, George III and the Mad-Business (1969). For an understanding of George III's political role, a number of special studies are invaluable: L. B. Namier, The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III (2 vols., 1929; 2d ed., 1 vol., 1957); Romney Sedgwick's long introduction to his edition of the Letters from George III to Lord Bute, 1756-1766 (1939); Richard Pares, King George III and the Politicians (1953); and John Derry, The Regency Crisis and the Whigs, 1788-89 (1964). A general history of the period is J. Steven Watson, The Reign of George III, 1760-1815 (1960).

Additional Sources

Andrews, Allen, The King who lost America: George III and independence, London: Jupiter Books, 1976.

Delany, Mrs. (Mary), The autobiography and correspondence of Mary Granville, Mrs. Delany: with interesting reminiscences of King George the Third and Queen Charlott, New York, AMS Press, 1974.

Gattey, Charles Neilson, "Farmer" George's black sheep: the lives and loves of George III's brothers and sister, Abbotsbrook, Bourne End, Buckinghamshire: Kensal Press, 1985.

Pain, Nesta, George III at home, London: Eyre Methuen, 1975.

Plumb, J. H. (John Harold), New light on the tyrant George III, Washington: Society of the Cincinnati, 1978.

Van der Kiste, John, George III's children, Far Thrupp, Stroud, Gloucestershire: A. Sutton, 1992. □

George III

views updated Jun 11 2018

George III (1738–1820), king of Great Britain. George III ascended the throne in 1760 upon the sudden death of his grandfather, George II, with whom he was politically at odds. He was a member of the House of Hanover, an ethnic German family that succeeded to the British throne in 1714. The new king tended to defer to his ministers’ advice, especially in colonial matters. He was not averse to conciliation, provided that it did not diminish the authority of king and Parliament. In 1766, he backed the repeal of the Stamp Act. After the Boston Tea Party in 1774, however, his willingness to compromise vanished. The king supported the Coercive Acts of that year and adamantly rejected the colonists’ argument that they could disobey Parliament while remaining loyal to the king.

George III became a fervent advocate of the war against the Americans. He participated minimally in the war's actual planning and management, but he used his influence to commit his government and his people to enforcing the colonies’ obedience. During the Revolutionary War, the king never wavered in his support of Lord North, his chief minister (1770–1782), and his backing delayed the emergence of an opposition party strong enough to bring down North's ministry and foster a compromise.

Perhaps George III's most significant contribution to the American Revolution was his presence as a symbol of British sovereignty—and, ultimately, tyranny. The patriot leaders always insisted, down to 1776, on their loyalty to the crown, as the only legitimate link between America and Great Britain. Hence the Declaration of Independence indicted the king, rather than Parliament, for Britain's misdeeds. George III's rhetorical transformation from symbol of monarchical benevolence to tyrant provided the ultimate justification for revolution. After 1784, George III largely retired from an active role in government. He suffered a nervous breakdown in 1788–89; when he was declared insane in 1810, his son was appointed regent.


Stanley Ayling , George III, 1972.

Jon T. Coleman

George III

views updated May 18 2018

George III (1738–1820) King of Great Britain and Ireland (1760–1820), and King of Hanover (1760–1820), grandson of George II. He was the first thoroughly English monarch of his line. George shared the blame with Lord North for the loss of the American colonies in the American Revolution (1775–83), but was quick to appreciate the talents of William Pitt (the Younger). His reign witnessed the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. In 1765, he suffered his first attack of apparent insanity, now known to be symptoms of porphyria. The attacks grew worse and, in 1811, his son, the future George IV, became Prince Regent.

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George III