On Christmas Day 1788, the king hid his bedclothes under the bed, put a pillowcase on his head and hugged the pillow, which he called Prince Octavius and said had just been born (Prince Octavius had died five years earlier at the age of four). When George realised what day it was and that he had been kept in his straitjacket and not allowed to go to church, he suddenly went under the sofa, saying that he would converse with his saviour there, and that no one was to interrupt them. He also claimed that he could see Hanover through Mr Herschel’s telescope and that it had been deluged by a flood like Noah’s. Later, he tried to climb the pagoda at Kew, and when he was stopped, lay on the ground and refused to budge, having to be carried home on his servants’ shoulders.
A few days later, Dr Francis Willis unveiled his new purpose-built restraining chair, which George immediately dubbed my ‘Coronation Chair’. He might have been deprived of his wits, but he never lost his wit. He noted that when he was mad, ‘I speak in the third person, as I am getting into Mr Burke’s eloquence – saying too much on little things.’ When he first met Willis, he chided him: ‘You have quitted a profession I have always loved (the Church) and you have embraced one I most heartily detest.’ When Willis replied mildly that Christ went about healing the sick, the king retorted: ‘Yes, yes, but he had not £700 a year for it.’
When he recovered in the spring of 1789, after four months under the cruel restraints of the mad doctors, the nation rejoiced. The Bill to introduce a regency was dropped, not to be revived for another twenty years, bonfires were lit across the country and a service of thanksgiving – devised by the king himself – was held at St Paul’s in honour of this most popular of all British monarchs until the 20th century, the man who has the best claim to have founded our modern idea of the royal family. The reader of Andrew Roberts’s new biography rejoices too. In many ways, the king’s madness is the most interesting thing about a monarch who never included among his delusions the idea that he was anything but a very ordinary person. No other writer, except possibly Alan Bennett, has set out to make us love King George more.
Or admire him more. From the start, Roberts is intent on glorifying George. Gone is the difficult pupil whom J.H. Plumb in The First Four Georges described as ‘lethargic and incapable of concentration’ and ‘who was eleven before he could read fluently and at twenty he wrote like a child’. Instead, Roberts shows us a youth, not brilliant perhaps, but of inexhaustible curiosity and diligence, who spoke decent French and German and was the first British monarch to study physics and chemistry. He read everything he could lay his hands on, making hundreds of pages of notes on Hume, Montesquieu and Blackstone. From his beloved tutor Lord Bute and his mother, Augusta, who founded the Royal Botanic Gardens, he derived a love of botany – Kew was for years his favourite residence and strolling ground. He played the harpsichord, piano, flute and organ, sometimes accompanied on the keyboard by J.C. Bach.
Frugal in his own habits, he was generous to others. He bestowed pensions on Samuel Johnson, Hume and Rousseau (he eventually gave one to Rousseau’s widow, the much despised Thérèse Levasseur). He built up an unparalleled collection of scientific instruments, now in the Science Museum. He founded the Royal Academy and supported it through its shaky early years. He supported Harrison and his famous chronometer and paid for Herschel to build the largest telescope in the world behind his house at Slough, as well as for Captain Cook’s expedition to Tahiti (where they observed the Transit of Venus, while the king was observing the same event at his personal observatory in the Old Deer Park at Richmond). His amazing library, perhaps the finest in Europe, can be seen today in the great glass tower at St Pancras. Roberts reminds us that it wasn’t George but his denser brother, the Duke of Gloucester, who complained to Edward Gibbon, ‘Another big, thick, square book, eh? Always scribble, scribble, scribble, eh, Mr Gibbon?’ The king, on the contrary, was a fan.
George was, besides, a man of exemplary character, the only Hanoverian never to take a mistress. Plumb describes his marriage to Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (‘a dim, formidably ugly girl’) as rash and unwise, picturing him as ‘doggedly fulfilling his marital duties’ in breeding child after child. In fact, George came to love Charlotte dearly, and her lady in waiting, Fanny Burney, testified to how lovable she was. Unusually, the king and queen slept in the same bed until they were separated by his madness. Even then, he told Burney, ‘The queen is my physician, and no man can have a better; she is my friend, and no man can have a better.’ He preferred lemonade to wine, dined only with his family, and walked unguarded through the streets of Windsor and Kew, greeting passersby with unforced affability.
He was also a patriot. The first Hanoverian to speak without a German accent, he proclaimed that ‘born and educated in this Country, I glory in the name of Britain’ – later sometimes amended to ‘Briton’. Throughout his long life, he never left southern England, never visiting Scotland or Ireland or even his other kingdom of Hanover. His nickname ‘Farmer George’ related partly to his passion for agricultural improvement (he was among the first to import merino sheep) but also to his rootedness in English soil. Far from wishing to enlarge the royal prerogative, Roberts tells us, George was devoted to the settlement of 1688. ‘The pride, the glory of Britain, and the direct end of its constitution, is political liberty,’ he wrote in one of his essays for Bute. In particular, he had a clear understanding of the balance of powers, ‘where one part of the legislative body checks the other by the privilege of rejecting, both checked by the executive, as that is again by the legislative; all parts moving, and however they may follow the particular interests of their body, yet all uniting at last for the public good.’ No sign here of the tyrant denounced by Thomas Jefferson in the more vituperative passages of the Declaration of Independence.
All this goes to support Roberts’s subtitle. George is, he says, ‘the most unfairly traduced sovereign in the long history of the British monarchy’. In his introduction, he reels off the politicians and historians who have derided George for his blindness, stupidity and stubbornness – among them Jefferson, Lecky, Baldwin, Churchill, Guedalla and Plumb (who lumps George with King John as ‘one of England’s most disastrous kings’). Roberts tells us with his trademark thump that now Elizabeth II has allowed more than 200,000 pages of the Georgian Archives at Windsor to be published – 85 per cent of them for the first time – ‘it is at last possible to show that every single word quoted above about George III is completely wrong.’ There are several distinct assertions wrapped up in this grand boutade. First, the unmistakable implication that until now no historian has fully appreciated George. For two centuries, his merits have been criminally unsung. But is this really true?
You only have to glance at the back cover of the paperback edition of John Brooke’s equally hefty Life of 1972 to see the strapline ‘Mad monarch – or much maligned royal statesman?’ Brooke’s near hagiography has a foreword by Prince Charles, whom he befriended in the Royal Archives at Windsor: ‘We both agreed that George III had been unfairly maligned by historians and the writers of textbook history.’ More recently, shorter lives by Christopher Wright (2005) and Jeremy Black (2020; an earlier full-scale Life was published in 2006) tell much the same story. If we look further back, we find Herbert Butterfield in George III and the Historians (1957) telling us that ‘it would be wrong … to imagine that George III is one of those historical personages who from the very start have been particularly unfortunate in the way they have been commemorated.’ John Adolphus, the first historian to produce a serious account of the early years of George’s reign (in 1804), declares that
in the period on which I have written the throne has been filled by a monarch who has sought the love of his subjects through the means of public spirit and private virtue; and who has tempered a noble desire to preserve from degradation the authority he inherits, with a firm and just regard to the constitution and liberties which conducted him to the throne.
In the 1840s, the Tory John Wilson Croker vigorously defended George against Macaulay’s scorn. George was ‘one of the best of kings and honestest of men’, to whom we must be grateful for ‘his steady support of the constitutional liberties of England’.
Over the years, then, Tory or quasi-Tory defenders of George have been just as passionate as his Whig or crypto-Whig assailants. These defences fundamentally depend on the assertion that George never sought to broaden the prerogatives he had inherited from his grandfather George II – which were quite broad enough already. In the end, he always bowed to the will of his ministers and the will of Parliament. Because Parliament did, however imperfectly, represent public opinion, this meant that he was ultimately bowing to the will of the country. He gave in, sometimes reluctantly, sometimes grudgingly, but he gave in. So – and here comes the big jump – he cannot be held responsible for any of the things that posterity believes went wrong on his watch. In the case of the American War of Independence, in Roberts’s trenchant words: ‘Just as George cannot be blamed for the war breaking out, therefore, neither can he be blamed for losing it.’ Fifty years ago, Brooke went even further:
We may be thankful that King George III was not a statesman. It is not desirable that a constitutional monarch should be a statesman … It was fortunate for Great Britain that King George III did not attempt to find a solution of the American problem independent of the House of Commons … Far from reproaching him for having lost the American colonies, subsequent generations should be grateful that he preserved the British constitution with all its possibilities of peaceful change.
George himself heartily agreed that no blame should attach to him. He told Lord Shelburne that ‘Posterity may not place the downfall of this empire at my door.’
In the same way, we are told, no blame attaches to George for scuppering Pitt the Younger’s efforts to link Catholic Emancipation to the Anglo-Irish Union of 1801. George was quite right to force Pitt’s resignation, because the country was rabidly against emancipation and its passage would have been contrary to George’s coronation oath upholding the Protestant religion, which he felt passionately about. Accordingly, ‘no indulgence can be granted to the Catholics further than has been, I am afraid unadvisedly, in former sessions.’ Pitt and Castlereagh believed that emancipation was the only way to cement the Union. The king thought it would only hasten separation of the two realms. Roberts seems to think so too, seeing no evidence to support Pitt’s belief. Brooke also believed that emancipation in 1801 might have stimulated Irish nationalism, as it did in 1828. But there is all the difference in the world between a civic equality freely offered and one wrenched after a bitter and prolonged struggle. The fact remains that the king did the scuppering, prejudging Parliament’s view on the matter.
The case for George comes down to the claim that he was at bottom a simple country gentleman who was a stickler for constitutional proprieties and refused to stoop to dirty tricks. Roberts, again like Brooke, quotes the dictum of Lewis Namier, Brooke’s patron and collaborator on the History of Parliament: ‘What I have never been able to find is the man arrogating power to himself, the ambitious schemer out to dominate, the intriguer dealing in an underhand fashion with his ministers.’ But consider how the king conspired to dislodge the Fox-North coalition in 1783 by letting the peers in the House of Lords know that he was strongly opposed to Fox’s East India Bill, which was intended to bring an end to the knavery of the nabobs. The manoeuvre was carried out in secret, the letters entrusted only to reliable servants not the mail, and it took the prime minister, the poor Duke of Portland, quite by surprise. By these underhand means, George got rid of the hated Fox but also of a government with a working majority. The whole shoddy business exposes the king’s determination to defend every ounce of his authority, which he thought was threatened by the setting up of a seven-man government commission to control Indian affairs: ‘if the Bill passes, I am no more a king,’ he said with his usual histrionic self-pity (a characteristic failing of princes, then and now). It also evinces the electrifying effect of the king’s disapproval on those who hoped for further favours – a step up in the peerage or a juicy sinecure. Merely by letting it be known that ‘I shall look upon those who support the Bill not only as not my friends but as my absolute enemies,’ George swung the Lords. Never underestimate the power of a blacklist.
Roberts airily plays down the affair as ‘the oldest of parliamentary manoeuvres: an opposition trying to dislodge a government. It had to be done in secret so as not to warn the coalition, but that is usual in politics too.’ But this was the king at work. And it was not the only such case. What makes Roberts’s massive biographies so distinctively rewarding is that he provides the reader with enough evidence to undermine his own conclusions. Again and again, he shows us a monarch indefatigable in his efforts to keep out or get shot of politicians he dislikes and to keep on ministers who will follow his line, even if like Bute and Lord North they are constantly protesting, quite rightly, that they are not up to the job.
George was open about his ingrained conservatism: ‘No, no, I will have no innovations in my time.’ He did not believe in anything resembling inevitable progress in human affairs, asserting rather that ‘we know that all wise nations have stuck scrupulously to their ancient customs.’ Most notoriously, he refused to contemplate any slackening in Westminster’s control over the American colonies: ‘America must be a colony of England or be treated as an enemy.’ When he was persuaded to accept any conciliatory measure, such as the repeal of the Stamp Act, he immediately regretted it. He was equally obdurate in blocking Pitt’s modest proposals for parliamentary reform, only briefly touched on by Roberts. In fact, the damming up of political change for half a century is barely alluded to. Nor are the government’s efforts to stifle the trade unions by means of the Combination Acts of 1799-1800. The making of E.P. Thompson’s English working class might be happening on a different planet.
George also opposed change in spheres where he was undoubtedly responsible, notably the conduct of the army. North warned him that the American war was not a sufficiently popular cause to raise enough troops in Britain to fight it effectively. Hessian mercenaries had to be hired from George’s German realms, eventually constituting more than a third of the British forces in America. George made matters worse by making footling objections to the raising of fresh regiments, by failing to appoint a commander in chief until 1778 (and then appointing the wrong man), and by failing to concentrate the British forces, which were easily picked off by Washington’s brilliant raid-and-fade guerrilla warfare. He utterly failed to foresee the French intervention, or to realise that the isolationist policy he had promoted since his accession had left Britain quite friendless. Roberts describes all this very candidly. His argument is that George was simply too decent to fight the kind of scorched-earth campaign that every contemporary despot would have fought. If he had been the tyrant portrayed by Jefferson, he might have won. This is a curious place to end up: we are invited to admire George for an amiable impotence to which George himself would never have admitted.
The war cost 43,000 lives and doubled the national debt. Its long-term consequence was to forge a United States that was incurably suspicious of the outside world and felt a deep, if sometimes latent, hostility to Britain in particular. Just for a moment at the end, Roberts turns aside from his heroic defence to consider an alternative future – one which takes the reader by surprise:
a world in which the American Revolution never took place could have been one in which a united British-American global empire would have been far too powerful for Kaiser Wilhelm II to threaten war in 1914, so no Bolshevik Revolution, no Adolf Hitler, no Cold War. British and Canadian Liberals joining with Northern abolitionists might have voted to abolish slavery in the 1830s or 1840s, sparing the United States its Civil War. The country that did the most to split Britain from her North American colonies – France – was also the one that would have benefited most from the First and Second World Wars not taking place, but such is history’s iron law of unintended consequences.
Curiously, Brooke pauses halfway through his own massive defence of George to sketch a very similar scenario, in which America becomes part of the Commonwealth and there is no First World War, no Hitler or Stalin. But unlike Roberts, he hastily dismisses any such scenario. ‘All this is stuff. If there is one event in history which can truly be described as inevitable, it is the political separation between Great Britain and her American colonies.’ George and his ministers could not have acted otherwise. Their prejudices and the prejudices of the great British public were immovable.
One can, I think, come to rest on such a conclusion only by draining the lifeblood out of the debates as they were actually conducted at the time. What is remarkable in Brooke’s and Roberts’s biographies, long though they are, is how little space they give to the discussion of ideas. Burke, for example, appears from time to time merely as a tiresome flowery rhetorician. His speeches are seldom quoted, nor are Pitt’s remarks on the need for reform of the franchise to take account of social and geographical change. Roberts dismisses ‘No Taxation without Representation’ as a ‘fanciful, if not spurious’ slogan, on the grounds that even the colonists didn’t expect to send their MPs thousands of miles to Westminster. This is to ignore the fundamental and fairly obvious point that, this being so, they had the right to insist on being taxed only by their own assemblies.
What we’re given instead of ideas are the earthy particulars, often recounted with gusto – who’s in, who’s out, how much North owed the king, how many mistresses the prince regent went through. All of which is highly enjoyable, and also in accordance with Butterfield’s instructions in The Whig Interpretation of History (1931), where we are told that ‘the value of history lies in the richness of its recovery of the concrete life of the past … It is along this road that the historian carries us, away from the world of general ideas.’ This is the materialist version of history, as so exhaustively mined by Namier.
But even Butterfield softened this view. Twenty-five years later, in George III and the Historians, he argued that the Namier school had gone too far; its methods had produced ‘an atomisation of history … a failure to see the wood for the trees’. It was all very well to defend George against the calumnies of the Whigs, but the Namierites had ricocheted to the other extreme, amounting to ‘an insistence that he had no ideas at all’. We need to recognise too that public opinion was changeable. Like modern wars in the Middle East, the American war may have been more or less popular at the outset, but it very quickly wasn’t. The independent country backbenchers soon grew sick of the taxes levied to pay for it. Majorities in the Commons began to dwindle. Even in the early stages, petitions from boroughs and universities advocating coercion only outnumbered those advocating conciliation by three to two (in terms of numbers of signatures, the pro-Americans were in the majority). Who can say what the effect on public opinion would have been if the king had taken a different line, or there had been a different king? Butterfield asks this question too. It really isn’t hard to imagine the effect on nervous place-seekers when in June 1779 they heard the king thunder, ‘Before I will ever hear of any man’s readiness to come into office, I will expect to see it signed under his hand that he is resolved to keep the Empire entire and that no troops shall consequently be withdrawn from thence, nor independence ever allowed.’ On the same page, Roberts disputes Conor Cruise O’Brien’s reference to the king’s ‘ferocity’. Sounds fierce enough to me.
The truth is surely that George’s defenders cannot have it both ways. Either they take the king whole, hot and strong and stubborn to the last; or they have to sideline him as an endearing nullity. To present him as a great patriotic leader, but one who is not actually responsible for anything, really won’t work. The question of agency has to be resolved. It must be either By George, or Not By George. Deploying Bagehot’s distinction between the dignified and the efficient sides of the constitution, we must be allowed to say that George performed his duties as the nation’s figurehead with exemplary devotion and earned his people’s love, but also that in his executive role, which he insisted on maintaining to the maximum, he was pigheaded and shortsighted, compounding or inciting the errors of his ministers. The Royal Marriages Act, which gave the monarch a veto over any marriage involving a member of the royal family and which was largely his own work, stored up lasting unhappiness for generations of his descendants.
Remarkably, even the causes of the king’s madness do not seem finally resolved. This controversy too has gone through several ups and downs. Originally madness in a broad sense was diagnosed. It was claimed that he had been subject to such episodes most of his adult life, the first major outbreak as far back as 1765 being hushed up by the court. Namier, himself a neurotic character, portrayed the king as inherently neurotic and unable to cope with reality. Most historians concurred in a diagnosis of manic depression. Then, in 1966, Dr Ida Macalpine and her son Dr Richard Hunter studied the medical records closely for the first time, and concluded that manic depression was an untenable diagnosis and that George presented a classic case of porphyria, his ‘blue-ish’ urine being the clincher. This new diagnosis was welcomed by George’s defenders, as it cleared him of being of unsound mind. The 1765 episode was dismissed, by Brooke for instance, as a manufactured myth.
Porphyria held the field until 2010, when two other doctors, Peters and Wilkinson, rejected the diagnosis and returned to the manic depressive theory; the 1765 episode was reinstated, and ‘blue-ish’ identified as a misreading of ‘between’. Roberts recounts this bouleversement in an informative appendix, and in his introduction, he refers to the decent modern way in which we now view mental illness. Unlike Plumb and Namier, we no longer feel inclined to make crude linkages between supposed defects in the king’s personality and his malady. Roberts also declares that Dr Willis and his sons, who also treated the king, have been unfairly treated by Whig historians. On the whole, they employed what we can recognise as behavioural therapy: the talking cure, and useful practical activities like the king’s beloved pastime of taking watches apart and putting them together again. They resorted to the straitjacket only briefly when George was on the verge of violence. All of this helps to ‘normalise’ him, as someone only now and then suffering from a disabling illness, with his judgment otherwise unaffected. Many other statesmen have been more or less manic depressive; at one time both the king and his prime minister, Pitt the Elder, were suffering. George’s madness blighted his own life, in the end permanently; it did not blight his country’s. It was when he was sane he did the damage.