On 12 August 2021, Professor Jeremy Black gave us an illuminating talk about George III. Everyone knows about the king's lunacy and the loss of America but Professor Black introduced us to the person, his likes and dislikes, and what it was like to be a king in the 18th century.
George was born in 1738 but his father, Frederick, Prince of Wales died when George was only 13. He succeeded his grandfather in 1760 and reigned until his death in1820. He was a monarch of the House of Hanover but, unlike his two predecessors, he was born in Great Britain, spoke English as his first language and never visited Hanover.
He first became ill in 1796 when he was 58 and this was followed by two more bouts in 1801 and 1810. These periods of so-called lunacy did not affect his life before and between the bouts. The illness, once thought to be morphyria, is now considered to have been severe manic depression.
He was otherwise a healthy man who, unusually for the times, did not eat or drink alcohol to excess - visitors poked fun at him for they felt underfed. Professor Black compared his abstemiousness to our present queen’s. Unusually, he valued exercise and walked every day. He also loved hunting and his reason for developing Windsor Castle was that the hunting around there was so good.
His walking habit made him vulnerable to attack and there were three attempts on his life. The most well known was a knife attack by Margaret Nicholson in 1785. When he lay bleeding profusely he was heard to say “don’t hurt the lady” and, as a result, she was certified as insane and not hanged.
In 1790 he was shot at in Hyde Park and later, unperturbed, went to the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane and was shot at again. But the guns of those days were difficult to aim and both shots missed.
It was easy for the upper classes to make contact with the king as – if reasonably dressed! – one could join a circle at the palace and the king would choose who to speak to.
His mother was keen on education and his father, before his death, worked to ensure young George understood politics. His intention was to unite all the people and, as a boy, he wrote somewhat implausible political tracts! But he was only thirteen. He was educated about art and water colour painting and also learnt architecture and draftsmanship.
His draftsmanship was very good and he had a fine eye for art (which no one subsequently in his family had). He bought many paintings: Italian works in the 1750s & 1760s and from the 1770s onwards increasingly British paintings. He knighted Joshua Reynolds although he found him irritating and liked the paintings of the American Benjamin West and bought many of his.
He developed many hobbies which helped to keep him alert intellectually. He played a number of musical instruments and delighted in duets with his wife, Charlotte. He liked Mozart and Haydn, both of whom visited England, but his favourite by far was Handel and he worked hard to revitalise the English choral tradition.
The king had many other interests. He privately sponsored James Cook’s three voyages “to visit the dark side of the earth” and selected many mementoes of the trip for the Royal Collection. They are now in the British Museum. He also made and mended watches and clocks and was very interested in farming. Nicknamed “Farmer George”, while out on his walks he would question the farmers and make suggestions. He even gave some fields to his sons to grow vegetables; they didn’t like that!
He was fascinated by astronomy and contributed £4,000 to the construction of Hershell’s famous 40 ft telescope. Hershell in gratitude named a planet after the king. It was subsequently renamed as Uranus. At the telescope’s opening ceremony George joked to the Archbishop of Canterbury that, as they walked through the enormous telescope, he should precede the king saying “You first as you are closer to God”.
King George was also fascinated by culture and, as Whitehall had burnt down, he bought some land and designed a new palace – now known as Buckingham Palace. Its library was open to anyone well dressed and, when Dr Johnson was visiting the library, he was invited to come and talk to the king. Which he did; they discussed literature.
A very strong purpose in George III’s life was the church. Unlike his predecessors he paid regular attendance and insisted that the criteria for bishops or deans should be that they were figures of known probity and commitment. He hated his eldest son who he considered to be blasphemous. He organised a general day of prayer which was last held in 1947.
Justice was of course the king’s prerogative and he insisted that he should decide if people were to be executed. The judge had to write explaining his judgement which the king would review and intervene if he felt it necessary. He maintained that hanging should only be for the crime of murder and for recidivists. A famous case was of a Windsor guardsman who Frederick, Duke of Windsor, claimed was a good soldier but on his second crime. The king declined to interfere with the hanging verdict – as the man was a recidivist. Interestingly, during his reign the number of hanging crimes increased although actual hangings decreased. In one case the king intervened to have a hanging sentence changed to transportation to Australia but they said the would prefer execution. George lost his temper and insisted they should go to Australia!
He also wrote all his own letters – usually only one paragraph. He wrote in the morning before seeing his ministers, then wrote more letters after lunch. Most afternoons he went for a walk then wrote until the evening when he socialised.
All his correspondence was saved and is still in excellent condition and helps historians to understand the political questions of his reign.
George worked hard and spent nearly all his time in London. In fact he was the least travelled monarch since Elizabeth I. Unlike his predecessors he never went to Hanover nor even visited Scotland, Wales, Ireland, York or Birmingham. In London he felt he could keep a close eye on his government although in 1772 he visited Portsmouth to see the fleet and in 1789, after a bad bout of his illness, he took a break in Saltram and took the opportunity to visit Plymouth dockyard and Exeter. On 13 August he stayed in the Deanery here and took his usual early walk round the Cathedral and its garden. At Axminster he insisted on being shown round the factory (he liked factories).
He took his role very seriously and always ensured to see foreign ambassadors and talk with them. He took quite a role in foreign policy.
He was disaffected with the aristocracy who he felt were lazy and he hated their gambling. He preferred meeting with aristocrats “from the shade” and talking with commoners. He was certainly not a snob. He favoured Addington who became Prime Minister and was not of aristocratic birth – his father had been the king’s doctor - and rewarded many who had been clerks and showed their value as they worked their way up through the civil service.
In 1789 he visited Tottenham Park (Jacobites) and was the first to stay with Catholic peers. He believed the Jacobites had the best claim to the throne but were bad monarchs – he even provided a pension for the poverty-stricken younger brother of Bonnie Prince Charlie.
His judgements did not always show political wisdom. He didn’t understand what was happening in America not realising the depth of disaffection and should have known better. Similarly, he felt sworn to protect the Church of England. This was understandable but proved an unhelpful response in Ireland.
In summary, Professor Black pointed out that King George III had many strengths and some weaknesses. He believed he was accountable to God rather than parliament but he lacked flexibility. There existed then other monarchical systems. For instance, the United States had a different system, one of choice favouring a meritocratic monarch rather than dynastic one. Under this system, George Washington became their elected monarch for eight years.
Other countries’ monarchic choices were sometimes based on military success. This led to leaders such as Napoleon. Perhaps the dynastic method is safer!