Through the passage of time, every important historical figure is identified by the mundane or significant events of their lives. Unfortunately, some of these facts may unfairly portray them in an unkind light and obscure other interesting and overlooked details that shaped their character and legacies. In the case of King George III, he is known for losing the American colonies and for going mad.
Depending on which side of The American War of Independence you studied in school, King George was either a horrible tyrant who taxed the colonists, forcing them to declare their independence. Or on the other side of history he was a scapegoat for losing the colonies.
Lord North, who was Prime minister in 1773, placed a tax on tea. The colonists claimed this was taxation without representation, heightening the tensions between the colonies and Great Britain that had begun in 1764 when Parliament passed the Stamp Act. As a result of this unfair taxation, tons of tea were unloaded into Boston Harbor. Three years after the Boston Tea Party, the American colonies declared their independence, claiming that King George was an inflexible tyrant, and therefore, he’d lost his right to rule them.
In truth, it was the Parlimentary ministers, not the king and crown who were responsible for colonial policy and the revolution. King George did have direct and indirect influence, but he deferred mostly to Parliament, supporting them in their decisions and policies. This deference began early in his reign when George handed control of the crown Estate to Parliament. In return, he asked for civil list annuities for paying his household and governmental public expenses.
After the defeat of the British Army at Yorktown in 1781, which George wasn’t keen on accepting, he wrote an abdication speech which was never presented. Instead, he concieded to the peace terms drawn up by Parliament. The Treaty of Paris was signed two years later, recognizing the independence of the United States of America and giving Florida to Spain.
By 1785, when John Adams, the recently appointed American Minister to London paid him a visit, the king had accepted the new relationship between Great Britain and the United States. “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.”
During his reign, George suffered three bouts of madness or insanity. The first occurring in 1778 that forced him to be restrained in a straightjacket and suffer various treatments. At the time, it wasn’t known what was causing his insanity. He recovered and returned to his duties the next year. Despite the brief absence of their king, he was much loved and very popular with the people on his return. They saw him as a symbol of stability during the French Revolutionary war and burgeoning Napoleonic conflict.
He experienced another period of insanity in 1804, where he again recovered. In 1810, he fell ill for a final time. And the following year, his son, George, whou would later rule as George IV, became prince regent. This effectively gave him rule during the war of 1812 and where he saw Napoleon’s defeat at waterloo in 1815.
But there is more to this monarch than what you learned in history class, however. Much of which might surprise you.
George William Frederick was born, two months premature, at Norfolk House in St. James’ Square, London on 4 June 1738. He was the first son of Frederick, Prince of Wales and his ambitious wife, Augusta. Baby George wasn’t expected not to survive and was baptised on the day of his birth. As it became apparent the new second in line to the throne was strong and thriving, he was christened publicly one month later. George grew up healthy, if shy and reserved. His father died, aged just 44, in 1751 and George became heir to the throne and Prince of Wales as he entered his teenage years. His life changed radically from that moment.
Religion was important to him, and he set a high moral standard for himself and his children. During his reign, moral conduct would become a source of contention between George and some of his relatives, bringing about the creation and passage of The Royal Marriages Act in 1772. This act stated that no member of the royal family could marry without the permission of the Sovereign.
George was the first Hanovarian king born in England rather than Germany and the third British ruler from the House of Hanover. English was his first language, though he could write in german. During his life, King George never went to Hanover, spending the majority of his days in England, traveling only as far as 100 miles, 150 km from court. In 1760, during his accession speech to members of Parliament, which was written by Lord Hardwick, the 22-year-old newly crowned king of Great Britain and Ireland stressed his loyalty to the british people by saying, “Born and educated in this country, I glory in the name of Britain.”
On 1 January 1801, he became King of the United kingdom of great Britain and Ireland when the two countries united. And, despite his neglect of his Hanovarian roots, George was Duke and prince-elector of Brunswick-Lüneburg, “Hanover.” He was promoted to King of Hanover on 12 October 1814, at a time when his son served as prince regent.
He was the third-longest reigning, and living British monarch of all time; his 59 years 96 days reign and life were only surpassed by Queens Victoria and, most recently, Elizabeth II. The planet Uranus was originally named “Georgium sidus,” ‘the Georgian Star’ after George III as the king funded the 40-foot telescope used by William Herschel in discovering the planet.
For George, his love for science began at a young age. He was the first monarch to study it regularly. Along with chemistry and astronomy, he also learned physics, mathematics, French, Latin, history, music, geography, commerce, agriculture and constitutional law. Of course, he also became adept in sporting and social accomplishments of the day such as fencing, dancing and riding.
As the eldest son, George was made Prince of Wales at the age of 12 after the death of his father, Frederick, Prince of Wales in 1751 of a lung injury. After his father’s death, his mother, Augusta of Saxe-Gotha kept him in isolation with his brother, Edward, where they were tutored by the Scotish nobleman, Lord Bute, whom he would one day appoint Prime Minister in 1762.
In the years before his succession, Lord Bute and his mother served as unofficial advisors to George. In 1759, he was encouraged not to marry Lady Sarah Lennox, sister of the Duke of Richmond. He wrote of his decision to obey their wishes against those of his heart. “I am born for the happiness or misery of a great nation, and consequently must often act contrary to my passions.” He avoided the clerics trap when his grandfather, King George II attempted to unite him with Princess Sophie Caroline of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel. But when his grandfather died unexpectedly on 25 October 1760, he had no choice but to find a bride.
With his dedication and loyalty to his country firmly established, he entered into a political marriage with Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, the daughter of a German duke. Their first meeting was on 8 September 1761, their wedding day. The ceremony was held at the Chapel Royal at St James’s Palace. A short two weeks later, both were crowned at Westminster Abbey. George purchased Buckingham House, which is now Buckingham Palace. The Royal Family holidayed in Dorset on the seaside and at Windsor Palace.
Unlike his grandfather and sons who were known for having mistresses, George remained entirely faithful to Charlette. They had 15 children in all, 9 sons and 6 daughters. The man willing to forsake the wishes of his heart for duty to country and kin found love after all. A love that would last for nearly 50 years until George’s last slip into madness in 1810 and with Charlette’s death in 1818.
King George III died at Windsor Palace at 8:00 in the evening on 29 January 1820. At 81 years of age, he was blind, deaf and mad. Until 2005, it was thought his death was as a result of a metabolic disorder known as porphyria. But arsenic was found after an analysis of hair samples was completed. In his day, arsenic was found in medicine and cosmetics. If taken over a long period of time, it’s easy to conclude that this poison could’ve slowly killed him.
During his life, George III was a lover and collector of books, patron of the arts and generous, donating money from his personal income to charities. He was deeply religious, spending much time in prayer. He was faithful, loving only one woman. He was well-versed and educated and industrious, making huge advances in mathematics and industry.
During his reign, the British Agricultural Revolution peaked, rural populations expanded leading to the growth of the Industrial Revolution. Many mocked George, calling him “Farmer George,” because he spent less time focusing on politics and choosing to give his time to more mundane things. He would later be admired and loved for his simplicity and thought of as a man of his people in stark contrast to his son, the prince regent who lived a lavish lifestyle.
Photo credit: By Mary Morris Knowles (The Royal Collection) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons