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British Royals

New Documents shed light on George III’s loss of the American Colonies

Poor George III. As British monarchs go, he’s perhaps one who has had a lot of calamities placed upon his lap. Much of his reign was marked by periods of insanity, most likely caused by porphyria and aggravated by the chemicals found in powdered wigs at the time, which rendered him utterly incapable of knowing where he even sat at the time. The end of his reign saw Britain plunged into a brutal war with Napoleonic France, only just able to snatch victory away through a few decisive battles. His relationship with his son, the future George IV, was often strained and wrought with difficulty. Then there’s his greatest claim to infamy — George III was the monarch who lost British America, the greatest single calamity of the British Empire. History has not been very kind to him on that last point.

Nearly every American schoolchild would learn that George III was an oppressive tyrant, a figure of a ruthless character who sought to shackle his long-suffering American subjects against their wills with unjust taxation, the prevention of their liberty, and the brutality of his British redcoats and Hessian mercenaries. This is backed up by the plethora of letters, correspondences, pamphlets and articles written by pro-independence colonists such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, John Adams, and James Madison. The most notable of all was through the Declaration of Independence itself, which lists several paragraphs worth of crimes committed by George III against the colonists. The argument is quite one-sided, because while the American forces were quite happy to discuss their views and opinions on the matter, Loyalist and British sources are rather hard to come by. George III’s views on the matter are harder still, at least until now.

The Windsor Castle Royal Archives has recently decided to open around 350,000 pages of literature written by George III (and several other British monarchs) after centuries of careful preservation and storage within the Duke of Wellington’s townhouse in London. Queen Elizabeth II opened the cache of documents to researchers in April of last year, and since then, archivists and historians have been pouring over the countless letters, ledgers, maps and correspondences that are contained within this treasure trove of information.

The picture it paints is of a monarch who was deeply emphatic and thoughtful, contrary to the popular perception of him, and greatly concerned about the sort of kingdom he was leaving behind for his children to inherit. A man who was not only interested in politics but also agriculture and the sciences as well. It also shows a man very fond of routine, with every day carefully planned out on a similar pattern. The King would work through much of the morning, before riding to St James’s Palace to meet with foreign dignitaries. His wife, the German-born Queen Charlotte, would learn English six hours a day. His children were tutored in the arts, the sciences, numerous languages, and philosophy.

His reactions to the American Revolution are also recorded and show that King George III was not entirely sure how to grasp the full complexity of the Revolution that had suddenly flared up in his largest territory overseas. In the words of Rick Atkinson, one of the scholars who had the privilege of reading through these documents, “[King George III] is someone who is puzzling through an extraordinarily complex problem for which he does not really have a vocabulary.”

As well as documents relating to George III’s reign, there are also numerous documents from across much of the Georgian period, including trans-Atlantic literature, exploration maps, British regiment lists, and all sorts of information about politics, diplomacy, gender, and the sciences in the nascent 18th century British Empire. It is hoped that, by 2020, the Georgian Papers team will have made all the documents available for public viewing online, shedding new light and insight into 18th century Britain and her (ex-)colonies.