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King George III

King George III
June 4, 1738
London, England
January 29, 1820
Windsor Castle, Windsor, Berkshire, England
King of England

George III, King of Great Britain and Ireland, son of Frederick, Prince of Wales, and grandson of King George II, whom he succeeded in 1760, was born on June 4, 1738. After his father's death in 1751, he had been educated in seclusion from the fashionable world under the care of his mother and of her favorite counsellor the Earl of Bute. He had been taught to revere the maxims of Bolingbroke's "Patriot King", and to believe that it was his appointed task in life to break the power of the Whig houses resting upon extensive property and the influence of patronage and corruption. That power had already been gravely shaken. The Whigs from their incompetency were obliged when the Seven Years' War broke out to leave its management in the hands of William Pitt. The nation learned to applaud the great war minister who succeeded where others had failed, and whose immaculate purity put to shame the ruck of barterers of votes for places and pensions.

In some sort, the work of the new King George III was the continuation of the work of Pitt. But his methods were very different. He did not appeal to any widely spread feeling or prejudice; nor did he disdain the use of the arts which had maintained his opponents in power. The patronage of the crown was to be really as well as nominally his own; and he calculated, not without reason, that men would feel more flattered in accepting a place from a king than from a minister. The new Toryism of which he was the founder was no recurrence to the Toryism of the days of King Charles II or even of Queen Anne. The question of the amount of toleration to be accorded to Dissenters had been entirely laid aside.

The point at issue was whether the crown should be replaced in the position which King George I might have occupied at the beginning of his reign, selecting the ministers and influencing the deliberations of the cabinet. For this struggle, George III possessed no inconsiderable advantages. With an inflexible tenacity of purpose, he was always ready to give way when resistance was really hopeless. As the first English-born sovereign of his house, speaking from his birth the language of his subjects, he found a way to the hearts of many who never regarded his predecessors as other than foreign intruders. The contrast, too, between the pure domestic life which he led with his wife Charlotte, whom he married in 1761, and the habits of 3 generations of his house, told in his favor with the vast majority of his subjects. Even his marriage had been a sacrifice to duty. Soon after his accession, he had fallen in love with Lady Sarah Lennox. Before the year was over, Lady Sarah appeared as one of the queen's bridesmaids, and she was herself married to Sir Charles Bunbury in 1762.

At first, everything seemed easy to George III. Pitt had come to be regarded by his own colleagues as a minister who would pursue war at any price, and in getting rid of Pitt in 1761 and in carrying on the negotiations which led to the peace of Paris in 1762, the king was able to gather around him many persons who would not be willing to acquiesce in any permanent change in the system of government. With the signature of the peace his real difficulties began. The Whig houses, indeed, were divided amongst themselves by personal rivalries. But they were none of them inclined to let power and the advantages of power slip from their hands without a struggle. For some years a contest of influence was carried on without dignity and without any worthy aim. The king was not strong enough to impose upon parliament a ministry of his own choice. But he gathered around himself a body of dependants known as the king's friends, who were secure of his favor, and who voted one way or the other according to his wishes. Under these circumstances no ministry could possibly be stable; and yet every ministry was strong enough to impose some conditions on the king. Lord Bute, the king's first choice, resigned from a sense of his own incompetency in 1763. George Grenville was in office until 1765; the Marquis of Rockingham until 1766; Pitt, becoming Earl of Chatham, until illness compelled him to retire from the conduct of affairs in 1767, when he was succeeded by the Duke of Grafton. But a struggle of interests could gain no real strength for any government, and the only chance the king had of effecting a permanent change in the balance of power lay in the possibility of his associating himself with some phase of strong national feeling, as Pitt had associated himself with the war feeling caused by the dissatisfaction spread by the weakness and ineptitude of his predecessors.

Such a chance was offered by the question of the right to tax America. The notion that England was justified in throwing on America part of the expenses caused in the late war was popular in the country, and no one adopted it more pertinaciously then George III. At the bottom the position which he assumed was as contrary to the principles of parliamentary government as the encroachments of Charles I had been. But it was veiled in the eyes of Englishmen by the prominence given to the power of the British parliament rather than to the power of the British king. In fact the theory of parliamentary government, like most theories after their truth has long been universally acknowledged, had become a superstition. Parliaments were held to be properly vested with authority, not because they adequately represented the national will, but simply because they were parliaments. There were thousands of people in England to whom it never occurred that there was any good reason why a British parliament should be allowed to levy a duty on tea in the London docks and should not be allowed to levy a duty on tea at the wharves of Boston. Undoubtedly, George III derived great strength from his honest participation in this mistake. Contending under parliamentary forms, he did not wound the susceptibilities of members of parliament, and when at last in 1770 he appointed Lord North, a minister of his own selection, prime minister, the object of his ambition was achieved with the concurrence of a large body of politicians who had nothing in common with the servile band of the king's friends.

As long as the struggle with America was carried on with any hope of success, they gained that kind of support which is always forthcoming to a government which shares in the errors and prejudices of its subjects. The expulsion of Wilkes from the House of Commons in 1769, and the refusal of the House to accept him as a member after his re-election, raised a grave constitutional question in which the king was wholly in the wrong; and Wilkes was popular in London and Middlesex. But his case roused no national indignation, and when in 1774 those sharp measures were taken with Boston which led to the commencement of the American rebellion in 1775, the opposition to the course taken by the king made little way either in parliament or in the country. Edmund Burke might point out the folly and inexpedience of the proceedings of the government. Chatham might point out that the true spirit of English government was to be representative, and that that spirit was being violated at home and abroad. George III, who thought that the first duty of the Americans was to obey himself, had on his side the mass of unreflecting Englishmen who thought that the first duty of all colonists was to be useful and submissive to the mother country. The natural dislike of every country engaged in war to see itself defeated was on his side, and when the news of Gen. John Burgoyne's surrender at Saratoga arrived in 1777, subscriptions of money to raise new regiments poured freely in.

In March 1778, the French ambassador in London announced that a treaty of friendship and commerce had been concluded between France and the new United States of America. Lord North was anxious to resign power into stronger hands, and begged the king to receive Chatham as his prime minister. The king would not hear of it. He would have nothing to say to that perfidious man unless he would humble himself to enter the ministry as North's subordinate. Chatham naturally refused to do anything of the kind, and his death in the course of the year relieved the king of the danger of being again overruled by too overbearing a minister. England was now at war with France, and in 1779 she was also at war with Spain.

George III was still able to control the disposition of office. He could not control the course of events. His very ministers gave up the struggle as hopeless long before he would acknowledge the true state of the case. Before the end of 1779, two of the leading members of the cabinet, Lords Gower and Weymouth, resigned rather than bear the responsibility of so ruinous an enterprise as the attempt to overpower America and France together. Lord North retained office, but he acknowledged to the king that his own opinion was precisely the same as that of his late colleagues.

The year 1780 saw an agitation rising in the country for economical reform, an agitation very closely though indirectly connected with the war policy of the king. The public meetings held in the country on this subject have no unimportant place in the development of the constitution. Since the presentation of the Kentish petition in the reign of William III there had been from time to time upheavings of popular feeling against the doings of the legislature, which kept up the tradition that parliament existed in order to represent the nation. But these upheavings had all been so associated with ignorance and violence as to make it very difficult for men of sense to look with displeasure upon the existing emancipation of the House of Commons from popular control.

The Sacheverell riots, the violent attacks upon the Excise Bill, the no less violent advocacy of the Spanish War, the declamations of the supporters of Wilkes at a more recent time, and even in this very year the Gordon riots, were not likely to make thoughtful men anxious to place real power in the hands of the classes from whom such exhibitions of folly proceeded. But the movement for economical reform was of a very different kind. It was carried on soberly in manner, and with a definite practical object. It asked for no more than the king ought to have been willing to concede. It attacked useless expenditure upon sinecures and unnecessary offices in the household, the only use of which was to spread abroad corruption amongst the upper classes. George III could not bear to be interfered with at all, or to surrender any element of power which had served him in his long struggle with the Whigs. He held out for more than another year. The news of the capitulation of Yorktown reached London on November 25, 1781. On March 20, 1782, Lord North resigned.

George III accepted the consequences of defeat. He called the Marquis of Rockingham to office at the head of a ministry composed of pure Whigs and of the disciples of the late Earl of Chatham, and he authorized the new ministry to open negotiations for peace. Their hands were greatly strengthened by Rodney's victory over the French fleet, and the failure of the combined French and Spanish attack upon Gibraltar; and before the end of 1782, a provisional treaty was signed with America, preliminaries of peace with France and Spain being signed early in the following year. On September 3, 1783, the definitive treaties with the 3 countries were simultaneously concluded.

Long before the signature of the treaties, Rockingham died on July 1, 1782. The king chose Lord Shelburne, the head of the Chatham section of the government, to be prime minister. Fox and the followers of Rockingham refused to serve except under the Duke of Portland, a minister of their own selection, and resigned office. The old constitutional struggle of the reign was now to be fought out once more. Fox, too weak to obtain a majority alone, coalesced with Lord North, and defeated Shelburne in the House of Commons on February 27, 1783. On April 2, the coalition took office, with Portland as nominal prime minister, and Fox and North the secretaries of state as its real heads.

This attempt to impose upon him a ministry which he disliked made the king very angry. But the new cabinet had a large majority in the House of Commons, and the only chance of resisting it lay in an appeal to the country against the House of Commons. Such an appeal was not likely to be responded to unless the ministers discredited themselves with the nation. Goerge III therefore waited his time. Though a coalition between men bitterly opposed to one another in all political principles and drawn together by nothing but love of office was in itself discreditable, it needed some more positive cause of dissatisfaction to arouse the constituencies, which were by no means so ready to interfere in political disputes at that time as they are now. Such dissatisfaction was given by the India Bill, drawn up by Burke. As soon as it had passed through the Commons the king hastened to procure its rejection in the House of Lords by his personal intervention with the peers. He authorized Lord Temple to declare in his name that he would count any peer who voted for the bill as his enemy. On December 17, 1783 the bill was thrown out. The next day, ministers were dismissed. William Pitt the Younger became prime minister. After some weeks' struggle with a constantly decreasing majority in the Commons, the king dissolved patliament on March 25, 1784. The country rallied round the crown and the young minister, and Pitt was firmly established in office.

There can be no reasonable doubt that Pitt not only took advantage of the king's intervention in the Lords, but was cognizant of the intrigue before it was actually carried out. It was upon him, too, that the weight of reconciling the country to an administration formed under such circumstances lay. The general result, so far as George III was concerned, was that to all outward appearance he had won the great battle of his life. It was he who was to appoint the prime minister, not any clique resting on a parliamentary support. But the circumstances under which the victory was won were such as to place the constitution in a position very different from that in which it would have been if the victory had been gained earlier in the reign. Intrigue there was indeed in 1783 and 1784 as there had been twenty years before. Parliamentary support was conciliated by Pitt by the grant of royal favors as it had been in the days of Bute. The actual blow was struck by a most questionable message to individual peers. But the main result of the whole political situation was that George III had gone a long way towards disentangling the reality of parliamentary government from its accidents. His ministry finally stood because it had appealed to the constituencies against their representatives. Since then it has properly become a constitutional axiom that no such appeal should be made by the crown itself. But it may reasonably be doubted whether any one but the king was at that time capable of making the appeal. Lord Shelburne, the leader of the ministry expelled by the coalition, was unpopular in the country, and the younger Pitt had not had time to make his great abilities known beyond a limited circle. The real question for the constitutional historian to settle is not whether under ordinary circumstances a king is the proper person to place himself really as well as nominally at the bead of the government; but whether under the special circumstances which existed in 1783 it was not better that the king should call upon the people to support him, than that government should be left in the hands of men who rested their power on close boroughs and the dispensation of patronage, without looking beyond the walls of the House of Commons for support.

That the king gained credit far beyond his own deserts by the glories of Pitt's ministry is beyond a doubt. Nor can there be any reasonable doubt that his own example of domestic propriety did much to strengthen the position of his minister. It is true that that life was insufferably dull. No gleams of literary or artistic taste lightened it up. The dependants of the court became inured to dull routine unchequered by loving sympathy. The sons of the household were driven by the sheer weariness of such an existence into the coarsest profligacy. But all this was not visible from a distance. The tide of moral and religious improvement which had set in in England since the days of John Wesley brought popularity to a king who was faithful to his wife, in the same way that the tide of manufacturing industry and scientific progress brought popularity to the minister who in some measure translated into practice the principles of the "Wealth of Nations."

Nor were there wanting subjects of importance beyond the circle of politics in which George III showed a lively interest. The voyages of discovery which made known so large a part of the islands and coasts of the Pacific Ocean received from him a warm support. In the early days of the Royal Academy, its finances were strengthened by liberal grants from the privy purse. His favorite pursuit, however, was farming. When Arthur Young was issuing his "Annals of Agriculture," he was supplied with information by the king, under the assumed name of Mr. Ralph Robinson, relating to a farm at Petersham.
The life of George III was suddenly clouded over. Early in his reign, in 1765, he had been out of health, and symptoms of mental aberration were even then to be perceived. In October 1788, he was again out of health, and in the beginning of the following month his insanity was beyond a doubt. While Pitt and Fox were contending in the House of Commons over the terms on which the regency should be committed to the Prince of Wales, the king was a helpless victim to the ignorance of physicians and the brutalities of his servants. At last, Dr. Willis, who had made himself a name by prescribing gentleness instead of rigor in the treatment of the insane, was called in. Under his more humane management the king rapidly recovered. Before the end of February 1789, he was able to write to Pitt thanking him for his warm support of his interests during his illness. On April 23, he went in person to St. Paul's to return thanks for his recovery.

The popular enthusiasm which burst forth around St. Paul's was but a foretaste of a popularity far more universal. The French Revolution frightened the great Whig landowners until they made their peace with the king. Those who thought that the true basis of government was aristocratical were now of one mind with those who thought that the true basis of government was monarchical; and these two classes were joined by a far larger multitude which had no political ideas whatever, but which had a moral horror of the guillotine.

As Queen Elizabeth I had once been the symbol of resistance to Spain, George III was now the symbol of resistance to France. He was not, however, more than the symbol. He allowed Pitt to levy taxes and incur debt, to launch armies to defeat, and to prosecute the English imitators of French revolutionary courses. At last, however, after the Union with Ireland was accomplished, he learned that Pitt was planning a scheme to relieve the Catholics from the disabilities under which they labored. The plan was revealed to him by the chancellor, Lord Loughborough, a selfish and intriguing politician who had served all parties in turn, and who sought to forward his own interests by falling in with the king's prejudices. George III at once took up the position from which he never swerved. He declared that to grant concessions to the Catholics involved a breach of his coronation oath. No one has ever doubted that the king was absolutely convinced of the serious nature of the objection. Nor can there be any doubt that he had the English people behind him. Both in his peace ministry and in his war ministry Pitt had taken his stand on royal favor and on popular support. Both failed him alike now, and he resigned office at once. The shock to the king's mind was so great that it brought on a fresh attack of insanity. This time, however, the recovery was rapid. On March 14, 1801, Pitt's resignation was formally accepted, and Addington was installed in office as prime minister.

The king was well pleased with the change. He was never capable of appreciating high merit in any one; and he was unable to perceive that the question on which Pitt had resigned was more than an improper question, with which he ought never to have meddled. Thoroughly honest and respectable, with about the same share of abilities as was possessed by the king himself, Addington was certainly not likely to startle the world by any flights of genius. But for one circumstance, Addington's ministry would have lasted long. So strong was the reaction against the Revolution that the bulk of the nation was almost as suspicious of genius as the king himself. Not only was there no outcry for legislative reforms, but the very idea of reform was unpopular. The country gentlemen were predominant in parliament, and the country gentlemen as a body looked upon Addington with respect and affection. Such a minister was therefore admirably suited to preside over affairs at home in the existing state of opinion. But those who were content with inaction at home would not be content with inaction abroad. In time of peace, Addington would have been popular for a season. In time of war, even his warmest admirers could not say that he was the man to direct armies in the most terrible struggle which had to that point been conducted by an English government.

For the moment, this difficulty was not felt. On October 1, 1801, preliminaries of peace were signed between England and France, to be converted into the definitive peace of Amiens on March 27, 1802. The ruler of France was now Napoleon Bonaparte, and few persons in England believed that he had any real purpose of bringing his aggressive violence to an end.

The king was right. On May 18, 1803, the declaration of war was laid before parliament. The war was accepted by all classes as inevitable, and the French preparations for an invasion of England roused the whole nation to a glow of enthusiasm only equalled by that felt when the Armada threatened its shores. On the 26th of October the king reviewed the London volunteers in Hyde Park. He found himself the center of a great national movement with which he heartily sympathized, and which heartily sympathized with him.

On February 12, 1804, the king's mind was again affected. When he recovered, he found himself in the midst of a ministerial crisis. Public feeling allowed but one opinion to prevail in the country -- that Pitt, not Addington, was the proper man to conduct the administration in time of war. Pitt was anxious to form an administration on a broad basis, including Fox and all prominent leaders of both parties. The king would not hear of the admission of Fox. His dislike of him was personal as well as political, as he knew that Fox had had a great share in drawing the prince of Wales into a life of profligacy. Pitt accepted the king's terms, and formed an administration in which he was the only man of real ability. Eminent men, such as Lord Grenville, refused to join a ministry from which the king had excluded a great statesman on purely personal grounds.

The whole question was reopened on Pitt's death on January 23, 1806. This time, George III gave way. The ministry of "All the Talents", as it was called, included Fox amongst its members. At first the king was observed to appear depressed at the necessity of surrender. "Mr Fox", said the king, "I little thought that you and I should ever meet again in this place; but I have no desire to look back upon old grievances, and you may rest assured I never shall remind you of them." On September 13, Fox died, and it was not long before the king and the ministry were openly in collision. The ministry proposed a measure enabling all subjects of the crown to serve in the army and navy in spite of religious disqualifications. The king objected even to so slight a modification of the laws against the Catholics and Dissenters, and the ministers consented to drop the bill. The king asked more than this. He demanded a written and positive engagement that this ministry would never, under any circumstances, propose to him "any measure of concession to the Catholics, or even connected with the question." The ministers very properly refused to bind themselves for the future. They were consequently turned out of office, and a new ministry was formed with the Duke of Portland as first lord of the treasury and Spencer Perceval as its real leader. The spirit of the new ministry was distinct hostility to the Catholic claims. On April 27, 1807, a dissolution of parliament was announced, and a majority in favor of the king's ministry was returned in the elections which speedily followed.

The elections of 1807, like the elections of 1784, gave the king the mastery of the situation. In other respects they were the counterpart of one another. In 1784, the country declared, though perhaps without any clear conception of what it was doing, for a wise and progressive policy. In 1807, it declared for an unwise and retrogressive policy, with a very clear understanding of what it meant. It is in his reliance upon the prejudices and ignorance of the country that the constitutional significance of the reign of George III appears. Every strong government derives its power from its representative character. At a time when the House of Commons was less really representative than at any other, a king was on the throne who represented the country in its good and bad qualities alike, in its hatred of revolutionary violence, its moral sturdiness, its contempt of foreigners, and its defiance of all ideas which were in any way strange. Therefore it was that his success was not permanently injurious to the working of the constitution as the success of Charles I would have been. If he were followed by a king less English than himself, the strength of representative power would pass into other hands than those which held the sceptre.

The overthrow of the ministry of All the Talents was the last political act of constitutional importance in which George III took part. The substitution of Perceval for Portland as the nominal head of the ministry in 1809 was not an event of any real significance, and in 1811 the reign practically came to an end. The king's reason finally broke down after the death of the princess Amelia, his favorite child; and the Prince of Wales, later King George IV, became prince regent.

In 1810, already virtually blind with cataracts and in pain from rheumatism, George III became dangerously ill. In his view the malady had been triggered by the stress he suffered at the death of his youngest and favourite daughter, Princess Amelia. As the Princess's nurse reported, "the scenes of distress and crying every day…were melancholy beyond description." By 1811, George III had become permanently insane and lived in seclusion at Windsor Castle until his death. He accepted the need for the Regency Act 1811, to which the Royal Assent was granted by the Lords Commissioners, appointed under the same irregular procedure as was adopted in 1788. The Prince of Wales acted as Regent for the remainder of George III's life.

Spencer Perceval was assassinated in 1812 (the only British Prime Minister to have suffered such a fate) and was replaced by Lord Liverpool. Liverpool oversaw British victory in the Napoleonic Wars. The subsequent Congress of Vienna led to significant territorial gains for Hanover, which was upgraded from an electorate to a kingdom.

Meanwhile, George's health deteriorated, and eventually he became completely blind and increasingly deaf. He never knew that he was declared King of Hanover in 1814, or of the death of his wife in 1818. Over Christmas 1819, he spoke nonsense for 58 hours, and for the last few weeks of his life was unable to walk. On 29 January 1820, he died at Windsor Castle. His favourite son, Frederick, Duke of York, was with him until the end. His death came six days after that of his fourth son, the Duke of Kent. George III was buried on 15 February in St. George's Chapel, Windsor.

George was succeeded by two of his sons George IV and William IV, who both died without surviving legitimate children, leaving the throne to their niece, Victoria, the last monarch of the House of Hanover and the only legitimate child of the Duke of Kent.

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