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The man who would become the king of Great Britain and Ireland was born George William Frederick on June 4, 1738. He was the eldest son of Fredrick Louis, Prince of Wales, and his wife Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha. Born prematurely, his parents wondered if he was going to survive. Like his siblings, George was educated by tutors and by the age of eight, he could both read and write in English and German.
When George was 12 his father died, which left him heir to the throne of Great Britain once his grandfather, King George II, died. As a young man, he began to prepare for his role as king under the tutelage of John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute. Lord Bute was a Scottish aristocrat and a close friend of George’s family.
Many in the kingdom distrusted Bute due to his Scottish origins. Though Scotland and Britain had merged decades before, many in England still viewed the Scots as foreigners. One of the young boy's playmates was the future prime minister, Lord North. North's parents gave him some helpful advice, "Bow to the Prince, my son, address him as Your Royal Highness, if you play a game with him, he must win; never, never, raise your hand to him...if you play your part well, you may in time get a sinecure post..." Astonishingly, even after being brought up in this gilded world, as an adult, the king was described as "a man with a pleasant character."
The International Theater
At the time of George’s birth, the European nations had been exploring North and South America and parts of Asia to expand their empires. Britain’s colonies in America and India provided the country with timber, dried fish, tobacco, flour, tea, and spices. As ships brought raw materials from the colonies into British ports, the ships were loaded with finished products, such as furniture, books, textiles, cookware, and anything else the colonists had the money to purchase. These rich new lands ripe for colonization and plunder led to competition among the kings of Britain, Spain, Portugal, France, and Holland. They vied to control as much of the virgin lands as they could, and sometimes the struggle for control of the new empires led to war.
Political Landscape of Great Britain
During the reign of King George III, the Whig Party held a majority in the Parliament as well as in the king’s ministry, or cabinet. In general, the Whigs were for limiting the king’s authority—a process that had been playing out for years. Opposing the Whigs was the smaller minority party of the Tories, known for their conservative views and support of the monarchy. The English kings were not all-powerful; for centuries they had relied on the support of the noble class to enforce laws and collect taxes. However, during the last century, the Parliament had grown stronger, and the king’s power had diminished.
After the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the balance of power in Britain’s Parliamentary monarchy began to move away from the king, favoring the authority of the Parliament. Though the Parliament was the dominant power in law-making, it still needed the approval of the king or queen before legislation could become law. The Parliament was controlled by the prime minister, who was the leader of the dominant political party in the House of Commons.
Over time, the prime minister came to be recognized as the head of Britain’s government, rather than the king. During the reign of King George III, the British government was in a tug-of-war between those who looked to the sovereign as the final authority and the faction who sought to bolster the power of the Parliament. In 1689, the English Bill of Rights granted basic civil rights to English citizens. The Act laid down limits on the power of the monarch and defined the rights of the Parliament, including establishing free elections and allowing the freedom of speech in the Parliament.
The Young King George III
In the late fall of 1760, George, then age 22, learned of his grandfather’s death. The realization that he would soon be crowned king terrified the young man. Hurriedly, the would-be king and Lord Bute called for an emergency meeting of the king’s advisors, the Privy Council, to make plans for George’s ascent to the throne. After the death of his grandfather, King George III became monarch of Great Britain and Ireland and was now responsible for dealing with war, religious struggles, and a variety of social issues that plagued the empire.
When George gained the throne, one of his first orders of business was to clean up the low moral tone of his grandfather's court. Within a month he had issued a royal proclamation, “Encouragement of Piety and Virtue,” which required British citizens to attend church each week, outlawed dancing on Sundays, raised the taxes on beer, and levied strict penalties for gambling. These austere new laws were not popular with the people.
The new monarch was described as such: "His person is tall and full of dignity, his countenance florid and obliging.” Although not considered strikingly handsome, the young king was well proportioned. Unlike his father and grandfather, who had been born in the German kingdom of Hanover, he had been born and entirely educated in England, speaking English without a German accent. Since he was the first sovereign since Queen Anne to speak to his subjects in English without a foreign accent, he was generally liked by the citizens of Britain. George was known as a hard-working king, who read and wrote voluminously on matters of state. He was also a deeply religious person, taking his religion much more seriously than his father; throughout his reign, he was known to spend hours in private prayer.
Marriage to Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz
As a lively man of 21, George fell in love with a pretty young woman named Lady Sarah Lennox. George consulted Bute for advice, who told him not to marry the young woman. She was the sister-in-law of a powerful Whig minister who would be a political rival once George became king. George reluctantly ended the romance, realizing Bute was right. “I am born for the happiness and misery of a great nation,” he wrote to Lord Bute. “Consequently [I] must often act contrary to my passion.” Under the guidance of Bute, George agreed to marry the 17-year-old German princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Once the arrangements were made between the two royal families, the young lady set sail for England, not familiar with the country or the language. The royal couple was married on September 8, 1761, the day they met. Though the marriage was arranged for political reasons, it was a lasting marriage of 50 years and brought forth 15 children.
The Seven Years’ War
Throughout much of George's long reign, Britain was involved in a war. When he became king, he inherited the Seven Years' War, which began in 1756 under his grandfather’s reign. The war was a result of an attempt by the Austrian Habsburgs to win back Silesia from Fredrick the Great of Prussia. Before the end of hostilities in 1763, the war had grown to encompass five continents, making it the first global conflict. In the British colonies of America, the war was known as the French and Indian war.
The major powers of Britain, France, and Spain fought on multiple fronts throughout the world in both land-based and naval battles. William Pitt, the secretary of state, skillfully directed Britain’s armies during the war. Pitt was a Whig and a political opponent of King George; however, he was a capable conductor of the war. Pitt revived the militia, reequipped the navy, and sought to unite the Parliament and the public behind a coherent war policy.
Britain’s victory in the war elevated Pitt to national hero status. As a result of the war, Britain was established as the greatest colonial power in the world, with control over India and much of North America. Prussia emerged as the dominant power in Continental Europe and the leading power within Germany, at the expense of the Holy Roman Empire and Habsburg Austria.
The Volatile Political Climate of the 1760s
The political climate during the early years of George's reign was precarious; the government of England lacked sufficient executive structure and members of Parliament were far too quick to criticize each other rather than cooperate. The two most powerful members of Parliament at the time were William Pitt the Elder and Thomas Pelham-Holles, duke of Newcastle. Both men were out of favor with Bute and the king. Pitt was allowed to resign as secretary of state in 1761 over a controversy regarding war with Spain, while the duke of Newcastle was also forced out as Prime Minister. Bute ran the government until his resignation in April 1763.
Bute's replacement was George Grenville, who remained until July 1765. The rapid changes within the government frustrated the American Benjamin Franklin, who was in London representing several American colonies. Franklin reported in the autumn of 1766, “Such continual changes here that it is very discouraging to all applications to be made to the Ministry: I thought the last [cabinet] established but they are gone. God only knows whom we are to have next.”
During the summer of 1765, Charles Watson-Wentworth, Marquess of Rockingham, became the prime minister until he was replaced by Pitt the following year. Pitt had been elevated to the House of Lords as the Earl of Chatham. Pitt's health deteriorated rapidly, and he was replaced by August Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Grafton. It was not until 1770 that the king found a prime minister that he could work with, his old childhood friend Fredrick, Lord North. The political instability of the first decade of his reign hampered Britain’s ability to deal with the problems developing at home and in the North American colonies.
The decade of the 1760s not only brought political instability but economic hardship to Britain as well, brought on by poor crop harvests, rising food prices, and periods of rising unemployment. Opposition rose against the king and Bute in the press, championed by the radical journalist and politician John Wilkes, a Protestant dissenter, and son of a London malt distiller. Wilkes managed to get elected as a member of Parliament (MP) through bribery. He published an opposition newspaper, the North Britton, which was so scandalous it was judged by Parliament to be seditious.
To silence Wilkes and his followers, the government issued a general warrant for the arrest of Wilkes and 48 of his collaborators. Wilkes was released when the chief justice of the court of common pleas ruled that the arrest was a breach of Wilkes' parliamentary privilege. A year later Wilkes fled to France to avoid arrest on the charge of publishing obscenity. Wilkes was tried in absentia for sedition, libel, and obscenity, of which he was found guilty on all charges. He was declared an outlaw for impeding royal justice. Deeply in debt, in 1768 Wilkes returned to England and was elected an MP for the county of Middlesex. Since he was an outlaw, Parliament declared the election void and imprisoned him in the Tower of London.
Wilkes, a master of propaganda even from prison, precipitated a nationwide opposition to the actions of parliament and the king. His reach extended to the American colonies where he was seen as a martyr for liberty. After a short stay in prison, he championed the question that was common to both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, which was: Is the will of the people or the decisions of Parliament, which was elected only by a fraction of the people, supreme? The Society for the Supporters of the Bill of Rights was founded to assist Wilkes in his effort to bring about Parliamentary reform. The group pushed for reforms in Parliament to make it a more representative body to the public.
The English and the Americans were both concerned with the Parliament’s authority to tax without proper representation by certain groups within the body. During this tumultuous period, the king's failures resulted from his tactlessness and his inexperience in political matters. By the end of the decade of the 1760s, George III had learned much about political intrigue though he remained obstinate as ever in his character, which would soon be tested by the rebellious American colonists. In 1770, the new prime minister, Lord North, was able to work with the members of the House of Commons and the king; as a result, a stable government followed for the next 12 years. During North's tenure as prime minister, the dominant issue was how to handle the rebellious colonies in America.
Trouble with the British Colonies in America
Though Britain had emerged victorious from the Seven Years' War, the country was deeply in debt. Members of Parliament and the king agreed that the American colonists must pay for their own defense and for their share of the debt from the war. To ease the debt burden on Britons, in 1765 the Parliament passed the Stamp Act, a measure designed to tax legal and commercial documents in the American colonies. Outraged by what they thought was an unjust tax, the colonists acted decisively and began to boycott British-made goods in protest. To quiet the growing unrest in the colonies, Prime Minister Rockingham repealed the Stamp Act while maintaining Parliament’s right to levy taxes on the colonists.
The chancellor of the exchequer, Charles Townshend, tried a different approach to raise tax revenue and levied duties on imports to the colonies, including tea. To further drive a wedge between the British Crown and her American colonists, an incident occurred in Boston, known as the Boston Massacre, in which five riotous colonists were killed by British soldiers. The relationship continued to deteriorate between Britain and the American colonists. In protest over the tax on tea in 1773, Bostonians destroyed over 300 chests of British tea by dumping them into the Boston Harbor.
In response to the illegal act, Parliament enacted the Coercive Acts, which, among other things, shut down Boston Harbor until the cost of the destroyed tea was reimbursed to the British government. The king was angered at the colonists’ destruction of the tea, believing a harsh punishment was called for. “The die is cast,” he wrote. “The colonies must either triumph or submit.” The Americans responded by forming a legislative body called the First Continental Congress to deal with the rising tide of dissension at home and the increased aggression of the British.
The American Congress issued a petition to the king seeking redress for their grievances. In November of 1775, Parliament convened, and Prime Minister North laid before Parliament the petition from the American Congress. During the session, King George gave a belligerent opening speech from the throne in which he denounced the Americans’ petition as a “most daring spirit of resistance and disobedience to law.”
The talk of war within Parliament roused the elderly and infirm William Pitt from his sick bed to address the members of Parliament. Pitt insisted the American colonists had right on their side, stating, “I trust it is obvious to your lordships that all attempts to impose servitude upon such men, to establish despotism over such a mighty continental nation, must be in vain, must be fatal…We shall be forced ultimately to retract…Let us retract while we can, not when we must.” The king retorted, “I wish nothing but the good…Therefore, everyone who does not agree with me is a traitor and scoundrel.”
Tensions continued to escalate in the colonies over the harsh treatment they received at the hand of the British. The inevitable occurred on April 19, 1775, when gunfire broke out between the colonial militia and British troops in Lexington, Massachusetts, resulting in numerous deaths on both sides. These shots between the British and the colonists marked the opening battle of what would become the American Revolutionary War.
The American Revolutionary War
To squash the rebellious colonists in America, the British sent thousands of their own Royal army troops as well as hired German mercenaries. Just as in America, opinions regarding the American Revolutionary War were mixed. Many of the Protestant dissenters were sympathetic to the American cause and those in the industrial cities such as London, Glasgow, Norwich, and Newcastle objected to the war because it disrupted trade with Britain’s largest trading partner. Other Britons sided with the king, believing the rebellious Americans must be brought into line to preserve the kingdom.
Sentiment toward the war became more patriotic after 1778, when France and Spain became allies of the Americans, spreading fear among the British that they could be drawn into a war on the continent of Europe. By 1779, Britons were growing tired of the war and wanted it to end.
In late 1781 news arrived from the American battlefields that General Charles Cornwallis had surrendered to the American General George Washington at the Battle of Yorktown. When word of Cornwallis' surrender reached Lord North, he was heard to say in disgust, "Oh God, it is all over." This decisive victory by the Americans brought overwhelming pressure on Parliament to end the war. By the spring of 1782, Lord North's majority in the House of Commons evaporated, forcing him to resign as prime minister, against the wishes of King George. Lord Rockingham formed a new administration that was committed to peace with the Americans and sought moderate constitutional reform.
Rockingham's untimely death shortly after taking office transferred leadership to William Petty, the Earl of Shelburne; thus, Petty was stuck with the task of establishing peaceful relationships with the newly formed United States of America and negotiating the terms of the Treaty of Paris.
King George’s Responsibility in the War
The loss of the American colonies forced many Britons to believe their country was in decline and someone must be held accountable. Historians have placed much of the loss to the kingdom of one of the most profitable regions of the British Empire on the shoulders of George III and Lord North. The Americans clearly placed much of the blame on the king for the revolution.
The 1776 Declaration of Independence, drafted by the Second Continental Congress, lists 27 grievances with the king. The grievances ranged from, “He has dissolved representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions of the rights of the people," to "for quartering large bodies of armed troops among us."
Nineteenth-century historians criticized the king in harsh terms, claiming the young king was indoctrinated with archaic and inflated ideas of the power of the monarchy. Further asserting that when he came to power he ousted Whig ministers in favor of Tories, who were more sympathetic to his actions. Additionally, his arbitrary policies toward the colonies during the 1760s provoked the opposition in Britain egged on by John Wilkes, and drove the colonists to revolt. Finally, early historians hold him responsible for the breakup of the British Empire. Recent historians have moderated the harsh positions held by their predecessors, asserting that during the 1760s and 1770s, there was little difference between Whig and Tory ideology, thus negating the effects of the king’s selection of MPs.
A review of royal correspondence shows that the king had little interest in the colonies before 1774. Some of the blame for the colonies breaking from the mother country can clearly be placed at the king's and Lord North's feet; however, most historians feel the split was inevitable with America's growing prosperity and the distance from London. George acknowledged little blame for the loss of the colonies, “I am innocent of the evils that have occurred,” he said. But he was saddened by the events of the war, stating he was “deeply wounded that it should have happened during my reign.” No matter how future historians spin the life of King George III, history will always record that he was the king that lost the American colonies.
Britain After the American Revolutionary War
To the surprise of many, Britain prospered after the split from the American colonies. America remained Britain’s largest trading partner and Britain was not burdened with the cost of protecting and administration of the colonies. Politically, the country was still in turmoil as conservative and liberal forces battled in Parliament. William Petty's ministry failed and was replaced by a coalition led by Lord North and the liberal Whig Charles James Fox. The king disliked the administration and ruthlessly attempted to sabotage it. The Fox-North Coalition proposed a bill to reform the government of British settlements in India, which had been administered by the East India Company.
The India Bill passed the House of Commons and was bound for the House of Lords. The king let it be known that he did not favor the bill and would find disfavor with any peer who supported the bill. In December 1783, the India Bill died in the House of Lords. This failure provided the king with an excuse to dismiss Fox and North, replacing them with the second son of the late Earl of Chatham, William Pitt the Younger.
To the king's pleasure, the general election of 1784 brought Pitt a majority in Parliament. Though the king did not fully endorse Pitt's ideas, he was content just to complain rather than seek his ouster. The king knew that if he lost the prime minister's spot the power vacuum would be filled with Fox—whom the king detested. The younger Pitt turned out to be a good leader for Britain; he was young, confident, focused on leading the nation, and a natural politician. He was elected to Parliament at age 22 and two years later he became Britain's youngest prime minister.
The Prince of Wales
George III was known as a family man, devoted to his wife and children. Unlike his father and grandfather, King George was not known to have a mistress; rather, he was focused on his family and the issues of the state. Of the 13 children of King George and Queen Charlotte that survived childhood, six were girls. Their eldest son was George Augustus Fredrick, Prince of Wales, who by custom and law was destined to become the next king. The king and queen did not approve of their son's behavior, however; he ate and drank too much, and fancied himself a dandy, dressing and acting the part. Queen Charlotte reminded her son to “do justice unto everyone” and display “the highest love, affection, and duty towards the king.” The prince was also more liberal in his politics, associating with the Whigs in the Charles Fox coalition.
Bouts of Mental Illness
1n 1788, King George began to suffer from a serious physical and mental illness. Though he had long suffered from insomnia and stomach ailments, this was different. Modern scholars believe his illness could have been caused by a hereditary blood disease, porphyria. This rare blood disorder results in the overproduction of red pigment in the blood. When too much of this pigment is produced, the urine becomes reddish-purple colored and the entire nervous system, including the brain, is poisoned. Episodes of acute abdominal pain, sensitivity to light, and neurological disturbances are common with the disease.
Today, the symptoms of the disease can be treated, but the disease has no cure. George had a wide array of symptoms that perplexed his doctors: his eyes began to bulge and turned yellow; his urine became purple and the veins on his neck began to protrude; his mind drifted in and out of lucidity—once he announced that the queen had been kidnapped and a great flood would soon destroy London. Seemingly without provocation, at a dinner at Windsor Castle, he attacked his son, Prince George, and tried to smash his head against the wall.
The king was in a deranged state, talking non-stop gibberish, foaming at the mouth, and had deeply bloodshot eyes. The doctors tried everything, including large doses of castor oil to cleanse his system, laudanum, a tranquilizer made of opium to calm his nerves and bleeding, and caustic poultices of Spanish Fly and custard to raise blisters to remove “evil humors” from his body. Nothing seemed to help.
The king’s illness and his inability to perform his duties caused a political firestorm. While Pitt and Fox were wrangling over the details of how the Prince of Wales would act as the king’s regent, the king got miraculously better and returned to his duties. Thus, the crisis was abated. However, the king and the members of Parliament were left to wonder if once again he would descend into madness. The king did suffer brief relapses of the disease in 1801 and 1804, but the episodes were less devastating than the first occurrence.
The French Revolution
The storming of the French prison fortress of Bastille on July 14, 1789, by an angry Parisian mob marked the beginning of the French Revolution. Poverty, widespread social distress, and the revolution in America prompted the French to revolt against their own monarch, King Louis XVI. The French Revolution took Europe by surprise as the French monarchy appeared to be secure.
The British hoped the French Revolution would mean a move for France toward a constitutional monarchy like that of Great Britain. This was not to be as events took an ugly turn. The radical Maximillian Robespierre took control of France in 1792 as part of the Committee of Public Safety. Robespierre began to purge enemies of the revolution from within the country. In what became known as the Reign of Terror, thousands of enemies of the revolution were executed by the guillotine. In Britain, the mass slaughter in the name of democracy proved to King George and William Pitt that democracy begat anarchy. The events in France squashed the Whig plans to curtail the monarch and establish a republic. Radical reform of the Parliament would be put on hold for decades.
In 1793, the French king was marched to the guillotine and beheaded before a cheering mob. That same year, the revolutionary government that controlled France declared war on Great Britain. The violent overthrow of the King of France struck fear throughout the royal families of Europe, who were afraid the revolutionary fervor might spread and they would be the next to fall. The revolution in France did draw the Prince of Wales closer to King George. It was obvious to the young prince that if the principles of French democracy prevailed in Great Britain, he would never inherit the throne. When news of the execution of King Louis XVI reached the British royal court, the prince told the queen, “A species of sentiment toward my father which surpasses all description.” The prince asked for an audience with the king, the better “to express my gratitude to my good and gracious father.” The events in France had a profound effect on the prince, allowing him to break from his more radical consorts and express his support for the king’s ministers.
The Rise of Napoleon Bonaparte in France
Britain faced a new threat in 1799 when Napoleon Bonaparte overthrew the Directory and became dictator of revolutionary France. Napoleon was a brilliant general and his rise to power threatened the nations of Europe. In 1803, Napoleon appeared to be ready to invade Britain, causing great fear among the English. All that stood between the French invaders and the shores of Britain was the British navy. To defend their land, volunteers came forth in record numbers.
In the fall of 1803, King George reviewed over 27,000 volunteer fighters in Hyde Park. He even volunteered to lead the defense of the homeland himself if the French crossed the English Channel. As part of Napoleon's plans to invade England, the French and Spanish naval fleets combined to take control of the English Channel.
The invaders encountered the British fleet under Admiral Lord Nelson in the Atlantic Ocean along the southwest coast of Spain, off Cape Trafalgar. The ensuing battle at sea resulted in heavy loss of ships by the French and Spanish, with minimal damage to the British fleet. The victory confirmed the naval supremacy of Britain and was achieved in part through Captain Nelson's brilliant tactics. Though this massive defeat did not spell the end for Napoleon and his allies, it gave a reprieve to the possibility of an invasion of Britain.
The Catholic Emancipation
At the dawn of the 19th century, other than the war with France, a major problem facing Britain was their acrimonious relationship with Ireland. By 1603, Britain had conquered the island nation and put its citizens under the Crown’s jurisdiction. Ireland, a Catholic nation, never fully accepted the introduction of Protestantism by the English. As head of the Church of England, King George refused to accept Catholics as equal British citizens. During the 17th century, Parliament had enacted laws that left most of the Irish Catholics landless. The treatment of the Irish as second-class citizens by Parliament caused several rebellions to occur in Ireland against English rule. By the end of the 18th century, the war with France, which the English feared would cause an alliance between the French and the Irish, brought the issue of the nature of the relationship between Ireland and Britain to a boiling point. Frustration over the lack of reform among the Catholic majority in Ireland was one of the key factors that led to a rebellion in Ireland in 1798.
The rebels responsible for the uprising were eventually crushed, thwarting their plans for a French invasion of Ireland and complete independence from Britain. In 1800, Britain and Ireland merged to form the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.” Prime Minister Pitt the Younger had promised to include Catholic emancipation in the legislation; however, he was not able to make good on his promise due to the king’s opposition. King George believed that the emancipation of Catholics would violate his Coronation Oath, in which Sovereigns promised to uphold Protestantism. Rather than oppose the king and push for the civil rights of Catholics, Prime Minister Pitts resigned in 1801.
By 1810, King George had become a mere shadow of himself, hard of hearing, nearly blind from cataracts, his body racked with rheumatoid arthritis, and he suffered from increasing spells of insanity—his life was a living death. When his daughter Amelia, with whom he was very close, died at a young age, he sank into a deep depression, from which he could not recover. The following year he turned over his royal duties to his eldest son, the Prince of Wales. Parliament passed the Regency Act in 1811, which granted the king's power to Prince George, who would act as regent for the remainder of King George's days.
King George spent the remainder of his time on this earth at Windsor Castle under the care of Queen Charlotte and the doctors. When George's fits become violent, he was confined to a straight jacket. On January 26, 1820, King George III died, leaving the throne to his son, the Prince of Wales, who was crowned King George IV. For the king's funeral, 30,000 mourners passed by Windsor Castle to pay their respects to the man who had led their nation through six tumultuous decades. After two days of lying in state, the king was buried in St. George’s Chapel.
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© 2021 Doug West