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George III


Kew Palace

In modern Britain monarchs are supposed to stay out of the hurly burly of politics and sit as a figurehead above it all. Being uninvolved with the business of government they do not take blame when things go wrong, or get praise when things go right. They simply exist as a symbol of stability. In many ways this idea of monarchy began towards the end of George III's reign. During his reign George III was already moving away from an active role in government. The great irony of his reign is that George is famous in history as the monarch named in the United States' Declaration of Independence as the great tyrant who was an unfit prince. In the Declaration of Independence the monarch was presented as solely to blame for pushing America into revolution. George was certainly an ardent supporter of resistance to American independence, and tried to appoint ministers who supported his views. Nevertheless George III was not personally responsible for circumstances which led to the American Revolution, or for British policy in relation to America. Perhaps it made for a more powerful message to present a tyrant king suppressing America rather than a British Parliament. Parliaments by definition were not supposed to be tyrannical. George was used to save Parliament from blame. Instead of being above blame, in this instance he was expected to take it all. But this was a last time people could really enjoy the illusion of a monarch's personal power. After George III no one would be able, even mistakenly, to think in terms of tyrant monarchs.



St James's Palace from St James's Street

George William Frederick, the future George III, was born on 4th June 1738 at a house in St James's Square, London. He was the eldest son of Frederick Prince of Wales, and his wife Princess Augusta. The Prince of Wales had been thrown out of St James's Palace the year before following a row with his father George II over the birth of his first grandchild. George II had insisted that the birth take place at Hampton Court. Simply to be contrary it seems, Frederick dragged his wife, in the later stages of labour, on a night time trip from Hampton Court to St James's Palace. Fortunately mother and baby daughter survived this ordeal, but by the time George was born the following year, his father was banned from all royal palaces, hence the birth of England's future king in a house in St James's Square rented from the Duke of Norfolk. Frederick, Prince of Wales, inspite of this unpromising start to his parenting career, turned out to be a good father, taking a genuine interest in his children. His son George grew up a dutiful boy, educated with his younger brother Edward by tutors at Leicester House, in what is now Leicester Square, and at Cliveden. George's routine was very regular, with school work six days a week, from 8am until 9pm or even 10pm. This daily round continued beyond the early death of George's father in 1751, at the age of 44. With the Prince of Wales dead, George Frederick was now heir to the throne.


In 1756 John Stuart, Lord Bute, was appointed Prince George's tutor. Bute was not widely admired, but his royal pupil idolised him, and was happily guided by Bute through the last stages of his education. In October 1760 George finally got the chance to inherit power, over his own life as well as that of Britain, when George II died. But the idealistic young man was quickly given lessons in the reality of power. Using his right to nominate ministers, George immediately gave Lord Bute a cabinet post, to general consternation. Bute wrote George's first speech as king, which was given to the privy council. Referring to on-going war with France, the speech ended with the words: "... as I mount the throne in the midst of bloody war, I shall endeavour to prosecute it in the manner most likely to bring an honourable and lasting peace" (quoted In George III by Christopher Hibbert). The senior politician William Pitt persuaded the new king to change the words "bloody war" to "expensive but just and necessary war". It might be all very well to put the world to rights in a school room with Lord Bute, but George was in the real world now.


Buckingham Palace

The most pressing business facing the new king was not world peace, but the necessity of finding a queen. George had little personal choice in this decision. A number of German princesses were suggested, and rejected. George's own particular favourite, the beautiful Lady Sarah Lennox was not considered queen material, and also had to be rejected. Saul David in Prince of Pleasure talks of a possible secret wedding in 1759 with Hannah Lightfoot, daughter of a quaker tradesman. If this marriage did take place, the whole thing was soon ended and hushed up. Eventually the choice fell on Princess Sophie Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, generally known as Charlotte. This young lady was seventeen, and importantly had no scandal in her past, or her immediate family. She was a safe choice, who it was hoped could be moulded into the character required. The royal wedding took place at St James's Palace on Sunday 6th September 1761, only a few hours after the bride's arrival in England. Charlotte had been selected for her social standing and safe family background, not for her looks, but George seemed thrilled with his new wife. The couple were crowned king and queen on 22nd September, at Westminster Abbey. Not long after his marriage George decided to buy Buckingham House, feeling that the secluded house down at the end of the Mall would be a more relaxing place to live than St James's Palace, Kensington Palace, or Hampton Court. All of these palaces had been scenes of family stress while George was growing up. So Buckingham House was purchased from Sir Charles Sheffield, and work began on extension and rebuilding, turning Buckingham House into Buckingham Palace. Four libraries were built in which 65,000 books were eventually stored. George used the libraries himself, but also opened them to general visitors on application. Christopher Hibbert suggests that George had always wanted the libraries to be a public rather than private institution. This vision was eventually realised when the library was transferred to the British Museum during the reign of his successor George IV, where it can still be seen today.


Houses of Parliament

King George was generally considered as showing great promise in the early days of his reign. He was friendly in manner, and conscientious in his attention to government business. He also had a feeling for the limits of his role. Christopher Hibbert describes a king defensive of his power to appoint ministers, while aware that once appointed they should be "free to govern" (George III by Christopher Hibbert). Only in exceptional circumstances, such as with William Pitt the Younger's support for catholic emancipation would George interfere. Nevertheless the events that were to lead to George III's portrayal as a tyrant in the Declaration of Independence were now gathering pace. The Seven Years War with France and her allies had made Britain the world's leading colonial power. This brought the problem of how to meet the cost of defending and administering new territories seized. Ten thousand men had to be maintained in America where citizens paid no more than six pence a year in tax, compared with an average in England of twenty five shillings per taxpayer. Prime minister George Grenville proposed a Sugar Act, imposing a duty on imported molasses, and a Stamp Act, a long established practice in Britain, where stamps were purchased to validate all kinds of legal documents. Reforms of customs arrangements were also planned, since it presently cost £8000 to collect £2000 worth of customs duties from American ports. None of these measures were expected to cause problems. But in August 1765 there were protests in Boston. An effigy of the distributor of stamps for Massachusetts was burnt, his house attacked, and his furniture thrown out into the street. A few days later the house of the lieutenant governor of Massachusetts was attacked.




The old London tea dock at Hay's Galleria

Meanwhile back in London William Pitt and other senior politicians were considering their options. The British could choose to send more troops to impose unpopular taxation. This would cost more money, requiring the imposition of more tax, and cause more resentment. Holding onto America when Americans did not want to remain under British rule was completely impractical. Nevertheless the weight of opinion in Parliament, backed by the king, was to fight to hold onto possessions in America. The Americans were not facing a tyrant. Instead they faced a divided Parliament with some arguing for American independence, and others opposing it. And initially it was not the king who was expected to take sole responsibility for the consequences of government action. Various expressions of early discontent from America typically did not focus on the king. Disturbances in support of radical pro-American MP John Wilkes focused their anger on royal advisor Lord Bute, on the prime minister George Grenville, and bizarrely on the king's aged mother, the Princess Dowager. These were the "evil advisors" leading the king astray. When Grenville's tax plans were withdrawn, George III had been proclaimed a hero, and a statue of him was built in New York.


In January 1770 Lord Frederick North, son of the king's former governor, was appointed prime minister, or first lord as the post was then known. By March 1770 the new prime minister received news of disturbances in Boston. These were fueled by the attempted imposition of a tax on tea. All other taxes had been withdrawn, but the tea tax remained as a symbolic gesture of British control. In November 1773 a British ship called Dartmouth entered Boston Harbour with a cargo of tea. A group of men dressed as Mohawk Indians, went to Griffin Wharf during the night climbing aboard Dartmouth and two other tea ships. On all three ships tea chests were broken open with tomahawks, and their contents thrown into the water. Once news of this reached London, the king after some prevarication decided to support the firm line which was Parliament's preferred choice of action. Three generals were sent to America to relieve the current commander, General Gage. By May 1775 John Burgoyne, William Howe and Henry Clinton were all in Boston, faced by thousands of colonists camped around the city. In danger of being cut off on Boston's peninsula, 17th June 1775 saw the Battle of Bunker Hill, in which the American position near Bunker Hill at the head of the peninsula was taken. But this was only achieved at a huge cost to the British. The Americans were learning quickly. Soon after Bunker Hill, George Washington, who had served with the British in the war against France in Canada in 1759, took over as a highly effective commander in chief of the American army.


The Declaration Of Independence - this image is copyright free

Bunker Hill was followed by Boston's evacuation. Then on 4th July 1776 American rebel leaders issued their Declaration of Independence. To firm up resistance for the battle ahead a clear and identifiable enemy was required. A British Parliament where many were sympathetic with the American position was not suitable, and so the tyrannical George III of the Declaration of Independence came into being. Issue of the Declaration was followed by fighting in and around New York, which ended with an American retreat into Pennsylvania. Then George Washington achieved a dramatic victory at Princeton. This was followed by the battle of Germantown on 4th October 1777. General Howe lost so many men at Germantown that he wrote to London stating clearly that if he was not reinforced his position would be impossible. A fortnight later General Burgoyne surrendered at Saratoga. 1778 saw France enter the war on America's side, followed by Spain in 1779. By 19th October 1781 the British army was trapped at Yorktown. In a field surrounded by French cavalry and American soldiers the British threw down their weapons and the War of Independence was over. King George was at first very bitter about the war's outcome, but he came to accept what had happened. John Adams, who was to succeed George Washington as President of the United States, served in 1785 as first American minister in London. Adams records a conversation in which King George said to him: "I will be very free with you. I was the last to consent to the separation; but the separation having been made 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" (passage can be found in volume eight of The Works of John Quincy Adams ed C.F. Adams - quoted by Hibbert in George III P165).

For the writers of the Declaration, George served as a propaganda tool, a symbol of the old world which had to pass. On the other hand though all through the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, King George III also acted as a symbol of stability. 1792 saw Louis XIV executed during the French Revolution, while in Britain the king became ever more popular during his last years. These years were blighted by an illness now identified as porphyria which in the form suffered by George had a host of severe physical and mental symptoms. George spent many dark days shielded from public view at what is now Kew Palace, often restrained in a strait jacket. He recovered, however, and enjoyed the jubilee celebrations on 25th October 1810, marking fifty years on the throne. Theatre audiences sang God Save the King which was now becoming known as the national anthem, and there were celebrations all over the country. Professor Linda Colley points out in her book Britons that the jubilee of 1810 was the first royal event of its kind ever held. While fetes and festivals were used as republican propaganda in France, George and his ministers decided to organise the same kind of events, but focus them on the monarchy.



Windsor Castle

Tragically the death of George's youngest daughter Amelia, aged 27, on 2nd November 1810, coincided with a return of illness. The king retreated into a fantasy world, peopled by many friends and family members who had passed away including his daughter Amelia. His son, George Prince of Wales, was sworn in as regent on 6th February 1811. The queen, exhausted, and frightened by her husband, left him at Windsor Castle and took refuge at nearby Frogmore, spending her time creating gardens which still exist at Frogmore today. The queen's retreat to Frogmore was seen as abandonment by her family, and was to cause much resentment. The queen died isolated and lonely in 1818. By this time it was impossible to tell the king of his wife's death. George himself finally died on 29th January 1820, and was mourned as one of England's most popular kings. Over 30,000 people came to the funeral at St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle. George in his younger days had taken the blame for America's loss. But he ended his days as a king who was above blame.