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George III

(1738—1820) king of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and king of Hanover


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King of Great Britain and Ireland, b. 24 May 1738, s. of Frederick, prince of Wales, and Augusta; acc. 25 Oct. 1760; m. Charlotte, da. of Karl Ludwig, duke of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, 8 Sept. 1761; issue: George, Frederick, William, Charlotte, Edward, Augusta, Elizabeth, Ernest, Augustus, Adolphus, Mary, Sophia, Octavius, Alfred, Amelia; d. 29 Jan. 1820; bur. Windsor.

George III was twelve when his father died in 1751, and was brought up by his mother, princess Augusta, and her adviser, Lord Bute. They formed an isolated group, at odds with the political establishment, and with a tendency towards self-congratulation and censoriousness: ‘he has rather too much attention to the sins of his neighbour’, wrote one of the prince's governors. At his accession, the duchess of Northumberland thought him tall and robust, with fair hair and blue eyes, dignified and pleasant, and Horace Walpole echoed the description, writing: ‘his countenance florid and good natured, his manner graceful and obliging.’ He had important advantages: Jacobite pretensions were no longer a threat, and he was the first Hanoverian monarch to be born in Britain, to which he referred in his first public speech. From his father he took over the ambition to be a ‘patriot’ king, ruling without party prejudice, which made it easier for the Tories, in opposition since 1714, to come back into royal favour. By contrast, two of his earliest decisions created problems. He was bitterly opposed to the Seven Years War and determined to wind it up; this would cause trouble with Pitt, the great war minister. Secondly, he insisted on bringing forward his tutor, Lord Bute, for whose judgement he had vast, but misplaced, admiration. First, it was necessary to find a queen. After a considerable search, George and Bute settled on princess Charlotte, aged seventeen. The marriage was a great success, and George's pious wish that it should be fruitful was abundantly granted with fifteen children.

A peace treaty with France was negotiated, but domestic peace proved more difficult. Pitt took himself into opposition in 1761, and was joined in 1762 by Newcastle. Worse, Bute, the victim of mountainous abuse as a Scot in newspapers, ballads, and cartoons, decided in 1763 that he could not carry on. In the North Briton, John Wilkes took up his pen to argue that the liberties of the subject were in danger. For another six years, the king rang ministerial changes without much success in the attempt to find a stable and effective government.

The seeds of even greater conflict were sown in 1764 when Grenville, a minister whom the king disliked intensely, tried to raise revenue in America by means of a Stamp Act. Though the measure was repealed by Lord Rockingham in 1766, good relations with the colonies did not return, and there was further escalation in 1767 when Charles Townshend introduced port duties in America. In 1770 the king found in Lord North a minister who was both congenial and competent, but fighting broke out at Lexington in April 1775. In the American Declaration of Independence, George was denounced as a tyrant unfit to be the king of a free people, but, in practice, he was merely supporting ministerial and parliamentary policy. The recognition of American independence was conceded by George with great reluctance and he drafted an abdication speech, which was never delivered. From the resignation of North to the advent of Pitt the younger, there were a series of political crises which agitated the king greatly. They coincided with distress in his family life. The king's eldest son, George, was now old enough to be extremely troublesome. In 1781, the king was obliged to buy back love-letters which the prince had written to his mistress, ‘Perdita’ Robinson. The prince's political mentor was Charles Fox, whom the king hated. In 1783, when Fox tried to obtain an increased allowance for the prince, already heavily in debt, the king responded with ‘indignation and astonishment’. In 1785, the prince made a secret marriage to Maria Fitzherbert, a catholic, thereby forfeiting his right to the throne. These accumulated disasters may have contributed to the king's first period of insanity, which lasted for three months over the winter of 1788/9. His behaviour was at times extremely violent, his conversation indecent, and his doctors resorted to a strait-jacket. The king's illness triggered a political crisis since the prince, if given full powers as regent, would certainly use them to turn out Pitt and bring in Fox. In the event, George's recovery ushered in another twelve years for Pitt as first minister.

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Subjects: British History.


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