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November 21, 2006

Rehabilitating George III: George III: America's Last King - Jeremy Black

Posted by William Gibson

George III: America's Last King
by Jeremy Black
Pp. xvi + 475. Yale University Press, 2006
Hardback, £25

Poor old George III has had a bad press. Popularly thought to have been mad (even Nigel Hawthorne's sympathetic portrayal in the film The Madness of King George has not been entirely successful in replacing the diagnosis of insanity with porphyria) he is known on one side of the Atlantic as the tyrant against whom the Americans revolted, and on the other as simple "Farmer George".

His biographers have not always been helpful either, the choleric portrait of George on the front cover of John Brooke's 1972 biography captures the King caught between insanity and ill-temper. This makes Jeremy Black's excellent new biography of George III, in the Yale University Press English Monarchs series, especially welcome.

Professor Black, who has previously published studies of Walpole and Pitt the Elder and who is currently writing a study of George II (George III's grandfather), is well placed to write a biography of George III. Besides an encyclopaedic knowledge of eighteenth century politics and foreign policy he is perhaps the British historian with the widest knowledge of national and international manuscript sources for this topic. His biography is, as he claims, sympathetic but not uncritical.

George III succeeded his grandfather in 1760 - his father Frederick, the "Poor Fred" of history, having died in 1751. He came to the throne armed with ideas of the "patriot king", a model of monarchy which stood above sectional interest and was dedicated to national rather than party interest. It is a model of monarchy familiar today but it was new in 1760, when both George's predecessors were convinced Whigs who made no secret of their partisanship, albeit for dynastic and constitutional reasons.

On his accession Pitt tried to guide the young King, though George said he "would give his own orders". His accession speech, however, was revised by Pitt to eliminate George's criticisms of the Seven Years War. Within a year George's support for Bute led to Pitt's resignation and the establishment of a government which, Black shows, witnessed George's supervision of ministers. But for the next decade George's hope to be a "patriot king" largely ran aground on ministerial factionalism.

More often than not George had to put up with ministers he found disagreeable, such as Grenville. Like his ministers, George was not always popular for much of the first half of his reign. In 1771 he was hissed as he rode to Parliament and an apple was thrown into his coach.

What marked George III as different from his grandfather, his great-grandfather and his sons was his happy marriage. Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz was a devoted wife and mother to George's fifteen children - nine boys and six girls. George and Charlotte's marriage was a model of royal wedded bliss only exceeded in the next century by Victoria and Albert. Few of their children were to follow their example however.

George was committed to ideas of duty and merit, although, as Black shows, these ideas were not always as progressive as they might appear today. For George "merit" meant, among other things, rank and social status. It led him to meticulousness in military, naval and ecclesiastical matters and showed that he had a ferocious appetite for detail.

Black claims that George had a good instinct and, even though he lacked his grandfather's martial interests, he acted responsibly towards the armed forces. George's personal abstemiousness and his tendency to avoid extravagance in dress or entertainment made him a sharp contrast to the French monarchy, but unfairly earned him a reputation for dullness. In fact, Black argues, George was a cultured man, certainly his contribution to institutions such as the royal library and the Royal Academy place him on a par with Charles I. Paradoxically George was a shy and reserved man but made himself more visible and approachable than his predecessors. This, claims Black, explains his frequent verbal tick of "what? what?" at the end of sentences which Hawthorne portrayed so well in The Madness of King George. It was an attempt to engage with others and to draw them into conversation.

What of America? As the title suggests, Black sees this as defining issue for George's reign and reputation. He quotes the guide to Liberty Hall in Philadelphia, which accuses George of being a tyrant, and dismisses it as "nonsense". However it is clear that George had an inflexible and aggressive response to his American subjects' rebelliousness.

Black absolves George of ignorance of his colonies; on the contrary the King was well informed about America. But Black, rightly, sees the events of 1774-6 as the culmination of policies begun almost a century before George's accession and the consequence of political rather than just monarchical strategy. Both politicians and monarch misunderstood the dynamics of the colonial position, but Black does not dismiss George's commitment to a military response to disorder in 1776 as foolish or wicked, it was the normal reaction to a challenge to authority in the eighteenth century.

Ironically it was George’s commitment to constitutionalism and his loyalty to his troops which made it so difficult for him to disengage from the war. George may have become a lightening conductor for American criticism of Britain in 1776 and subsequently but he did not deserve the opprobrium heaped on him.

Black writes on George's mental health with the insight to be expected of the spouse of a consultant psychiatrist. He speculates that George's porphyria may have been passed down from his English forebears, through Elizabeth of Bohemia, the daughter of James I, whose daughter, Sophia, was George's great-great-grandmother. Besides fascinating consideration of George's bouts of ill-health, Black considers how George's illness affected attitudes to the monarchy. Public thanksgivings for the King's recovery made it akin to a military victory or other national salvation. The monarchy thus became an institution of national concern and public prayer rather than personal responsibility and ignominy.

Few kings had so tragic a decline as George III, after 1811 he was deaf, blind and infirm. He no longer recognised his family and his only conversations were imaginary ones with Lord North, who had been prime minister forty years earlier. George died in 1820 unaware that his wife had predeceased him by two years, his granddaughter by three years and his fourth son by six days. Pneumonia, "the old man's friend", brought him to his grave, over which only the Duke of York mourned, George IV suffering from pleurisy.

Black's book covers much more than character, America and madness. It is a rich study which ranges widely across politics, wars, revolutions, religion and relations with Europe and Hanover. Black is at his most interesting when he considers George's reputation and how he affected the monarchy - the subject of the final two chapters.

While George's reign may have been one of celebrated heroes (Wolfe, Nelson and Wellington) writers have not treated their King with the same consideration. Historians like John Brooke and John Plumb have disagreed in their verdicts on George - Brooke being much more sympathetic than Plumb. Black broadly sides with Brooke, but does so with reservations and is not blind to George's flaws.

In considering George's impact on the British monarchy, Black sees 1760-1820 as a pivotal era. Born into a world framed by the Glorious Revolution and the Protestant Settlement, George came to accept that compromise on some things was necessary. George gave the monarchy the flexibility that enabled it to survive the challenges of 1828 and 1832. His inflexible commitment to the Church may have been one of the key reasons why historians increasingly see the "long eighteenth century" stretching from 1660-1832, but in other respects he also left the monarchy with a degree of flexibility and permanence in the minds of Britons.

A glance at the bibliography will show that this is a better-researched book, grounded in more archival sources, than earlier biographies. Jeremy Black combines meticulous research with an intelligent but accessible style which will make the book equally rewarding for historians, students and the general reader. George emerges "warts and all" as a sympathetic figure with many positive qualities and by no means the jealous Lear of some studies.

George III's accession may have been the point at which the monarchy passed into the modern world. George may have been the last king of America, but he established the monarchy in Britain as resilient and durable. In Jeremy Black he has a historian and biographer who has done him justice in a splendid biography that will become the standard work on George III.

William Gibson is Professor of Ecclesiastical History and Academic Director of Lifelong Learning at Westminster Institute of Education, Oxford Brookes University. He is the author of The Church of England 1688-1832: Unity and Accord (2001), Enlightenment Prelate, Benjamin Hoadly (1676-1761) (2004) and Religion and the Enlightenment 1600-1800: Conflict and the Rise of Civic Humanism in Taunton (2006). He is also a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and of the Royal Society of Arts.


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oops ... for a brief second I thought you were referring to dubya,our George III, America's Last King, especially when I scanned the words "insane", "religion", and "ignorant" ... however, upon closer examination I found the words "well informed", "compromise", "flexibility", "sympathetic figure", "positive qualities", so I knew it couldn't be the "little emperor without clothes".

Greetings from the colones

Posted by: Old Lemming at November 21, 2006 08:37 PM
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