Early Years and Education
George William Frederick was born in London on June 4, 1738, the son of Frederick, Prince of Wales, and his wife, Augusta of Saxe-Gotha. Frederick died on March 20, 1751, and George II, George’s grandfather, bestowed Frederick’s title upon twelve-year-old George a month later. On October 25, 1760, he succeeded George II as king of Great Britain and Ireland, duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg, and prince-elector of Hanover. He was the third ruler in the royal British house of Hanover, a Germanic dynasty that had come to the English throne in 1714, but the first to be born in England. “Born and educated in this country I glory in the name of Britain,” he exclaimed in his first speech from the throne.
Prior to George’s accession, John Stuart, earl of Bute, had served as his tutor, schooling him in the same Whig principles that would nurture America’s Founding Fathers. The goal was to end factionalized politics by encouraging the monarch to act in the national interest, above the partisan fray, thereby avoiding reliance on oligarchic political parties. But Bute also may have nurtured the prince’s natural tendency to be suspicious, hypercritical, and self-righteous: George’s governor noted “a kind of unhappiness in his Temper” that made the young prince “Sullen & Silent.”
On September 8, 1761, at age twenty-three, George III married seventeen-year-old Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz; his coronation took place two weeks later on September 22. That year he purchased Buckingham House for Charlotte, which in time became the royal palace of choice when they were in London. Theirs was an affectionate and fruitful union, resulting in fifteen children.
Like his wife, George III was of average intellectual capability. He compensated for this by being thorough, at times obsessively so, in whatever he turned his mind to: book and art collecting, music, astronomy, botany, and clocks and other technology. Such pursuits suggest the importance to him of order and regularity. Unlike his predecessors, who had been born in Hanover and raised as Lutherans, George III was a devout and sincere Anglican. His Christian faith shaped a strong sense of duty and high moral standards to which he held his friends and family members.
Seven Years’ War
During George III’s reign, Britain was a constitutional monarchy. As such, it was ruled by a cabinet or ministerial government. The term “the Crown” functionally referred to powerful men, acting in the name of king, who controlled parliamentary factions. Throughout the eighteenth century the direct political power of the monarch declined, a development at work since the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the passage of the English Bill of Rights, which limited monarchical power, in 1689.
When he came to the throne, George III inherited a ministry that had started the Seven Years’ War, a global conflict with France and Spain, among other powers (the fighting in North America was known as the French and Indian War). The government had borrowed huge sums of money to finance the conflict, which provoked discomfort among the English about the unprecedented level of government debt. Part way through the war, in 1757, a Whig ministry formed under Thomas Pelham-Holles, the duke of Newcastle. Guided by William Pitt (the elder), the king’s first government won the war, but at a high fiscal and political cost.
It was Pitt, seeking the opposing party’s support for the Whig ministry, as much as George III, who drew the Tories—Royalist supporters—into the political center after the king’s accession. But rather than contributing to the goal of eradicating the dominance of politics by the political parties, this development led to increased ministerial instability, which was exacerbated when George III appointed his friend and former tutor Bute prime minister in 1762.
Though he was a dear friend of the king’s, Bute was wildly unpopular with the public, in part because of his rumored (but unlikely) affair with the dowager princess of Wales. His poor health made it difficult for him to focus on his position, and he found it stressful to be in the public eye. He was replaced in 1763 by George Grenville, who introduced the Stamp Act (1765). The act taxed printed materials used in the colonies and was meant to help offset the large cost of the war and of maintaining peace in its aftermath. Grenville and the king saw eye-to-eye on many issues, including American policy and the prosecution of John Wilkes, a member of Parliament who had repeatedly insulted the king in his radical newspaper, The North Briton. But their personalities clashed, and Grenville fell from power in 1765. His administration gave way to a ministry led by Charles Watson-Wentworth, marquess of Rockingham.
The king firmly believed in choosing his own chief ministers, and it was his practice to let his cabinet formulate policy while counseling his ministers to be firm and resolute. But George III was ambivalent regarding the political firestorm provoked by the Stamp Act. Three American colonies, including Virginia, had sent petitions protesting the legislation; the House of Commons rejected them all, an action that was in turn condemned by the House of Burgesses in the Virginia Resolves (1765). The king favored modifying the act rather than enforcing or completely repealing it, which left parliamentarians who looked to him for their cue perplexed. To resolve the imbroglio, Rockingham forced the king to choose between repeal and enforcement, and, indeed, George III then urged wavering members of the House of Lords to support repeal. The colonists rejoiced at the news, even erecting a statue of the king in a New York City park. After war with the Americans broke out he was to regret his decision, opining in 1779 that this initial capitulation to American resistance was the first step down the path to revolution.
Rockingham’s tenure, like that of his predecessors, was brief. The king dismissed him in 1766 and replaced him with Pitt, who had accepted a peerage and rose from the House of Commons to the House of Lords as the earl of Chatham. George III’s choice of Pitt, a critic of British taxation of Americans, to lead his government suggests the American problem did not yet loom large in royal calculation. His appointment did not result in the unified government for which George III had hoped: in the move to the House of Lords, Pitt lost the popularity and political influence he’d enjoyed as a member of the House of Commons, became ill, and suffered a nervous breakdown.
The Pitt government marked a turning point in the king’s posture during the American crisis. Prior to 1767 George III had been fundamentally passive, informed about policy by prime ministers rather than helping form it; now he became more involved. In 1767 the Revenue Act, drawn up by Charles Townshend, chancellor of the exchequer, proposed duties on various goods, in particular, tea imported by the East India Company. Several colonies, including Virginia, boycotted the trade goods enumerated in the Townshend duties. The cabinet responded to the crisis by proposing to delete the Townshend duties for colonies like Virginia, which provided revenue for colonial administration, but the king commented that it “would not be proper” given the offensive criticism of the British government in the Virginia Resolves. After Augustus FitzRoy, duke of Grafton (1735–1811), replaced Pitt in 1768, George III encouraged Grafton’s cabinet to reject the prime minister’s proposal to repeal American taxes completely.
From the British metropolitan perspective, a financially sound imperial policy would maintain the fragile peace with France and Spain secured in 1763. But the move toward imperial centralization as the solution to both European and global situations came at just the moment many influential Americans wanted more freedom from Britain, not less, and the shifting British policies alienated the colonists further. In 1768 a new office, Secretary of State for the Colonies, was created to focus on American issues.
It was in this context that in 1770 the king asked Frederick North, earl of Guilford to form a government. Lord North’s ministry, as measured by longevity, was better than any during the previous decade. He remained prime minister for twelve years, both because he and George III remained on good terms, but also because divisive issues such as the Wilkes affair and the Falklands crisis with Spain had faded away. During North’s tenure George III moved away from the more active role he had assumed earlier.
North would have preferred a complete repeal of the Townshend duties, but Parliament pushed for a firm hand. The Boston Tea Party, one response to the Tea Act of 1773, led to further hardening of the parliamentary opposition regarding a compromise with the American colonists: the series of laws known as the Coercive or Intolerable Acts. The king supported taking a tough stand toward the colonists, especially in light of the First Continental Congress‘s intransigence regarding Parliament’s right to legislate for the colonies: “The dye is now cast,” he wrote to North in 1774. “The colonies must either submit or triumph. I do not wish to come to severer measures, but we must not retreat.”
Some historians believe that the king was unable to recognize the impact the Intolerable Acts would have on the colonists. George III was hardly a belligerent; his desire for a quick end to the Seven Years’ War had established his reputation as a peacemaker, and he believed throughout the American Revolution that “a majority of the people of America” still wanted to be British subjects. He ultimately accepted the North cabinet’s more conciliatory policy to exempt colonies that provided revenues for their civil and military affairs from British taxation. But after the outbreak of armed conflict at the battles of Lexington and Concord, George III entered into the cabinet’s discussion of strategy and played a critical role in encouraging North to remain in office when the prime minister repeatedly wished to resign.
In July 1775, the conservative Pennsylvania delegate John Dickinson persuaded the Second Continental Congress to send George III what became known as the Olive Branch Petition, asking him to intervene in Parliament on the colonists’ behalf. The king refused to receive the petition and in August proclaimed that the Americans “were engaged in open and avowed rebellion.” His announcement solidified the growing perception among rebelling colonists that their enemy was not Parliament or the king’s ministry, but rather the king himself. When Congress issued the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the document charged George III with violating the colonists’ rights, calling him “unfit to be the ruler of a free people.” Upon hearing the Declaration read aloud, George Washington‘s troops and a group of civilians tore down the statue of George III that had been erected in New York City after the Stamp Act repeal.
Policy and personality combined to form the king’s attitude toward the American conflict. In 1777 he wrote to Lord North that “the too great leniency of this country increased their pride and encouraged them to rebel,” a stance that reflects his unwillingness to compromise and inability to see things from another’s point of view. But he also deeply believed that if one part of the empire “cast off its dependency then the others will infallibly follow,” and that failing to take a strong stand against the Americans would weaken Britain in the eyes of her European competitors—so his understanding of his nation in the context of global affairs cannot be discounted.
Following the British surrender at the Battles of Saratoga, France and then Spain entered the war in support of America. This prompted heated debate in Parliament over whether to increase troop strength overseas, move the fighting from land to sea, or withdraw from the conflict altogether. George III still hoped for victory until the debacle at Yorktown in October 1781. Following a House of Commons vote to suspend military operations in North America, Lord North almost lost a vote of no confidence in the House of Commons. On March 20, 1782, he announced his resignation.
George reluctantly accepted the new government of Lord Rockingham and William Petty, earl of Shelburne, which made peace with the American rebels. But the administration collapsed over the terms of the Treaty of Paris, which granted the Americans more territory than had been fought over and failed to protect Loyalists. Rockingham died suddenly on July 1, 1782, and in 1783 North returned in alliance with the duke of Portland and Charles James Fox. The king despised Fox, even drafting an abdication speech in protest of the current government, but he never delivered it. Instead he dismissed Fox and North and appointed William Pitt (the younger) as prime minister. Pitt’s victory in the 1784 general election strengthened the government’s position in Parliament; simultaneously, the end of the American conflict removed a divisive political issue. Even the king accepted the outcome of events, telling John Adams, the first ambassador of a sovereign America, that he desired to “meet the friendship of the United States as an independent power.”
In the 1780s George III experienced the first signs of an illness—possibly porphyria, a genetic disease that can cause mental disturbances—that would plague him for the remainder of his days. During this decade political lines were redrawn between moderate Whigs and Tories, who together supported Pitt, and the more radical Whig opposition, led by Fox. In 1788 and 1789 the king’s mental condition and health were so unstable that the parties fought over whether his son the Prince of Wales should become regent; the king’s recovery put an end to the crisis.
Early in the 1790s war with revolutionary France broke out; this in turn encouraged the Irish Rebellion of 1798. George III played an important role in shaping the outcome of the latter crisis, advocating suppression of the rebellion and then unification of the parliaments of Britain and Ireland. The Acts of Union of 1800 did just that, creating the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Shortly thereafter, Pitt resigned because of a disagreement with the king over the political emancipation of Roman Catholics. Pitt had supported emancipation as a concession to Ireland; the king felt that granting it would be in violation of his coronation oath to protect the Church of England.
Earlier historians have argued that George III was trying to turn the clock back and reestablish monarchical authority lost to Parliament following the Glorious Revolution. Examining his role in determining policy regarding the American colonies, it is now clear that until the revolution the king backed his governments rather than dictating to them. George III defended parliamentary authority over the British empire by pushing his leading ministers to win the war. In both cases he had deep support in Parliament for his actions. Although he wished to restore the monarch’s power to determine his ministers, once he chose them they were allowed a free hand to govern the kingdom.
From 1780 to 1810 the king became the symbol for a national revival and robust patriotism that only deepened following the loss of America and the rise of conflict with revolutionary and Napoleonic France. In these years “God Save the King” (ca. 1745) pushed out “Rule Britannia” (1740) as the national anthem. The public saw him as Farmer George, a devout family man with simple tastes and a keen interest in agriculture. In reality, his strict morals and asceticism were often a source of conflict between the king and his family, especially his son George, Prince of Wales, whom he viewed as a profligate.
The king’s Golden Jubilee (the fiftieth year of his reign) was popularly celebrated in 1809, but soon afterward George III’s mental state collapsed. This was probably provoked by the death of his favorite daughter, Amelia, from tuberculosis in 1810. He completely lost his sight and hearing; one of his doctors commented that “he appears to be living in another world and has lost almost all interest in the concerns of this.” On February 5, 1811, he was declared unfit to rule and his son George was appointed as regent. George III died—deaf, blind, and lame—on January 29, 1820; he was buried two weeks later in a private ceremony in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle.