Who Was George III?
A member of the Hanover dynasty, which ruled England for almost two centuries, George III was the King of Great Britain during some of the nation’s most tumultuous years, including those of the American Revolutionary War. In 1788, illness brought on a mental breakdown, but he briefly recovered, regaining popularity and admiration for his virtue and steady leadership through the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. Ultimately, recurring bouts of insanity led Parliament to enact regency to his son, and George III lived his final years with sporadic periods of lucidity, until his death in 1820.
Born prematurely on June 4, 1738, to Frederick, Prince of Wales, and Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, the sickly prince wasn’t expected to live and was baptized the same day. At the time, it seemed unlikely that George William Frederick would one day become King George III, the longest-ruling monarch English before Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II.
Young George was educated by private tutors, and by age 8 he could speak English and German and would soon learn French. Instructed in a wide range of subjects, he showed a particular interest in the natural sciences. Acutely shy and reserved in his youth, George was strongly influenced by his primary mentor, Scottish nobleman John Stuart, Third Earl of Bute, who helped the young prince overcome his shyness and advised him on many personal and political matters.
When George’s father died in 1751, George inherited the title Duke of Edinburgh. Three weeks later the 12-year-old was made Prince of Wales by his grandfather, George II, putting him in line to inherit the throne. When George turned 18, his grandfather invited him to live at St. James Place, but Lord Bute convinced him to stay at home to live with his domineering mother, who instilled in him her strict moral values.
Shy and Inexperienced, George Becomes King
In 1760, George's grandfather suddenly died, and the 22-year-old became king. A year later, he married Charlotte Sophia of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Though wed on the day they met, the couple enjoyed a 50-year marriage and had 15 children together.
But in addition to the crown, George inherited an ongoing world war, religious strife and changing social issues. Since 1754, Britain and France had been engaged in a border skirmish along the frontier in North America that began when a British colonial militia, let by Lieutenant George Washington, attacked French Fort Duquesne. During the resulting Seven Years' War, George III was closely advised by his prime minister Lord Bute, who kept the young, inexperienced monarch isolated from key members of Parliament. However, due to his Scottish background and belief in King George III's divine right to rule, Bute was maligned by other members of Parliament and eventually forced to resign due to strong criticism from the press and his purported involvement in a sex scandal involving George’s mother.
In 1763, George Grenville succeeded Bute as King George’s prime minister. With the Empire deeply in debt at the end of the Seven Years' War, Grenville looked to the American colonies as a source of revenue. He reasoned that since the colonies had benefited from the outcome of the war and British troops were needed in North America to protect them, they should pay for it. King George agreed with the reasoning and supported the Sugar Act of 1764 and the Stamp Act in 1765. But in the colonies, the Stamp Act was met with outrage, contempt and, for some tax collectors, violence. Claims of “no taxation without representation!” rang out in Boston, Massachusetts, and eventually other colonial cities.
The American Revolution
Though the Stamp Act was repealed, Parliament passed the Declaratory Act in 1766, stating the colonies were subordinate to Parliament and subject to British Law. Parliament then proceeded to pass more tax laws. As the protests in the colonies spread, Lords Edmund Burke and William Pitt the Elder expressed opposition to taxing the colonies as impractical, arguing that the distance and difficulty in making collections was too great. Amidst all this political dissent, King George III pushed Parliament to pass the Royal Marriages Act. A devout Anglican, the king was appalled by the behavior of his adulterous brother, Prince Henry, and the act made it illegal for a member of the royal family to marry without permission of the monarch.
By 1775, many colonists had had enough of Parliament’s overreach. Inspired by Enlightenment philosophers John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau, the colonists formed the Second Continental Congress and crafted their sentiments in a declaration of independence. Though Parliament conceived and passed the laws, the king was the exclusive target of the colonists’ grievances. By 1779, it was apparent to many British officials that the war was a lost cause, though the king continued to insist it had to be fought to avoid rewarding disobedience. On October 19, 1781, combined French and American forces surrounded the British Army at Yorktown, ending any chance for a British victory. The Treaty of Paris in 1783 secured America’s independence.
Glory and Madness
King George III never fully recovered—politically or personally—from the loss of the American colonies. He brooded over the loss of the colonies for many years and fell out of favor with the British public for extending the war. Yet, in 1783, he was able to turn disaster into triumph at home when he opposed a plan by powerful ministers in Parliament to reform the East India Company. Though the king originally supported reform, he saw this scheme as a way to further Parliament’s corruption. He let it be known that any minister who supported this plan would become his enemy. The bill was ultimately defeated, and King George regained some of his popularity with the British people as a result.
In 1788, however, the king experienced an episode of insanity, believed to be caused by a genetic disease, porphyria, though some historians dispute this diagnosis. Though the disease would eventually return, George the III recovered the following year and, in partnership with his prime minister William Pitt the Younger, navigated another war with France, Napoleon’s rise and fall and the incorporation of Ireland into the United Kingdom.
By 1811, personal family tragedies and the pressures of ruling caused King George’s insanity to return. Feeble and blind, it was apparent that the king could no longer fulfill his duties. Parliament passed the Regency Act and, ultimately, the fate of the empire fell on his oldest son, Prince George, who was placed in the unenviable position of having to govern according to the increasingly erratic will of his father. George III experienced brief intervals of lucidity until his death at Windsor Castle on January 29, 1820.
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