George was born in London at Norfolk House. He was the grandson of King George II, and the son of Frederick, Prince of Wales, and Augusta of Saxe-Gotha. As Prince George was born two months premature and was thought unlikely to survive, he was baptised the same day by Thomas Secker, who was both Rector of St James’s and the Bishop of Oxford. One month later, he was publicly baptised at Norfolk House, again by Secker. His godparents were the King of Sweden (for whom Lord Baltimore stood proxy), his uncle the Duke of Saxe-Gotha (for whom Lord Carnarvon stood proxy) and his great-aunt the Queen of Prussia (for whom Lady Charlotte Edwin stood proxy).
George grew into a healthy, but reserved and shy, child. The family moved to Leicester Square, where George and his younger brother Prince Edward, Duke of York and Albany, were educated together by private tutors. Family letters show that he could read and write in both English and German, as well as comment on political events of the time, by the age of eight. He was the first British monarch to study science systematically. Apart from chemistry and physics, his lessons included astronomy, mathematics, French, Latin, history, music, geography, commerce, agriculture and constitutional law, along with sporting and social accomplishments such as dancing, fencing, and riding. His religious education was wholly Anglican.
George’s grandfather, King George II, disliked the Prince of Wales and took little interest in his grandchildren. However, in 1751 the Prince of Wales died unexpectedly from a lung injury, and George became heir apparent to the throne. He inherited one of his father’s titles and became the Duke of Edinburgh. Now more interested in his grandson, three weeks later the King created George Prince of Wales. (The title is not automatically acquired.)
In the spring of 1756, as George approached his eighteenth birthday, the King offered him a grand establishment at St James’s Palace, but George refused the offer, guided by his mother and her confidante, Lord Bute, who would later serve as Prime Minister. George’s mother, now the Dowager Princess of Wales, preferred to keep George at home where she could imbue him with her strict moral values.
In 1759, George was smitten with Lady Sarah Lennox, sister of the Duke of Richmond, but Lord Bute advised against the match and George abandoned his thoughts of marriage. “I am born for the happiness or misery of a great nation,” he wrote, “and consequently must often act contrary to my passions.” Nevertheless, attempts by the King to marry George to Princess Sophia Caroline of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel were resisted by him and his mother; Sophia married the Margrave of Bayreuth instead.
The following year, George succeeded to the Crown when his grandfather, George II, died suddenly on 25 October 1760, two weeks before his 77th birthday. The search for a suitable wife intensified. On 8 September 1761, the King married in the Chapel Royal, St James’s Palace, Duchess Sophia Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, whom he met on their wedding day. A fortnight later, both were crowned at Westminster Abbey. George remarkably never took a mistress (in contrast with his grandfather and his sons), and the couple enjoyed a genuinely happy marriage. They had 15 children—nine sons and six daughters. In 1762, George purchased Buckingham House (on the site now occupied by Buckingham Palace) for use as a family retreat. His other residences were Kew and Windsor Castle. St. James’s Palace was retained for official use. He did not travel extensively, and spent his entire life in southern England. In the 1790s, annual holidays were taken at Weymouth, Dorset, which he popularised as one of the first seaside resorts in England.
Although George’s accession was at first welcomed by politicians of all parties, the first years of George’s reign were marked by political instability, largely generated as a result of disagreements over the Seven Years’ War. George was perceived as favouring Tory ministers, which led to his denunciation by the Whigs as an autocrat. On George’s accession, the Crown lands produced relatively little income; most revenue was generated through taxes and excise duties. George surrendered the Crown Estate to Parliamentary control in return for a Civil List annuity for the support of his household and the expenses of Civil Government. Claims that George used the income to reward supporters with bribes and gifts are disputed by historians who say such claims “rest on nothing but falsehoods put out by disgruntled opposition”. Debts amounting to over £3 million over the course of George’s reign were paid by Parliament, and the Civil List annuity was increased from time to time. George aided the Royal Academy with large grants from his private funds, and may have donated more than half of his personal income to charity. Of George’s art collection, the two most notable purchases are Vermeer’s Lady at the Virginals and a set of Canalettos, but it is as a collector of books that he is best remembered. The King’s Library was open and available to scholars and was the foundation of a new national library.
In May 1762, the incumbent Whig ministry of the Duke of Newcastle was replaced with one led by the Scottish Tory Lord Bute. Bute’s opponents worked against him by spreading the calumny that he was having an affair with the King’s mother, and by exploiting anti-Scottish prejudices amongst the English. John Wilkes, a Member of Parliament, published The North Briton, which was both inflammatory and defamatory in its condemnation of Bute and the government. Wilkes was eventually arrested for seditious libel but he fled to France to escape punishment; he was expelled from the House of Commons, and found guilty in absentia of blasphemy and libel. In 1763, after concluding the Peace of Paris which ended the war, Lord Bute resigned, allowing the Whigs under George Grenville to return to power.
Later that year, the Royal Proclamation of 1763 placed a boundary upon the westward expansion of the American colonies. The Proclamation aimed to force colonists to negotiate with the Native Americans, and therefore to reduce the costly frontier warfare that had erupted over land conflicts. While the Proclamation Line, as it came to be known, did not bother the majority of settled farmers, it was unpopular with a vocal minority of Americans and ultimately contributed to conflict between the colonists and the British government. With the American colonists generally unburdened by British taxes, the government found it increasingly difficult to pay for the defence of the colonies against native uprisings and the possibility of French incursions. In 1765, Grenville introduced the Stamp Act, which levied a stamp duty on every document in the British colonies in North America. Since newspapers were printed on stamped paper, those most affected by the introduction of the duty were the most effective at producing propaganda opposing the tax. Meanwhile, the King had become exasperated at Grenville’s attempts to reduce the King’s prerogatives, and tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade William Pitt the Elder to accept the office of Prime Minister. After a brief illness, which may have presaged his illnesses to come, George settled on Lord Rockingham to form a ministry, and dismissed Grenville.
Lord Rockingham, with the support of Pitt and the King, repealed Grenville’s unpopular Stamp Act, but his government was weak and he was replaced in 1766 by Pitt, whom George created Earl of Chatham. The actions of Lord Chatham and George III in repealing the Act were so popular in America that statues of them both were erected in New York City. Lord Chatham fell ill in 1767, and the Duke of Grafton took over the government, although he did not formally become Prime Minister until 1768. That year, John Wilkes returned to England, stood as a candidate in the general election, and came top of the poll in the Middlesex constituency. His election sparked riots in London, largely the result of economic distress, and Wilkes was again expelled from Parliament. Wilkes was re-elected and expelled twice more, before the House of Commons resolved that his candidature was invalid and declared the runner-up as the victor. Grafton’s government disintegrated in 1770, allowing the Tories led by Lord North to return to power.
George was deeply devout and spent hours in prayer, but his piety was not shared by his brothers. George was appalled by what he saw as their loose morals. In 1770, his brother Prince Henry, Duke of Cumberland and Strathearn, was exposed as an adulterer, and the following year Cumberland married a young widow, Anne Horton. The King considered her inappropriate as a royal bride: she was from a lower social class and German law barred any children of the couple from the Hanoverian succession. George insisted on a new law that essentially forbade members of the Royal Family from legally marrying without the consent of the Sovereign. The subsequent bill was unpopular in Parliament, including among George’s own ministers, but passed as the Royal Marriages Act 1772. Shortly afterward, another of George’s brothers, Prince William Henry, Duke of Gloucester and Edinburgh, revealed he had been secretly married to Maria, Countess Waldegrave, the illegitimate daughter of Sir Edward Walpole. The news confirmed George’s opinion that he had been right to introduce the law: Maria was related to his political opponents. Neither lady was ever received at court.
Lord North’s government was chiefly concerned with discontent in America. To assuage American opinion most of the custom duties were withdrawn, except for the tea duty, which in George’s words was “one tax to keep up the right [to levy taxes]”. In 1773, the tea ships moored in Boston Harbor were boarded by colonists and the tea thrown overboard, an event that became known as the Boston Tea Party. In Britain, opinion hardened against the colonists, with Chatham now agreeing with North that the destruction of the tea was “certainly criminal”. With the clear support of Parliament Lord North introduced measures, which were called the Intolerable Acts by the colonists: the Port of Boston was shut down and the constitution of Massachusetts was altered so that the upper house of the legislature was appointed by the Crown instead of elected by the lower house. Up to this point, in the words of Professor Peter Thomas, George’s “hopes were centred on a political solution, and he always bowed to his cabinet’s opinions even when sceptical of their success. The detailed evidence of the years from 1763 to 1775 tends to exonerate George III from any real responsibility for the American Revolution.” Though the Americans characterised George as a tyrant, in these years he acted as a constitutional monarch supporting the initiatives of his ministers.
American Revolutionary War
The American Revolutionary War began when armed conflict between British regulars and colonial militiamen broke out in New England in April 1775. After a year of fighting, the colonies declared their independence from the Crown as “free and independent States” in July 1776, and listed grievances against the British King, legislature, and populace. Among George’s other offences, the Declaration charged, “He has abdicated Government here … He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.” The gilded equestrian statue of George III in New York was pulled down. The British captured the city in 1776, but the grand strategic plan of invading from Canada failed with the surrender of the British Lieutenant-General John Burgoyne at the Battle of Saratoga.
George III is often accused of obstinately trying to keep Great Britain at war with the revolutionaries in America, despite the opinions of his own ministers. In the words of the Victorian author George Trevelyan, the King was determined “never to acknowledge the independence of the Americans, and to punish their contumacy by the indefinite prolongation of a war which promised to be eternal.” The King wanted to “keep the rebels harassed, anxious, and poor, until the day when, by a natural and inevitable process, discontent and disappointment were converted into penitence and remorse”. However, more recent historians defend George by saying in the context of the times no king would willingly surrender the bulk of his dominions, and his conduct was far less ruthless than contemporary monarchs in Europe. After Saratoga, both Parliament and the British people were in favour of the war; recruitment ran at high levels and although political opponents were vocal, they remained a small minority. With the setbacks in America, Lord North asked to transfer power to Lord Chatham, whom he thought more capable, but George refused to do so; he suggested instead that Chatham serve as a subordinate minister in Lord North’s administration. Chatham refused to cooperate, and died later in the same year. In 1778, France (Britain’s chief rival) signed a treaty of friendship with the newly independent American States. Great Britain was then at war with France, and in 1779 it was also at war with Spain. Lord Gower and Lord Weymouth both resigned from the government. Lord North again requested that he also be allowed to resign, but he stayed in office at George III’s insistence. Opposition to the costly war was increasing, and in June 1780 contributed to disturbances in London known as the Gordon riots.
In 1781, the news of Lord Cornwallis’s surrender at the Siege of Yorktown reached London; Lord North’s parliamentary support ebbed away and he resigned the following year. The King drafted an abdication notice, which was never delivered, finally accepted the defeat in North America, and authorised the negotiation of a peace. The Treaties of Paris, by which Britain recognised the independence of the American states and returned Florida to Spain, were ratified in 1783. When John Adams was appointed American Minister to Britain in 1785, George had become resigned to the new relationship between his country and the States. He told Adams, “I was the last to consent to the separation; but the separation having been made and having become 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.”
With the collapse of Lord North’s ministry in 1782, the Whig Lord Rockingham became Prime Minister for the second time, but died within months. The King then appointed Lord Shelburne to replace him. Charles James Fox, however, refused to serve under Shelburne, and demanded the appointment of the Duke of Portland. In 1783, the House of Commons forced Lord Shelburne from office and his government was replaced by the Fox-North Coalition. The Duke of Portland became Prime Minister, with Fox and Lord North, as Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary respectively.
The King disliked Fox intensely, both for his politics as well as his character; he thought Fox was unprincipled and a bad influence on the Prince of Wales. George III was distressed at having to appoint ministers not of his liking, but the Portland ministry quickly built up a majority in the House of Commons, and could not be displaced easily. He was further dismayed when the government introduced the India Bill, which proposed to reform the government of India by transferring political power from the Honourable East India Company to Parliamentary commissioners. Although the King actually favoured greater control over the Company, the proposed commissioners were all political allies of Fox. Immediately after the House of Commons passed it, George authorised Lord Temple to inform the House of Lords that he would regard any peer who voted for the bill as his enemy. The bill was rejected by the Lords; three days later, the Portland ministry was dismissed, and William Pitt the Younger was appointed Prime Minister, with Temple as his Secretary of State. On 17 December 1783, Parliament voted in favour of a motion condemning the influence of the monarch in parliamentary voting as a “high crime” and Temple was forced to resign. Temple’s departure destabilised the government, and three months later the government lost its majority and Parliament was dissolved; the subsequent election gave Pitt a firm mandate.
George III lived for 81 years and 239 days and reigned for 59 years and 96 days: both his life and his reign were longer than those of any of his predecessors. Only George’s granddaughter Queen Victoria exceeded his record, though Elizabeth II has lived longer.
George III was dubbed “Farmer George” by satirists, at first mocking his interest in mundane matters rather than politics but later to contrast his homely thrift with his son’s grandiosity and to portray him as a man of the people. Under George III, who was passionately interested in agriculture, the British Agricultural Revolution reached its peak and great advances were made in fields such as science and industry. There was unprecedented growth in the rural population, which in turn provided much of the workforce for the concurrent Industrial Revolution. George’s collection of mathematical and scientific instruments is now housed in the Science Museum (London); he funded the construction and maintenance of William Herschel’s forty-foot telescope, which was the biggest ever built at the time. Herschel discovered the planet Uranus, which he at first named after George, in 1781.
George III himself hoped that “the tongue of malice may not paint my intentions in those colours she admires, nor the sycophant extoll me beyond what I deserve”, but in the popular mind George III has been both demonised and praised. While very popular at the start of his reign, by the mid-1770s George had lost the loyalty of revolutionary American colonists, though about half of the colonists remained loyal. The grievances in the United States Declaration of Independence were presented as “repeated injuries and usurpations” that he had committed to establish an “absolute Tyranny” over the colonies. The Declaration’s wording has contributed to the American public’s perception of George as a tyrant. Contemporary accounts of George III’s life fall into two camps: one demonstrating “attitudes dominant in the latter part of the reign, when the King had become a revered symbol of national resistance to French ideas and French power” and the other “derived their views of the King from the bitter partisan strife of the first two decades of the reign, and they expressed in their works the views of the opposition”. Building on the latter of these two assessments, British historians of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such as Trevelyan and Erskine May, promoted hostile interpretations of George III’s life. However, in the mid-twentieth century the work of Lewis Namier, who thought George was “much maligned”, kick-started a re-evaluation of the man and his reign. Scholars of the later twentieth century, such as Butterfield and Pares, and Macalpine and Hunter, are inclined to treat George sympathetically, seeing him as a victim of circumstance and illness. Butterfield rejected the arguments of his Victorian predecessors with withering disdain: “Erskine May must be a good example of the way in which an historian may fall into error through an excess of brilliance. His capacity for synthesis, and his ability to dovetail the various parts of the evidence … carried him into a more profound and complicated elaboration of error than some of his more pedestrian predecessors … he inserted a doctrinal element into his history which, granted his original aberrations, was calculated to project the lines of his error, carrying his work still further from centrality or truth.” In pursuing war with the American colonists, George III believed he was defending the right of an elected Parliament to levy taxes, not seeking to expand his own power or prerogatives. Today, scholars perceive the long reign of George III as a continuation of the reduction in the political power of monarchy, and its growth as the embodiment of national morality.