George the Man
George was a collector of books, musical scores, coins, clocks and watches, maps and model ships. George not only collected books but also read them to extract information, rather than for pleasure. He read newspapers but was also an admirer of Henry Fielding and Samuel Johnson, conversant with Shakespeare and the bible. But the majority of George’s time was spent dealing with official papers. He did not have a secretary until 1805.
The king’s library was boosted by a purchase of 30,000 volumes in 1762 from the collection of a bookseller for £300[i]. Three years later the books of Joseph Smith, the British Consul in Venice, were purchased for the king at a cost of £10,000[ii] George allowed himself an annual budget for book purchases, which was often exceeded. The four libraries at Buckingham House, which he had purchased as a home for his family not long after his marriage, were soon being filled with a collection that eventually totalled 65,000 books and 450 manuscripts.
At the same time as George purchased Consul Smith’s book collection he paid £20,000 for the consul’s fine art collection, which included several Canaletto’s. Not a great art connoisseur George liked scenes that told an understandable story or domestic scene, purchasing Vermeer’s Lady at the Virginals. George employed Reynolds and Gainsborough, Beechey and Hoppner among others.
George was a frugal eater and his diet was very simple; he would sup on a cup of tea and bread and butter. He was also religious and took public and private morality very seriously. George was also naive and this was heightened by his immaturity. And during a licentious age, his first official act was to issue a proclamation for
‘the encouragement of piety and virtue, and for the preventing and punishing of vice, profanes and immorality.’[iii]
George the Monarch
George’s idealism also extended to politics, in a time when political infighters like William Pitt and the Duke of Newcastle, a political wheeler-dealer well-versed in the arts of patronage, jostled for overall control of the administration. George and Bute wished for peace with France. The quest for France brought the resignation first of Pitt and then the following year of Newcastle. In May 1762 Bute became prime minister. Bute had no political skills or experience. He was forced to rely on the Paymaster General Henry Fox, a venial man who made his living from fleecing the administration[iv].
Bute was unable to cope with the realities of 18th century politics and resigned in April 1763, suggesting to George that he be replaced by Fox, who declined the honour. Bute was replaced by George Greville, one of the Secretaries of State. In 1765 Greville’s Stamp Act was one of the goads for the revolution in America, but its potential went unnoticed, while the fear of revolution at home was one of the government’s greatest fears.
John Wilkes by Hogarth
John Wilkes fomented rioting after he had been sent to the Tower, for a scurrilous publication claiming that George had lied to parliament in his speech to MPs in 1763. There were many in England suffering economic distress and they were prepared to support Wilkes, who was intensely disliked by George for his open immorality. A member of the Hellfire Club, Wilkes had published an obscene Essay on Women.
By July 1766 after several failed attempts to create stable ministries George had to turn to William Pitt to form a government. Pitt, by now Earl of Chatham, was too ill to be more than nominal head of the government. He was replaced by the Duke of Grafton. Pitt recovered and went into opposition.
War in America
In January 1770 Grafton resigned to be replaced by Lord North. George thought he had found a prime minister after his own heart. But they faced a catastrophe not of their own making. Greville’s stamp act now acted as the spark that set off the loss of the colonies in America. George, a man who treasured peace, was to be embroiled in wars for most of his reign. First there was the twelve years of the American war and then in 1789 the French Revolution caused upset across Europe. By the time peace was established after the battle of Waterloo in 1815, George had long been lost in the misery of his porphyria[v] induced madness.
The colonists objected to not only ‘taxation without representation’ but also the reserving of the lands beyond the Allegheny Mountains for the native population. From the government’s point of view the idea that they could not legislate for the empire was inconceivable. The stamp act was repealed but in 1767 a series of taxes on glass, tea, lead and paper were imposed on the colonies to pay for the administration.
When North took over as Prime Minister he repealed the taxes with the exception of that on tea. The failing East-India Company was given the right to export duty-free tea to America, which allowed it to undercut the price of tea smuggled in by American merchants. The first consignment was dumped into Boston Harbour on16th December 1773.
George’s attitude to the revolting colonialists was the same that he took towards disturbances at home; he must be fair but firm, he showed this trait during the anti-Catholic Gordon riots in London in 1780. But the situation in America swiftly slipped out of control and attempts to restore control by besieging Boston merely encouraged further resistance. The states were in rebellion against their far away masters and in September and October held the first Continental Congress in Philadelphia.
The rebellion was viewed with great indignation in the home country and George’s attitudes towards his rebellious subjects abroad echoed those of his subjects at home. George feared that the loss of the Americas would mean the end of the British Empire and the reduction of Britain to a minor European state. Even John Wilkes, one of the king’s fiercest critics, agreed with this view.
On 23rd August 1775 a royal proclamation declared the states to be in rebellion and on 4th July 1776 Congress declared its independence. The defeat of the English was inevitable, but it was not until 30th November 1782 that peace was agreed between the two parties at Versailles.
The first American envoy was John Adams and George received him saying
‘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.’[vi]
There was still much distrust between the two sides that erupted in a further war between the combatants in 1812, when George was suffering from his porphyria induced madness. Throughout the first war the rebellious colonists had vilified the king and George had considered abdication.
Infighting in England
Charles James Fox
The Whig Opposition had supported the American colonists, flaunting rosettes in the colours of Washington’s troops. In 1780 a petition was raised calling for reform of parliament and there were calls for the influence of the crown to be diminished, something which George was not prepared to consider. In March 1782 Lord North resigned. He was replaced by Lord Rockingham. Lord Shelburne and Charles James Fox[vii] were made Secretaries of State. The young William Pitt[viii] was made Chancellor of the Exchequer.
This cabinet introduced a number of reforms. The Northern and Southern Departments were amalgamated into the Foreign Office under Shelburne and the Home Office under Fox. The Irish Parliament was granted legislative autonomy. Rockingham died in July 1782 and George was able to facilitate Fox’s removal from the ministry. George disliked Fox because Fox was immoral and wanted to reduce the powers of the crown. Shelburne was made Prime Minister and Fox went into opposition. When Parliament rose for the summer Fox attacked the Ministry. George commented
‘The mask is certainly cast off; it is no less than a struggle whether I am to be dictated to by Mr Fox.’[ix]
By February 1783 the Ministry was struggling and eventually fell. The unlikely combination of Fox and North now formed a ministry, much to George’s dismay. Fox did not hide his contempt for the king, often calling him ‘blockhead’ in general conversation. Fox sided with the Prince of Wales, during his rows with George over his finances.
Pitt the Younger
Fox wanted to reform the East India Company, a reform long needed, but it was generally assumed that Fox would reap much benefit from the bill. In December 1783 the bill was passed to the House of Lords and George let it be known that those that voted for the bill would henceforth be considered his enemies. The king had come to an understanding with Pitt the Younger. George demanded that North and Fox hand over the seals of their departments and handed the country over to Pitt, his new Prime Minister.
Pitt’s new ministry was given a rough ride in the House of Commons and George dissolved parliament on 24th March 1784. The ensuing elections were a disaster for Fox and his supporters; the country had been voting on whether the government should be appointed by the king or by Fox. Fox had his answer. George’s power and influence were now greater than they had been since shortly after his accession to the throne.
George III – A Personal History – Christopher Hibbert, Viking 1998
The Reign of George III – J Steven Watson – Oxford University Press 1988
George III – Christopher Wright, British Library 2004
[i] Worth in 2010 £34,900.00 using the retail price index £477,000.00 using average earnings www.measuringworth.com
[ii] Worth in 2010 £1,070,000.00 using the retail price index or £15,700,000.00 using average earnings www.measuringworth.com
[iii] George III - Wright
[iv] Fox was one of the most despised politicians of the time and his name was a byword for veniality and cynical jobbery
[v] A disorder of certain enzymes in the blood attacking the nervous system
[vi] George III - Wright
[vii] Son of Henry Fox, the former Paymaster General
[viii] Known as William Pitt the Younger, he was the son of the Earl of Chatham.
[ix] George III - Wright