A tyrant and a madman, the school history books declare. Despite being the third longest-reigning monarch in our history, little is understood of George III. Mocking and ridicule, at best, is the popular reaction to the divisive sovereign’s name; in most literature he is simultaneously both the tyrant who oppressed the American colonies and the failure who lost them.
Yet, his virtues were many. A patron of the arts, who donated generously to the Royal Academy of Arts, and a charitable soul to those causes he cared for. The King was a lover of the countryside, to the point where he was ridiculed as “Farmer George”, a moniker of affection in his later life. Fully devoted to England, George III was the first of the Hanoverian monarchs to speak English as his first language.
With his fascination for architecture, it is little wonder, then, why Prince Charles named him as the British monarch whom he most respects. Despite the Prince of Wales’s high praise for the ‘King who lost America’, I doubt George III would reciprocate; never once taking on a mistress and being entirely faithful to his wife, King George was the first to envision the royal family as a model to which the nation’s families could aspire, putting aside his own youthful desires in the name of responsibility.
Such responsibility can be seen when George was advised against marrying Lady Sarah Lennox, with whom he was infatuated. George III dutifully put his emotions aside, remarking “I am born for the happiness or misery of a great nation, and consequently must often act contrary to my passions”. It is a testament to his good nature that the King, then a youth, held neither bitterness nor resentment for this decision, devoting himself fully to Princess Charlotte, the ‘better match’, and his future Queen.
To his fifteen children, he was both demanding and loving. Providing a pious and disciplined education to his offspring, George III’s expectations were high, a standard rarely met by his extravagant heir, eldest son and namesake, the eventual George IV. His love for his children is beyond debate; in 1810, when he finally succumbed to the ‘madness’ that had plagued him throughout life, it was the death of his youngest daughter that triggered his immediate downward spiral, weeping ceaselessly and overcome with sadness.
Branded as a tyrant by the people of the Thirteen Colonies, an accusation kept breathing by the American education system, George III cast a stark distinction to other European monarchs of his time in his being wholly untyrannical. At the behest of His Majesty’s government, headed by Lord North, George III consented to the widespread waiving of customs duties in the colonies to satisfy the resentments American colonists had regarding the taxes levied upon them. To uphold the Crown’s right to levy taxes in the Thirteen Colonies, the tax upon tea was maintained; a token charge, kept merely as a reminder of Britain’s authority, yet also of its generosity in reducing taxation. The subsequent ‘Boston Tea Party’, in which American colonists boarded British ships harboured in Boston and threw their cargo of tea overboard in protest of the tax, could not be dignified by a weak response. To George III, these acts could be interpreted in no other way than ungrateful petulance, and no European monarch could abide by such rebelliousness.
However, it was the King’s wishful hope that “the tongue of malice may not paint [his] intentions in those colours she admires, nor the sycophant extoll [him] beyond what [he] deserve[s]”. As such, it would be wrong to offer him as a saint without sin.
In the American Revolutionary War, for example, despite early popular support from the British public and parliamentarians in waging war, a series of losses soon made the campaign entirely unpopular. It was the King who argued most passionately for the war’s continuance, tolerating no quarter with the rebels, despite the involvement of France and Spain to the advantage of the colonists. A commendable will, yet concerning for many of his ministers, who feared this strategy of forcing ‘unconditional surrender’ was creating further division between Great Britain and her American territories, doing more harm than good.
His support for the slave trade, too, is an unfortunate blemish on his reign, especially so as its abolition was gaining momentum in all echelons of British society under his rule; it was a great deal because of the King’s opposition that William Pitt the Younger delayed his plan for its abolition, though ultimately the Slave Trade Act 1807, which prohibited the slave trade across the Empire, was signed into law under George III’s reign. Likewise, his opposition to the emancipation of Catholics similarly leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
Ultimately, however, the loss of the American colonies is not George III’s singular burden to bear; a constitutional monarch, the King bowed to the wisdom of his ministers and generals in the campaign in America, with His Majesty’s government managing the response to the rebellion, not the monarch. With that said, it would be naïve to compare George III as a constitutional monarch to Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II; much more involved politically, George III held a great deal of control over the Lord North administration, and while not personally co-ordinating the British effort in the colonies, his oversight weighed heavily on those more directly involved.
Nevertheless, in his desire to see rebellion quashed, George III was entirely right, and his pushing for this, too, was right. The decision to wage war against the rebels was not one borne of the strategic madness of a tyrant, comparable to Operation Barbarossa, but the sensible response of a King to the potential loss of great swathes of bountiful territory, and a very real chance of losing Britain’s holdings in North America. With this considered, the King’s approach is understandable.
While forever entombed in the memory of 4th July celebrations as an oppressor, his words following the loss of the American colonies painted a solemn portrait of the ‘tyrant’:
“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.”
Popular with his people throughout life, though now mocked in death, George III embodied the spirit of the nation like no other before him, serving as a stalwart bastion around whom his subjects could rally in the shadow of Napoleonic aggression. In this respect, he is the architect of what the monarch now exemplifies; a bearer not of political or legal authority, but possessing the power to imbue a nation’s hearts with love for one’s country, a love for which so many have since made the ultimate sacrifice.
King George III is a tragic, and misunderstood, figure in the history of the British monarchy. He is the good ‘tyrant’.
Photo by Art Gallery ErgsArt – by ErgSap on Flickr.
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