On 4 June 1738, 281 years ago, George III was born in London. He was the first Hanoverian born in UK, and was King for 60 years. Yet in 1811 – 50 years into his reign – his mental and physical illnesses overwhelmed him rendering him unable to rule. Secluded in his apartments in Windsor, the blind and largely deaf old man would hammer out Handel loudly on his harpsichord in hope of hearing comforting and familiar music. Today, George III is often overlooked. He is the “mad king” or the “King who lost America”.
History tends to remember and glorify monarchs who are winners. These are the monarchs who have presided over battles, like Henry V, Richard the Lionheart, Edward I and William the Conqueror. Henry VIII, Charles II and even George IV are popular Kings, memorialised because of their appetites for sex and for food. Physical strength and sexual prowess are the hallmarks of great monarchs. Henry VIII’s treatment of his wives as being largely disposable assets readily dismissed in relentless pursuit of his aims is shameless behaviour today. Similarly, we don’t see war, whether we win or not, as a good thing because our 24-hour news cycle means we are ever more aware that it entails the slaughter of the innocent. Likewise, it’s not really possible to gloss over the fact that Edward I expelled all Jews from England in 1290. In a society which no longer excuses discrimination and violence, nor dismisses the abuse and objectification of women we probably need to re-think our monarchical top ten. Here is my pitch for George III making the top slot.
George III is distinctive amongst kings by being largely faithful and loving towards his wife Charlotte. Together they had 15 children, who were the apple of his eye. Visitors to Kew and Windsor were often caught by the sight of the King playing with his children. In 1785, Mrs Delany noted the “beautiful babe Amelia playing [with huge pleasure] with King upon the carpet ”. Although it is unlikely that the King ever changed a nappy, he was heavily involved in the lives of his children visiting the nursery every morning at dawn to enquire how the children slept in the night. Indeed, it is possible to criticise George III for interfering too much in his children’s lives. In adulthood, the Princesses would resent the control exerted over them by their parents.
Diligence is not something we tend to associate with our great kings or indeed great men amongst history. Intelligence is generally only revered if it comes naturally. George III struggled with his homework as a boy. As King, he was known for his huge capacity for work. Many of his letters to ministers are not only dated but also the time at which they were written is noted to the minute.
He had a great interest in the generation of knowledge to the benefit of the nation. Much of his garden at his palace at Kew was given over for the study of botany and opened to the public for free twice a week. At Richmond Palace, he built an entire observatory just to view the rare event of the transit of Venus. He even took detailed notes of the event. George III was especially interested in clock making, buying the most advanced instruments and would take them apart to study them. Indeed, the King went to the Richmond observatory every day at noon for ten weeks in order to test John Harrison’s H5 clock personally.
He was known at the time as Farmer George because he walked the fields, tilled the soil and tended to his sheep himself. Again, he felt that better methods for farming could be found in order to feed an increasingly urban population in Britain. He would contribute regularly to agricultural journals.
George III’s ‘madness’ is the main reason why he is rarely rated amongst historians. Until recently, mental illness was the embodiment of weakness as it represented a total lack of control. From what we know of his treatment in Kew we see an amazing amount of resilience and humour. His equerry recalled a conversation with his doctor, Francis Willis. “You have quitted a profession I have always loved, and you have embraced one I most heartily detest.” Willis reportedly responded that “‘Our Saviour Himself went about healing the sick”. The King answered, “Yes, yes, but He had not £700 [a year] for it, hey!”. George referred to his straight jacket as “The royal waistcoat” and the chair that he was strapped to, his “throne”. He endured desperate episodes of ill health in 1789, 1801 and 1804.
George III took great pity on others suffering from mental distress. In 1786, he was attacked by Margaret Nicholson, who tried to plunge a pudding knife into his chest. She was immediately rough handled away. George cried out, “The poor creature is mad. Do not hurt her she has not hurt me” and ensured she was taken to Bethlem Hospital for treatment.
George was exceedingly humble for a king. He preferred to eat frugally, breakfasting only on dry toast and weak tea. When he was taken to Kew for treatment in 1804, the kitchens were in a separate building. A housekeeper recalled years later, that the King insisted on bathing in the kitchens to save the servants trouble of carrying over the hot water. Indeed, when Historic Royal Palaces restored the kitchens in 2012 we discovered a fine late-1700s bath tub stuffed up the chimney. It could only have been George III’s.
This is just a snapshot of the achievements of George III. I could have mentioned that he was the King who presided over the Battle of Trafalgar but I’m far more interested in his winning qualities of kindness, diligence and compassion.