1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/George III.

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21742861911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 11 — George III.Samuel Rawson Gardiner

GEORGE III. [George William Frederick] (1738–1820), king of Great Britain and Ireland, son of Frederick, prince of Wales, and grandson of George II., whom he succeeded in 1760, was born on the 4th of June 1738. After his father’s death in 1751 he had been educated in seclusion from the fashionable world under the care of his mother and of her favourite counsellor the earl of Bute. He had been taught to revere the maxims of Bolingbroke’s “Patriot King,” and to believe that it was his appointed task in life to break the power of the Whig houses resting upon extensive property and the influence of patronage and corruption. That power had already been gravely shaken. The Whigs from their incompetency were obliged when the Seven Years’ War broke out to leave its management in the hands of William Pitt. The nation learned to applaud the great war minister who succeeded where others had failed, and whose immaculate purity put to shame the ruck of barterers of votes for places and pensions.

In some sort the work of the new king was the continuation of the work of Pitt. But his methods were very different. He did not appeal to any widely spread feeling or prejudice; nor did he disdain the use of the arts which had maintained his opponents in power. The patronage of the crown was to be really as well as nominally his own; and he calculated, not without reason, that men would feel more flattered in accepting a place from a king than from a minister. The new Toryism of which he was the founder was no recurrence to the Toryism of the days of Charles II. or even of Anne. The question of the amount of toleration to be accorded to Dissenters had been entirely laid aside. The point at issue was whether the crown should be replaced in the position which George I. might have occupied at the beginning of his reign, selecting the ministers and influencing the deliberations of the cabinet. For this struggle George III. possessed no inconsiderable advantages. With an inflexible tenacity of purpose, he was always ready to give way when resistance was really hopeless. As the first English-born sovereign of his house, speaking from his birth the language of his subjects, he found a way to the hearts of many who never regarded his predecessors as other than foreign intruders. The contrast, too, between the pure domestic life which he led with his wife Charlotte, whom he married in 1761, and the habits of three generations of his house, told in his favour with the vast majority of his subjects. Even his marriage had been a sacrifice to duty. Soon after his accession he had fallen in love with Lady Sarah Lennox, and had been observed to ride morning by morning along the Kensington Road, from which the object of his affections was to be seen from the lawn of Holland House making hay, or engaged in some other ostensible employment. Before the year was over Lady Sarah appeared as one of the queen’s bridesmaids, and she was herself married to Sir Charles Bunbury in 1762.

At first everything seemed easy to him. Pitt had come to be regarded by his own colleagues as a minister who would pursue war at any price, and in getting rid of Pitt in 1761 and in carrying on the negotiations which led to the peace of Paris in 1762, the king was able to gather round him many persons who would not be willing to acquiesce in any permanent change in the system of government. With the signature of the peace his real difficulties began. The Whig houses, indeed, were divided amongst themselves by personal rivalries. But they were none of them inclined to let power and the advantages of power slip from their hands without a struggle. For some years a contest of influence was carried on without dignity and without any worthy aim. The king was not strong enough to impose upon parliament a ministry of his own choice. But he gathered round himself a body of dependants known as the king’s friends, who were secure of his favour, and who voted one way or the other according to his wishes. Under these circumstances no ministry could possibly be stable; and yet every ministry was strong enough to impose some conditions on the king. Lord Bute, the king’s first choice, resigned from a sense of his own incompetency in 1763. George Grenville was in office till 1765; the marquis of Rockingham till 1766; Pitt, becoming earl of Chatham, till illness compelled him to retire from the conduct of affairs in 1767, when he was succeeded by the duke of Grafton. But a struggle of interests could gain no real strength for any government, and the only chance the king had of effecting a permanent change in the balance of power lay in the possibility of his associating himself with some phase of strong national feeling, as Pitt had associated himself with the war feeling caused by the dissatisfaction spread by the weakness and ineptitude of his predecessors.

Such a chance was offered by the question of the right to tax America. The notion that England was justified in throwing on America part of the expenses caused in the late war was popular in the country, and no one adopted it more pertinaciously then George III. At the bottom the position which he assumed was as contrary to the principles of parliamentary government as the encroachments of Charles I. had been. But it was veiled in the eyes of Englishmen by the prominence given to the power of the British parliament rather than to the power of the British king. In fact the theory of parliamentary government, like most theories after their truth has long been universally acknowledged, had become a superstition. Parliaments were held to be properly vested with authority, not because they adequately represented the national will, but simply because they were parliaments. There were thousands of people in England to whom it never occurred that there was any good reason why a British parliament should be allowed to levy a duty on tea in the London docks and should not be allowed to levy a duty on tea at the wharves of Boston. Undoubtedly George III. derived great strength from his honest participation in this mistake. Contending under parliamentary forms, he did not wound the susceptibilities of members of parliament, and when at last in 1770 he appointed Lord North—a minister of his own selection—prime minister, the object of his ambition was achieved with the concurrence of a large body of politicians who had nothing in common with the servile band of the king’s friends.

As long as the struggle with America was carried on with any hope of success they gained that kind of support which is always forthcoming to a government which shares in the errors and prejudices of its subjects. The expulsion of Wilkes from the House of Commons in 1769, and the refusal of the House to accept him as a member after his re-election, raised a grave constitutional question in which the king was wholly in the wrong; and Wilkes was popular in London and Middlesex. But his case roused no national indignation, and when in 1774 those sharp measures were taken with Boston which led to the commencement of the American rebellion in 1775, the opposition to the course taken by the king made little way either in parliament or in the country. Burke might point out the folly and inexpedience of the proceedings of the government. Chatham might point out that the true spirit of English government was to be representative, and that that spirit was being violated at home and abroad. George III., who thought that the first duty of the Americans was to obey himself, had on his side the mass of unreflecting Englishmen who thought that the first duty of all colonists was to be useful and submissive to the mother-country. The natural dislike of every country engaged in war to see itself defeated was on his side, and when the news of Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga arrived in 1777, subscriptions of money to raise new regiments poured freely in.

In March 1778 the French ambassador in London announced that a treaty of friendship and commerce had been concluded between France and the new United States of America. Lord North was anxious to resign power into stronger hands, and begged the king to receive Chatham as his prime minister. The king would not hear of it. He would have nothing to say to “that perfidious man” unless he would humble himself to enter the ministry as North’s subordinate. Chatham naturally refused to do anything of the kind, and his death in the course of the year relieved the king of the danger of being again overruled by too overbearing a minister. England was now at war with France, and in 1779 she was also at war with Spain.

George III. was still able to control the disposition of office. He could not control the course of events. His very ministers gave up the struggle as hopeless long before he would acknowledge the true state of the case. Before the end of 1779, two of the leading members of the cabinet, Lords Gower and Weymouth, resigned rather than bear the responsibility of so ruinous an enterprise as the attempt to overpower America and France together. Lord North retained office, but he acknowledged to the king that his own opinion was precisely the same as that of his late colleagues.

The year 1780 saw an agitation rising in the country for economical reform, an agitation very closely though indirectly connected with the war policy of the king. The public meetings held in the country on this subject have no unimportant place in the development of the constitution. Since the presentation of the Kentish petition in the reign of William III. there had been from time to time upheavings of popular feeling against the doings of the legislature, which kept up the tradition that parliament existed in order to represent the nation. But these upheavings had all been so associated with ignorance and violence as to make it very difficult for men of sense to look with displeasure upon the existing emancipation of the House of Commons from popular control. The Sacheverell riots, the violent attacks upon the Excise Bill, the no less violent advocacy of the Spanish War, the declamations of the supporters of Wilkes at a more recent time, and even in this very year the Gordon riots, were not likely to make thoughtful men anxious to place real power in the hands of the classes from whom such exhibitions of folly proceeded. But the movement for economical reform was of a very different kind. It was carried on soberly in manner, and with a definite practical object. It asked for no more than the king ought to have been willing to concede. It attacked useless expenditure upon sinecures and unnecessary offices in the household, the only use of which was to spread abroad corruption amongst the upper classes. George III. could not bear to be interfered with at all, or to surrender any element of power which had served him in his long struggle with the Whigs. He held out for more than another year. The news of the capitulation of Yorktown reached London on the 25th of November 1781. On the 20th of March 1782 Lord North resigned.

George III. accepted the consequences of defeat. He called the marquis of Rockingham to office at the head of a ministry composed of pure Whigs and of the disciples of the late earl of Chatham, and he authorized the new ministry to open negotiations for peace. Their hands were greatly strengthened by Rodney’s victory over the French fleet, and the failure of the combined French and Spanish attack upon Gibraltar; and before the end of 1782 a provisional treaty was signed with America, preliminaries of peace with France and Spain being signed early in the following year. On the 3rd of September 1783 the definitive treaties with the three countries were simultaneously concluded. “Sir,” said the king to John Adams, the first minister of the United States of America accredited to him, “I wish you to believe, and that it may be understood in America, that I have done nothing in the late contest but what I thought myself indispensably bound to do by the duty which I owed to my people. I will be very frank with you. 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.”

Long before the signature of the treaties Rockingham died (July 1, 1782). The king chose Lord Shelburne, the head of the Chatham section of the government, to be prime minister. Fox and the followers of Rockingham refused to serve except under the duke of Portland, a minister of their own selection, and resigned office. The old constitutional struggle of the reign was now to be fought out once more. Fox, too weak to obtain a majority alone, coalesced with Lord North, and defeated Shelburne in the House of Commons on the 27th of February 1783. On the 2nd of April the coalition took office, with Portland as nominal prime minister, and Fox and North the secretaries of state as its real heads.

This attempt to impose upon him a ministry which he disliked made the king very angry. But the new cabinet had a large majority in the House of Commons, and the only chance of resisting it lay in an appeal to the country against the House of Commons. Such an appeal was not likely to be responded to unless the ministers discredited themselves with the nation. George III. therefore waited his time. Though a coalition between men bitterly opposed to one another in all political principles and drawn together by nothing but love of office was in itself discreditable, it needed some more positive cause of dissatisfaction to arouse the constituencies, which were by no means so ready to interfere in political disputes at that time as they are now. Such dissatisfaction was given by the India Bill, drawn up by Burke. As soon as it had passed through the Commons the king hastened to procure its rejection in the House of Lords by his personal intervention with the peers. He authorized Lord Temple to declare in his name that he would count any peer who voted for the bill as his enemy. On the 17th of December 1783 the bill was thrown out. The next day ministers were dismissed. William Pitt became prime minister. After some weeks’ struggle with a constantly decreasing majority in the Commons, the king dissolved parliament on the 25th of March 1784. The country rallied round the crown and the young minister, and Pitt was firmly established in office.

There can be no reasonable doubt[1] that Pitt not only took advantage of the king’s intervention in the Lords, but was cognizant of the intrigue before it was actually carried out. It was upon him, too, that the weight of reconciling the country to an administration formed under such circumstances lay. The general result, so far as George III. was concerned, was that to all outward appearance he had won the great battle of his life. It was he who was to appoint the prime minister, not any clique resting on a parliamentary support. But the circumstances under which the victory was won were such as to place the constitution in a position very different from that in which it would have been if the victory had been gained earlier in the reign. Intrigue there was indeed in 1783 and 1784 as there had been twenty years before. Parliamentary support was conciliated by Pitt by the grant of royal favours as it had been in the days of Bute. The actual blow was struck by a most questionable message to individual peers. But the main result of the whole political situation was that George III. had gone a long way towards disentangling the reality of parliamentary government from its accidents. His ministry finally stood because it had appealed to the constituencies against their representatives. Since then it has properly become a constitutional axiom that no such appeal should be made by the crown itself. But it may reasonably be doubted whether any one but the king was at that time capable of making the appeal. Lord Shelburne, the leader of the ministry expelled by the coalition, was unpopular in the country, and the younger Pitt had not had time to make his great abilities known beyond a limited circle. The real question for the constitutional historian to settle is not whether under ordinary circumstances a king is the proper person to place himself really as well as nominally at the head of the government; but whether under the special circumstances which existed in 1783 it was not better that the king should call upon the people to support him, than that government should be left in the hands of men who rested their power on close boroughs and the dispensation of patronage, without looking beyond the walls of the House of Commons for support.

That the king gained credit far beyond his own deserts by the glories of Pitt’s ministry is beyond a doubt. Nor can there be any reasonable doubt that his own example of domestic propriety did much to strengthen the position of his minister. It is true that that life was insufferably dull. No gleams of literary or artistic taste lightened it up. The dependants of the court became inured to dull routine unchequered by loving sympathy. The sons of the household were driven by the sheer weariness of such an existence into the coarsest profligacy. But all this was not visible from a distance. The tide of moral and religious improvement which had set in in England since the days of Wesley brought popularity to a king who was faithful to his wife, in the same way that the tide of manufacturing industry and scientific progress brought popularity to the minister who in some measure translated into practice the principles of the Wealth of Nations.

Nor were there wanting subjects of importance beyond the circle of politics in which George III. showed a lively interest. The voyages of discovery which made known so large a part of the islands and coasts of the Pacific Ocean received from him a warm support. In the early days of the Royal Academy, its finances were strengthened by liberal grants from the privy purse. His favourite pursuit, however, was farming. When Arthur Young was issuing his Annals of Agriculture, he was supplied with information by the king, under the assumed name of Mr Ralph Robinson, relating to a farm at Petersham.

The life of the king was suddenly clouded over. Early in his reign, in 1765, he had been out of health, and—though the fact was studiously concealed at the time—symptoms of mental aberration were even then to be perceived. In October 1788 he was again out of health, and in the beginning of the following month his insanity was beyond a doubt. Whilst Pitt and Fox were contending in the House of Commons over the terms on which the regency should be committed to the prince of Wales, the king was a helpless victim to the ignorance of physicians and the brutalities of his servants. At last Dr Willis, who had made himself a name by prescribing gentleness instead of rigour in the treatment of the insane, was called in. Under his more humane management the king rapidly recovered. Before the end of February 1789 he was able to write to Pitt thanking him for his warm support of his interests during his illness. On the 23rd of April he went in person to St Paul’s to return thanks for his recovery.

The popular enthusiasm which burst forth around St Paul’s was but a foretaste of a popularity far more universal. The French Revolution frightened the great Whig landowners till they made their peace with the king. Those who thought that the true basis of government was aristocratical were now of one mind with those who thought that the true basis of government was monarchical; and these two classes were joined by a far larger multitude which had no political ideas whatever, but which had a moral horror of the guillotine. As Elizabeth had once been the symbol of resistance to Spain, George was now the symbol of resistance to France. He was not, however, more than the symbol. He allowed Pitt to levy taxes and incur debt, to launch armies to defeat, and to prosecute the English imitators of French revolutionary courses. At last, however, after the Union with Ireland was accomplished, he learned that Pitt was planning a scheme to relieve the Catholics from the disabilities under which they laboured. The plan was revealed to him by the chancellor, Lord Loughborough, a selfish and intriguing politician who had served all parties in turn, and who sought to forward his own interests by falling in with the king’s prejudices. George III. at once took up the position from which he never swerved. He declared that to grant concessions to the Catholics involved a breach of his coronation oath. No one has ever doubted that the king was absolutely convinced of the serious nature of the objection. Nor can there be any doubt that he had the English people behind him. Both in his peace ministry and in his war ministry Pitt had taken his stand on royal favour and on popular support. Both failed him alike now, and he resigned office at once. The shock to the king’s mind was so great that it brought on a fresh attack of insanity. This time, however, the recovery was rapid. On the 14th of March 1801 Pitt’s resignation was formally accepted, and the late speaker, Mr Addington, was installed in office as prime minister.

The king was well pleased with the change. He was never capable of appreciating high merit in any one; and he was unable to perceive that the question on which Pitt had resigned was more than an improper question, with which he ought never to have meddled. “Tell him,” he said, in directing his physician to inform Pitt of his restoration to health, “I am now quite well, quite recovered from my illness; but what has he not to answer for, who has been the cause of my having been ill at all?” Addington was a minister after his own mind. Thoroughly honest and respectable, with about the same share of abilities as was possessed by the king himself, he was certainly not likely to startle the world by any flights of genius. But for one circumstance Addington’s ministry would have lasted long. So strong was the reaction against the Revolution that the bulk of the nation was almost as suspicious of genius as the king himself. Not only was there no outcry for legislative reforms, but the very idea of reform was unpopular. The country gentlemen were predominant in parliament, and the country gentlemen as a body looked upon Addington with respect and affection. Such a minister was therefore admirably suited to preside over affairs at home in the existing state of opinion. But those who were content with inaction at home would not be content with inaction abroad. In time of peace Addington would have been popular for a season. In time of war even his warmest admirers could not say that he was the man to direct armies in the most terrible struggle which had ever been conducted by an English government.

For the moment this difficulty was not felt. On the 1st of October 1801, preliminaries of peace were signed between England and France, to be converted into the definitive peace of Amiens on the 27th of March 1802. The ruler of France was now Napoleon Bonaparte, and few persons in England believed that he had any real purpose of bringing his aggressive violence to an end. “Do you know what I call this peace?” said the king; “an experimental peace, for it is nothing else. But it was unavoidable.”

The king was right. On the 18th of May 1803 the declaration of war was laid before parliament. The war was accepted by all classes as inevitable, and the French preparations for an invasion of England roused the whole nation to a glow of enthusiasm only equalled by that felt when the Armada threatened its shores. On the 26th of October the king reviewed the London volunteers in Hyde Park. He found himself the centre of a great national movement with which he heartily sympathized, and which heartily sympathized with him.

On the 12th of February 1804 the king’s mind was again affected. When he recovered, he found himself in the midst of a ministerial crisis. Public feeling allowed but one opinion to prevail in the country—that Pitt, not Addington, was the proper man to conduct the administration in time of war. Pitt was anxious to form an administration on a broad basis, including Fox and all prominent leaders of both parties. The king would not hear of the admission of Fox. His dislike of him was personal as well as political, as he knew that Fox had had a great share in drawing the prince of Wales into a life of profligacy. Pitt accepted the king’s terms, and formed an administration in which he was the only man of real ability. Eminent men, such as Lord Grenville, refused to join a ministry from which the king had excluded a great statesman on purely personal grounds.

The whole question was reopened on Pitt’s death on the 23rd of January 1806. This time the king gave way. The ministry of All the Talents, as it was called, included Fox amongst its members. At first the king was observed to appear depressed at the necessity of surrender. But Fox’s charm of manner soon gained upon him. “Mr Fox,” said the king, “I little thought that you and I should ever meet again in this place; but I have no desire to look back upon old grievances, and you may rest assured I never shall remind you of them.” On the 13th of September Fox died, and it was not long before the king and the ministry were openly in collision. The ministry proposed a measure enabling all subjects of the crown to serve in the army and navy in spite of religious disqualifications. The king objected even to so slight a modification of the laws against the Catholics and Dissenters, and the ministers consented to drop the bill. The king asked more than this. He demanded a written and positive engagement that this ministry would never, under any circumstances, propose to him “any measure of concession to the Catholics, or even connected with the question.” The ministers very properly refused to bind themselves for the future. They were consequently turned out of office, and a new ministry was formed with the duke of Portland as first lord of the treasury and Mr Perceval as its real leader. The spirit of the new ministry was distinct hostility to the Catholic claims. On the 27th of April 1807 a dissolution of parliament was announced, and a majority in favour of the king’s ministry was returned in the elections which speedily followed.

The elections of 1807, like the elections of 1784, gave the king the mastery of the situation. In other respects they were the counterpart of one another. In 1784 the country declared, though perhaps without any clear conception of what it was doing, for a wise and progressive policy. In 1807 it declared for an unwise and retrogressive policy, with a very clear understanding of what it meant. It is in his reliance upon the prejudices and ignorance of the country that the constitutional significance of the reign of George III. appears. Every strong government derives its power from its representative character. At a time when the House of Commons was less really representative than at any other, a king was on the throne who represented the country in its good and bad qualities alike, in its hatred of revolutionary violence, its moral sturdiness, its contempt of foreigners, and its defiance of all ideas which were in any way strange. Therefore it was that his success was not permanently injurious to the working of the constitution as the success of Charles I. would have been. If he were followed by a king less English than himself, the strength of representative power would pass into other hands than those which held the sceptre.

The overthrow of the ministry of All the Talents was the last political act of constitutional importance in which George III. took part. The substitution of Perceval for Portland as the nominal head of the ministry in 1809 was not an event of any real significance, and in 1811 the reign practically came to an end. The king’s reason finally broke down after the death of the princess Amelia, his favourite child; and the prince of Wales (see George IV.) became prince regent. The remaining nine years of George III.’s life were passed in insanity and blindness, and he died on the 29th of January 1820.

His wife, Charlotte Sophia (1744–1818), was a daughter of Charles Louis of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (d. 1816), and was married to the king in London on the 8th of September 1761. After a peaceful and happy married life the queen died at Kew on the 17th of November 1818.

George III. had nine sons. After his successor came Frederick, duke of York and Albany (1763–1827); William Henry, duke of Clarence, afterwards King William IV. (1765–1837); Edward Augustus, duke of Kent (1767–1825), father of Queen Victoria; Ernest Augustus, duke of Cumberland, afterwards king of Hanover (1771–1851); Augustus Frederick, duke of Sussex (1773–1843); Adolphus Frederick, duke of Cambridge (1774–1850); Octavius (1779–1783); Alfred (1780–1782). He had also six daughters—Charlotte Augusta (1766–1828), married in 1797 to Frederick, afterwards king of Württemberg; Augusta Sophia (1768–1840); Elizabeth (1770–1840), married Frederick, landgrave of Hesse-Homburg, 1818; Mary (1776–1857), married to William Frederick, duke of Gloucester, 1816; Sophia (1777–1848); Amelia (1783–1810).  (S. R. G.) 

The numerous contemporary memoirs and diaries are full of the best material for a picture of George III.’s reign, apart from the standard histories. Thackeray’s Four Georges must not be trusted so far as historical judgment is concerned; Jesse’s Memoirs of the Life and Reign of George III. (2nd ed., 1867) is chiefly concerned with personalities. See also Beckles Willson, George III., as Man, Monarch and Statesman (1907).

  1. See Lord Fitzmaurice’s Life of Shelburne, iii. 393.