King George III was king of Great Britain and Ireland and elector of Hanover for 60 momentous years (1760-1820), and was insane off and on after 1788. His son and successor George IV acted as regent during the insane years.
George III’s reign is noted for losing the first British Empire with a defeat in the American Revolution, the building of a second empire based in India, Asia and Africa, the beginnings of the industrial revolution that made Britain an economic powerhouse, and above all the life and death struggle with the French, 1793–1815, which ended with the defeat of Napoleon in 1815.
He was the last powerful king in Britain. He misused his powers by bribing politicians, promoting favorites such as Lord Germain, and interfering with the politicians trying to run the government and the British Empire.
After he lapsed into insanity, and was followed by several debauched incompetents, there was no one who wanted a king to make any serious decisions. George III did help make the Crown into a glittering ornament, the centerpiece of increasing elaborate ceremonies and today the basis of a major tourism industry.
However he also was a patron of the sciences and the first English speaking monarch of Britain since Queen Anne. He was a staunch opponent of the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror
King George III was born in London as George William Frederick, the first son of Frederick Lewis, prince of Wales (1707–1751), and his wife, Augusta (1719–1772) of Saxe-Gotha; he was the grandson of King George II. His education suffered at first from the quarrels between his father his grandfather, and from the folly of his ignorant and overprotective mother. His tutors were political appointees and usually of little ability, while the small group gathered around his mother thought very highly of Bolingbroke’s Patriot King and urged young George to follow its precepts.
Rejecting high society in London and the lavish luxuries of court life, King George and his consort Queen Charlotte (1744-1818) preferred to live away from London in what Charlotte referred to as their “sweet retreat,” allowing them to focus on family and domestic life. This practice helped to revive the reputation and popularity of the monarchy and marked the beginning of the transition to the modern form of the British court.
George was the punctual, abstemious, uxorious, musical Hanoverian who liked clocks, disliked gambling and worried about his country’s economy, tried to protect his empire, and worried about his eldest son’s astronomical debts. Admirers of the sober and prudish king called attention to the loving husband, devoted (albeit domineering) father, connoisseur of fine art, and the patron of literature.
Reign as King
Following Bolingbroke’s advice when he succeeded his grandfather as king in 1760, he tried to rule through ministers of his own choosing. In 1761 he brought about the resignations of the rather domineering William Pitt and of Newcastle, who had long controlled the bribery that held Whig majorities together.
George was able to do this partly because he took control of the Crown patronage and so could build up a party devoted to his wishes, and partly because the Whig oligarchy was divided into bitterly opposed factions that could be played off against each other. Thus the king recovered some of the constitutional authority that had been lost by George I and George II since 1714. From 1760 to 1780 he dismissed and appointed ministers at his pleasure and dictated their general policy.
King George III controlled the policies to reassert imperial control over the restive colonies that caused the American Revolution in 1775; most Britons supported the king, though a vocal minority protested that the Americans had strong claims to the rights of Englishmen. The war became a personal issue for the king, fueled by his growing belief that British leniency would be taken as weakness and would undercut his authority at home.
The king also sincerely believed he was defending Britain’s constitution against usurpers, rather than opposing patriots fighting for their natural rights.
Americans were slow to appreciate the king was not their ally; they had hailed him in 1766 as the ‘Patriot King’ when the Stamp Act of 1765 was repealed by the Rockingham ministry, unaware he had privately opposed its lifting. The king was delighted by the series of tough acts of Parliament passed in 1774 collectively known as the Intolerable Acts, which were the immediate cause of revolt. He pressed for the royal Proclamation of Rebellion of August 1775 that announced that his American subjects were “engaged in open and avowed rebellion.”
During the war the king refused to compromise and selected inept ministers who caused disaster aster disaster, including the formation of a powerful coalition in support of the Americans, the loss of traditional allies in Europe, and the surrender of two main invasion armies at Saratoga (1777) and Yorktown (1781). George wanted to send more soldiers but he lost control of Parliament and his Prime Minister Lord North was forced to resign. Negotiations that led to the Treaty of Paris in 1783 proved highly favorable to the Americans.
A constitutional crisis erupted in 1783-4 when the king dismissed the coalition government of Charles James Fox and Lord North and supplanted it by one led by William Pitt. Pitt was faced by a hostile majority in Parliament but within months stabilized his position. Many historians argue that Pitt’s success was inevitable given the decisive importance of monarchical power in British politics during the period. Kelly (1981) disputes this view, maintaining that the king gambled on Pitt and that both would have failed but for a run of good fortune.
Although the king exercised considerable influence in politics from 1783 onward, the emergence of the Pitt the Younger, who had secured his majority in 1784 through royal support, meant that the king’s power of interference was partially curtailed. Throughout his reign as King, George opposed the abolition of slavery or even the slave trade, even though Pitt was in the pro-abolition camp. Also, in 1801 the king blocked Catholic emancipation and in 1804 refused to approve Charles James Fox as a minister.
Madness and Death of King George III
George’s first serious attack of insanity, in October 1788, led to a bitter political struggle over the regency, for the Prince of Wales, the obvious regent, had quarreled with his father and was supporting the opposition to Pitt. The king recovered in March 1789, but his madness recurred in 1801, 1804, and 1810.
After 1811 it became a permanent condition. From 1808 he had also been totally blind. Modern medicine suggests that his insanity stemmed from porphyria, a rare metabolic disease that is genetic and produces temporary mental disability in the form of delirium.
He died on Jan. 29, 1820.