George III: A Picture Portfolio Of A Long And Troubled Reign

The King’s Ancestors

GEORGE I (1660–1727): The American colonies which would eject his great-grandson were a mere strip of coastal settlements, distant, insecure pawns in European dynastic wars, when an accident of ancestry brought George Louis, Elector of Hanover, to the throne in 1714. There were closer claimants by blood, not to mention more attractive personalities, among the ousted Catholic Stuarts, and they had some Tory help as old Queen Anne approached death without an heir. But the great Whig families supported George Louis, grandson of the daughter of James I and an undoubted Protestant, and through this rather blunt Hanoverian instrument they ruled England for almost a century.

This first George spoke no English, and much preferred his castle, Herrenhausen, and the German chamberlains and gross mistresses he brought to England with him. Only his wife was left behind. Years before, this unhappy princess, Sophia Dorothea of Celle (left), had been caught in an illicit love affair. Her lover was murdered and Sophia imprisoned for the rest of her life. George I is not an admirable figure, but he left government alone and, ruled by his prime minister, Robert Walpole, the Empire could prosper.


GEORGE II (1683–1760): Hanover-born George II was personally brave—he was the last English king to fight in battle—and he learned English, after a fashion; but he was choleric, stingy, and minutely methodical. He liked to count his money, coin by coin; his only present to Robert Walpole (his minister also) was a cracked diamond. Literature and the arts were beyond him, although, to his credit, he brought his great countryman Handel over from Hanover. He was aware of some of his weaknesses, and of the greater wisdom of his Queen, Caroline of Anspach (below). His intimate, the witty Lord Chesterfield, remarked that the King “well knew that he was governed by the Queen, while she lived; and that she was governed by Sir Robert Walpole.” To her George II was devoted, if conspicuously unfaithful, and when on her deathbed Caroline urged the aging rake to marry again, he could only sob, “No, no, I shall have mistresses.” He kept both promises.

Like all his house, George II squabbled disgracefully with his heirs, notably his son Frederick, who was banished from the palace. George II was as Germanic as his father, and loved Hanover greatly. His grandson was the first, as he put it, to “glory in the name of Briton.”


The Education of a King

“The cleverest tutors in the world could have done little probably to expand that small intellect,” muses Thackeray on young George III. “He did his best … He was forever drawing maps, for example, and learned geography with no small care and industry. He knew all about the family histories and genealogies of his gentry … He knew the whole Army List; and all the facings, and the exact number of the buttons and … the etiquettes of his own and his grandfather’s courts to a nicety, and the smallest particulars regarding the routine … These parts of the royal business he was capable of learning, and he learned.” What he could not learn, of course, was the heart of the matter.

In the emotional immaturity which never left him, young George turned passionately to others for help, to his brother the Duke of York (who appears with him at left in the portrait above, made in 1751 when George was thirteen), to his domineering mother, and to “his dearest friend,” as he addressed him, the handsome Earl of Bute. This weak but polished courtier he made his first minister on his accession in 1760—poor Bute, when he could have had Pitt the Elder, the great Chatham, builder of a new British empire, fresh from victoiies all over the world. Mean spirits disliked Chatham, who could be overbearing, but George went further. George thought him a traitor, “the blackest of hearts.” Why? Because he had accepted office under hated Grandpapa instead of joining the feeble Opposition court at dear Mamma’s. No amount of button-counting, or map-making, could make up for such a miscalculation as this on a major matter.


King and Parliament