- Historic Sites
George III: A Picture Portfolio Of A Long And Troubled Reign
June 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 4
Revolution rocked France, overturning the established order, and began to spread over Europe. In isolated England, a slow miracle now took place: poor, shambling George III became popular—the only one of his line, until Victoria, to win the heart of England. Plain people could suddenly appreciate this plain English squire, sympathize with his infirmities, and glory in his respectable middle-class virtues, his honest, sober good nature. He was a regular church-goer; he never missed a response. And brave? Six times, when attempts were made on his life, he had shown abundant personal courage.
The first trial of this kind came in 1786, when a barber’s daughter with the delusion that the Crown was hers by right tried to stab him twice with a knife (top right). “The poor creature is mad,” cried the King to the crowd that had seized her; “Do not hurt her; she has not hurt me.” She was taken off to Bedlam. He was stoned once in 1790, and shot at and stoned again in 1795 (center right) in the royal state coach on the opening day of Parliament. The cool sovereign removed one stone from his sleeve and presented it to an agitated lord in waiting. “My Lord,” he said, “keep this as a memorandum of the civilities which we have received.” There was a dramatic moment when, at the Drury Lane Theater in 1800, an insane ex-soldier fired a pistol from the pit at the King in his box, narrowly missing his target. Unruffled, George soon resumed his seat and dozed off as usual toward the end of the play. “God Save the King!” was sung with unusual gusto at the close of that evening, with the addition of a special verse, praying for divine protection from assassins, written on the spot by the theater’s director, the great dramatist Richard Brinsley Sheridan.
A life as dull and parsimonious as that of George’s household, reassuring as it was to many Englishmen, could not help but arouse satire. Even the King’s adored daughters—“all Cordelias” he called them, with considerable parental license—were bored stiff, and addressed their letters to their more independent brothers from “The Nunnery.” But no one came closer to the mark than the brilliant caricaturist, James Gillray. He had been a strolling player, and then an engraver, until he settled down to work and live with his printer and publisher, a Miss Humphrey of the Strand, and later of New Bond Street. Once they thought of marriage, and started out for the church, when Gillray said: “This is a foolish affair, methinks, Miss Humphrey. We live very comfortably together; we had better let well alone.”
For many years, before and after that false start, Miss Humphrey’s shop window displayed hundreds of superb Gillray drawings, slashing with fine impartiality at King and Parliament, and indeed at all political parties. Gillray’s work is an invaluable guide to manners and politics in the late clays of George III’s reign, and no less important because it shows us quite another world, and another king and court, from the majestic figures and settings in the works of Romney, Lawrence, and Gainsborough.
“The damnedest millstones about the neck of any government that can be imagined.” So the bluff Duke of Wellington, who knew them well, characterized George III’s sons. Of that sorry group, the worst from almost any standpoint was a puffy, dishonorable liar and wastrel who liked to regard himself, without conscious irony, as “The First Gentleman of Europe”; this was the Prince of Wales, later the Prince Regent and, from 1820 to 1830, King George IV. Had he carried on a little longer, England might, in disgust, have turned republic. He certainly played no inconsiderable role in pushing George III over the thin edge of sanity. Like a true Hanoverian, he rebelled against his father and, as soon as he could break loose, set up his own Opposition court, to be toadied to by the King’s enemies. The nation and his father had to meet his ever-growing debts, to gamblers, to tailors, to workmen who built his architectural fantasies. His amours were notorious if puerile until he was married illegally, and to a Catholic at that, as if to snap his fingers in the face of the Revolution of 1688 and the Protestant succession. Nonetheless he lacked the courage to tell the truth about it, even to his friends. When it seemed that his father might die, during his attack of 1788, and the eager Prince waited, in full dress—and then the King recovered, and drove through the streets to a service of Thanksgiving—England never heard such cheering, or saw such a great and glad parade.