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Our Last King
Cursed by ancestry,bedeviled by his posterity, beset by forces he could not grasp, George III is usually remembered as the ogre of Jefferson’s Declaration. An eminent English historian reassesses that strange and pathetic personality
June 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 4
George II’s opinion of his own lackluster son matched his wife’s. He quite simply hated him as he had hated his own father, who, at one time, had put him under house arrest and removed his children. (It had required all the persuasive powers of the Cabinet to get him released.) This fantastic antagonism between father and son that went on from generation to generation found a situation in English politics that fitted it like a glove. The House of Commons always harbored a number of disappointed politicians who were so hated by the ministers in power that they had few prospects of immediate advancement. But as Sir Robert Walpole bluntly phrased it: “Everybody who could get no ready money had rather have a bad promissory note than nothing.” So they made their court to the heir, who found them jobs in his household, and plotted the political changes that they would make when Father died. So throughout the century a Prince of Wales as soon as he was grown up became the leader of the Opposition. At times the Opposition made such a nuisance of itself that the monarch and his ministry decided to buy it off by giving jobs to the leaders, and the astonished heir apparent found his friends deserting him with alacrity. This happened both to George III and to his father. The politics of hatred and the politics of betrayal, therefore, became a part of the environment of the adolescence and early manhood of the Hanoverian kings.
It was in an atmosphere of faction that George III was born; an environment that might have taxed the most gifted of men. Unfortunately George III was as unlucky in his heredity as in his environment. Neither George II nor his Queen, Caroline, was devoid of character or without some gifts above the commonplace. Her intelligence and his memory were unusual in monarchs, and their hatred of their son was tinged with genuine disappointment. Frederick, George III’s father, was known to posterity as “Poor Fred,” and the epithet was not unjust. He possessed a small talent for music, a mild interest in games, particularly cricket, and little else. The unsympathetic Lord Shelburne described his life as a “tissue of childishness and falsehood”; and his friends as well as his enemies despised him. George II married his son to Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha simply because there was no one else. The other Protestant princesses of sufficiently high birth had madness in their families, and George II rejected them, for as he said, “I did not think ingrafting my half-witted coxcomb upon a madwoman would mend the breed.” As it turned out, it could not have made matters much worse, for an astonishing number of Princess Augusta’s children and grandchildren turned out to be congenital idiots, or subject to fits of insanity, or mentally unbalanced, or blind; the rest were odd or wicked or both.
In some ways George III can be described as the best of the bunch. He was very stupid, really stupid. Had he been born in different circumstances it is unlikely that he could have earned a living except as an unskilled manual laborer. He was eleven before he could read, and he never mastered grammar or spelling or punctuation. He was lethargic, apathetic, childish, a clod of a boy whom no one could teach. His major response to life was a doting love for his brother Edward. In late adolescence he began to wake up, largely because of a passionately romantic attachment to Lord Bute, the close friend and confidant of his mother. (The public at large thought she was his mistress. Almost certainly she was not. The slander deeply distressed George III and made his attachment to Bute firmer.) Somehow Bute made the young prince conscious not only of his destiny but also of his shortcomings. The Prince promised time and time again to throw off his lethargy so that he could accomplish great things for Bute’s sake. Naturally the greatest of things was to get rid of his grandfather’s evil ministers and to install Bute in a position of power. The illspelt, ungrammatical, childish, heartfelt notes that he sent to Bute make pathetic reading. They are charged with a sense of inadequacy, a feeling of hopelessness before the immensity of the burden which destiny had laid on his shoulders, and with an anxious need for help that is almost neurotic in its intensity.
Every year his reverence for the concept of kingship grew stronger; nothing illustrates his regard more than his behavior over Lady Sarah Lennox. This charming girl of fifteen swept him off his feet just before he succeeded to the throne. He longed to marry her. Bute said no, and George III wrote that “he [ i.e. , Bute] has thoroughly convinced me of the impropriety of marrying a country woman; the interest of my country ever shall be my first care, my own inclinations shall ever submit to it.” And submit he did and married a dull, plain, German Protestant princess who bore him the huge family that was to plague his days.
A sexually timid, if nonetheless passionate man, George may have found it easier to take Bute’s advice than many have thought. Lady Sarah attracted lovers as a candle moths, and George, conscious of his faults and of his inadequacies, must have realized that he cut a poor figure amidst her brilliant courtiers. His Queen, Charlotte, attracted no one. And yet sacrifice there was, and George paid for it. Shortly after his marriage he experienced his first bout of insanity. Later in life these periods of madness grew longer. It was only during these attacks that his thoughts escaped from his strict concept of marriage, and rioted in adultery. Then, and then only, was it unsafe for a lady of his court to be alone with him.