Thursday, 2 August 2012

George III – A Much Maligned Monarch; Part III

Family and Other Tribulations

Following the disastrous marriages of two of his brothers George III forced the Royal Marriages Act through parliament in 1772. This act required the king’s consent to make any marriage of the king’s close family legal.

On his accession George had agreed a civil list of £800,000[i] per annum (£70,000 less than his grandfather). Originally George paid himself £48,000[ii] salary, rising throughout the years of his reign. The result was that both the king and queen fell into debt and had to make numerous applications to Parliament. The court was despised by Society as being dowdy and George’s subjects laughed at his frugality.

George spent his money, not only on his collections, but also on building; a house was purchased as a family home on the Mall, from the illegitimate son of the Duke of Buckingham, a lot of work was also done at Windsor and elsewhere. George supported Eton, founded by a far distant ancestor, Henry VI, where George’s birthday is still celebrated as a holiday

George enjoyed stag hunting and was interested in farming, hence his soubriquet Farmer George. He set up farms at Windsor and Kew. In 1768 he funded the foundation of the Royal Academy of the Arts and arranged for the housing of the new academy. George gave the astronomer Herschel and his sister pensions and funded to the tune of £4,000[iii] a forty foot telescope at Slough for Herschel. George was a frequent visitor.

The king was supportive of John Harrison’s attempts to find a way of measuring longitude and allowed H5 to be tested at his Kew Observatory and when the Board of Longitude failed to pay the prize monies on a technicality George set in train the process through Parliament whereby Harrison was paid.

George played the harpsichord, organ and flute. The king was on the committee for and regularly attended the concerts of ancient music. George’s grandfather had been a patron of Handel’s and the young Prince George met the composer. George owned a harpsichord that had been Handel’s as well as many of the composer’s original scores, including the Messiah.

George rarely travelled and never left the country, unlike his grandfather and great-grandfather. In 1788 he visited Cheltenham to drink the waters and in1789 after recovering from his first bout of madness stayed in a house in Weymouth, loaned by his brother the Duke of Gloucester. George later purchased the house and the royal family regularly visited the town to benefit from the sea bathing, just becoming fashionable.

The three youngest princesses

The father of fourteen children, George loved children. Queen Charlotte gave birth to the couple’s first child, George, in 1762. The young Prince of Wales was kept at home, but his brothers were sent away, several to Germany and William was sent into the navy. In 1783 the four year old Prince Octavius died and George was devastated. The princesses were kept close, which they found claustrophobic as they reached adulthood.

A Neighbourly War

By 1793 England was at war with the revolutionary government in France and this war was to last until five years before George’s death, by which time his mind was too deranged to appreciate the peace that enveloped Europe. The toppling of the monarchy in France was not appreciated by the king of England, who welcomed the outbreak of hostilities. Pitt legislated in Ireland allowing Catholics to hold military commissions up to the rank of Colonel. Ireland had long been a recruiting ground for the English army, since Charles 1’s attempts to raise an army to fight the Parliamentarians.

The revolution in France encouraged the radicals, espousing the French model as a blueprint for Britain. This coupled with widespread economic distress brought people out onto the streets in protest. Pitt introduced a series of repressive measures, including suspending habeas corpus, to counter the perceived threat.

Pitt’s house was attacked and in October 1795 the king’s coach was mobbed as George made his way to the House of Lords. A gun was discharged in the vicinity of the king’s person, but failed to hit anyone. The king was booed on his return journey and the coach itself was attacked as it was being returned to the mews. Despite the tumult George read his speech from the throne as if there was nothing wrong. The following evening the king and queen attended the Covent Garden theatre receiving an enthusiastic welcome. The national anthem was played six times.

Politics and War

In 1798 the French planned an invasion of Britain’s Achilles heel, Ireland where disaffected Catholics and poor Protestants were believed to be ready to support the French. The planned uprising and invasion failed miserably, but brought Pitt round to the idea that Ireland needed to be joined to the Union, which was enacted in 1801. The resulting mayhem is still causing problems over 200 years later. Pitt wanted to enact Catholic emancipation as well. This was a step too far for the country and the king.

George was not anti-Catholic to any great degree, but his great-Grandfather had received the crown of England to avoid a Catholic succession. George had sworn at his accession to ensure that Catholics had no part to play in public life. At the end of January 1801, in accord with his non-Irish subjects, George let it be known that he would regard anyone who voted for emancipation of Catholics as his enemy. George was of a practical turn of mind as far as religion was concerned, devoting a large part of his income to charities. He also gave monies to improve prison buildings, supporting John Howard the penal reformer.

Lord Addington
After appointing Lord Addington to replace Pitt, who resigned over the emancipation of Catholics, George fell ill and did not recover until March. The Peace of Amiens was signed at the end of the month, as hostilities with the French paused. George believed this was only a temporary respite and so it proved. War broke out again in May 1803 and there was an invasion scare. In October George reviewed 27,000 volunteers in Hyde Park.

The threat of invasion was eliminated two years later, when Nelson’s fleet annihilated the French at Trafalgar in October. Nelson had been snubbed at court, after his victory at the Battle of the Nile in early August 1798, because the king disapproved of his liaison with Lady Hamilton.

At this juncture the Prince of Wales demanded to serve in the army and was refused by his father. In response Prince George published his correspondence with his father in the papers, infuriating George. In 1804 George again fell ill, but recovered in time to deal with a political squall. Addington was not able to control the Commons, particularly when Pitt allied himself with Charles Fox. The war against the French under the Emperor Napoleon, was not going well. Pitt, replacing Addington, had to contend with Fox and the Whigs, with whom he now fell out with.

The Russian-Austrian coalition, fostered by Pitt, was defeated at Austerlitz on 2nd December 1805. This defeat was soon followed by another catastrophe; Pitt died at the age of 46 on 23rd January 1806. Lord Grenville became Prime Minister, while Fox became Foreign Secretary in the 'Ministry of All the Talents'. George was very relaxed about this appointment saying to Fox when they met

‘Mr Fox, I little thought that you and I should ever meet again in this place.’[iv]

But Fox too was ill and he died on 13th September. He and George had disagreed over Fox’s desire for peace with France, but George remarked

‘Little did I think I should ever live to regret Mr Fox’s death.’[v]

The Duke of Portland

Now Grenville proposed to extend to Catholics on the mainland the concession to hold commissions. George discovered that the proposed legislation approved the holding of rank above that of colonel and objected to the proposals. The government resigned and an old friend of George’s, the Duke of Portland, became Prime Minister. He served George for over two years resigning shortly before his death. Portland was replaced by Spencer Perceval.


George III – A Personal History – Christopher Hibbert, Viking 1998

The Reign of George III – J Steven Watson – Oxford University Press 1988

Longitude – Dava Sobel, Fourth Estate Ltd 1996

George III – Christopher Wright, British Library 2004

[i] £94,300,000.00 using the retail price index or £1,240,000,000.00 using average earnings in 2010
[ii] £5,660,000.00 using the retail price index or £74,500,000.00 using average earnings in 2010
[iii] £390,000.00 using the retail price index or £5,310,000.00 using average earnings in 2010
[iv] George III - Wright
[v] Ibid

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