Jun 042015


Today is the birthday (1738) of George III, king of Great Britain and Ireland from 25 October 1760 until the union of the two countries on 1 January 1801, after which he was king of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland until his death. He was concurrently Duke and prince-elector of Brunswick-Lüneburg (“Hanover”) in the Holy Roman Empire until his promotion to king of Hanover on 12 October 1814. He was the third British monarch of the House of Hanover, but unlike his two predecessors he was born in Britain, spoke English as his first language, and never visited Hanover.

Whenever I think of George III I think of this couplet:

George the Third
Ought never to have occurred.
One can only wonder
At so grotesque a blunder.

This exemplifies one side of a debate about George III that has simmered for two and a half centuries. I’ll add my ha’penny worth here.


George is often portrayed as the villain of the piece when it comes to the American Revolutionary War. He gets cast as a stubborn ruler who wanted his taxes from the colonies, and was not about to give the colonists the vote just because they poured gobs of money into his coffers. To call this judgment “unfair” is a great understatement. To begin with, George was a constitutional monarch and took this position seriously. Policy concerning the colonies was firmly in the hands of parliament, not the king. True, he had more influence than the current monarchy, but he had to defer to parliament when it came to foreign (and domestic) policy. True too, he was stubborn. He stood to lose a great deal should the colonies and Britain parted ways. He presided over the greatest expansion of the British empire of the time. Independence for North America could spell doom for the empire as a whole should other colonies see what was going on and rebel as well. It may well be true that he supported the war well after it was clear that it had been lost because he wanted to show Britain’s resolve to the others. There is no doubt that he was partisan in politics and actively fostered discord between Whigs and Tories to get his way. But, as historians have pointed out, political parties hardly need help in being ruthlessly and rancorously at odds with one another.

I’d also like to point out something that often gets forgotten about his policies in North America. The colonists were aggravated by taxation, yet a huge chunk of the money went into supporting their (unnecessary) wars with Native Americans. In 1763 he ordered the settlers to stop crossing the Appalachians and impinging on native lands. He believed that the rights of native peoples and the sovereignty of native rulers, though substantially different from European models, should be respected. This was an admirably principled stance that set him at odds with settlers greedy for land, and indifferent to the rights of indigenous peoples. The colonists also did not seem to appreciate that their freedom from incursion by the French, who owned vast tracts of North America, came about via British victory in the Seven Years War, and the loans Britain took out to fund the war had to be paid back.

In general George III was a frugal, earnest, and honest man, unlike the Georges that came before and after him. Writing in the mid-nineteenth century, William Thackeray saw George as ‘a kindly partaker of honest pleasures’, declaring that ‘that good man’s example, his moderation, his frugal simplicity, and God-fearing life, tended infinitely to improve the morals of the country and purify the whole nation’. This is not to say that he was a hugely gifted Renaissance man. Thackeray’s judgment was that he was ‘a man of slow parts and imperfect education,’ borne out by George’s surviving school books at Windsor. ‘His handwriting was not well-formed’, notes a recent commentator, ‘and the paper is often covered with ink stains, but we are left in no doubt of the Prince’s dutiful pursuit of knowledge’. In 1758 his tutor Lord Waldegrave judged the twenty-one-year-old prince to be ‘strictly honest but inclined to be censorious, with good powers of self-control, but with a tendency to sulk when thwarted’.


Nor was George the ideal diplomat or dinner guest. His frugality and thrift were particularly notorious. He liked simple food and drink: lamb or beef (on Sundays) with root vegetables, followed by a simple steamed pudding, eaten with all the family sitting round the table. He relished basic peasant food such as cow heels, pig’s heads and sauerkraut, and was a great tea drinker and consumer of fruit and of bread and butter. (In July 1795, the King ordered the royal household to serve nothing but brown bread in order to set an example of belt-tightening in time of war.) He rarely drank wine and never drank spirits. Instead, he prescribed rising early (he himself habitually rose at 5am), long walks and open windows. He kept the interiors of all the royal palaces at a ‘healthy chill’; in revenge, the rooms at George IV’s alternative court of Brighton Pavilion were stiflingly over-heated.

Less excusable was George’s meanness. He was especially miserly over his eldest son’s allowances. He even reserved to himself the Duchy of Cornwall’s revenues, although the Prince of Wales was titular Duke of Cornwall. He was more miserly with titles than any sovereign since Elizabeth I – ensuring, for example, that dukedoms were reserved for the royal family alone. (The exception was that of the creation of the 1st Duke of Northumberland in 1766.) In 1807 Malmesbury reported that there had been fifty-three applications for peerages, and that the King had refused them all.


The court of George III, too, was far from glittering. It was run according to strict rules of etiquette, which applied equally to the remodeled halls of Buckingham House (which he bought, and which is now Buckingham Palace), and the stultifying surrounds of George’s principal seaside retreat at Weymouth. Caricatures of the early 1790s showed George and his German wife Charlotte living lives of ‘humdrum ordinariness’. But, in the same way that the dull George V became the ideal imperial figurehead a century and a half later, this was an ordinariness which the country probably needed.

George preferred a life of quiet domestic harmony. He was a genuinely faithful spouse, and he appeared devoted to his fifteen children – at least while they were in their infancy. In keeping with the times, George was a strict, church-going Anglican who nevertheless admired Nonconformists. (This admiration was often returned; ‘When will England ever have a better Prince?’ sighed John Wesley.) George openly despised his grandfather George II, even while he was alive, for cohabiting with his German mistress after his wife’s death. George not only censured his sons for their amoral liaisons but even received Britain’s hero, Horatio Nelson, with marked coldness following the revelation of the Admiral’s affair with Lady Hamilton.


George’s adoration of his small children tended to evaporate as they grew older. It is perhaps significant that the death in infancy of his son Octavius, to which he constantly referred during his semi-conscious ravings of 1788-89, was the episode in his children’s lives that seemed to affect George III most, and it was widely suspected at the time that the untimely death of his daughter Princess Amelia in November 1810 was the factor that pushed him over the edge into permanent insanity.

The King’s fondness for his young family and his intellectual curiosity are difficult to equate with his treatment of his eldest son, the Prince of Wales, and in particular with the harsh and poorly-educated upbringing the latter suffered. Writing his pitiless account of George IV’s life in 1830, Robert Huish was quick to blame the Prince’s parents both for his poor education and for the vices he had managed to master even before he came of age. Huish was not the first nor the last to depict George III’s court as one of Teutonic tediousness, infected with the lurking bacillus of continental absolutism. The young Prince’s education was specifically designed ‘to ingraft the free and independent spirit of the British constitution on the despotic and absolute principles of German aristocracy’.

The King and Queen’s reaction to their eldest son’s evident desire to escape the stifling straitjacket of home life was to restrict his social parameters still further. ‘I shall not permit the going to balls or assemblies at private houses’, the King informed the Prince in 1780; ‘As to masquerades you already know my disapprobation of them in this country, and I cannot by any means agree to any of my children going to them’. The strict guidelines he drew up for his eighteen-year-old son included directions on when to go to church, how to travel, and with whom he should consort. Small wonder that the sensuous young Prince rebelled.

In contrast to many of the monarchs on the Continent, too, George III never involved himself in his son’s education – except to administer a beating when the latter was deemed to have transgressed (which was often). More worryingly, the King never attempted to verse the Prince in matters of parliamentary practice, statesmanship or foreign policy. Instead, he sent his son a torrent of advice ‘on the propriety of your conduct’. In particular, the King urged him to remember that he had been placed in his privileged position by God, urging his son to ‘place ever your chief care on obeying the commands of your Creator. Every hour will shew you that no comfort can be obtained without that’.

The best type of education, in George’s view, was a military one (although not even this option was offered to the Prince of Wales). George III himself knew all of the army list, the names of all navy units, and the details of the uniform of every regiment by heart. He delighted in his self-invented ‘Windsor uniform’, which he designed for everyday wear at the castle after 1786. Blue, red and gold, it borrowed its inspiration from the militaristic court disciplines of Frederick the Great of Prussia and its decoration from the hunting livery his father Prince Frederick had designed in 1729 – and also, more pertinently, from the colors of the national flag. By 1786, Fanny Burney noted, it was being worn not only by the King and his sons but ‘by all men who belong to his Majesty and come into his presence at Windsor’.


George III’s achievements in the arts remain decidedly impressive. His collecting and building did not earn him public opprobrium, as did George IV’s, nor were his cultural activities seen as politically suspect, like Charles I’s. Most celebrated of his artistic endeavors was George’s establishment of the Royal Academy in 1768. Significantly, during his recovery from illness in December 1788, the King turned to architectural drawing as a means of calming therapy. Unlike the Prince Regent, George III built and remodeled, but was never architecturally profligate. Designs for a new Richmond Palace, first made in 1765, came to nothing; meanwhile, to save on costs while Buckingham House was redesigned, George stripped old royal residences such as Hampton Court (abandoned after his grandmother’s death in 1738) and Kensington Palace of their contents.

George III carried his staunch patriotism into other areas of the arts. He showed himself to be a consistently keen supporter of native ceramic factories. Chelsea, Worcester and Wedgwood (Josiah Wedgwood was made Potter to the King) were all patronized in a way that his eldest son, for all his fine connoisseurship, was never to emulate. New furniture for Buckingham House was from the successful British cabinetmakers Vile and Cobb. A skilful musician and enthusiastic concert-goer, even after blindness took hold in 1806, George was a supporter of both native-born and émigré British composers. He admired the eight-year-old Mozart on his visit to London in 1794, and throughout his life remained a fan of Handel, whose original scores he bought and whose works he knew by heart.

George was also a scientific patron. Like Louis XVI, he was a keen horologist, and was able to reassemble even the most complicated watches, and he amassed an impressive set of clocks for Buckingham House. He was the principal patron of the astronomer William Herschel, giving him both an annual pension and £4,000 for a 40-foot telescope at his Slough home. In 1768 Chambers built the King an observatory at Kew. The King took the initiative in medical matters, too. The Prince of Wales was inoculated against smallpox in March 1766, a precaution which demonstrated the enthusiasm with which his parents espoused the latest scientific advances. Most famously, ‘Farmer George’ ran one farm at Richmond and three at Windsor, where he bred cattle and sheep. Importing sheep from Spain and developing the ancestor of what became known as the Merino, he supported numerous agricultural innovations, and indeed corresponded (under an assumed name) with the agricultural commentator Arthur Young on these and other pressing agricultural issues.


Given that George III liked a classic English Sunday roast followed by a steamed pudding, you could do worse to celebrate his birthday than with roast beef and jam roly-poly. If you want to be slightly (not greatly) more upscale you could roast a chicken stuffed with forcemeat balls – a popular dish in 18th-century England down to Victorian times. Here’s a period recipe for the forcemeat:

Take a little fat bacon, beat it in a marble mortar, take two anchovies, two or three pigeons livers, chop them together; add a little lemon-peel shred, a little beaten mace, nutmeg, cayenne, stale bread crumbs, and beef-suet an equal quantity, mix all together with an egg.

Naturally there are no quantities given. I’d suggest 1½ cups of breadcrumbs and work from there. I’d also suggest cutting way back on the suet — ½ cup should be plenty. Use a food processor to chop the bacon, anchovies, and liver coarsely. I suspect you’ll need to use chicken liver. Spices to taste, of course. Mix everything together thoroughly. It’s a good trick to take a little of the forcemeat and sauté it gently for a few minutes to get a sense of how the cooked product will work out. Don’t overstuff the chicken. I roast mine at 500°F for 35 to 40 minutes depending on the size of the bird. Serve with roast potatoes, carrots, and parsnips (and brown bread!).

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