If you grew up in the United States school system, (and we have many international readers, so not all of you did!) then your early American history lessons taught you all about how the colonists rose up against the British and won their freedom from the tyrant on the throne across the pond. The tyrant was King George III and over three centuries after his death, he is most known for two things, neither of which are ideal claims to fame: 1. Losing the American colonies and 2. Being mad. However, if you have been with Uneasy Lies the Crown over the last year, you know there is always more to the story. For George this is especially true – there was much more to this king than what was included in your 4th grade textbooks.
Appall of My Eye
Our story starts on June 4, 1738 with the birth of George in London. He was the oldest son of Frederick, Prince of Wales and Princess Augusta, and the grandson of George II, the current King of Great Britain. While sons were generally prized possessions during this time, Prince Frederick was absolutely loathed by his parents, ensuring that little George III grew up among constant tension among family members. They hated Frederick so much that his mother, Caroline, once said (out loud, to other people), “I wish the ground would open this moment and sink the monster to the lowest hole in hell” (Hibbert). Right about now I am feeling really great about that one time my mom told me she was tired of putting up with my “crappy shenanigans”.
Despite the constant tension between father and son, Frederick was actually a pretty good father to his own children and specifically stressed the importance of education. In fact, George III was the first British monarch to study science as part of his curriculum! We stan an enlightened king! So it must have been devastating for George when he lost his father in 1751, before he was even 13 years old.
Four Score and Seven Years War
Frederick’s death was not only tragic but also historically significant for the future of the British monarchy. Because Frederick was the Prince of Wales when he died, his oldest son, George, inherited the title and became the new Prince of Wales and heir to the throne. It would be another 10 years before George became king, but even after a decade of preparation, he was perhaps not ready to inherit the kingdom in the condition it was in. George was crowned King George III in 1760 and at this time Great Britain was four years into the Seven Years’ War, or the French and Indian War as we call it in the States. In Europe, Great Britain was fighting alongside Prussia and Hanover against Russia, France, Austria, Sweden and Saxony. In the American colonies, Great Britain and France were at war over who would control the land south of Canada and north of Florida. Naturally, the Native Americans who lived on that land were involved in the bloodshed, hence the name of the conflict that today’s Americans grow up using. By 1763, the war had concluded, bringing an end to the eventful first three years of George III’s reign.
We’re Not Gonna Take It
If George thought an end to the Seven Years’ War meant an end to Britain’s war woes, then he was sorely mistaken. By the mid-1760s, tension in American colonies was ramping up and several decisions by the British government only pissed off the colonists even more. Laws like the Stamp Act and the Townshend Acts were desperate attempts to dig the kingdom out of the massive debt it had accumulated during the war with France by collecting increased taxes from the colonies. And we all know what happened in 1773 with the Tea Act – the Boston harbor has never been the same. But even with these hugely unpopular orders, the king was not seen by the colonists as the source of their woes – that honor belonged to Parliament, which for many years was seen as the real enemy. That favorable opinion was swiftly reversed in 1775 when George rejected the document known as the Olive Branch Petition, a document in “which the colonists pledged their loyalty to the crown and asserted their rights as British citizens” (History of Mass). Much like my ex-boyfriend, George was not interested in compromising. The message from Britain was clear – if the colonists did not stand down, there would be war. Six years later when the British surrendered in Yorktown, the king found himself to be a pretty unpopular guy both in the colonies and at home, where George’s subjects were not impressed that they had spent precious resources and lives to fight their own people and came away with nothing. He was also seen as somewhat of a laughing stock by his fellow monarchs, with Catherine the Great claiming that “rather than sign the separation of thirteen provinces, like my brother George, I would have shot myself” (Black).
Mind Over Matter
Trouble on the outside had plagued George since he had taken the throne, but in the summer of 1788 trouble of a different and more concerning kind began to brew – trouble of the mind. At the age of 50, George was laid low with some kind of stomach illness, and although he physically recovered relatively soon, those around the king noticed that something was off. People who knew George were aware that he could be eccentric at times, but now his behavior seemed much stranger. He was constantly moving and spoke as if in a hurry, while being overly friendly and communicative with people he didn’t know. His recovery was short-lived and the stomach issues came back even worse, now bringing with it “agonizing cramp(s) in the legs and a rash on his arms” (Hibbert). And again, his behavior became increasingly alarming. He slept little, became angry and violent (even attacking his own son at one point), found himself unable to stop talking for hours at a time, and reminisced about women he used to court long before he was married. He even hallucinated that London had been flooded and that his pillow was his long-dead son. Servants were so desperate to control him that at times they would tie him down to his bed. George’s beloved wife Charlotte became desperate as well and the government began to make plans for a regency led by their eldest son, George Jr., the Prince of Wales. Remember, a regency was when the government appointed someone to make decisions in the monarch’s place in the event that he or she was too young or not capable of ruling for other reasons (sickness, traveling outside the country, etc.) However, the Regency Act was never passed as the king began to show signs of recovery beginning in early 1789, much to the delight of the British people. Unfortunately for George, he recovered just in time to face a brand new threat to his crown: unrest was taking shape in France and the consequences would reach far and wide.
The Blind Side
On July 14, 1789, in a scene chillingly similar to the events of the January 6th, 2021 Capitol riot, revolutionaries in Paris stormed a building called the Bastille, “a royal fortress and prison that had come to symbolize the tyranny of the Bourbon monarchs” (History.com). It was the beginning of years of violence and bloodshed in France, during which the French king and queen lost their heads and the monarchy was abolished. Luckily for those who wished to maintain the status quo in Great Britain, George was mentally stable at the outbreak of the turbulence and he was largely seen as an “object of compassion in his collapse” and “a symbol of the old English order for which the country was fighting” (Britannica). But the heightened tension and stress clearly took a toll on the now 63-year-old George, and in 1801, he fell ill again. This time, his illness was so severe he went into a coma. Again the king defied the odds and seemed to recover, but declined yet again in 1804. By now his body was frail and there was no way to hide his age and the “strange and uncharacteristic conduct” (Hibbert) he displayed. In fact, he could no longer stand to be around his own wife whom he had loved so much and relied on in his earlier days of sickness. If that were not enough, George’s eyesight was also rapidly declining and he eventually became blind.
King George III’s final mental break came in 1810 and was believed to be the result of the death of his beloved daughter, Princess Amelia. The need for a regent could no longer be denied and in February of 1811, George Jr. was officially made regent. By now the king had “retreated into a fantasy world in which the past was largely forgotten, the dead were alive, and the alive were dead” (Hibbert). With the condition of his mind and body (he was now also deaf in addition to being blind) it is truly amazing that George III lived for almost another decade, even outliving his wife Charlotte, who died in 1818. On January 29, 1820, King George III finally met his peace at the incredible age of 81. There were numerous times when it was assumed he would not make it through the night; nevertheless, George reigned over Great Britain for 59 years. The only British monarchs to wear the crown longer were Queen Victoria (63 years) and Queen Elizabeth II (68 years and counting). It was a 59 years that would have been stressful and difficult for even the most competent of men. Next week Riley will wade through the many theories of what plagued “America’s last king” as we attempt to understand the rollercoaster of the ailments he fought for over three decades.
Black, Jeremy. George III: America’s Last King. Yale University Press, 2008.
Brooks, Rebecca Beatrice, et al. “What Was the Olive Branch Petition?” History of Massachusetts Blog, 7 Mar. 2020, historyofmassachusetts.org/what-was-the-olive-branch-petition/.
“French Revolutionaries Storm the Bastille.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 24 Nov. 2009, http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/french-revolutionaries-storm-bastille.
“George III.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 25 Jan. 2021, http://www.britannica.com/biography/George-III.
Hibbert, Christopher. George III: a Personal History. Basic Books, 2020.
History.com Editors. “George III.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 9 Nov. 2009, http://www.history.com/topics/british-history/george-iii.
History.com Editors. “Revolutionary War.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 29 Oct. 2009, http://www.history.com/topics/american-revolution/american-revolution-history.
Kirsty.Oram. “George III (r. 1760-1820).” The Royal Family, 3 Aug. 2018, http://www.royal.uk/george-iii.
“What Was the Truth about the Madness of George III?” BBC News, BBC, 15 Apr. 2013, http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-22122407.
3 thoughts on “Mr. Misunderstood”