The Players

If there is one thing we have all had enough of this past year, it’s party politics. So lucky for you, party politics is exactly what we will be focusing on this week! We aim to please here at ULTC…I would like to apologize in advance to my experts in 18th century British politics – my discussion of the political consequences of George’s reign will be rudimentary. There is only so much room for discussion in this blog post without subjecting you all to War and Peace!

Whigging Out

Here are the basics: In the late 1600s, two political ideologies were emerging in England, with one of the main differentiators being religion. If you will remember back to our series on Henry VIII, England had historically been a Catholic kingdom until Henry rejected the Pope and was excommunicated. A century later, England had become a predominantly Protestant country; however, there were many who were still loyal to the Catholic religion, albeit mostly in secret. The opposing views affected more than just how people chose to pray in their own homes, it also had consequences for those in the line of succession. At this time, debate was heating up as to whether  James II (then the Duke of York) should be allowed to inherit the crown, based solely on the fact that he was openly Catholic. The “Whigs”, as they came to be known, were against James and the “Tories” supported his right to the crown. 

By the time George III became king in 1760, the definitions of Whig and Tory had evolved and, under George’s reign, concrete parties with specific political views began to emerge. The Tory Party “broadly represented the interests of the country gentry, the merchant classes, and official administerial groups” and the Whig Party “came to represent the interests of religious dissenters, industrialists, and others who sought electoral, parliamentary, and philanthropic reforms”. (Britannica) In 1783, Great Britain elected a 24 year old Prime Minister from the Tory party – William Pitt the Younger (not to be confused with his father, also named William Pitt, who had been Prime Minister as well). On the other side of the aisle, leading the Whigs, was Charles James Fox. They were the Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr of British politics, constantly butting heads and forming a rivalry that defined a generation of party politics. More importantly, George III loathed Fox, and the feeling was mutual for Charles. It was no secret how they felt about each other and so it was all the worse that George III’s eldest song and heir, George Jr.,  openly supported Fox and the Whig Party. Kind of similar to when I rooted for the Yankees for a period of time just to upset my father, a Red Sox fan. George and George Jr. disagreed on everything and Fox did nothing to try to bridge this divide. Instead, he exacerbated it by supporting a motion to give Jr. a bigger yearly allowance, something the king was adamantly against seeing how his son had a propensity for gambling all his money away. In turn, George Jr. was unhappy with his father for denying him a meaningful military position, driving him further into the waiting arms of his father’s political nemesis.

A classic game of tug of war between the Tories and Whigs as they fought for influence over the crown. loc.gov.

Bros Before Geo’s

When George fell ill for the first time in 1788, it was widely believed that he would not survive. In response, the Government began the first (and as it turned out, the first of many) plans to make George Jr. the regent until the inevitable happened and the king passed. While the Prince was pumped about the prospect of his upcoming promotion, he was pretty much the only one. The government’s current ministers were getting nervous as George Jr. began gathering his Whig bros and promising them influential positions, which would mean a change in power from the currently dominant Tories to the party led by the king’s enemy, Fox. Contentious debate broke out in the Government about: 1. If George Jr. should in fact be nominated as the regent (just because he was the heir to the throne didn’t mean he would automatically be the regent) and 2. What the extent of his authority would be. Unfortunately for George Jr., his father began to show signs of a miraculous recovery. On April 23, 1789, George III made a triumphant return to public life when he attended a church service, much to the delight of the people. And to the disappointment of Jr.

Oh look, it’s every bro I ever met at a frat house (aka George Jr.). historic-uk.com.


The year 1801 was a significant one in British history, as Great Britain (Scotland and England) joined with Ireland to form what we know today as the United Kingdom (minus Southern Ireland). This is why you will often see George III’s title written as “King of Great Britain and Ireland, because for the first years of his reign, they were not one entity. It was not a happy union by any means and, like most issues at this time, religion was at the heart of the problem. Two hundred and seventy years after our boy Henry VIII had turned his back on the Catholic Church, the effects of his decision could still be seen front and center. For two centuries, Catholics had lacked the same rights as their fellow Protestant citizens – unable to own property, vote or run for office. By the late 18th century, many of these laws had been dialed back a bit, but there was still a long way to go. When Great Britain absorbed Ireland, a country with a large Catholic population, the intolerance of the laws was even harder to ignore. There was one important man in the government who was a proponent of dramatically reversing the Catholic discrimination laws – William Pitt the Younger. Unfortunately for Pitt (and for Catholics) George III was ‘bitterly anti-Catholic” (Britannica). And so, Pitt found that he was in direct opposition to the man who was at one time his most important ally – the King himself. 

As you can see from this diagram, there is a lot going on when it comes to the various names one might use to refer to George’s kingdom. brilliantmaps.com.

Why is all of this relevant to our “mad” king? In 1801, George III again fell critically ill, this time spending several days in a coma. And again, his family and his country prepared for his death. But George would not go easily. In less than a year’s time, it appeared as if he had made another recovery and “in the summer of 1803 he was said to be perfectly fit again” (Hibbert, 321). Last week Riley presented several fascinating theories as to what could have been the cause of George’s mental and physical ailments, but George himself was convinced he knew the catalyst – that it was the stress of Pitt’s campaign to restore Catholic rights that drove him to the brink of death. In fact, Pitt felt so bad about his apparent role in the King’s decline that he “swore he would no longer bring up the matter of Catholic rights again, because he feared the stress of it had contributed to the King’s illness” (Hibbert, 316). George suddenly found that men from both parties, who could rarely agree on anything, agreed that they had pity for the King and did not wish to contribute in any way to additional health scares.

Mind Control

This theory that Pitt’s campaign was the catalyst to George’s decline lost its legs by 1804 when the King was again sick. Although he eventually made a physical recovery, those around him could not deny that his mind and personality were much changed – in particular his habit of long and hurried speech was worse than ever. Even the Speaker of the House of Commons at the time claimed that the King’s “disorder had taken the ‘decided character of a complete mental derangement’ ’” (Hibbert, 340). It had been a rough six years for George, and those close to him were feeling the strain as well. Queen Charlotte especially began to crack under the pressure and the fight to control the narrative of the King’s health led to quarrels between George’s wife and their sons. And so “the Queen and most of her children had signed a declaration to the effect that the Cabinet, not the Royal Family, must make all the necessary decisions about His Majesty’s treatment in future” (Hibbert, 345)”. In short, Pitt was now in charge of making George’s important medical decisions. 

George III holding an (almost) to scale Napoleon. The French general eventually surrendered to the British in 1815.Metropolitan Museum of Art.

As George’s health continued to decline, his popularity rose. It was not only compassion and pity that endeared him to his people, but also British military victories against the French, who had declared war on Great Britain following the French Revolution. George, even in his sickness, was seen “as a stolid, reliable, honest, dependable monarch as well as a national symbol” (Hibbert, 390). But all of the popularity and riches in the world could not save George from the unimaginable heartbreak that was to deal him his final mental blow.

A Beautiful Mind

In 1810, George’s favorite daughter, Princess Amelia, died tragically of tuberculosis. George was inconsolable and this time he would not make one of his miraculous recoveries. In fact, he periodically had to be reminded that Amelia had passed, for he often believed that she was still alive. It was abundantly clear at this point that someone must officially be named regent, and this time Jr. won the prize. On February 6, 1811, the Regency Act was passed. In what could be viewed as a sign of growth, George Jr. did not actually replace the government’s ministers with all of his Whig friends, as he had been planning on doing back in 1789. What led to this mature decision? Jr. claimed that he did so because he was, after all, only acting for his father for the time being” (Hibbert, 398). As it turned out, this decision had profound effects on Britain’s history – the Whig Party at the time was ready to quit the war with France and essentially let Napoleon have his way with Europe. If George Jr. had brought these men into the fold, who knows if the British would have remained in the war long enough to defeat Napoleon in 1815!

A depiction of George III towards the end of his life – a far cry from the young and energetic man we were first introduced to. en.wikipedia.org.

The last decade of King George III’s life was sadly one of isolation. He was deaf and blind, but he had managed to outlive his wife. When George passed in January of 1820, at the age of 81, the people of the United Kingdom celebrated. However, they weren’t celebrating his death; they celebrated his life and what he had accomplished in the midst of the relentless battles against his own mind and body. His missteps early in his reign were largely forgotten and instead George was “widely seen as a symbol of the greatness of the British constitution (Black, 413)”. Over the years, George has dropped off the map of British history as a result of the rise in interest in the Tudors and the Stuarts (guilty as charged). Unfortunately for this king, his name was thrown back into the limelight because of the emphasis on his “madness”, which over the years has been portrayed in numerous movies, plays, and television shows. What has been lost with time is the humanity of George – he was a devout family man who didn’t drink or gamble or indulge in parties and food like many of his contemporaries. He loved his children (even Jr. in the end) and was a domestic man at heart. He also loved his country, which was probably why he was involved in politics to the extent that he was, as he tried to bring the same type of morality and integrity to the government as he did to his own home. George was far from perfect for sure, but he deserves to be remembered for more than his lowest moments. As do we all.


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/.

“Charles James Fox.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 20 Jan. 2021, http://www.britannica.com/biography/Charles-James-Fox.

“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.

“Whig and Tory.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., http://www.britannica.com/topic/Whig-Party-England.

“William Pitt, the Younger.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 19 Jan. 2021, http://www.britannica.com/biography/William-Pitt-the-Younger.

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