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book review

King George III ruled Great Britain and its empire for the six decades between 1760 and 1820.National Portrait Gallery, London

  • Title: George III: The Life and Reign of Britain’s Most Misunderstood Monarch
  • Author: Andrew Roberts
  • Genre: Biography and HIstory
  • Publisher: Random House UK
  • Pages: 656

He was the longest serving monarch in British history, the most misunderstood king of England until and perhaps including Edward VII, the greatest villain in the conventional narrative of early America, one of the most underrated figures in all of history – and the subject of one of the most compelling royal biographies of the contemporary period.

Andrew Roberts’s chronicle of the long passage of George III smashes assumptions, clarifies mysteries, establishes new perspectives and brings to life a figure demonized in American textbooks as a tyrant, celebrated in parts of Canada where Loyalists flocked for succour and safety, diminished in popular folklore as a syphilitic madman, and ridiculed in the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical Hamilton that has played to adoring audiences on both sides of the American border. If anyone is due a make-over, or at least a good looking-over, it is the king who ruled Great Britain and its empire for the six decades between 1760 and 1820.

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Roberts calls George “the most unfairly traduced sovereign in the long history of the British monarchy” and in nearly 700 pages unpacks the man and his era, finding a sovereign who took seriously the responsibilities of his role at the end of the Enlightenment and the beginning of the Industrial Age; who cared deeply about crown and country; who defied the image of oppressor sowed by American revolutionaries; who considered himself both the personification and curator of British traditions; who ruled sensibly and responsibly; and who, despite five bouts of mental illness, applied his mind to his role with depth and dignity.

This is a man whom Thomas Paine called ‘’the cruellest sovereign tyrant of this age”; George Macaulay Trevelyan, in his landmark History of England, spoke of “the unbending stubbornness of George III.” Then again, Labour Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin considered him his hero, telling an American, “if he hadn’t been so stupid, you wouldn’t have been strong enough to come to our rescue in the war.”

This new perspective on George springs from the judgment of Roberts, one of the pre-eminent biographers of the age, reigning in his sphere in much the way his subjects – Napoleon, Winston Churchill, now George III – did in theirs.

What emerges is a monarch who worked hard and thought hard, often facing formidable opposition from his ministers, as he did from William Pitt the Elder, William Pitt the Younger, and other worthies in episode after episode. He ultimately won, for example, parliamentary support for the 1763 Treaty of Paris that gave Canada (and, among other places, Cape Breton Island, Florida, Senegal and an assortment of Caribbean islands) to Britain. The backstory is fascinating: There was some thought that returning Canada to France might have a felicitous side effect – sealing the loyalty of the 13 American colonies to their protectors in London. That didn’t happen; the loyalty of the colonies petered out, and the British imperial project in short order was shaken to its foundation.

“[W]hereas before the Treaty of Paris Britain had been one of the major European colonial powers, after it she was the predominant imperial one,” Roberts writes. “This would, of course, store up trouble for the future, and no one thought the peace ‘perpetual.’” Nor did George expect a peculiar consequence of granting Quebec the right to have its own assembly, delivering it “the same rights and freedoms as Massachusetts, a fact that the latter soon came bitterly to resent.”

At the centre of this volume, and of George’s life, is the struggle to rule, and then to subdue, those 13 colonies, which grew to want to throw off the shackles they felt had been placed on them by Britain.

George and his ministers regarded taxes upon the colonists as legitimate levies to underwrite their protection, a notion that was misunderstood across the Atlantic and led to catastrophe for George and to independence for the United States. “The idea that the Americans might baulk at paying for their own protection – not a penny of any of George III’s taxes on Americans was ever spent on anyone except Americans – did not occur to civil servants until far too late,” Roberts argues. They, and for a time George, looked at the arrangement as a fair exchange: We provide their security, they help pay for it. They failed to understand how anyone reasonably could look at this relationship differently and underestimated the number of Americans who did.

Roberts makes it clear that George grasped this more swiftly than many in Parliament and dismisses the rebels’ perspective. “Taxes were in fact exceptionally light,” Roberts writes, “and a true tyrant would have imposed a large administrative presence in America, ruling his downtrodden masses with a salaried bureaucracy, secret police, armed forces and so on.”

No matter. George miscalculated by persisting “in regarding [Americans] paternalistically as wayward children in need of a firm hand instead of fully grown adults who now deserved their independence.” The American revolutionaries pressed on, eventually prevailing and breaking free from Britain, and from George.

“It is ironic that had King George indeed been the ruthless despot that Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson made him out to be, Britain might have won the war,” Roberts argues. “Because he was in fact a civilized, good-natured, Christian and enlightened monarch who worked entirely through the Cabinet and Parliament, and was subject to moral and ethical restraints as well as a desire to be a good Patriot King to all his subjects – including, crucially, his American ones – he did not fight the kind of scorched-earth campaign that every contemporary despotic power would have fought.”

Now to what was called “the king’s malady,” which consisted of mood swings, frothing at the mouth, hours-long monologues, bizarre behaviours, incoherent ravings – symptoms calmed mostly by playing cards, singing and reading in Latin. At one point the king presided over a change of government while confined to a straitjacket; later he was placed in a straitjacket every day and eventually became blind and deaf.

The health of the king became a court preoccupation (and later one for historians) but Roberts argues that the king suffered not from porphyria, the diagnosis favoured by generations of historians, but instead from recurrent manic-depressive psychosis. That is almost irrelevant in historical terms, and perhaps even in this volume, for the George who emerges from these pages is rational, responsible and, ultimately, regal.

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