King George III
King George III; drawing by David Levine

As 1976 looms nearer and nearer, one must expect a deluge of biographies, both American and English, of Washington, Franklin, Jefferson. Indeed all the Founding Fathers will be portrayed in every conceivable way in every possible medium. In this tidal wash will follow a smaller wave of biographies of those Englishmen who were directly involved in the American Revolution—politicians, military men, and naturally the monarch, George III, who was held in the Declaration of Independence as directly responsible. In American textbooks George III has rarely, if ever, enjoyed good notices: he was stupid when not mad, prejudiced when not blindly obstinate, a Stuart in wolf’s clothing, near tyrant, father of corruption, the debaser of the House of Commons, an arrogant monarch who imposed his own will with the help of corrupt politicians whom he bribed with either money or honors.

This legend started early, as early as the Declaration, and sustained its black image generation after generation. English historians—particularly Sir George Otto Trevelyan—modified the image only to a lighter shade of gray. The treatment of George III differed in English and American textbooks not in fundamental interpretation, but largely in the strength of the language used. Of course, English historians were quicker to draw attention to George III’s temperamental difficulties. It was, however, an American psychoanalyst turned historian, Dr. Manfred Guttmacher, who, in his book America’s Last King (1941), first put forward the theory that George III was a manicdepressive and, indeed, so neurotic that much could be forgiven.

George III’s long haul back into respectability—at least for his politics—had begun, however, long before the appearance of Guttmacher’s biography. The tide turned for George III in the 1920s when a young Polish scholar, educated at Oxford, who had been forced to earn his living in America, planned to devote all of his formidable scholarly energies to the American Revolution. Lewis Namier decided, however, that it was essential to investigate what English politics, and particularly the House of Commons, were like in the 1760s, which he regarded rightly as the decisive decade; for after all it was the acts of the Commons that lay at the heart of the crisis—or so the young Lewis Namier felt.

By the time Namier died in 1960 his reputation in England had soared higher than that of any other professional historian since the time of Gibbon. But unlike Gibbon, he had few readers; and for twenty years, from 1929, when The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III was first published, to 1950, when he decided to devote the rest of his life to the history of Parliament in general and to the period 1754-1784 in particular, Namier’s work had very little impact. Neither his first book nor his second, England in the Age of the American Revolution, had more than a modest succès d’estime; indeed the second was not widely reviewed, although, quaintly enough, it was a review by G. M. Trevelyan, the son of Sir George Otto Trevelyan, the historian of the American Revolution whom Namier thought so totally misguided, that secured him the Chair of Modern History at Manchester University. Namier was very proud of what he considered to be this very generous response to Trevelyan’s review. But he persistently refused ever to review Trevelyan’s own books. His intellectual integrity was such that had he done so he would have hacked them to pieces, so with grave pride and deep satisfaction he refused the temptation.

Indeed throughout the Thirties Namier gave up eighteenth-century history for excellent reasons. Although he had never been inside a synagogue until his twenties (his father in Poland had lapsed into Catholicism), he became not a Jew but an ardent Zionist long before the rise of Hitler. In the Thirties, desperately aware of the Nazi menace to civilization, he devoted himself to exposing the inanities and follies, as he conceived them, of the diplomacies of England and France. As he was deeply conservative, the pacifism of the Labour Party was to him only another example of its stupidity and folly, and so there was no refuge for him in direct opposition to the national government.

During the Thirties, Namier was a lonely figure, along with a few conservatives like himself who feared Germany. His prophecies and fulminations were washed into obscurity by the deluge of 1939-1945, and by the end of the war, Namier, an aging man, not so very far from retirement, looked finished. To the very few scholars, and they were very few, preoccupied with the politics of George III’s reign, his books were important and fundamental. One would have expected his reputation to have been restricted to a very limited group. Yet within ten years Namier was the most revered professional historian in England.


The political history of the first decade of George III’s reign became the stamping ground of a school of professional historians, a field of very sharp debate. Indeed any bright schoolboy of the Fifties was expected to master the growing literature. Such a boy might be ignorant of the Industrial Revolution, know next to nothing about what happened in America, but he had to know how the Whig factions divided over the Stamp Act, how baseless was the accusation that Bute was a Tory, or that George III behaved in any way unconstitutionally. He had to master the intricacies of electoral management and become an expert on the importance of the secret service fund. He could tell you the genealogy of the Shropshire Whigs or assess the importance of the Buller family vis à vis the Admiralty at East Looe. He had also to learn namier’s fundamental lesson—that the Whig and Tory parties of the 1760s were well-nigh meaningless, an illustration of his belief that ideas were of little importance when in competition with honors, places, and profits. (This might seem an odd contradiction in a passionate Zionist, but then Namier was full of contradictions, rarely perceived because of the brilliance and power of his immediate dialectic.)

When Namier’s work first appeared, his scorn for ideology and his realism about men’s hunger for honor, power, place, and profit in the 1760s were at odds with the mood of the Thirties and the ferocious clash between communism and fascism. It was the Fifties that made Namier fashionable, a time when ideologies were weakening, an era that took comfort in foggy dreams of “consensus” and in the politics of realism. The conservative forces in society were dominant, not only in government but also among academics. The closer one analyzed political history, the more one realized the unchanging motives of human nature, men pursuing power and profit, haunted and sometimes handicapped by local loyalties, at times destroyed by personal alliances, at others ruined by political ambition. Neither altruism nor dedication to principle had a place in this world.

This view helped to devalue political ideas, which are rarely conservative, and to dismiss as irrelevant or hypocritical the radical attitudes and protests of the late eighteenth-century England, many of which had been directed specifically against George III and his Court. Above all it became very easy to dismiss the Whig interpretation of history.

Namier’s work exonerated George III from charges of deliberate bribery and corruption. He showed the absurdity of the belief that there was a large party of King’s Friends in the Commons, there only to do the King’s bidding, as was claimed by Sir George Otto Trevelyan, who also saw them as a prime cause of the American troubles. George III in Namier’s hands became a hard-working king, obstinate maybe, but a man who learned to handle the politicians. Namier showed him to have had great respect for the English constitution although his interpretation was a rigid one. George III’s weakness was not his policies but his misfortune to be mentally unstable—a manic-depressive, a condition that did not have serious political repercussions until the latter half of his reign.

So George III’s responsibility for the American policy became that of his ministers, from Grenville to North. He was firm when they were firm and compromised when they compromised. Whatever his personal attitude, they made the decisions and he accepted them. However, this leans toward naïveté, for no politician was unaware of George III’s conviction that compromise was wrong and coercion the correct policy, and no politician could be uninfluenced by the King’s views.

Moreover, there was a sleight of hand in this interpretation of George III’s attitude to the constitution. Namier never asked if George III’s interpretation of what was constitutional in the 1760s and what was not was the same as that of the leading politicians, as well as of the politically conscious part of the nation. Indeed Namier dismissed public opinion as irrelevant, ignoring the endless pamphlets, squibs, ballads, and caricatures that poured from the London presses in the 1760s, ignoring even the virulent diatribes of Junius as well as the obscenities of the gutter press. Yet how can one ignore the fact that George III disturbed the political nation in the 1760s more profoundly than any other monarch had done since James II? His actions against Whig power and his blatant support of the Earl of Bute against the Whigs began to radicalize and polarize politics—of this there can be no doubt. It is intensely relevant to any study of political history.

Yet increasingly the King has been built up as a misunderstood and maligned monarch. There was still the fact of his madness, of course, a blemish on the burgeoning image of a misunderstood, hard-working, much loved, dedicated king.


In 1968 Ida Macalpine and Richard Hunter produced a huge but sweetsmelling red herring in the British Medical Journal. Analyzing George III’s doctors’ reports, they decided that he suffered from attacks of porphyria—a metabolic disturbance that affects the nervous system and, in its severe manifestations, the brain. Later, much extended to include the Tudors and Stuarts, they produced George III and the Mad Business (1969), which found porphyria widespread in the English royal family. So the King was never mad, only ill, and between illnesses quite sane. Most historians, particularly Ian Christie and John Brooke, leaped aboard the medical bandwagon. Most of Namier’s supporters followed, with only the late Romney Sedgwick keeping his cool. Unfortunately for them, the medical profession, more used, perhaps, to assessing evidence carefully and skillfully than historians, did not accept the porphyria thesis: the evidence is too scant, George’s symptoms were too ill-described for any satisfactory modern diagnosis to be made; they would fit equally other forms of mental illness.

As has been pointed out, the matter could easily be settled—the descendants of George III, of whom there are plenty because of the fecundity of Queen Victoria and her descendants, only have to be tested and porphyria would be proved or disproved. Not surprisingly, the Prince of Wales, in his brief introduction to John Brooke’s new biography of George III, shows some caution about the porphyria issue: it is a hereditary disease that the royal family would rather not be saddled with. Brooke, however, who gnashed his teeth ferociously when anyone impugned the diagnosis of porphyria when it was first made, still sticks to his beliefs. George III, as he sees him, was never mad, only ill for short periods, until old age and a lifetime of attacks pitched him over the edge in 1810.

This will not do. After his severe mental illness in 1788-1789 the King did not fully recover. His obsession with business grew less; his relations with his wife deteriorated not steadily but by fits and starts, and those with his children were little better; he was more quickly agitated and flurried; and he himself, understandably, was frightened of losing his wits again. The balance of his mind before 1788-1789 is open to question: there are many stages of mental unbalance between complete sanity and raving lunacy.

But, of course, this theory ought to be thrown in the trash can. Everyone, including George III himself, thought after 1788-1789 that he was at times mentally deranged and treated him as such. And furthermore George himself from the early Sixties worried about his mental health. He speaks of his “ulcered mind” and of his “flurries.” His mental balance worried his family and his ministers. As his reign proceeded, politicians who were sympathetic to him and aware of his concern became uneasy about putting political pressure on him. Of course this served to reinforce the intransigence of his policy.

This is where the red herring has been too efficacious. It has distracted attention from George III’s political activities at a time when Brooke and others are inventing a Tory myth every whit as unhistorical as the old Whig interpretation that Namier so rightly and so thoroughly destroyed. In consequence the new biography of George III by John Brooke is very unsatisfactory at both levels—the personal and the political.

The private life of a monarch has public effects. So George III’s relations with his wife, his children, and their mistresses and wives are important for understanding both George III himself and the public reaction to the monarchy. But Brooke skids through these issues as quickly as possible, occasionally giving the King a light tap on the knuckles in a parsonical way. There is no understanding at all of the psychological strains in George III which produced in him such violent and ambivalent emotions toward his sons, coldness alternating with warmth, rigorous restriction, even exile, followed by reconciliation. The King’s attitude to his daughters’ lives was neurotic, neither more nor less.

But then psychological insight is not Mr. Brooke’s forte. Neither does he show much skill at constructing a biography. Guided by the ghostly hand of Sir Lewis Namier, he spends nearly half of his book on the functional intricacies of the 1760s in which the King slowly learned to be a forceful wheeler and dealer. This—and more particularly the analysis of Grenville, prime minister from 1753 to 1765—is the best part of the book, although written in a curiously hectoring school-masterly style that Namier would have deplored. But even here the King’s personality—his rigidity, his opaque and immovable belief in the virtue of his own attitudes—is never properly developed or analyzed.

This is the period that Brooke, through his work as assistant to Namier, knows well, but once he ventures beyond the 1760s he is often superficial and always jejune. One example must suffice.

Many and various were the causes of the movement which historians have denominated the American revolution. Perhaps we shall understand these better if we give the movement a more fitting name, It was not a revolution in the sense in which France experienced a revolution in the eighteenth century or Russia in the twentieth. It did not lead to the emergence of a new governing class with new principles of government [my italics]. It was a rebellion, like that of the Dutch against the King of Spain in the sixteenth century or the Israelites against the Pharoah of Egypt as narrated in the Book of Exodus. It was the assertion by a colonial people of its right to self-government: the first great nationalist rising of modern times: the prototype of the rising of the Irish nation against Great Britain, of the South American nations against Spain, and of many others in Europe, Africa and Asia. The Declaration of Independence marks the emergence of nationalism as a force in modern history.

“It did not lead to the emergence of a new governing class with new principles of government.” In what other country was the aristocratic principle abolished by 1776—what other country had declared every citizen’s right to equality and to happiness? Where else, when the Constitution was forged, was the judiciary given such absolute independence of judgment? It is hard to imagine that Mr. Brooke has even read the Declaration of Independence or studied the American Constitution. His discussion of Whiggism is even more ludicrous.

But far worse is his biased treatment of Burke, Fox, and the Rockingham Whigs, who are seen as purely self-seeking politicians, motivated by intense dislike of George III, pursuing ideas of constitutional control of the monarchy that were totally at variance with their time. That a considerable number of politically aware people thought as they did is blandly ignored.

The second half of Brooke’s biography, which rushes precipitately from 1770 to 1820, is also far from satisfactory, either in its political or its personal aspects. Although on occasion there is a sentence implying that George III could be unjust, the chapter on his relations with his family is inadequate. This is supposed to be a biography, not merely a political biography, and George III’s relations with his son and heir need to be fully investigated, for they are highly complex.

As a young man, and later in life, the Prince of Wales possessed exceptional human qualities—generosity, warmth of heart, brilliant high spirits, exceptional courtesy. He found it difficult to keep up a vendetta, and he was easily moved to affection for the King and for the Queen. Nevertheless he was treated quite abysmally, as were his brothers and sisters, and in a way that was likely to intensify the weaknesses of his character. The Prince of Wales’s unfortunate marriage is quickly dealt with, and the copious records available at Windsor which provide a proper assessment of the appalling tactlessness and sensuality of the Princess of Wales are scarcely used.

However, the book is not without useful information, and in its description of the King’s library, of his musical and agricultural tastes, it stresses what should be stressed, that George III was not an uncivilized dolt. Mental trouble he certainly had; he was an impossible parent undeniably, without doubt obstinate; and his capacity to concentrate on the most reactionary line of approach in politics was unflinching. These qualities cannot be ignored, and yet we should not, and certainly Mr. Brooke will never allow us to, overlook many amiable qualities. Here we come to one weakness of the new Tory interpretation of George III.

Yet before dealing with this major criticism, a word about Ayling’s biography. This is an immeasurably better constructed and written book than Brooke’s: nevertheless the bias is the same and the omission of almost all consideration of George III’s impact on the public, apart from his occasional moments of popularity, is equally disastrous.

Those who wish to obtain a sharp and realistic picture of George III should turn neither to Brooke’s nor to Ayling’s biography, but to the late Professor Aspinall’s volumes of his correspondence and that of his son.* This was a monumental piece of scholarship done by one man at a cost of about half that of a volume of the Franklin Papers. There one sees the King properly displayed—his irritability, his intellectual shortcomings, his obsession with minutiae, his hopelessness as a parent. Aspinall knew his limitations and he rarely strayed from editing to writing history, but he did provide, by monumental industry, the material for an assessment of George III in action as a monarch. It is a pity that his labors have not been used with greater skill, for his work should be the foundation of any biography of George III after 1780.

A king is always more than a king in action at his desk or talking to his ministers; he is a public person as no one else in his nation is. George III must be understood as a family man, within the circle of the court, as an over-active head of the executive, as a major factor in parliamentary politics. But we must also understand that his actions and the image, false or true, that he projected were of importance in the “political nation”—that part of English society which read newspapers, bought pamphlets, stuck up polemical prints on their walls, and which possessed, if they could not always exercise it, the right to vote. However, by the 1760s and the 1770s the political nation had spread far beyond those who possessed the vote. The English nation was more politically minded than any in Europe, and between 1760 and 1782 it was deeply divided. From 1782 to 1815 it was less so, but far from united.

This disunity was not due to a gullible public misled by firebrands such as Wilkes or Junius, or deceived by such an archhypocrite as Burke; nor is it a mirage created by wicked Whig historians. A considerable segment of the nation loathed George III in the Sixties and Seventies, regarded him as little better than a Stuart, and felt that much of the responsibility for the American troubles lay on his shoulders. Whether true or false, this was a factor of politics, helping to forge a new attitude to the constitution and the monarchy.

What helped to change the public image of the King and swing more of the nation to his favor (although he retained many enemies until he became finally mad) was the fact of war. Once the American Revolution became a shooting war that involved European powers, patriotism began to reassert itself, and the radicalism and strong antimonarchical feeling which had been widespread in the 1760s and early 1770s diminished somewhat; and of course this feeling strengthened first in the men of property. Not surprisingly George III’s popularity was at its highest in the 1790s when England was threatened by France, but even then there were many people who hated him, who read Tom Paine not for pleasure but from conviction, and who hooted the King in the streets of London in 1795.

There were powerful forces in England, second cousins to those in America, who regarded George III as a monarch with too much power, as a hated bulwark of reaction and conservatism. The political principles which they held—wider political participation, limitation of monarchical powers, diminution of corruption in public life, greater toleration for dissenters—were more just than those held by the King, and had in the end to be conceded. What the new Tory historians do not see is that George III polarized two views of politics, two attitudes to the constitution. From Namier onward the central issues of George III’s reign have been pushed to one side. We have had enough of his personality, more than enough of whether or not he overstepped the very shadowy boundaries of constitutional proprieties, and far too much about his relations with politicians.

We need a study of the King in relation to his nation, the King as a factor in public politics. Politics, not political management, but politics—issues, concepts of rights, arguments about obligations, the nature of authority in which George III and kingship were involved—were living issues throughout his long reign. Any biography that avoids the depth, the intensity of the radical reaction to George III will not only fail to understand the King, Burke, Fox, and the Rockinghams, but also the significance of his reign.

This Issue

December 14, 1972