As you’ve probably discovered from my endless whining on Twitter and Facebook, I’ve been laid up with a slipped (or to be more medically correct “protruding”) disc in my lower spine. This has left me with a lot of reading time and I’ve been working my way through my pile of historical fiction books. I’ve travelled into the times of Richard III (twice – getting a bit sick of him now if truth be told), Charles I and Henry VIII (yes, also a bit bored of him). All these monarchs were described, at times, as tyrants. This got me to thinking about George III and the wording of the American Declaration of Independence: “a tyrant unfit to rule”. To be perfectly honest with you, I laughed out loud when I first read this. My research had centered on George the man, the husband, the father described in letters between his daughters as “the angel King”. To read of “Farmer George” written of like a scheming, cruel man seemed insane. But the more I thought about it, the more I realised there were elements of truth in the claim. Moreover, it got me wondering what exactly makes a tyrant.
To write from Queen Charlotte’s point of view in God Save the King, I had to be aware of, but not go into too much detail about the politics. Although Charlotte had a mind ready to engage with such issues, she was taught by her new English family to regard women dabbling in politics as “something akin to sin”. This sounds a bit tyrannical, doesn’t it? There were of course reasons for this. Early in George III’s reign, his mother Augusta was accused of steering him with her reputed lover, Lord Bute. Petticoats and boots were paraded through the streets in protest against such interference in the business of the crown. Before Augusta came George III’s grandmother, Queen Caroline of Ansbach. As I explained in my post about her, she was seen to be the real power behind her husband’s throne. Royal women in politics had caused quite enough problems for the English, thank you very much, and they didn’t want more of it.
The real issue was, as Lucy Worsley commented in her recent TV series about the Regency era, the role of the monarchy was in a state of flux. Gone were the days of the Divine Right of Kings, when monarchs were seen as half-man half-god, but we hadn’t yet reached a fully constitutional monarchy. As such, George III thought of himself as nothing but “a miserable sinner”, but in true Blues Brothers style, believed himself on a Mission from God. Both his father and mother had heaped a tremendous amount of pressure on him. To quote a letter from George III’s father:
Be always a blessing to your family and country. Retrieve the glory of the Throne. I shall have no regret never to have worn the Crown if you but fill it worthily. Convince the nation you are not only an Englishman born and bred, but you are also this by inclination.
As it happened, George’s father did pass away and miss the crown. We can only imagine that these instructions from a parent became something like a holy mantra for poor George after this time. He took on the role of father to his siblings. He liked to see himself as a father to his subjects, and became father to fifteen of his own children. Sadly, he had a tough love policy. Treating his rebelling American subjects as naughty children who needed correction certainly wasn’t a wise call, and he was to make similar mistakes in his own family. To his sons, George’s obstinate streak may well have seemed tyrannical. He forbid some to leave the country, denied others the chance to come back. He broke the marriage of his son Augustus, despite the birth of two children, deeming it illegal as it had been made without his consent. Again, he had his reasons for most of these actions, but they were dealt with in a heavy-handed way. His Royal Marriages Act had been put in place to save the crown from the ill-repute it fell into when two of his brothers married beneath themselves – and one certainly lived to regret his imprudent match. He kept his heir, George IV, in the country to try to rebuild his reputation with his future subjects and prevent him chasing after Mrs Fitzherbert, whose Catholicism would have made (and later did make) her an unpopular connection for the prince. The sons he kept away from home, he supposedly did to protect them from George IV’s “contaminating influence.” A bit of a poor excuse if you ask me, and certainly a hard blow to the poor princes like Augustus who were yearning for home.
George’s downfall in this area was perhaps his failure to recognise others didn’t have the same iron sense of duty as he did. He put aside a great deal of personal feelings to do what he thought was right for the country and by God. He simply couldn’t understand when others failed to respond to the same lessons that had been dished out for him. It caused him tremendous trouble. As a monarch, he was meant to be “of no party” but his inclinations were clearly Tory. This had been drilled into him by the ongoing dispute between his parents and grandparents. His grandparents were firmly Whig and had been so for many years – they also hated George III’s father, and, seemingly, George III himself on most occasions. To allow Whig principles to prevail must have seemed like sacrilege to the memory of his parents. Moreover, there was the person of Charles James Fox. Fox’s father had made an obscene profit out of the Seven Years War and both his sons were dissolute. They had drawn George III’s heir and hope for the future, George IV, into their world of vice and were staunch Whigs. Politics for George was therefore a battleground strewn with intense personal wounds and promises to dead parents. Such feelings led to tyrannical acts such as lobbying the Lords and telling them whoever voted against him would be henceforth considered a personal enemy.
Another calamity befell George when his trusted Prime Minister, Pitt, urged a degree of Catholic emancipation. Not only was George afraid that riots would break out, as they did in 1780 over a similar subject, he had sworn at his coronation to uphold the Anglican church. Ironically, George was both sympathetic and friendly towards a number of Catholics, and didn’t seem to hold a grudge against them. But here again, his sense of duty and tortured conscience came into play and caused him to lose his Prime Minister, who resigned.
So was George III a tyrant? In some ways, I suppose he was, though it does help me, personally, to have these psychological insights into why he acted as he did. But I guess the same can be said of all tyrants, no matter how obscure their reasoning. But if George III was, indeed, the tyrant unfit to rule, it is ironic that in the later years of his reign he became the beloved symbol and talisman of all that was English and good. He was what the British held up and fought for in opposition to another “tyrant”, Napoleon Bonaparte. How strange history is!