George III: A Personal History Essay
The third Hanoverian king of England has never been portrayed in the positive light or perceived as a great ruler of the country. “And what mortal ever heard/Any good of George III?” asked Walter Savage Landor in his memorable epigram about the dynasty. Other monarchs have won at least posthumous affection because of their conquests, their wisdom or even sometimes their charisma but George III is best remembered for prosecuting and losing the American War of Independence and for going mad.
Christopher Hibbert, in his “George III: A Personal History” did almost everything he could to defence the unfortunate ruler. His George is something of a hero, a man of integrity, scholarship and courage who really meant it when he wrote: “I am born for the happiness or misery of a great nation, and consequently must often act contrary to my passion.”
George III was born on June 4, 1738, at a rented house in St James’s Square. His grandfather, George II, informed of the arrival of a boy, commented that “the saddler’s wife had been brought to bed again.” The birth had come as a bit of a shock. His mother, Augusta Princess of Saxe-Gotha, was only seven months pregnant. During a time when infant death was a fact of life, no one expected the puny baby to live. He was baptised immediately by the Rector of St James, and given the name George William Frederick. But he not only survived, he thrived.
Christopher Hibbert describes the king being unusually cultured. It is known that he built four large libraries at Buckingham Palace and filled them with a impressive collection of great books. Besides, although George didn’t know as much about painting as he knew about books, he took an active role in the foundation of the Royal Academy; he studied architecture under William Chambers, whom he got to build an observatory at Kew; he was interested in botany and agriculture, genealogy and astronomy, the theatre and music; he loved fireworks, military bands and uniforms. To the end of his life, even when blind, deaf and senile, he enjoyed dressing-up.
According to Christopher Hibbert there were at least four attempts on his life, which he weathered with amazing courage. Though he was by nature ascetic, economical, despotic, energetic and thrifty, he gave generously to charity. A religious man, he was a faithfull supporter of the Church of England but tolerant of Methodists and Quakers-less so of Roman Catholics. However, at the time of the Gordon riots, when anti-Catholic paranoia brought wild claims of gangs of plotting Jesuits under the Thames and of disguised Benedictines poisoning flour, George showed resolution in defying the rioters.
Yet, it was thought to be his abhorrence of a slight relaxation of the laws against Catholics that led to an attack of the horrible illness, now believed to be porphyria, which came to burden him in later life. In describing his treatment, Christopher Hibbert fully engages the reader’s pity. The royal scalp was blistered; leeches were applied to his forehead and his eyes; he was given purges and emetics, camphor, calomel, digitalis, quinine and “James’s Powder”. Mr. Hibbert tells us that this last substance was: “a compound of antimony… invented by Robert James, a physician who . . was said to have been drunk every day for 20 years.” After a dose of this compound, the king awoke with the ravings of a confirmed maniac and a new noise, in imitation of the howling of a dog.
It is hardly surprising that he was afflicted by this hereditary disease, endemic in the Stuarts and transmitted to the Hanoverians by the Electress Sophia. Intermarriage was the family pastime and a first cousin made the ideal spouse-was, indeed, often the only option under this uncompromising ruler. George III made frequent and rarely justifiable incursions into party politics but he caused more lasting damage within his own family.
Though an indulgent father when his 15 children were small, he treated them very badly as they grew, sequestering the girls and banishing the boys abroad for years-though he himself seldom ventured beyond Weymouth. Moreover, by the Royal Marriages Act of 1772 he made it virtually impossible for his sons to marry women other than German princesses and for his daughters to marry at all: consequently the great majority of his grandchildren were unacknowledged.
The chapters in which Hibbert describes the onset and development of the King’s illness are among the best in the book, vivid, sorrowfull, and totally devastating in their descriptions of the ignorance and cruelty the King was exposed to. The King, emaciated to the point of being almost unrecognisable as the slightly fat, blue-eyed young prince of the 1750s, died in 1820. He was too ill to know that the army he had watched embark for France with such pride, had conquered Napoleon. Or that he was succeeded by his eldest son, the one-time libertine, rabble-rouser and profligate whose character had given his father so much angst.
Undoubtedly, many will say that this book stands on its own as it’s written so clearly and thoroughly; still, it owes much to John Brooke’s 1972 biography. Christopher Hibbert has professionally depicted complex personality of George III from a psychological perspective, simultaneously representing him differently from what he was seen as before, in a role of a constitutional monarch.
Evidently, Mr. Hibbert’s task would have been lighter, successive generations would have remembered George III with more affection and it is just possible that later European history would have been less hostile, had these miserable princelings been allowed to follow their inclinations-or even, occasionally, to leave the royal presence without permission and without having to walk backwards, bowing.
All in all, “George III: A Personal History” by Christopher Hibbert, is the first modern book in which Hibberet attempted to combine of all the aspects of George’s III life as king, his political career, his patronage of arts and sciences, and his family role as a husband and father. In my opinion, Hibbert has written a fine biography of George IIIrd, which has treated the subject with sympathetic comprehension and finesse.