Book of the week: George III by Andrew Roberts
In this mammoth and meticulous biography, Roberts presents a compelling case for the defence of King George III
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Posterity hasn’t been kind to “poor” King George III, said Dominic Sandbrook in The Sunday Times. In Britain, he is remembered either as the “blundering oaf whose insensitivity lost the American colonies”, or as the “mad king” who once mistook an oak tree for the king of Prussia. In the US, he continues to be seen as the “cruel tyrant” whose tax demands drove the colonists to rebellion.
Yet in this mammoth and meticulous biography, Andrew Roberts presents a compelling case for the defence. George, he insists, was not remotely tyrannical; he was “well-meaning, hard-working, decent, dutiful, moral, cultured and kind”. If anything, he was slightly boring – he had no obvious vices (he rarely drank and was never unfaithful) and his “idea of fun was writing an article about farming”.
As for George’s mental health, Roberts has no truck with the common idea that his late-life insanity was caused by porphyria (a genetic blood disease). Instead, he thinks bipolar disorder was to blame.
Over the nearly 60 years of his reign (he ascended to the throne aged 22 in 1760), George III “did much to shape the monarchy as it is known today”, said Ruth Scurr in The Times. He purchased Buckingham House (now Palace); bought almost half the present Royal Collection of art; and configured the monarch’s “constitutional role in terms of duty, piety and virtue”.
The denigration of his character began early, and was carried out initially by his opponents in the “Old Whig” faction, which had dominated British politics since the Glorious Revolution. Never forgiving the king for opposing their hegemony, they sniped incessantly from the sidelines – the Whig historian Horace Walpole even cattily said of George’s choice of bride, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, that her “bloom of ugliness” started fading at 17.
The “big event” of George’s reign was, of course, America’s secession, said Tim Blanning in Literary Review. Roberts devotes around half his book to the topic. The War of Independence did not, he suggests, have much to do with taxation – the average American paid little tax, and it stayed in America. Rather, it was a question of “sovereignty, independence and self-government”. And it suited the colonists to portray themselves as victims of a “despotic tyrant”: that way they could “justify their illegal secession”.
This is not an account of American liberation that will recommend itself to patriotic American readers, but it’s bracing and “masterly”. With the publication of this superb biography, the rehabilitation of King George III has “come at last”.
Allen Lane 784pp £35; The Week Bookshop £27.99 (incl. p&p)
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