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George III

A complex king, diligent and serious, but cruelly labelled ‘mad’

A complex king, diligent and serious, but cruelly labelled ‘mad’

George III, who ruled between 1760 and 1820, was the first truly British monarch of the Hanoverian kings. Ruling Britain was his first priority and he never visited his family's home in Hanover. He was a well-intentioned and cultured family man. Sadly, his personal and political life was dogged by recurring bouts of severe mental and physical illness, and he was declared unfit to rule in 1811, handing the throne to his son, the Prince Regent, when his health failed. His illness baffled his doctors and has fascinated modern minds.

Unfairly characterised by historians as 'Farmer George' and 'mad King George', George III's long reign is notable for both his great successes and failures, including the independence of the American colonies. 

We should not call George 'mad' today, but when he first fell ill he suffered additionally from the primitive medical treatment that leading doctors forced upon him in the seclusion of Kew.

Today George's personality resonates with our own times. He had an intense sense of duty and devotion to his family, as well as a curiosity in The Age of Enlightenment, which was undiminished by periods of debilitating illness.

Header image: George III in coronation robes, c.1761-2. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II


Did you know?

Art and science flourished under George's patronage. His reign saw the foundation of the Royal Academy of Arts, Captain Cook’s voyages to Australasia and British industrialisation.

Portrait of George III as a young prince

The making of George III

George III was born on 4 June 1738, during a period of cultural, as well as political revolutions. He was a shy boy, who had a sheltered upbringing under his German-born parents, Frederick and Augusta, Prince and Princess of Wales.

Though his mother took great care over his private education, George's teenage years were overshadowed by his domineering grandfather, King George II (r.1727-60). His grandfather and grandmother Queen Caroline hated his father prince Frederick, who was their eldest son and heir, and the young prince George inevitably became a pawn in the political rivalries that coloured his early years.

Image: George III when Prince of Wales, c.1740. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Portrait of George III

A new Georgian King

George III came to the throne in 1760, at the young age of 22. He was relatively unprepared to reign after his father died suddenly from a chill caught gardening at Kew (though some said his death was caused by an injury sustained while playing cricket).

Despite this lack of preparation, George's thoroughly British upbringing marked him out from his Hanoverian predecessors and shaped his intense loyalty to his people.

Image: George III in coronation robes, c.1761-2. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Below: An engraving of King George III standing in Windsor uniform with the sash and star of the Order of the Garter, a sword at side and holding a tricorne hat in his hand, 1790. © Historic Royal Palaces

An engraving of King George III standing in Windsor uniform with the sash and star of the Order of the Garter, a sword at side and holding a tricorne hat in his hand.

Born and educated in this country, I glory in the name of Britain...

George III’s first speech to Parliament

A portrait of King George III and Queen Charlotte, depicted as a farmer and his wife.

Cultivated at Kew

George's parents bought a house opposite the palace, which was the first 'Kew Palace' — later known as the White House. From their early years, George and his eldest brother lived in the old house, also now known as Kew Palace.

Prince George was home-schooled, mostly at Kew, against the background of The Age of the Enlightenment. His father installed an astronomer, John Desaguliers, in the attic of the White House at Kew, and he and leading scientists would come to lecture the royal family.

The architect of Kew Gardens, Sir William Chambers, was also one of George's private tutors. The King had Chambers build an observatory in the park, where George became fascinated with the pursuit of accurate time-keeping and the world very nearly ended up with Kew - instead of Greenwich - mean time!

Later in his life George exchanged ideas with the greatest botanists, horticulturalists and explorers and encouraged their innovations. Agricultural developments as momentous as the industrial revolution particularly interested the King and earned him the nickname 'Farmer George'.

Image: A portrait of George III and Queen Charlotte, depicted as a farmer and his wife in 1785. © Historic Royal Palaces

Portrait of Queen Charlotte (1744-1818) when Princess Sophie Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz

Marriage to Queen Charlotte

George's accession to the throne at a relatively young age meant he was immediately expected to find a queen. The international marriage market for suitable princesses (who had to be Protestant) was small, and Princess Charlotte (1744-1818) from the minor German Duchy of Mecklenburg-Strelitz was rather surprised to be made Queen of Great Britain in 1761 at the tender age of 17.

Charlotte was reportedly '…not a Beauty, but what is little Inferior, she is Amiable'. She had a good education for a wealthy young woman of her time, but spoke no English when she arrived in England.

Image: Portrait of Queen Charlotte (1744-1818) when Princess Sophie Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, c.1761. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Profile of Queen Charlotte

A new life in Britain

The new Queen's priority was to produce royal heirs, which she did with great success, having 15 children, among them two future kings of England, starting with Prince George — the future George IV and Prince William, later William IV.

Charlotte's early years as Queen were filled with educating her family and attending the endless court occasions, for which she set up Buckingham House (now Palace), the new home bought for her by the King.

Her private time was occupied reading, joining George in his love of music, and cultivating an influential circle of women friends interested in the arts and literature.

At home, George and Charlotte joined the royal band in music-making, both playing the harpsichord and George also the flute. They remained a devoted couple, even after George became violently ill and impossible to live with.

Image: Portrait of Queen Charlotte published in 1761. © Historic Royal Palaces

George III (1738-1820), Queen Charlotte (1744-1818) and their Six Eldest Children

George and Charlotte's children

George and Charlotte took a keen and surprisingly personal interest in their many children, perhaps making up the paternal affection George himself missed out on after his father’s early death. Their education was quite progressive for the time, although boys and girls were raised to follow very different paths.

When staying out of the public eye at Kew, the children were lodged in several houses, with the eldest boys George (later George IV) and Frederick at today's Kew Palace, where their father had been brought up.

However, despite his best intentions, George's parenting style veered into the domineering.

Image: George III, Queen Charlotte and their six eldest children. © Royal Collection Trust / Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Portrait of King George IV before he was king

A wayward prince

The King's rigid control on his children had disastrous effects, particularly on his eldest son and heir, who would become George IV. The Prince of Wales' wildly dissolute, extravagant lifestyle was probably a reaction to his strict, abstinent upbringing.

By the time the Prince of Wales was 17, he admitted to having several vices and being 'rather too fond of wine and women'.

Image: Miniature of the Prince of Wales, c.1780-1782. © National Portrait Gallery, London

Below: Portrait of the Prince of Wales in 1785. © National Portrait Gallery, London

Portrait of King George IV before he was king

[He is] too subject to give loose or vent to his passions of every kind, too subject to be in a passion, but he never bears malice or rancour in his heart... He is rather too fond of wine and women...

George, Prince of Wales writing about himself in the third person at 17 years old

Portrait of the Three Eldest Princesses: Charlotte, Princess Royal (1766-1828), Augusta (1768-1840) and Elizabeth (1770-1840)

Three princesses in 'The Nunnery'

George's daughters did not fare much better as a result of their father's doting, but controlling, parenting style.

The King couldn't bear to see his youngest beloved daughters married off to foreign princes, so installed his three youngest daughters at Kew Palace when he stayed there. As their marriage chances waned, the princesses languished in miserable, if comfortable, isolation at what they called 'The Nunnery'.

Image: Portrait of Princess Augusta, Princess Charlotte and Princess Elizabeth. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Portrait of George III

George III and America

One of the events for which George III is chiefly remembered is the American War of Independence and the loss of the American colonies from Britain in 1776.

Unlike the first two Georges, George III was closely involved in government, and took this event very personally. Both king and country were out of touch with the situation in America, and failed to see that colonies had become too successful to obey a far-away government.

Although George was following his ministers' advice, the Americans found it useful to portray the King as a tyrant, making his situation even worse.

After independence, the King found it difficult to deal with political opponents who had been emboldened by this failure and the revolutionary stirrings at home and especially in France. Though there were occasions when the windows of the royal coach were broken by the mob, the King emerged still popular with his people.

Image: George III in 1771. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

'The New Palace, Kew' - Engraving of the Castellated Palace at Kew, commissioned by George III in 1800.

Royal Kew

Royal Kew was transformed during George III's lifetime. His mother Augusta created a world-garden, including the Great Pagoda, which became the foundation of Kew Gardens. George had inherited his parents' passion for architecture and gardens, and as King he later demolished his childhood home where he had been locked away by his doctors.

Early in his reign he had ambitions to build a great new palace at Richmond, and he later commissioned the architect James Wyatt to build a great Gothic castle at Kew. However, these projects were abandoned following attacks of mental illness.

Image: Engraving of George III's great gothic castle at Kew. © Historic Royal Palaces

Letter from Lord St Vincent to Colonel John McMahon about King George III's health.

Mental illness, not madness

In the summer of 1788, George's increasingly irascible behaviour developed into a serious illness over which he and his doctors had little control. This was the first of four episodes of a mysterious sickness, that led to his forfeiting the throne to his wayward eldest son, George, who became Prince Regent in 1811.

George had enjoyed robust health, the outdoor life and was a workaholic. When the illness struck he experienced stomach disorders, developed a racing metabolism and even became delirious. By the autumn his behaviour was very agitated and he began talking nonsense at great speed. Ministers removed him out of the public eye to Kew.

Image: Letter from Lord St Vincent to Colonel John McMahon about George III's health. In a letter that same month to Colonel McMahon, Lord St Vincent stated it was ‘evident that the physicians despair of restoring mental faculties’ and that ‘the state of the patient is truly lamentable’. Royal Archives / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

The Royal Kitchens. The Silver Scullery with King George III's tin bath

Brutal treatment

The royal doctors were at a loss and grudgingly called in the famous 'mad doctor' Francis Willis. A leader in mental health treatment, his regime was at times brutal and included isolation and restraint, but eventually the King recovered.

At the time his illness was called 'madness'. Modern doctors still argue over King George's medical notes and theories range from the rare disease, porphyria (notably named after the dark colour of a patient’s urine) to bipolar disorder.

Whatever the cause it had a huge impact on the man, his country, and the royal family, especially Queen Charlotte who periodically became estranged from her husband but remained devoted.

Image: George III's tin bath, used as part of his medical treatment, in The Royal Kitchens at Kew Palace. © Historic Royal Palaces

Black and white sketch showing King George III during his last period of illness.

Regency and recluse

Besides George III's ability to reign, what worried many around him was the Prince of Wales' intentions when he sided with the political opposition who wanted a regency.

Bouts of the illness returned but it was not until after 1810, the 50th year of the King's reign and his golden jubilee, that the Prince finally got his way. The King suffered another attack of illness, but was also blind and depressed by the death of his youngest daughter.

The King and Queen finally separated, he living as a recluse at Windsor Castle, and she quietly looking after their large family, still worrying that her several married children were ageing and had not produced an heir to the throne.

Image: Print of George III during his last period of illness. © Historic Royal Palaces

Below: Letter from Queen Charlotte to George III after the King was forcibly removed by his doctors. © Historic Royal Palaces

A letter from Queen Charlotte to her husband, King George III (1760-1820) dated 22 April 1801.

My dearest King... Our separation must be & really is equally painful to us both... The physicians assure me that [a meeting] ought not to take place at present & therefore am under the painful necessity to deprive myself of so satisfactory a pleasure...

Queen Charlotte in a letter to George III the day after they were separated

When Charlotte died in 1818 the courtyard outside the unaware King's rooms was strewn with straw to silence his wife's funeral carriage as it passed over the cobbles.

George eventually died peacefully at Windsor in 1820, at the end of the longest reign at the time which had seen momentous changes in Britain and around the globe.

Princess Victoria, later Queen Victoria

Royal baby race

Despite their success in raising a huge family, by the Queen's death none of George and Charlotte’s married children had produced a legitimate heir. The Prince of Wales' only daughter, Princess Charlotte had died giving birth to a stillborn child in 1817.

The threat of another period of dynastic turmoil among the Georgian royal family – as with the late Stuarts before them – was narrowly avoided with the hastily arranged marriages of Princes William and Edward, at Kew Palace in that year.

So began the famous 'baby race', won by the Duke and Duchess of Kent: the couple produced a princess who would grow up to be Queen Victoria.

Image: Princess Victoria, later Queen Victoria. © Historic Royal Palaces

Exterior photograph of the palace from the Queen's Garden.

George III's legacy

George III's long reign was momentous in many ways and much of the modern image of the British monarchy was shaped by his life, ambitions and interests. For example, during his reign George made Windsor Castle and Buckingham House – later Palace – his principal royal homes.

Under George III Britain lost America, but resisted the French under Napoleon Bonaparte. Britain prospered: industrialisation exploded at home and colonies abroad expanded. Appalling slavery played a part in this, yet in Britain the slave trade was abolished.

The arts and sciences flourished like never before with George's personal patronage and royal Kew was transformed.

Only the oldest royal house at Kew now survives, known as Kew Palace and it is restored as it would have been in George's later years. Today, the palace is full of potent reminders of George's rollercoaster of a reign.

Listen to the podcast

In this episode historian Elaine Chalus explores the mental health of George III and how it affected his reign and overshadowed his legacy.

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