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George III

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Steven Parissien considers the reputation of one of the most controversial of British monarchs: the king who lost the American colonies, spent much of his life in psychological distress but whose active interest in the arts and sciences, and his generous patronage, distinguished him from his Hanoverian predecessors.

George III (r.1760-1820) has always had a controversial reputation. In 1957 Richard Pares wrote that the debate over George III’s constitutional role was ‘one of the most celebrated mulberry bushes in modern British historiography; historians began going round it in 1802 and are still going strong’. The historiographic disputes of the postwar era are a dim memory now. Indeed, despite the fact that he remains one of the most easily-recognised of Britain’s monarchs, relatively little has been written on George III over the last twenty years. However, in this Jubilee year, the importance of his sixty-year reign and his role at its centre – Patriot Prince or absolutist bogeyman? – deserves fresh consideration.

After George III’s death, Mrs Arbuthnot was by no means the only observer to bestow upon the late King the accolade of ‘the father of his people’. Early Victorian historians, though, tended to follow John Adolphus’s line of his History of England of 1802, congratulating George for attempting to dismantle the oligarchy of the self-serving Whig grandees in the 1760s, while berating him for his early reliance on the power-hungry Marquess of Bute. Writing in the mid-nineteenth century, William Thackeray saw George as ‘a kindly partaker of honest pleasures’, declaring that ‘that good man’s example, his moderation, his frugal simplicity, and God-fearing life, tended infinitely to improve the morals of the country and purify the whole nation’. By the time that Trevelyan’s Early History of Charles James Fox was published in 1880, however, praise for George III’s character was diluted by harsh criticisms of his constitutional presumptions. George not only strove ‘to foster disunion among politicians’ (as if this needed to be artificially encouraged) but, in Trevelyan’s view, ‘protected and prolonged a bad system’ – and, worse still, secretly aimed to ape his absolutist contemporaries reigning in continental Europe. By the 1920s,  Namier and his students – obsessed, still, with the first ten years of the reign – were regarding George III as the lynchpin of political corruption.  

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