Books: Life before porphyria

George III: A Personal History by Christopher Hibbert Viking pounds 20
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
George III is best (and rather unfairly) remembered today as the "mad" King who lost America. For much of his reign, it is true, he was derided by Whig aristocrats and Radical reformers alike as a tyrant, while the cartoonists of the day were content to portray him as an eccentric figure whose frugal lifestyle was in direct contrast to that of his dissolute sons. But, as Hibbert makes clear in this excellent study of the King's personal life, there was very much more to George III than popular myth allows.

Born in 1738, George was just 13 when his father, Frederick, Prince of Wales (a man once described by his mother the Queen as "the greatest beast in the whole world"), died of pleurisy after being hit by a tennis ball. Unloved by his crotchety grandfather, George II, it was perhaps inevitable that the young heir-apparent would seek out an alternative father-figure and mentor. His search ended with the third Earl of Bute, a cultured if dour Scot who was said to be the lover of his widowed mother, Princess Augusta. Bute was particularly adept, Hibbert tells us, at keeping George's "daily increasing admiration of the fair sex" in check.

Though the author is not in the habit of engaging in historical debate himself - he sees himself as an "amateur" historian and prefers to leave any in-depth analysis to the "professionals" (ie academics) - he duly notes the popular theory that, at the age of 21, George secretly married and had three children by a young Quaker woman called Hannah Lightfoot. But it is clear where his own sympathies lie when he then quotes a rival historian to the effect that there is no documentary evidence for such a belief. He omits to mention, however, that last year Kenneth Griffith, a film-maker and amateur historian, claimed to have discovered a witness statement to their 1759 marriage in Court of Chancery files (though this claim has yet to be authenticated).

Bute did manage to persuade George to give up all thought of an official marriage to Lady Sarah Lennox, the beautiful daughter of the second Duke of Richmond. Accepting his advice, George declared: "I am born for the happiness or misery of a great nation, and consequently must often act contrary to my passion." Whatever the truth about his relationship with Lightfoot, duty was to be George's watchword for the rest of his life. Hence his marriage, two years after he had succeeded to the throne in 1760, to Princess Sophie Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, "a young woman, 17 years old, of no particular talent or striking personality".

Yet Queen Charlotte - as she was known - proved to be an admirable choice. She was devout, extremely fertile - producing 15 children in all, 13 of whom survived into adulthood - and only too happy to embrace her husband's ascetic lifestyle (he rose early, ate sparingly and, in place of wine, drank a lemonade called "cup" that "a monk of La Trappe might have drunk without any infraction of his monastic vow"). Though their initial enthusiasm for each other eventually cooled, their marriage remained a happy one for more than 30 years.

Hibbert is particularly good on the rigid formality of life in the Royal household. "All attendants and even guests were obliged to retire to the nearest wall and stand quite still as soon as any member of the Royal Family appeared in sight," he tells us. "When the King approached one of his daughters' rooms he was preceded by a page." The Princesses were then expected to stand up and to remain silent unless asked a question. Nor were they allowed to leave the room - walking backwards as everyone else did - until they were dismissed with the formal command, "Now I will let you go!"

The chapter covering the King's personal interests and habits is no less fascinating. "He was knowledgeable about botany and agriculture as well as architecture, genealogy, astronomy and horology," writes Hibbert. He "loved fireworks, military bands and uniforms", and "spent hours studying military prints until he could recite the details - as he could recite the names of all the ships in his Navy - by heart". He also took an interest in the three farms that he had created in Windsor Great Park, and often strolled unannounced into the cottages of his farm-workers, "sometimes alarming them at first by his abrupt manner and the way in which he would stand close to them, peering into their faces, but winning them over in the end by his obvious sincerity".

Hibbert excels, not surprisingly, when dealing with subjects covered by his previous books: the origins of the American War of Independence, namely the King's belief that his government had the right to tax the colonists in return for protection (a principle that was held by many intellectuals, including Edward Gibbon, Samuel Johnson and John Wesley); the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of 1780, which cost 850 lives and only ended when the King issued a proclamation that army officers "could use their own discretion in ordering their men to fire upon rioters"; and the King's turbulent relationship with his eldest son, the future George IV, who was a drunkard, a womaniser and a spendthrift.

And yet, despite the many disappointments of his reign (and partly because of them), George III rose ever higher in the public estimation. "His popularity is very great," wrote Lord Berkeley in 1809, "for the mass of the people look up to his good moral character, and to his age [71], and to a comparison with his sons."

The following year he finally succumbed to the mental illness -- caused by an hereditary disorder known as variegate porphyria - that had plagued him for the previous 20 years (and thereby ushered in the Regency of his eldest son that lasted until his death in 1820).

In this elegantly written and cleverly constructed book, Hibbert brilliantly succeeds in fleshing out the bones of popular myth by giving us an intriguing portrait of George III the man. If he is to be remembered for anything, it should be for providing the perfect example of a selfless and dutiful monarch.

Comments