Robert Lacey: The mystery of King George III's royal library

From the London Historical Association lecture by the writer, delivered at the British Museum
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The Independent Online

The most famous royal contributor to the British Museum was George III, whose superb collection of books, built up over 60 years, became first the King's library and since 1998 has stood as the core of the modern British Library in the Euston Road at St Pancras. It is generally presumed that this was how it was always intended to be.

The most famous royal contributor to the British Museum was George III, whose superb collection of books, built up over 60 years, became first the King's library and since 1998 has stood as the core of the modern British Library in the Euston Road at St Pancras. It is generally presumed that this was how it was always intended to be.

But I have unearthed crucial evidence as to the intentions that George III had for his library. They are set out in all three versions of his unsigned 1808 testament, which have lain in the royal archives for nearly 200 years: "As to our Books, which are in the Libraries at Windsor Castle & the Queen's House we do hereby direct that the same shall be enjoyed by our dearly beloved son, George, Prince of Wales, & after his demise we do direct that the same shall in like manner be enjoyed by the Person, or Persons who shall be entitled to the Crown."

This document represents George III's second thoughts. In a will of 1770 he had left his books to his son as unencumbered personal property - now he wanted his books to be vested permanently in the crown.

But the old king failed to get this revised will signed and witnessed, and following his death in 1820, London newspapers reported that King George IV was attempting to sell his father's books to the Tsar of Russia. After talks with Lord Liverpool's government, the new king agreed in 1823 to offer the books to the nation, and they went to the British Museum.

It is now clear that we should not be thanking King George III for giving us the books. According to his revised will of 1808 he didn't want us to have them. We should be directing our gratitude towards his dissolute son, King George IV, or to Lord Liver- pool whose intervention seems to have stopped this national treasure ending up in Moscow.

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