King George III of England

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Podcast Transcript

In 1760, George III succeeded to the throne of the United Kingdom at the age of 22, becoming the third king in the House of Hannover dynasty. 

His reign would become one of the longest in British history, and he was monarch during some of the most important events in history, including the American Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, and the Napoleonic Wars. 

However, his reign was also marked by a serious illness that eventually rendered him king in name only.

Learn more about George III and how he influenced British history on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

There have been many monarchs throughout history, and most of them did not play an important role in history. They had short reigns, ruled over lands that weren’t consequential, or were alive during periods that weren’t historically interesting. 

However, there were some monarchs that played an outsized role in history. They ruled over important lands at important times and had lengthy reigns. 

One such ruler was King George III, King of Great Britain and Ireland. 

George was born George William Frederick on June 4, 1738 in London. His father was Frederick, Prince of Wales, and his grandfather was King George II, all members of the Royal House of Hanover. 

Before I go any further, I should explain what the House of Hanover was and how they wound up ruling Great Britain. 

In many different episodes of this podcast, I’ve discussed the tumultuous period from Henry VIII until the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Britain had a problem with religion. In particular, they had a series of protestant and then catholic monarchs, which resulted in a civil war and the beheading of one king, Charles I. 

In 1688, Parliament established the line of succession to the throne to only include protestant descendants of Sophia of Hanover. Hanover is a city in Lower Saxony, in what is today north-central Germany. 

The reason why a woman who lived in Germany was selected as the starting point for all British monarchs, a rule which still exists today, was because she was the granddaughter of King James VI and I of Scotland and England, and at the time the law was passed, she was the heir presumptive of the British Crown. 

When Queen Anne died without an heir in 1714, the crown would have passed to Sophia, who lived in Germany with her husband Ernest Augustus, the Elector of Hanover in the Holy Roman Empire. 

However, Sophia died two months before Anne, which meant that the crown was passed to her son George, who became George I of Great Britain. 

George had never been to Britain and couldn’t speak English, yet he now found himself the King of one of the largest empires in the world. 

In 1727, his son and successor, George II, ascended to the throne, and like his father, he wasn’t born in Britain and didn’t speak English as his first language, although unlike his father, he eventually learned English. 

His heir apparent was his son Frederick, the Prince of Wales, but he died in 1751 at the age of 44. So when George II died in 1760, the crown passed to his grandson, who took the regal name George III. 

Unlike the previous two monarchs in the House of Hanover, his grandfather and great-grandfather, George III, spoke English as his first language, was raised in England, and never once visited Hanover.

George was born prematurely, and it was assumed that he wouldn’t survive when he was born, but he lived and became quite healthy. 

He and his younger brother were tutored, and George was said to be able to comment on current political events by the age of eight. He was also the first monarch to receive an education in science, which included chemistry, physics, astronomy, and mathematics. 

His grandfather, George II, took little interest in his grandson, but when his father, the Prince of Wales, died, the king became more interested in him and declared him the new Prince of Wales.

In 1760, George II died, and George III was crowned king at the young age of 22. One of the first orders of business was to find the new king a wife. 

A year after his coronation, he was married to Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. The two met for the first time on their wedding day, but unlike many political unions, this one was fruitful as the couple had 15 children. 

One of his first purchases was Buckingham House, which is the current location of Buckingham Palace. 

The first major issue that George inherited was the Seven-Year War, a globe-spanning conflict that I covered in a previous episode called World War Zero. He managed to end the war in 1763. 

The other big issue he had to deal with early in his reign was the problem of rebelliousness in the American colonies. Beginning in 1764 with the Stamp Act, which taxed all paper products, a series of taxes increased resistance amongst the colonists. 

George became the focus of the colonists’ anger. He personified all of their grievances against the British government. Technically, the ire of the colonists should have been focused on parliament who made the real decision. 

While the Americans characterized George as a tyrant, in reality, he mostly just supported the actions of his prime ministers….although, to be sure, he did support the efforts to keep the colonies under British rule. 

When the Americans declared their independence in 1776, the grievances in their declaration were directed directly at George. 

George supported all efforts to keep the American colonies, but by 1781, after the defeat at the Battle of Yorktown, it was clear that the cause was lost. At this point, he actually wrote an abdication letter to renounce the crown in the face of the disaster in the colonies, but he never delivered it. 

He didn’t appear to have fully accepted the independence of the United States until 1785 when he welcomed John Adams as the first American minister to London. 

He is reported to have told him, “I was the last to consent to the separation; but the separation having been made and having become inevitable, I have always said, as I say now, that I would be the first to meet the friendship of the United States as an independent power.”

On a personal level, during this period, George was a supporter and patron of science and agriculture. He had a personal collection of scientific instruments and personally funded and supported many scientific projects.

John Harrison, the clockmaker who determined how to measure longitude, had the king’s support. Likewise, he helped William Herschel create a 40-foot telescope, which was the largest telescope in the world. 

On the issue of slavery, George had a very mixed legacy. On a personal level, he seemed against slavery. He never was personally involved and never invested in any company that took part in slavery.  Before he ascended to the throne, he wrote a pamphlet denouncing slavery. 

However, once he took office, he supported the efforts of the London Society of West India Planters and Merchants to delay the ending of slavery, an effort in which they were successful for two decades. 

Then, in 1807, he approved legislation that banned the sale and transportation of slaves. 

While he should get credit for eventually banning the slave trade, but not trade ownership, during his reign, his delay in banning the slave trade resulted in over 400,000 people being sold into slavery.

Politically, he had periods when parliament and his prime ministers were in flux, and he also had periods of longer-term stability. In the first ten years of his reign, he had six prime ministers from both the Whig and Torry parties.

In 1770, however, Lord North became prime minister, a position he held for 12 years.  Then, after several more transitional prime ministers, in 1783, William Pitt the Younger became prime minister for 18 years.

From 1801 to 1812, there were more short-term prime ministers, followed by Robert Banks Jenkinson, who served for 15 years. 

Beyond the American Revolution, the thing that George III is best known for was, sadly, mental illness. 

In the summer of 1788, at the age of 50, he suffered what would be his first bout. The symptoms began gradually but, over time, became quite severe. 

At the time, there were few treatments or even proper diagnoses for mental illness. 

He was sent to a spa to recover, but his condition only got worse. He would often speak for hours on end, not making any sense often foaming at the mouth. He would repeat himself over and over until his voice became hoarse. 

Likewise, he would write elaborate, incomprehensible letters, using over four hundred words per sentence. 

As news of his condition spread, stories began to spread. It is difficult to separate truth from fact in these stories. He reportedly shook hands with a tree, thinking it was the King of Prussia. 

This created a crisis in the British government. The king was clearly incapable of performing his duties. In such cases, the standard response was to appoint someone a regent who would perform the duties of king without the title. 

In this case, the logical regent would be his son and heir apparent, the Prince of Wales, George Augustus Frederick. 

Charles James Fox, the leader of the Whigs, proposed that the Prince of Wales become regent. However, the Prime Minister and leader of the Tory party, William Pitt the Younger, was concerned that if the Prince of Wales became regent, he would be pushed out of power. 

The Whigs eventually put forward the Regency Bill in February 1789. However, soon after the bill was proposed, the king recovered. 

George III had other small relapses in 1795, 1801, and 1804.

During this period, there was no formal regency bill that assigned power to the Prince of Wales, but informally more and more responsibilities were placed upon him. 

There has been much debate regarding what exactly ailed the king. 

We cannot diagnose such a condition 200 years after the fact, but several theories have been put forward. 

One of the telling symptoms that the king had during his bouts was that his urine turned blue. This is usually a symptom of a condition known as porphyria. 

Porphyria is a group of disorders caused by abnormalities in the chemical steps that lead to the production of heme, a component of hemoglobin that is crucial for carrying oxygen in the blood. When they build up in the body, they can attack the nervous system. 

Surviving samples of George’s hair were analyzed and were found to contain an excessive amount of arsenic, which may have aggravated the symptoms. 

It also may explain how his condition would come and go as porphyria bouts can come and go as the build-up dissipates. 

However, I should note that other researchers believe that he may have just suffered from bipolar disorder. 

In 1810, at the age of 72,  he had his last episode, and this time it was permanent. Again, it isn’t known if this was a relapse of the same thing he suffered from before or if this was a case of dementia. 

This time, Parliament, with the consent of the king, passed the Regency Act of 1811, formally making the Prince of Wales regent. 

George III passed away on January 29, 1820, at the age of 81, having served as monarch for over 59 years. At the time, he was the longest-reigning monarch in English or Scottish history. 

His son, George Augustus Frederick, became King George IV.  While the formal regency only lasted from 1811 to 1820, the period from 1795 to 1830 is known as the Regency Era. 

King George III had a reign that defined his era. He certainly wasn’t responsible for industrial and scientific revolutions. Still, much of it took place during his reign, and he was the first British monarch to take an active interest in science and industry. 

In the end, however, his reign is noted for two negative things: the loss of the American colonies and his mental illness. Neither of which he really had any control over. 

The length of his reign and the events that took place during it make him one of the most significant monarchs in British history.

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel. 

The associate producers are Ben Long and Cameron Kieffer. 

Today’s review comes from listener Diana1sbq over on Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write:

Top saved podcast by far

I am not a podcast episode-saver in general. One, maybe two, get saved out of all a host’s episodes. That is not the case with Everything Everywhere. I am not done binge listening, and I am up to 45 saved

Now that I have Gary’s eyes (and yes, I know this will mean I have to start listening to the end), what is up with people saying that you can see things, such as Angkor, from space? Can the government not read license plates from space? What gives? If you are saying it, there has to be a good reason. Fill me in!

Thanks, Diana! When people say you can or can’t see something from space, they usually mean seeing something with the naked eye. Sure, if you have a powerful telescope, you can see an individual vehicle. However, seeing something unaided is a different story.

It is very difficult to see any individual object from space unaided. However, you can see evidence of human activity, such as entire cities and lights. In the case of Angkor, you don’t see the individual buildings but rather the outline of the entire complex.

Remember that if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.