King George III (1738-1820) was one of the longest-reigning monarchs in British history. He is chiefly remembered for the loss of Britain’s American colonies and his reputation stateside as a tyrant: Thomas Paine described him as a “wicked tyrannical brute” while the Declaration of Independence describes George III as “marked by every act which may define a tyrant.”
Yet George III is a more expansive character than the pompous sovereign portrayed in Hamilton. Unfairly maligned as a ‘mad king’, he likely suffered from short bouts of severe mental illness in his life. While George III was indeed a monarch of a vast empire, the charges that describe his exceptional tyranny in the Declaration of Independence are sometimes spurious.
His lengthy rule saw not just the American War of Independence (1775-1783), but the Seven Years War (1756–1763) and the wars against Napoleon, as well as upheavals in science and industry. Here are 10 facts about King George III.
1. He was the first Hanoverian monarch to be born in Britain
George III was born on 4 June 1738 at Norfolk House, St James’s Square in London. He was named in honour of George I, his great-grandfather and the first of the Hanoverian dynasty.
When George III succeeded his grandfather, George II, in 1760, he became the third Hanoverian monarch. He was not just the first to be born in Great Britain, but the first to use English as his first language.
2. George III was the “tyrant” in the US Declaration of Independence
George III’s reign was marked by dramatic military conflicts including the American War of Independence, which culminated in the loss of Britain’s American colonies. The colonies declared their independence in 1776, listing 27 grievances against British rule in a document principally authored by Thomas Jefferson.
The chief target of the Declaration of Independence is George III, who it accuses of tyranny. Though George III did not seek to seriously increase his royal powers, he was linked to Parliament which had deprived the people of Massachusetts of the right to elect their judges in 1774. The Declaration also alluded to General Thomas Gage’s military occupation of Boston in September 1774.
3. He had 15 children
George III had 15 children with his wife, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. 13 of their children survived into adulthood.
George married Charlotte in 1761, having asked his tutor Lord Bute to help review eligible German Protestant princesses, “to save a great deal of trouble”.
4. He acquired a reputation as a ‘mad king’
George III’s reputation has sometimes been overshadowed by his mental instability. He experienced profound mental illness in 1788 and 1789 that prompted speculation about his unsuitability to rule and his eldest son, George IV, acted as Prince Regent from 1811 until George III’s death in 1820. His reported symptoms included babbling unintelligibly, frothing at the mouth and becoming abusive.
Though George III’s ‘madness’ has been popularised by artistic works like Alan Bennett’s 1991 stage play The Madness of George III, historian Andrew Roberts describes George III as “unfairly maligned”.
In his revisionist biography of the king, Roberts argues that prior to his decline at age 73, George III was incapacitated for a total duration of less than a year and was otherwise committed to his duties.
5. The remedies for George III’s illnesses were disturbing
In response to George III’s suffering, physicians recommended the straitjacket and the gag. At times, he was fastened to a chair and at other times he was ‘cupped’. This involved applying heating cups to his body in order to create blisters, which were then drained. Later professionals in the king’s service instead advised drugs and methods of calming.
The last years of George III’s life were compounded by deafness and senile dementia. For his cataracts, he was treated with leeches on his eyeballs.
The cause of George III’s illness is unknown. A retrospective diagnosis in 1966 attributed George III with porphyria – which is a group of disorders caused by chemical build-ups in the body – but this has not been widely accepted. In his 2021 biography, Andrew Roberts instead claims that George III had bipolar one disorder.
6. He had an interest in agriculture
George III had an interest in botany and was the first king to study science as part of his education. He owned a collection of scientific instruments, now in the Science Museum in London, while his agricultural interests extended to the authorship of articles on the topic. He acquired the nickname ‘Farmer George’ during his reign.
7. His early years were chaotic
The early years of George III’s reign were marked by melodrama and poor judgement. He appointed a series of ineffective prime ministers, counting 7 within a decade, starting with his former tutor Lord Bute.
During this period of ministerial instability, underlying financial problems of the crown went unpatched and British colonial policy was inconstant.
8. He had a sense of duty
The instability of George III’s rule transformed in the 1770s with the ministership of Lord North and George III’s more mature approach to politics. George III is characterised by Roberts as effectively fulfilling his role as the linchpin of government, without seeking to seriously undermine parliament.
After Sweden’s constitution was overthrown by Gustav III in 1772, George III declared, “I will never acknowledge that the king of a limited monarchy can on any principle endeavour to change the constitution and increase his own power.” Moreover, he acquiesced in the removal of the monarch from aspects of government by prime minister William Pitt the Younger.
9. He was Britain’s longest-reigning king
King George III is the longest reigning of Britain’s kings. Though both Queens Victoria and Elizabeth II celebrated ‘Diamond’ jubilees in commemoration of 60 years on the throne, George III died 9 months short of his anniversary on 29 January 1820.
10. He turned Buckingham House into a palace
In 1761, George III purchased Buckingham House as a private residence for Queen Charlotte close to court functions at St James’s Place. Queen Victoria was the first monarch to take up residence there. The building is now known as Buckingham Palace. It remains the primary residence of George III’s great-great-great-great-granddaughter, Elizabeth II.