George III (king of Great Britain and Ireland)

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

George III (king of Great Britain and Ireland)

George III, 1738–1820, king of Great Britain and Ireland (1760–1820); son of Frederick Louis, prince of Wales, and grandson of George II, whom he succeeded. He was also elector (and later king) of Hanover, but he never visited it.

Early Reign

After his father's early death (1751), young George was educated for his future role as king by his domineering mother, Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, and by John Stuart, earl of Bute. He succeeded to the throne at the age of 22 and earnestly set himself to cleanse politics of corruption and to curb the arrogance of the aristocratic Whig leaders, who he believed had weakened the royal powers. George, for his part, was viewed with suspicion by those who resented Lord Bute's influence over the young king. This suspicion appeared justified when the successful and popular William Pitt, later earl of Chatham, was allowed to resign (1761) and was replaced by Bute. Bute, however, could not muster parliamentary support and resigned in 1763, and George, who matured rapidly in office, quickly outgrew his dependence on him.

Political instability marked the first 10 years of the reign, for the king's lack of faith in most of the available ministers and increasing factionalism led to a rapid turnover of ministries and inconsistency of policy. The ministry of George Grenville (1763–65) initiated prosecution of John Wilkes and imposed the unpopular Stamp Act on the American colonies; that of the marquess of Rockingham (1765–66) repealed the Stamp Act; that of Lord Chatham (1766–68) levied new duties in America with the Townshend Acts; while that of the duke of Grafton (1768–70) renewed prosecution of Wilkes. Thwarted in his unrealistic attempts to break the system of patronage and connection by which political groupings were formed, George himself resorted to the lavish use of patronage to establish in Parliament a group of supporters known as the "king's friends."

Ministries of North and the Younger Pitt

Only in 1770 did George find in Frederick, Lord North, a chief minister who was able to manage Parliament and willing to follow royal leadership. Although North achieved financial consolidation at home and imposed closer government control over the East India Company by the Regulating Act (1772), his 12-year ministry is remembered chiefly for his policy of coercion against the American colonists that led finally to the American Revolution. This policy of course reflected the views of the king, whose refusal to accept the loss of the colonies prolonged the war. Opposition in Parliament to what was regarded as increasing royal influence finally forced George to accept the resignation (1782) of North and the formation of ministries first by Lord Rockingham and then by the earl of Shelburne, who concluded the Treaty of Paris (1783), granting independence to the United States.

Shelburne's ministry was brought down (1783) by the surprising coalition of George's old friend Lord North and his leading Whig opponent Charles James Fox. This alliance so incensed the king that he exerted his influence in the House of Lords to secure defeat of Fox's East India Bill (1783) and thus forced the ministry out, replacing it with one formed by the younger William Pitt. Despite the furious reaction to the king's action among Whigs, Pitt won control of Parliament in the 1784 election and was to retain power until 1801 and then hold it again from 1804 to 1806.

After Pitt's appointment George retired from active participation in government, except for taking an interest in such major issues as Catholic Emancipation, which he defeated in 1801. Pitt was able to improve trade, reform the governments of Canada and India, and unite the kingdoms of Ireland and England (1800). He also managed the wars with France (see French Revolutionary Wars; Napoleon I).

England in the Reign of George III

Before George died in 1820 the fabric of English life had been vastly altered from the stable society of 1760. Despite the loss of the American colonies there had been a great expansion of empire and trade, and the ground for further expansion had been laid by the explorations of James Cook. At home, the population almost doubled, improved agricultural methods increased productivity, and advances in technology and transportation marked the onset of the Industrial Revolution. Social reform, although much discussed, made little headway, and all attempts to effect an extension of the suffrage or a redistribution of parliamentary representation failed. The Church of England, fettered by apathy and patronage, failed to move into the new factory towns, but Methodism spread rapidly to fill the gap. Science made great strides with the work of Henry Cavendish, Joseph Priestley, John Dalton, and Sir Humphrey Davy. In English literature 18th-century neoclassicism declined, and the romantic movement had its rise. A revolution in social and economic thinking, assisted by the spread of literacy and learning through a wider distribution of books and periodicals, promoted theories of utilitarianism and laissez-faire. Among important thinkers of the period were Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Thomas Malthus, Jeremy Bentham, and Edmund Burke. Through all these developments George patronized the arts, especially portraiture, and founded the Royal Academy of Arts. He was a friend of Josiah Wedgwood and other industrialists.

Later Life and Character

George, who had suffered a short nervous breakdown in 1765 and a more serious one in 1788–89 (which caused a fierce conflict between Pitt and Fox over the powers to be vested in the regency), became permanently insane in 1810. It has been suggested that he was a victim of the hereditary disease porphyria. He spent the rest of his life in the care of his devoted wife, Charlotte Sophia, whom he had married in 1761, and the prince of Wales (later George IV) was made regent (see Regency). Unlike the first two Georges, George III had a tranquil domestic life, although scandal touched his brothers and sons. George was an honest and well-intentioned man, but his stubbornness and limited intellectual power confounded his efforts to rule well and made him a somewhat tragic figure.


See editions of George III's correspondence by J. Fortescue (6 vol., 1927–28; additions and corrections by L. B. Namier, 1937) and by A. Aspinall (5 vol., 1962–70); biographies by J. C. Long (1961), S. E. Ayling (1972), J. Brooke (1972), and J. C. Clarke (1972); studies by H. Butterfield (1949, repr. 1968; rev. ed. 1959), J. S. Watson (1960), J. H. Plumb (1985), R. Pares (1953, repr. 1988), and C. Hibbert (1999); study of his private life by J. Hadlow (2014).

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