England’s longest-ruling monarch before Queen Victoria, King George III (1738-1820) ascended the British throne in 1760. During his 59-year reign, he pushed through a British victory in the Seven Years’ War, led England’s successful resistance to Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, and presided over the loss of the American Revolution. After suffering intermittent bouts of acute mental illness, he spent his last decade in a fog of insanity and blindness.
George III: Birth and Education
The Georgian era (1714-1830) spanned the combined reigns of the five British monarchs from the Electorate of Hanover, a member state of the Holy Roman Empire. George III was the first Hanoverian king born in England rather than Germany. His parents were Frederick, prince of Wales, and Augusta of Saxe-Gotha.
On his father’s death in 1751, the 12-year-old George became prince of Wales. He was cared for in relative isolation by his mother and tutored by the Scottish nobleman Lord Bute.
George III: Early Reign
George III became king of Great Britain and Ireland in 1760 following his grandfather George II’s death. In his accession speech to Parliament, the 22-year-old monarch played down his Hanoverian connections. “Born and educated in this country,” he said, “I glory in the name of Britain.”
A year after his coronation, George was married to Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, the daughter of a German duke. It was a political union—the two met for the first time on their wedding day—but a fruitful one, producing 15 children.
George III worked for an expedited end to the Seven Years’ War (1756-63), taking a position that forced his influential war minister William Pitt the Elder (who wanted to broaden the conflict) to resign in 1761. The next year George appointed Lord Bute as his prime minister, the first in a quick succession of five ineffective ministers.
In 1764 Prime Minister George Grenville introduced the Stamp Act as a way of raising revenue in British America. The act was fervently opposed in America, especially by the pamphleteers whose paper would be taxed. Parliament would repeal the act two years later, but mistrust persisted in the colonies.
George III: The American Revolution
In 1770 Lord North became prime minister, beginning a 12-year period of parliamentary stability. In 1773 he passed an act taxing tea in the colonies. The Americans complained of taxation without representation (and staged the Boston Tea Party), but North held firm with George’s backing.
The American Revolution began on April 19, 1775, with the Battles of Lexington and Concord. The next year, the Declaration of Independence laid out the Americans’ case for freedom, portraying George III as an inflexible tyrant who had squandered his right to govern the colonies. In reality the situation was more complex: Parliamentary ministers, not the crown, were responsible for colonial policies, though George still had means of direct and indirect influence.
The king was reluctant to come to terms with his army’s defeat at Yorktown in 1781. He drafted an abdication speech but in the end decided to defer to Parliament’s peace negotiations. The 1783 Treaty of Paris recognized the United States and ceded Florida to Spain.
George III: Later Rule and Mental Illness
At the end of 1783, Lord North’s coalition was forced out by William Pitt the Younger, who would be prime minister for more than 17 years. In 1778 George lapsed into a months-long period of violent insanity. He was restrained with a straitjacket and suffered various treatments as crisis of rule unfolded around him. He recovered the next year and reigned for the next 12 as a newly beloved monarch and symbol of stability in the era of France’s revolutionary chaos. George’s support of England’s role in the French Revolutionary Wars of the late 1790s offered early resistance against the Napoleonic juggernaut.
George suffered a second major bout of insanity in 1804 and recovered, but in 1810 he slipped into his final illness. A year later his son, the future George IV, became prince regent, giving him effective rule for the War of 1812 and Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo in 1815. George III died blind, deaf and mad on January 29, 1820. His illnesses may have been caused by porphyria, an inherited metabolic disorder, though a 2005 analysis of hair samples suggested arsenic poisoning (from medicines and cosmetics) as a possible cause.