Kate Maltby Kate Maltby

Has George III been seriously maligned?

It wasn’t his ‘tyranny’ that led to the loss of American colonies but his gentleness and toleration. And his ‘madness’ was bipolarity, Andrew Roberts argues

Portrait of George III by Thomas Gainsborough, 1785. [Alamy]

Every British historian has a story about the witlessness of Americans when it comes to our Georgian kings. The fate of Alan Bennett’s play The Madness of George III is notorious — Hollywood turned it into a film entitled The Madness of King George, in part lest American audiences assume it a tertiary sequel to The Madness of George I. A few years ago I encountered a highly educated editor at a reputable American news outlet who was under the impression that George V and George VI were ‘Hanoverian’ sovereigns, for surely they had been the son and grandson of George IV.

I have deep sympathy, therefore, with the impulse behind Andrew Roberts’s biography of George III. The author sets out explicitly to rescue our third Hanoverian king from wilful American ignorance — and golly, is there plenty of that around. The claims Roberts makes for his hero are occasionally grandiose: in a subtitle evidently framed with one eye on the press release, George is billed as ‘Britain’s Most Misunderstood Monarch’. (The shades of Mary Tudor, Richard III of England, or even Macbeth of Scotland might have comments.) But Roberts begins his account of George’s life and legacy with a litany of quotations from contemporary American media, and reading this list of ultra-nationalist mendacities it is hard to deny that George has had an unfair press in his former colonies. Bennett’s play-turned-film offered a more sympathetic portrait, but America, it seems, still sees this ‘power-mad little petty tyrant’ as the personal embodiment of British authoritarianism, a totem against which the American rebellion in 1775 was both justified and inevitable. Roberts makes it his mission to prove them wrong.

Instead, the George III described by Roberts is a thoughtful, patrician defender of the British constitution and its exceptional liberties. (As with dogs and their owners, the subjects of biographies are notorious for growing to resemble their authors.)

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