King George III Biography

The Royal Family of England in the year 1787 - in the centre King George III (1738 - 1820), and Queen Charlotte Sophia (1744 - 1818), surrounded by their children.

Getty Images

George III was King of Great Britain and King of Ireland during the American Revolution. Much of his reign, which lasted from 1760 to 1820, was colored by his ongoing problems with mental illness. During the last decade of his life, he was incapacitated to the degree that his eldest son ruled as Prince Regent, giving name to the Regency Era.

Fast Facts: King George III

  • Full Name: George William Frederick
  • Known For: King of Great Britain and Ireland during the American Revolution, suffered from acute and debilitating bouts of mental illness
  • Born: June 4, 1738 in London, England
  • Died: January 29, 1820 in London, England
  • Spouse's Name: Sophia Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz
  • Children: 15

Early Years

Born June 4, 1738, George William Frederick was the grandson of Great Britain’s King George II. His father, Frederick, the Prince of Wales, though estranged from the king, was still the heir apparent to the throne. George’s mother, Princess Augusta of Saxe-Goethe, was the daughter of a Hanoverian duke.

Although sickly as a child—George was born two months prematurely—he soon grew stronger, and he and his younger brother Prince Edward moved with their parents to the family home in London’s exclusive Leicester Square. The boys were educated by private tutors, as was common for the children of royalty. Young George was precocious, and he could read and write several languages fluently, as well as discuss politics, science, and history, by the time he was an adolescent.

Portrait Of George
Heritage Images / Getty Images

In 1751, when George was thirteen, his father, the Prince of Wales, died unexpectedly, following a pulmonary embolism. Suddenly, George became the Duke of Edinburgh and the heir apparent to the British crown; within three weeks, his grandfather made him Prince of Wales. In 1760, George II passed away at the age of seventy, leaving 22-year-old George III to take the throne. Once he became king, he soon realized it was vital for him to find a suitable wife to bear his sons; the very future of the empire depended on it.

Seventeen-year-old Sophia Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz was the daughter of a duke, privately educated, and had no scandals attached to her name, making her the perfect bride for a king. George and Charlotte did not even meet until their wedding day in 1761. By all reports, the two of them had a mutually respectful marriage; there was no infidelity on either of their parts, and they had fifteen children together. Charlotte and George were avid patrons of the arts, and were especially interested in German music and composers like Handel, Bach, and Mozart.

During the first few years of George's reign, the British Empire was financially shaky, due in part to the aftershocks of the Seven Years War (1756 to 1763). The British colonies were generating little revenue, so strict tax laws and regulations were enacted to bring extra money to the crown coffers.

George III visiting Admiral Howe's ship, Queen Charlotte, June 26, 1794, painting by Henry Perronet Briggs (1791 to 1793-1844), oil on canvas, 1625x2555 cm, England, 1828
DEA / G. NIMATALLAH / Getty Images

Revolution in the Colonies

After decades of no representation in Parliament, and resentful of the extra tax burdens, the colonies in North America rebelled. America's founding fathers famously detailed the transgressions perpetrated against them by the King in the Declaration of Independence:

"The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States." 

After a series of setbacks in North America, George's advisor Lord North, then the Prime Minister, suggested the king take a break from trying to handle the dissent in the colonies. North proposed that Lord Chatham, William Pitt the Elder, step in and take power of oversight. George refused the idea, and North resigned following General Cornwallis' defeat at Yorktown. Eventually, George accepted that his armies had been defeated by the colonists, and authorized peace negotiations.

Portrait of George III, King of Great Britain and Ireland Enthroned
Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Mental Illness and the Regency

Wealth and status could not protect the king from suffering extreme bouts of mental illness—some so severe that he was incapacitated and unable to make decisions for his realm. George’s mental health issues were well-documented by his equerry, Robert Fulke Greville, and Buckingham Palace. In fact, he was heavily monitored by staff at all times, even while he slept. In 2018, the records were made public for the first time. In 1788, Dr Francis Willis wrote:

“H.M became so ungovernable that recourse was had to the strait waistcoat: His legs were tied, & he was secured down across his Breast, & in this melancholy situation he was, when I came to make my morning Enquiries.”

Scientists and historians have debated for over two centuries about the cause of the famous “madness.” One 1960s study indicated a link to the hereditary blood disorder porphyria. People suffering from porphyria experience acute anxiety, confusion, and paranoia.

However, a 2010 study published in the Journal of Psychiatry concluded that George probably didn’t have porphyria at all. Led by Peter Garrard, professor of neurology at St. George’s University of London, researchers did a linguistic study of George’s correspondences, and determined that he suffered from “acute mania.” Many of the characteristics of George’s letters during his periods of illness are also seen in the writings and speech of patients today who are in the midst of the manic phase of illnesses like bipolar disorder. Typical symptoms of a manic state are compatible with contemporary accounts of George’s behavior.

It is believed that George's first bout of mental illness surfaced around 1765. He spoke endlessly, often for hours, and sometimes without an audience, causing himself to foam at the mouth and lose his voice. He rarely slept. He shouted unintelligibly at advisors who spoke to him, and wrote lengthy letters to anyone and everyone, with some sentences being hundreds of words long.

With the king unable to function effectively, his mother Augusta and Prime Minister Lord Bute somehow managed to keep Queen Charlotte unaware of what was happening. In addition, they conspired to keep her ignorant of the Regency Bill, which decreed that in the event of George’s full incapacity, Charlotte herself would then be appointed Regent.

Some twenty years later, after the Revolution had ended, George had a relapse. Charlotte was, by now, aware of the existence of the Regency Bill; however, her son, the Prince of Wales, had designs of his own on the Regency. When George recovered in 1789, Charlotte held a ball in honor of the King's return to health—and deliberately failed to invite her son. However, the two of them formally reconciled in 1791.

Although he remained popular with his subjects, George eventually descended into permanent madness, and in 1804, Charlotte moved into separate quarters. George was declared insane in 1811, and agreed to be placed under Charlotte's guardianship, which remained in place until Charlotte's death in 1818. At the same time, he consented to his empire being placed in the hands of his son, the Prince of Wales, as Prince Regent.

George III King of Great Britain and Ireland portrait illustration
Grafissimo / Getty Images

Death and Legacy

For the last nine years of his life, George lived in seclusion at Windsor Castle. He eventually developed dementia, and didn't seem to understand that he was the king, or that his wife had died. On January 29, 1820, he died, and was buried a month later at Windsor. His son George IV, the Prince Regent, succeeded to the throne, where he reigned for ten years until his own death. In 1837, George's granddaughter Victoria became Queen.

Although the issues addressed in the Declaration of Independence paint George as a tyrant, twentieth-century scholars take a more sympathetic approach, viewing him as a victim of both the changing political landscape and his own mental illness.

Sources

  • “George III.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, www.history.com/topics/british-history/george-iii.
  • “What Was the Truth about the Madness of George III?” BBC News, BBC, 15 Apr. 2013, www.bbc.com/news/magazine-22122407.
  • Yedroudj, Latifa. “'Mad' King George III Mental Health Records REVEALED in Buckingham Palace Archives.” Express.co.uk, Express.co.uk, 19 Nov. 2018, www.express.co.uk/news/royal/1047457/royal-news-king-george-III-buckingham-palace-hamilton-royal-family-news.