George III by Christopher Hibbert is a comprehensive biography of the British king. This book delves into the personal, social and political world of this monarch. Hibbert describes the monarch and his life without inserting too many of his own opinions into the history.
The picture that this book paints is that of a moderate and ethical leader. He reined over Great Britain before and during the American Revolution, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars. George III was a constitutional monarch who was very constrained by Parliament and law. A modern American president or British prime minister has more power than this king. Hibbert's book describes a monarch who appointed government ministers and other officials, occasionally approved domestic and foreign policy initiatives and gave advice to the government. Of course, he was the symbol of Great Britain and her government.
George III was a cultured and curious man. He was interested in art, literature and science as well as more practical matters relating to governing. Hibbert writes,
“the king’s talk revealed the breadth of his reading and the wide range of his interests. He was knowledgeable about botany and agriculture well as architecture, genealogy, astronomy and horology. He made himself conversant withy the state of the country’s manufacturing industries.”
Astronomy was also one of his interests,
“It was the King’s curiosity about optical instruments which led to his interest in astronomy”
His marriage to Queen Charlotte was in some ways unusual as the two were faithful to one another. It was an arranged union. The pair never met before it was planned. Yet, for many years, at least until they become much older, they were a happy couple. In this time period, male royalty, and sometimes female royalty, typically engaged in lengthy extramarital affairs. Neither George III nor Queen Charlotte engaged in such liaisons.
The book also touches upon the king’s flaws. George III treated his sons harshly when young and forced them into near exile when older. Both he and Queen Charlotte were terribly controlling of their daughters, even by the standards of the time. He was also complacent and supported discrimination aimed at Catholics.
Starting in his fifties, George III unfortunately went through periods where he suffered bouts of serious mental illness. These periods were characterized by delusions and wild outbursts. These spells were intermittent and he enjoyed many years of stability between them. Many historians, including Hibbert, believe that the king suffered from porphyria.
My version of this book was just titled George III; however, some versions come with the subtitle: A Personal History. With that, there is a lot of politics included in this book, almost enough to dispense with the personal history label. However, had these politics been described in a little more detail, I feel that this book would have been a little stronger and could easily have been called a full history. As it stands, the work feels 95 percent complete. My version of the book was 410 large pages of text. The book would have benefitted from about 20 additional pages of political detail.
I want to write a few words about how this book is presented by the publisher, blurb writers and public opinion as it relates to George III.
Many of the blurbs relating to the book, as well as the cover jacket description, describe this work as something a reassessment of George III. This biography is presented as a book aimed at restoring George III’s reputation. This is not reflected in the text, however. Hibbert never claims to be rehabilitating George III’s character. However, if his character needed restoring, this book has the effect of doing so. This is the portrait of a competent leader and a fairly ethical man who was intelligent and cultured. Having read a lot about The American Revolutionary generation, I have seen the common theme amongst them of labeling this man as a repressive tyrant. The American Declaration of Independence describes him as
“A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.”
These assertions become laughable when the man and his rule are actually examined.
I have also seen the film version of The Madness of King George. That film was fairly accurate in that it depicted the king’s mental illness as temporary. However, in the television series Turn, George III is depicted as being insane and petty during the American Revolution. As per Hibbert’s account, the king’s malady did not start until well after that conflict ended. He was also anything but petty.
I am not sure how George III is viewed in Great Britain. My impression, based upon interactions with individuals and observation of media sources, is that many Americans think of him as a repressive king that the American Revolutionary generation rebelled against. I also find that some people have a vague notion that he was insane. Thus, this book is a good resource to counter certain incorrect and unfair narratives.
This is a very worthwhile biography for anyone who wants to know about this often-misunderstood monarch. It is detailed as well as readable. I did a little research before reading this and found that it is respected among historians. It is balanced. Hibbert writes fairly and is careful about facts. I highly recommend this to those interested in this period of history or in British royalty in general.