Jeremy Black’s George III is a somewhat unusual look at the English monarch. This biography has a fairly unconventional structure and style to it. In some ways the book is a challenging read and seems to be aimed at a specific audience of people who already know something of its subject. With that, I personally found this work to be educational and interesting. Black is a Professor of History at Exeter University.This was first published in 2008.
Though I am interested in many historical topics, my initial interest in George III stemmed from the fact that he was the British monarch who reigned during The American Revolution. The Revolution is the area of history that I am most interested in. Like any biography of this man, a number of pages here are dedicated to the Revolution. In fact, some versions of this book are subtitled America's Last King. I think that subtitle is a little misleading as this is a full biography that does not put special influence on the Revolution. I would guess that the subtitle is part of a marketing strategy as interest in the American Revolution is high in The United States. I am not complaining about this as I was looking to read a full biography. George was a generally interesting figure who is worth knowing about.
This is the second biography of George that I have read. I had previously read George III: A Personal History by Christopher Hibbert. My commentary on that book is here. Though I enjoyed Hibbert’s work and found it educational, I thought that, as that book is advertised, there was not enough detail about politics or national and international affairs in it. Black’s book, though very detailed in those areas, has its own quirks that I will talk about below. Thus, while I am glad that I read both books, I have not found a single, satisfying and comprehensive book on George III.
George was born in 1738 and reigned as King from 1760 until his death in 1820. Great Britain was a constitutional monarchy at the time, thus, while George wielded real power, he shared that power with Parliament and other components of government. George was King during both The American Revolution and The Napoleonic Wars.
There are many aspects of George’s life and reign worth focusing on. I cannot do any kind of comprehensive assessment within a single blog post. Instead, I will do what I am sometimes known to do and focus on a couple of things that I find interesting. One ironic point, in light of the fascination that so many people have about George’s mental illness, is how stable and balanced he was. He was also principled and ethical in comparison to most royalty of the time. In George’s time when almost all royalty had extramarital affairs, he fell in love with his wife, who he had married as the result of an arraignment, and had no affairs. At a time when so many members of royalty, including sovereigns, were known to gamble and drink to excess, he did no such thing. In a world filled with royalty and monarchs that had volatile tempers, were arrogant and petty he was known to be even tempered, not arrogant and often made an effort to put nervous visitors at ease. At the same he was almost never described as weak. Black writes,
George's personality as a mature man was already clear in some respects when he came to the throne. His sense of propriety, diligence and commitment had been honed by his upbringing. It was to be put under brutal pressure in the maelstrom of politics, and yet the personality that matured was an attractive one. King George was generally good-humoured, and a kindly, gentlemanly, often (but not always) generous, charitable, worrying person.
The above is consistent with other sources that I have read.
I am not contending that George was perfect or saintly. This book, as well as other sources that I have read does not whitewash George. He was imperfect. For instance, he restricted his daughters’ freedom terribly, even by the standards of the time. He was known to be stubborn to the point where it caused him problems both politically and personally. He also supported some policies involving slavery and discrimination against Catholics that many objected to in his own time. However, he does stand out as a stable person who had a sense of ethics in a sea of bad characters. As for his mental issues, they occupied fairly brief periods during the prime of his reign. Unfortunately, they completely debilitated him during the last ten years of his life. These issues were probably caused by porphyria.
On policy George was something of a moderate conservative. When he took the throne the power of the British monarchy was waning in the face of Parliament and other aspects of constitutional monarchy. He endeavored, somewhat successfully, to strengthen royal powers. He also sought to eliminate waste and inefficiency in government. He made serious mistakes as Britain and America fell headlong into the American Revolution and George presided over the losing side in that conflict. However, he also presided over the Britain’s early wars and opposition to Napoleon with some success and it can be argued that he helped keep Britain stable in the face of worldwide revolution.
As I mentioned above, this book is somewhat unusually structured. It is only partially chronological. Multiple chapters focus on a specific part of George’s life. For instance, one chapter is dedicated to George’s family and personnel life, another chapter is dedicated to his mental illness. Some of the chapters do cover specific time periods such as the American Revolution and several Napoleonic Wars, however, even these chapters tend to jump around in time. In addition, the author focuses his concentration in unusual directions. He tends to delve into great detail when it comes to British politics but then ignores the big picture. For instance, Catholic Emancipation was an issue that continued to reoccur throughout George’s rule. This controversy arose because discrimination against Catholics was codified into law during George’s time. Many wanted to reduce or remove those discriminatory laws. There were moves within both Parliament and George’s ministries to relax these restrictions. George generally opposed emancipation. In various parts of the book the text goes into minute detail on the political wrangling behind all of this. Yet the underlying issues and history involving Catholics and discrimination aimed at them is skirted and never explored in any kind of comprehensive or satisfying manor. Likewise, unlike many other biographies that I have read, this book is very sparse when it comes to the background detail of people who were connected to George. There is a paucity of information about George’s family and associates. We get a detailed look at their interactions with George, but not much background. This is not to say that the book is not detailed. The work is comprised of 452 dense pages. It is just what Black concentrates on that is different. He is most interested in the workings of government and politics. When it comes to George personal relationships, as mentioned above, the work looks deeply into George’s actions and motivations, but reveals little about others.
All this adds up to a book that almost presupposes that the reader is already knowledgeable about George and the time and place that he lived in. Black almost seems like it is trying to fill in and discuss details about knowledge that is already known by the reader. Personally, I have read other biographies and details about George’s life. I am also somewhat familiar with other details related to Great Britain and the rest of the world of the time. Thus, I was OK with this approach. However, I would have appreciated if more of this book concentrated on these omitted things. Also, this book would not be the first choice for someone who started off knowing little about George III or his times. In addition, Black’s writing style can also be a little challenging, his sentences are packed with information and sometimes worded awkwardly.
This was a different kind of biography. I learned a lot from it. The book was well researched, and was interesting. Black appears to be a good and unbiased historian. I am glad that I read this. However, due to its odd attributes I would not recommend this to someone new to the subjects covered. I am still on the lookout for a more conventional and mainstream biography of George III.