One of the benefits of living in a monarchy is that whenever an Englishman feels miserable he can always point to some hapless royal whose lot is worse. As the British aristocrat Richard Grenville-Temple noted back in the days of George III:
Consider what a sad dog a prince of the blood is, who cannot by law amuse himself with any women except some damned German princess with a nose as long as my arm, and as ugly as the devil. In my opinion, a prince of the blood is the most miserable being on Earth.
The comment appears in this vivid review of the reign of George III, which details the king’s efforts to renew the monarchy and create a harmonious family life. Though he failed in the latter ambition, the book makes plain how today’s notion of royalty owes a greater debt to “Farmer George”—his nickname because of his fondness for agriculture—than most people realize.
George III became king at the age of 22, in 1760, and was warmly received. “No British monarch has ascended to the throne with so many advantages as George III,” wrote Horace Walpole. The country had triumphed in the Seven Years’ War, and trade was flourishing. Walpole was especially impressed by the new king’s openness: “This sovereign does not stand on one spot with his eyes fixed on the ground and dropping bits of German news. He walks about and speaks to everybody.” George III was determined to avoid appearing like a transplanted German, as had been the case with his predecessors, George I and George II.
But he was also painfully aware of his lack of experience. Acutely shy and awkward and with a nervous tic that made him say “what, what” at the end of a sentence, he would have preferred to be “a Berkshire gentleman and no king.” Meeting the demands of the job, writes Janice Hadlow, required an almost superhuman effort to recast his personality.
To prepare him for his task, the earl of Bute, John Stuart, who became first minister, supplied him with a vision of kingship that was very different from that of his predecessors. This vision was one in which the king keeps himself above the political fray and, together with his family, provides a model for society: “It was the virtue of the king—the goodness of his actions as both a public and private man—that formed the source of all his power,” writes Hadlow.
To succeed, George considered a harmonious family life crucial, and, here, his great-grandfather George I and grandfather George II had afforded powerful examples of how not to proceed, having both fought with their heirs with an almost pathological intensity. Thus, everything hinged on finding the right spouse. Sarah Lennox, his first pick, had been rejected for political reasons, so the role fell to Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, a Prussian backwater duchy. Once, in her grandfather’s day, Frederick the Great (while still crown prince) had visited Charlotte’s tiny family seat and found it distinctly odd that the ladies were darning socks during the evening meal. The fact that Charlotte’s father, the duke, had embroidered his own dressing gown made Frederick consider the man to be slightly cracked.
But despite her modest background and plain looks, Charlotte was a clever woman, vivid and cheerful. She was interested in botany and an avid reader. Like the king, she loved music, and her sense of duty matched her husband’s. She was also extremely fruitful: Their union produced 15 children, two of whom died at birth. Though generally conservative, the queen, notes Hadlow, was up on the latest ideas on child-rearing—including Locke’s essay “Some Thoughts Concerning Education” and Rousseau’s Emile—as evidenced by the increasingly informal portraits of the royal offspring in more natural settings. The king himself participated wholeheartedly in his children’s games.
Under the pressures of the job, however, harmony did not last. The war against the American rebels came close to breaking George III, and familiar patterns were reasserting themselves. Hadlow examines the king’s fraught relationship with the clever but debauched George, Prince of Wales, whose favorite pastimes were gambling, drinking, and whoring. At one ball, noted a participant, the prince “was so far overcome with wine as to fall flat on his face in the middle of a dance, and upon being raised from the floor, to throw the load from his stomach into the midst of the circle.” Even worse, the rakish leader of the Whig opposition, Charles James Fox, had recruited the prince into his fold and encouraged his bad behavior.