If not for such fierce competition (in the form of such works as Salisbury: Victorian Titan, Churchill: Walking with Destiny and Masters & Commanders) one might be able to unequivocally say that George III is the author’s masterpiece. This biography teems with detail, ideas and elegance. Andrew Roberts is a great writer – and this is one of his greatest achievements.
Roberts sets himself a goal, that of challenging or overturning certain misconceptions that we might harbour about his subject. That George III was a tyrant, unintelligent and a victim of porphyria. Suffice to say, Roberts achieves his goal: mission impossible turns into mission accomplished. Roberts convinces through both persuasive prose and hard evidence (as opposed to just supposition). Roberts tears down certain shibboleths, just as, through death by a thousand cuts, the author shredded Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s biography of Churchill in a Spectator review recently. Roberts, despite already being intimate with the age, has ploughed a new furrow of archival research to bring this project to fruition.
After reading this biography one will find it difficult to assert that George III was a despot, keen on war or directly responsible for losing the American War of Independence. Despite various acts of propaganda (then and now) one will come to sympathise with Roberts when he concludes, “The American Revolution is a testament not to George III’s tyranny… but to Americans’ yearning for autonomy.” Indeed, as the author suggests, the British may have lost the war “in part because George was not a tyrant.”
As to the accusation that George III was unintelligent, Roberts shoots down the charge with both barrels. Or an Uzi. George III was a devoted patron of the arts. He may also have been one of our most well-read monarchs. “The King spends most of his time in it [his library] when he is in town.” His library “numbered 65,250 books…which were presented to the British Museum after his death.”
Towards the end his long life and reign George III was, unfortunately, madder than just ‘mad north-north-west’. There were times when he dealt with his mental illness with admirable stoicism. There were, alas, times when his addled mind got the better of him. The author addresses the issue by calling upon the science – and a sense of sympathy.
As well as dealing with the grand politics and historic moments during the age, Roberts presents us with a portrait of the man as well as monarch. He is an assiduous enough writer to point out George III’s flaws and mistakes, but he also argues that his subject was, “Well-meaning, hard-working, decent, dutiful, moral, cultured and kind.”
As Roberts points out, George III was “the last British monarch to rule as well as reign.” But the era and its king were not immune to change. We rightly give credit to Queen Victoria for re-inventing the monarchy, but credit for some of her innovations should go to George III. His forebears may have been German, but George III was every inch an Englishman (aside from perhaps being largely teetotal).
Before reading this biography, I could have pointed you to plenty who were worse British rulers than George III. After reading this magnificent book, though, I could point you to few who were better.
George III: The Life and Reign of Britain’s Most Misunderstood Monarch, by Andrew Roberts is out from the 7th October.