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James Ambuske on researching George III’s papers in the Royal Archives

James Ambuske, University of Virginia, was the inaugural Omohundro Institute Georgian Papers Fellows and spent last September researching at the Royal Archives. 

In 1768, the Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush toured the House of Lords during a visit to London. He persuaded his guide to allow him to sit upon George III’s throne, an experience that deeply moved him. I lay no claim to Rush’s brilliance, but I did share in his sense of awe each morning as I climbed the stone steps leading into the Round Tower at Windsor Castle, sat down at a simple wooden desk, and read through the papers of America’s last king.

My dissertation explores how Scottish emigration to the colonies in the era of the American Revolution shaped perceptions of the British Empire’s purpose amidst a transatlantic constitutional crisis. Much of my research centers on how American proprietors, Scottish landlords, promoters of emigration, and the King’s ministers contested the broader imperial implications of this phenomenon. George III’s position, although often hinted at in the correspondence of government officials, consistently eluded me. Serving as the Omohundro Institute’s inaugural Georgian Papers Project Graduate Fellow, in conjunction with the Royal Archives and King’s College of London, gave me the opportunity to rummage gently through George III’s personal letters and private thoughts about British America.

I found some of the answers that I sought and discovered material in the archive, the Royal Library, and the Print Room that raised new questions about the American War for Independence. Within the King’s calendared correspondence, for example, there exist copies of nearly 100 unpublished enclosures detailing the ministry’s mobilization and intelligence gathering efforts in the summer of 1775. The letters illuminate the government’s struggle to send Major General Thomas Gage sufficient cash and provisions, and augment British forces with Hanoverian troops, in order to crush the rebellion swiftly. Their presence in the collection point to George III’s intense interest in this process and the role he played in prosecuting the war.

The most rewarding finds were the materials that humanized the regal portraits of Georgian women and men. The tender affection that Queen Charlotte and George III felt for one another pervades their correspondence, as does her great intellect and the self-doubt that they both expressed as parents. Should you have need for a “gout cordial,” require “soap for the hounds,” or have guests expecting “giblet soup” and “ginger bread nutts” for dinner, then you will find these recipes and more among the Georgian Papers. We’ll be skipping the Christmas ham this year in favor of “Green Pea Soup without Meat or Water.”

But the chance to collaborate with the Royal Archivists made my tenure in Windsor especially meaningful. We discussed the future direction of Georgian studies and strategized about capturing digital metadata during many conversations in the reading room or over a pint of ale. This sense of partnership encouraged me to create a simple calendar of the above-mentioned enclosures for the archivists that I hope will benefit the project as well as future scholars.

I am grateful to the Omohundro Institute for the opportunity to study in Windsor Castle.

This post and others also appear on our sibling GPP site at the Omohundro Institute. 

George III’s Papers and acquisition of his ‘Geographical Atlas’

Peter Barber is a Visiting Professor in association with the Georgian Papers Programme, King’s College London. 

George III’s geographical collections, now split between the British Library and the Royal Library in Windsor, with small fragments elsewhere, have been almost entirely overlooked by his many biographers. Yet we know that this large collection of about 50,000 maps, charts and views – many originally loose, others in volumes – was something he was passionate about: more so perhaps than his better known collections, where he left acquisitions to ‘experts’.

The so-called ‘Red-Lined Map’ : the revised (1775) edition of the Mitchell map of North America (1755) annotated with lines to illustrate interpretations of previous treaties, used by the British delegation in Paris 1782-3 when negotiating the independence of the USA (detail)
The so-called ‘Red-Lined Map’ : the revised (1775) edition of the Mitchell map of North America (1755) annotated with lines to illustrate interpretations of previous treaties, used by the British delegation in Paris 1782-3 when negotiating the independence of the USA (detail) (By permission of the British Library Board)

There are items in his geographical collection – ranging from state papers to personal material that only he could have secured. We also know that he chose to place the maps and views in the room immediately next to his bedroom in the Queen’s House (the predecessor of Buckingham Palace) and that he personally consulted it . The collection was part private hobby, part an element of the royal gloire : extensive self-assembled ‘atlases’ of this kind had been fashionable in royal, aristocratic and antiquarian circles since at least the 1680s. Each of these ’atlases’ had their individual characteristics, and George’s was no exception.

Elevation of George III’s bathing machine at Weymouth, ca. 1792. (By permission of the British Library Board)
Elevation of George III’s bathing machine at Weymouth, ca. 1792
(By permission of the British Library Board)


George adopted the structure of the collection from his uncle, William, Duke of Cumberland, whose maps he inherited.

Portrait of William, Duke of Cumberland from John Elphinstone, Drawings of the Castle of Glammis, c. 1747. Frontispiece [By permission of the British Library Board]
Portrait of William, Duke of Cumberland from John Elphinstone, Drawings of the Castle of Glammis, c. 1747. Frontispiece (By permission of the British Library Board)

Like Cumberland, he was interested in military affairs and like his uncle used his position as Commander-in-Chief to acquire military maps of all sorts: fortification, encampment and battle plans with plans for barracks and the sort of topographical maps that were essential for military purposes.

John Gibson, Plan of the Collieries on the River Tyne and Wear, 1787
John Gibson, Plan of the Collieries on the Rivers Tyne and Wear, also Blyth, Bedlington, and Hartley, with the Country eleven Miles round Newcastle; taken from actual surveys by John Gibson, 1787. (By permission of the British Library Board)

He also acquired material in areas that personally interested him but which were also useful for government such as canals, communications, agriculture, industry.


William Roy, Crieff from the Fair Copy of the Survey of Scotland., 1747-55, Draughtsman, Paul Sandby By permission of the British Library Board
William Roy, Crieff from the Fair Copy of the Survey of Scotland., 1747-55, Draughtsman, Paul Sandby
By permission of the British Library Board

Side-by-side with this went his personal enthusiasms. The collection is filled with architectural plans – including one of the largest collections of plans and elevations by Nicholas Hawksmoor –

Nicholas Hawksmoor, St Anne’s Limehouse, By permission of the British Library Board
Nicholas Hawksmoor, St Anne’s Limehouse,
(By permission of the British Library Board)

and drawings of British (Gothic) antiquity, not surprisingly from the man who was himself an architect manqué (there are plans by him in the collection) and who had a now-vanished Gothick palace constructed in Kew Gardens.

The ‘Geographical Atlas’ served several purposes. One of the most important was as an aid to government, and particularly, in line with his views on the role of an enlightened monarch in a constitutional state, as a source of information independent from that provided by his ministers. Secondly, it was a source of information about the world at large. Its foci reflected the values of his age, as well as the availability of printed and manuscript material. Over and above the British Isles which constitute about 40% of the collection, there is much (in descending order) Italian, French, Netherlandish and German material – the latter largely accounted for my the maps and views of his Hanoverian lands.

We know only the broad lines of how he acquired this collection. Much, including the largest antiquarian atlas in the world dating from 1660,

The Klencke Atlas
The Klencke Atlas assembled in 1660 is the largest antiquarian atlas in the world. The item was presented to Charles II on his restoration to the British throne in 1660.

was inherited from his ancestors and predecessors going back to 1660. As with his library, the items George acquired were paid for from his Privy Purse account – and they are missing between 1772 to 1811: the very years when he was most active in building up the collection. This has meant that researchers have had to rely on a close study of the items themselves to discover provenance for this core period. There is the occasional autograph dedication to the King, and in other cases contemporary diaries or letters can help. There is one surviving receipt. There are sometimes endorsements indicating specific sales and lots (though sometimes these refer to sales prior to the King’s actual acquisition of the material, a good example being the Hawksmoor material, where the endorsements refer to the 1737 auction that took place on the architect’s death).

Autograph dedication to George III by Sir William Hamilton, 1766
Autograph dedication to George III by Sir William Hamilton, then British minister in Naples, of a manuscript fortification atlas, 1766

George III’s papers could help to fill some of the many gaps in the records and unlock some of the remaining puzzles. Material hitherto regarded as insignificant and ephemeral may prove to be goldmines. To have them accessible on one’s own laptop when one is in easy reach of related material will be an amazing boon. They may help to modify old stereotypes such as the canard accepted without question until recently by those unaware of the Geographical Collections that George was intellectually uninterested and lacked interest in or curiosity about the world beyond Windsor and Weymouth.

By Peter Barber


Professor Andrew J. O’Shaughnessy appointed first SAR Visiting Professor at King’s College London

Historian and award-winning author Andrew O’ Shaughnessy has been appointed as the first Sons of the American Revolution (SAR) Visiting Professor at King’s College London to contribute to the Georgian Papers Programme.

Andrew O’Shaughnessy is the Vice President of Monticello, the Saunders Director of the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at the Thomas Jefferson Foundation and Professor of History at the University of Virginia.

He is the author of An Empire Divided: The American Revolution and the British Caribbean (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000). His most recent book, The Men Who Lost America. British Leadership, the American Revolution and the Fate of the Empire (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013) received eight national awards. A Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, he is an editor of the Jeffersonian American Series of the University of Virginia Press and of The Journal of American History.


In the inaugural role, Professor O’ Shaughnessy will have early access to the extensive archive of King George III’s private papers as part of a major joint project with King’s and the Royal Archive.

Professor O’Shaughnessy said he was delighted to have been chosen and was keen to start work interpreting the papers held in the archive at the royal residence, Windsor Castle, England.

I am thrilled to be the SAR Visiting Professor at King’s College.  This will afford me the opportunity to review the papers in the royal archives at Windsor that relate to the American Revolution.  It was previously difficult for researchers to gain access to the collection or to obtain detailed information about the contents.  It contains not only the papers of George III but also Admiral Lord Samuel Hood who was the second-in-command at the Battle of the Chesapeake Capes (1781) in which the British defeat precluded the rescue of Lord Cornwallis and his army at Yorktown on the coast of Virginia.   It is also an honor to be associate with King’s which has a long and impressive tradition of scholarship in imperial history, war studies and American history.”

The three-year visiting professorship has been funded by the National Society of the Sons of the Revolution and it is hoped the papers will reveal insights and give an increased understanding of the decades surrounding the American Revolution.

SAR President General Tom Lawrence said he is very pleased that the SAR is teaming with King’s and the Royal Archives in this important project.  We anticipate that many significant discoveries will result from this research that will further the scholarship of this historical period.  We are also delighted that one of our most distinguished and well respected scholars, Professor Andrew O’Shaughnessy, will be our inaugural SAR Visiting Professor.  He has been a frequent speaker at SAR events for years, has a well deserved reputation as one of our finest scholars, and he is the perfect choice.

The SAR is an historical, educational, and patriotic, non-profit corporation whose members are direct descendants of the men and women who supported the cause of American Independence during the years 1774-1783.

Visiting Professors will work on their own research and will be invited to lead an academic seminar or series of seminars on the interpretation of the archive in relation to their own work. They will also be available to staff of the Georgian Papers Programme for consultation about interpretation and dissemination.

Vice Principal (International) of King’s College London, Professor Joanna Newman said: ‘We are so pleased to have Professor O’ Shaughnessy join us on this fantastic project. We hope that his expertise and insight will be able to throw some light upon what is currently somewhat of of a gap in our understanding of a truly momentous historical period.

In the post, Professor O’Shaughnessy will have also access to King’s College London libraries and those of the University of London as well as the British Library and The National Archives at Kew.