Understanding the American Revolution using George III’s archives

Professor Andrew O’Shaughnessy was the first Sons of the American Revolution (SAR) Visiting Professor in 2016. The generous support from the Sons of the American Revolution (SAR) enables visiting professors to bring new perspectives to the study of texts uncovered by the Georgian Papers Programme (GPP). Here Professor O’Shaughnessy reflects on the highlights of his research during his professorship.


The objective of my research project was twofold. Firstly, it aimed to explain the significance of the archives of George III and the Georgian Programme for our understanding of the American Revolution. Secondly, it examined the personal role of George III in the formulation of strategy in the Revolutionary War.

Why are George III’s archives significant for understanding the American Revolution?

The papers of George III are fundamental to interpreting the British side of the American Revolution. The King was a critical figure because he enjoyed considerable power under the constitutional system of the 18th century. The monarch was still actively involved in politics, selecting both the Prime Minister and members of the Cabinet. The King also had much influence over the independent country gentry who made up the majority of members of the House of Commons. This was augmented by the patronage of individuals known as placemen and direct control of some constituencies.

The correspondence of George III was edited and published in 1927-28 as a series of six volumes covering the period of the American Revolution by Sir John Fortescue, who was the royal librarian at Windsor Castle. His later papers were edited and published in five volumes by A Aspinall between 1963 and 1971. The majority of historians therefore did not use the original archive because of the availability of the published letters and the difficulty of obtaining permission to obtain access to the papers at Windsor Castle.

However, the archive is important for historians since it contains a significant volume of information that has not been published. Furthermore, it is always necessary to consult original documents since they may reveal much more with alterations and deletions. It is also possible to identify documents in which George III meticulously listed military information, including details of the French fleet. There were additionally several categories of unpublished papers, important for our knowledge of the American Revolution.

Highlights from the archives

(a) Letters not included in the papers published by Sir John Fortescue:

Fortescue omitted some letters that are in the archive but not in the published volumes. Andrew Beaumont at Hertford College, Oxford, has been examining the correspondence of George III to Lord North for a biography of Lord North. He has certainly found that some of these letters were not included in the printed correspondence. My own investigation was for the correspondence of the actual war years in which the military intelligence and reports of spies were for some reason not included in the published papers by Fortescue. These included the letters of Aristarchus, who reported directly to George III. It may indeed have been the pen name of more than one individual while his reports were clearly based on many sources, especially in Britain and France. There is a book of reports from Brest in France about the activities of the French navy in the late 1770s – ‘George III Secret Intelligence 1779-1782’, which is handwritten and contained in Box 4121-4448. The naval intelligence ultimately failed the British in the months prior to Yorktown. This period is covered in the reports.

There is additionally a memoir by William Knox – former agent to the colony of Georgia and deputy secretary of state for America under Lord George Germain – entitled ‘Anecdotes and Characters of the late Administration 1782’. It is a wonderful source on the personalities of Lord North’s government and the debacle at the Battle of Saratoga.

(b) The letters of Admiral Sir Samuel Hood:

Admiral Sir Samuel Hood was second in command at arguably the most important naval battle of the 18th century, which is known as the Battle of the Chesapeake Capes off Virginia. It was lost by the British and proved decisive in the fate of Lord Cornwallis in Yorktown. Hood wrote regularly to one of the King’s courtiers and officeholders, General J Budé. These documents are unique and have not been examined by the various biographers of Hood. They are not part of those of his papers published by the Naval Records Society. They include important accounts of naval affairs and of the Battle of the Chesapeake Capes.

(c) The correspondence of William, Duke of Clarence:

Prince William was the third son of George III, who assigned him to the navy at the age of 13 in 1778. He was witness to several major naval engagements, and later served under Admiral Sir Samuel Hood. His correspondence includes accounts of British-occupied New York, naval battles and the war in the Caribbean.

(d) George III private papers (undated):

There are miscellaneous volumes of letters that were not included in the papers published by Fortescue. These included personal matters relating to his family, but also include his drafts requesting German mercenaries to the various princes in Brunswick, the Landsgrave of Hesse and Hesse Cassel. There is also correspondence with the admirals, often relating to Prince William.

(e) Maps, engravings and plans:

The maps are not formally part of the digital project of the Georgian Programme, however it was possible to consult them while working at Windsor Castle. They are not for the most part known to historians even though copies have long been available on microfilm at the Library of Congress. They include plans of battles, including one for the Battle of Bunker Hill and the siege of Charleston and are only just in the process of being indexed. They represent possibly the richest trove of unpolished materials for military historians.

What was George III’s role in the strategy of the American Revolution?

My second objective was to attempt to evaluate the role of George III in the strategy of the Revolutionary War. It was apparent to me that some of his language was repeated by Lord George Germain, the Minister most responsible for the war in America. He certainly had a role in the continuance of the war by refusing to countenance the appointment of a ministry committed to peace with America. Indeed, he became a driving force of the war in 1778 in the absence of leadership by Lord North. He threatened even to abdicate rather than permit a government that would not continue the war. He personally wrote to and negotiated the contracts for mercenaries with the princes of various states in Germany.

The research project hoped to find additional correspondence with those members of the government most responsible for the war. The outcome was indecisive. There were no letters that had not been published to Germain and the Earl of Sandwich. However, it is very likely that they were regularly meeting in person with the King, but unfortunately we do not have a source that lists his meetings. It was significant, though, that he copied, in his own hand, many of the military documents that he consulted, including lists of the ships in the respective fleets and the logistics of the British army in Boston in 1775.

Picturing Places at The British Library: Georgian Places

The British Library has announced the launch of Picturing Places, a new free online resource which explores the Library’s extensive holdings of landscape imagery.

PANORAMIC VIEW of that part of Ratisbon west of the cathedral, painted in water-colours by G. Scharf, sen.; 1845. Paper; 6 ft. 1/2 in. X 1 ft. © British Library

Picturing Places will help researchers interested in the Georgian period to visualise the eighteenth century more clearly. One of the leads on the project, Felicity Myrone at the British Library, was recently a King’s Research Fellow on the Georgian Papers Programme. Felicity’s project is focused on the topographical map collection of George III and this work contributed to the Picturing Places resource.

The British Library’s huge collection of historic prints and drawings is a treasure trove waiting to be discovered. Picturing Places showcases works of art by well-known artists such as Thomas Gainsborough and J.M.W. Turner alongside images by a multitude of lesser-known figures. Only a few have ever been seen or published before.

This is the first time that a large and important body of such materials from the Library are being brought to light. While landscape images have often been treated as accurate records of place, this website reveals the many different stories involved – about travel and empire, science and exploration, the imagination, history and observation.

As well as over 500 newly-digitised works of art from the collection, this growing site will feature over 100 articles by both emerging and established scholars from many disciplines. As part of the British Library’s ongoing Transforming Topography research project, films from the Library’s 2016 conference exploring the depiction of place are also accessible, providing revelatory insights about the history of landscape imagery.

Moreover, the Picturing Places project emerged out of two larger programmes of ongoing research at the British Library that may be of interest to Georgian researchers.

King’s Topographical Collection Cataloguing and Digitisation

Perhaps most significantly, there is the King’s Topographical Collection Cataloguing and Digitisation. George III’s extensive ‘K.Top’ collection of around 30–40,000 maps and views reflects changing impressions of place and space across the 16th–19th centuries through manuscript and printed atlases; architectural drawings and garden plans; maps and records of military campaigns, fortifications, barracks, bridges and canals; records of town and country houses, civic and collegiate buildings; drawn and printed records of antiquities including stained glass, sculpture, tombs, mosaic pavements and brasses; and thousands of drawn and printed views.

The collection includes the work of familiar names from Hollar to Hawksmoor, alongside the works of a host of lesser-known artists and amateurs and much anonymous or unidentified material. The British Library has received support from a number of generous donors to make this material available digitally.

The core aim of the ongoing King’s Topographical Collection Cataloguing and Digitisation Project is to provide free online access to George III’s maps and views. The main outputs are the ongoing creation of detailed and searchable catalogue records on the Explore catalogue and high quality digital images, which will be available there in 2018. This project has also involved sharing our records with other institutions and initiating research projects.

A 2017 PhD placement will initiate the study of George III’s parallel collection of sea charts and atlases. This project will be known as the King’s Maritime Collection.

A pocket map of the citties of London, Westminster, & Southwark: with the addition of the new buildings to this present year 1725. Thomas Bowles. © British Library
Transforming Topography

Secondly, there is broader work on understanding the relationship between society and the landscape. This is being explored in the Transforming Topography project.

Topography is an emerging and dynamic field in art historical scholarship. The core aim of the Transforming Topography research project is to stimulate research in this often-overlooked field. It presents topographical art as complex imagery which needs to be explored and understood in relation to the shifting motives of all those involved in its creation.

Rather than seeing topographical art as marginal compared to the landscapes in oils or watercolours by the canon of ‘great artists’ or more imaginative and Sublime images, a growing number of scholars are embracing the historical study of images of specific places in the graphic arts. This is sparking a lively debate around nationhood, identity, and cultural value, or what John Barrell describes as ‘the conflict and coexistence of the various… “stakeholders” in the landscape and in its representation’ (Barrell, Edward Pugh of Ruthin, 2013).

Our collection holds the world’s most extensive and important collection of British topographic materials: from handwritten notes by antiquarians to rare first editions, extra-illustrated books and unique compilations of plates, text and drawings by named collectors. The full extent and depth of the collections are only now being properly recognised and explored.

George III’s Visit to Kenwood House in 1794

By Peter Barber, member of the Georgian Papers Programme Steering Committee.


Kenwood House is one of the most popular tourist sites in London. This is largely because of its beautiful grounds, the outstanding collection of paintings bequeathed by the first Earl of Iveagh in 1927 and because of the Robert Adam rooms in the house itself commissioned by Lord Chief Justice William Murray, first Earl of Mansfield (1705-93) between 1764 and 1779. The extensions made by his nephew and successor, the diplomat David Murray, 6th Viscount Stormont and 2nd Earl of Mansfield (1717-96) have until recently been less well known. The diary of Queen Charlotte shows, however, that at the time they were of interest to the King himself, and presumably to others like him who had architectural inclinations and expertise.

Kenwood House had originally been built as a home for the King’s Printer, John Bill, shortly after 1616. Its healthy, elevated position and views over woods toward London undoubtedly explain the choice. The house was a substantial but by no means palatial suburban villa. In the early eighteenth century it passed through the hands of interrelated Scottish aristocrats, including George III’s later mentor, John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute who acquired it in 1746 and sold it to Murray in 1754, a year before Bute became George’s tutor and Groom of the Stole. Only an orangery stretching along the terrace to the west of the main house had been added to the house in the intervening years. Bute had been fond of the house and had doubtless talked to his impressionable pupil about it.

The house that Bute occupied was still just a villa. William Murray, who was created earl of Mansfield in 1776, had ambitions to turn it into a proper, aristocratic country seat, maintained through the rents from surrounding lands. These eventually extended from Kentish Town to Highgate Village, Crouch End and East Finchley (the link to the Mansfields is perpetuated through street names). The money also paid for the extensive parkland stretching south from the house to what is now Parliament Hill Fields on Hampstead Heath.

Despite employing Adam, however, Mansfield only added the – admittedly magnificent – library wing, which balanced the orangery, to the east of the house itself. The rest of the house had been re-faced, raised by a storey and its garden façade had been decorated with stucco, while a grand processional route was created from the front hall/dining room to the library. The rest of the house was left as it was, with the private rooms – which constituted the bulk of the space – retaining their original, domestic proportions.

The second earl had grander ambitions and, long before his uncle’s death, but with his full approval, he had determined to embellish Kenwood ‘upon a handsome plan’. He clearly intended to transform the house from a villa into a proper country seat, an English counterpart to his Scottish ancestral home, Scone Palace. Hampstead Lane was diverted so that it no longer passed Kenwood’s front door. The landscape designer, Humphrey Repton, was consulted about modifying the grounds in the latest, more picturesque taste. For the house itself, the new earl employed two architects who are now little-known, Robert Nasmith and, after his death in 1793, George Saunders (1762-1839). Saunders, however, was a well-read architectural innovator who enjoyed a good reputation in his time.

Between 1793 and 1796, Saunders transformed the house, adding large dining room and music room/drawing room wings, a vast set of service buildings and handsome stables. Under the influence of his wife, Louisa, née Cathcart, in 1794-5 he also added, a fashionable and well-placed dairy, tea-room and scullery, supposedly resembling a Swiss chalet, on a nearby hillock that could be seen from the house, while her favourite artist, Julius Caesar Ibbotson, decorated the music/drawing room with allegorical paintings.

For Friday 28 March 1794, Queen Charlotte recorded in her diary [RA GEO/ADD/43/3e] that ‘This Morning the King went to see in His Airing the improvements of Lord Mansfield (sic) villa at Caenwood. Lady Mansfield & Her Daughter were there’. That the King should go towards Kenwood for his ‘Airing’ is not surprising: the healthy air of Hampstead and Highgate had long attracted city dwellers of all sorts. The daughter of Lord Mansfield in Kenwood was probably Lady Caroline, then a five-year old infant.

But what particularly attracted the King to the improvements at Kenwood? It is unlikely to have been the dairy, of which by March 1794 very little would have been visible. However he might well have been interested in the features that that the artist and diarist Joseph Farington had noted in the previous November as being ‘in respect of architectural effect, strange’. This would have included the decision to leave the yellow brickwork of the two new wings to the main house exposed despite plaster concealing the bricks elsewhere.

Perhaps, however, it was the new kitchen that particularly appealed to the King. George III had since the 1780s become particularly interested in gothic architecture (and was indeed designing a gothic palace in Richmond). The new kitchen at Kenwood – which is still to be seen – was loosely modelled by Saunders on the medieval kitchen at Glastonbury Abbey.

This was well known in antiquarian circles and had, indeed, been the subject of an early watercolour by Turner. However, Saunders had enhanced it by increasing the amount of daylight streaming down from the cupola and windows – a feature that would surely have been of particular interest to the man whom Professor David Watkin has recently described as our ‘Architect King’.