George III and the ‘German Empire’

Dr Michael Rowe, Senior Lecturer in Modern European History, King’s College London

George III’s relationship with Germany was less obviously intimate than that enjoyed by his two predecessors. He proudly and very publicly asserted his British identity, at the expense of his Hanoverian roots: ‘Born and educated in this country, I glory in the name of Britain’, he famously stated in his accession speech to Parliament on 18 November 1760. The Electorate of Hanover, which he inherited at the same time, he in contrast disparaged as an encumbrance.

Documents from the Royal Archives provide a more nuanced picture. Notes and essays written by George himself reveal a considerable depth of knowledge on his part of the history and constitution of the Holy Roman Empire, of which Hanover was a part. Especially interesting is the file GEO ADDL MSS 32/481-524, and within this file an essay of over forty pages [ff 489-511] on the Empire’s government. The relevant foundational constitutional documents and agreements are all identified and described, including the Golden Bull (1356), Diet of Worms (1495), Peace of Augsburg (1555), Peace of Westphalia (1648) and various ‘capitulations’ or undertakings made by emperors upon their election. In George’s time the Empire possessed nine princes with the title of Elector, a dignity to which Hanover’s rulers had been raised comparatively recently (1692). Not surprisingly, the essay lavishes much attention to this office, including details on the important rights that came with it. These included that of ‘non appellando’, which meant that the judgments of electoral courts could not be appealed to one of the higher imperial tribunals. Electors also had the authority to raise taxes and in terms of precedence were broadly equivalent to kings, who addressed electors as ‘brother’ in correspondence. Electors could sign treaties with foreign powers and claim forfeitures in their own dominions. Their main role, as reflected in their title, was of course to elect the Holy Roman Emperor.

Interestingly, the essay makes no reference to the Electorate of Hanover as a territorial entity that might be prized because of its resources. This is hardly surprising given that Hanover was if anything a geopolitical liability, open to occupation by Britain’s most constant eighteenth-century foe, France. Seen in these terms it really was a ‘horrid Electorate’, as George described it in 1759. The value of Hanover to George derived not from the territory, but from the attendant office of Elector, a distinction historians tend to overlook. Possession of this title might be viewed as the eighteenth-century equivalent of occupying a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. However arcane the Holy Roman Empire appears, the electorship meant a seat at the top table within an entity still integral to European politics. Furthermore, Elector George occupied this seat independent of his role as Britain’s sovereign; to put it another way, it allowed him a role in international politics free from the usual parliamentary and ministerial constraints to which Kings of Great Britain were generally subject.

Essay on the German Empire’s governance by George III (RA GEO/ADD/32/481). Royal Archives/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017

A second file – GEO ADDL MSS 32/525-554 – contains additional material relating to the Holy Roman Empire. It includes handwritten copies of two published French-language texts on the Bavarian succession: “Memoire succinct sur la Succession de l’Electeur de Baviere” (ff 551 – 553) and “Memoire sur la Succession aux Fiefs de la Couronne de Bohême dans le Haut Palatinat après la mort du dernier Electeur de Baviere décedé le 30. Decembre 1777” (f 554). The contested Bavarian succession, which was triggered when the Elector of Bavaria Maximilian III Joseph died at the end of 1777 without leaving an heir, came close to triggering all-out war between Austria and Prussia in the following year. With hindsight the conflict might seem trivial compared to the war then raging across the Atlantic over American independence. Yet at the time, the forces deployed by Prussia and Austria – respectively, 160,000 and 190,000 troops – far exceeded anything fielded by Great Britain and her enemies in the western hemisphere.

Both French texts provide a detailed exposition of the competing claims to the Bavarian inheritance, concluding that those made by the Austrian Habsburgs were without foundation. That George III should have given any attention at all to the Bavarian succession whilst fighting for the Thirteen Colonies seems bizarre. However, other notes and essays in the same file (ff 529 – 550) devoted to another Habsburg (Charles V, who was Holy Roman Emperor from 1519 to 1556) suggest a motive for this interest. The material presents Charles as a threat to the Empire’s liberties which were upheld by the German princes including especially those influenced by Martin Luther’s teachings. The role of members of the house of Brunswick-Lüneburg, from whom the Hanoverians were descended, is highlighted. Indeed, it is noted that Brunswick-Lüneburg supplied two of the six princes whose ‘protest’ against Charles V at the Diet of Speyer (1529) gave birth to the term ‘Protestantism’ to describe the religious reform movement. The Protestant Reformation, according to this version of history, was as much about preserving German liberties from Habsburg encroachment as it was about religion. Was George III, in resisting the pretensions of a later Habsburg Emperor (Joseph II, 1765-1790), self-consciously following a venerable Hanoverian family tradition?

What is clear is that George III, in opposing Emperor Joseph II, was going against the policy of his British ministers. These favoured rapprochement with the Emperor as a means of isolating France at a time when Britain’s fortunes looked pretty bleak. The Bavarian succession crisis was concluded without major fighting, and without Joseph II gaining any significant advantage. Meanwhile, George III was compelled to accept the loss of the greater part of his North American Empire, acknowledging the sovereignty and independence of the United States in the Treaty of Paris of 1783. The style he adopted in the Treaty itself – ‘George the Third, by the grace of God king of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, defender of the faith, duke of Brunswick and Lunebourg, arch-treasurer and prince elector of the Holy Roman Empire, etc.’ – reflected the fact that whilst his trans-Atlantic empire was no more, his status within the Empire remained intact.

Practising monarchy: using digital history to rethink Queen Victoria

Lee Butcher is a Collaborative Doctoral Award PhD researcher with King’s College London and English Heritage

As a political historian and political geographer I am interested in how political practices, and institutions, develop over time, in place, and through space. My PhD research focuses on the role of the monarchy in Britain’s political development during the nineteenth century, specifically that of the Victorian monarchy. Working alongside English Heritage my research focuses on the processes by which the monarchy under Victoria enacted political practice in place, specifically the place of Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. Through selecting one location the lived experience of political practice, and through that the discharging of constitutional duties, can be brought into greater relief.

This research purposefully deploys ideas of practice; what actors did and who they did it with. Inspired by geographical concepts under the umbrella of ‘Non-Representational Theory’, or my preferred ‘More-Than-Representational Theory’, advanced by the geographers such as Nigel Thrift, this project seeks to question the preponderance of the representational turn in royal history.[1]  That turn posits either that the monarchy can best be understood as a text, a representation, to be deciphered and so understood, an epistemology of representation.[2] Alternatively, that the monarchy was largely a representational institution, one whose primary role was to provide a depoliticised symbolic function in order to maintain the legitimacy of the British state, an ontology of representation.[3] This idea can be traced to Walter Bagehot’s 1867 contrivance that the monarchy was separated into a ‘functional’ role and a ‘dignified’ role, the former the monarch’s direct role in political and governmental activity, the latter the symbolic role of providing a seemingly historic continuity to Britain’s evolving political system.[4] This dignified role, Bagehot insisted, was then mostly what the monarchy did. Stripped of its powers by an increasingly powerful parliament and executive, Britain was a de facto republic with a crowned head of state. Despite limited efforts to counter this narrative[5], historians have largely embraced Bagehot’s schema with gusto. A recent review of a new biography of Victoria displays this neatly, advancing the questionable claim that Victoria ‘had limited knowledge’ of the Crimean and Boer Wars.[6]

The problem with this concept of royal politics was highlighted early on in my project. The predominant view of Osborne, by the heritage sector and by historians, acted as a proxy for this schema. At Osborne the monarch could escape politics, retreat from society (in London), and seclude themselves within the depoliticised world of domestic, bourgeois family life.[7]  In effect, when the monarchy was not enacting its dignified functions, the institution was free to do as it pleased during its off hours. With Victoria’s seclusion after Albert’s death in 1861, her unwillingness to stay long at Buckingham Palace, and her increasingly long stays out of London, those off hours, presumably, increased fourfold. This struck me as problematic: just how likely was it that the head of state in a constitutional monarchy could escape the demands of constitution and politics? By exploring a range of primary sources to explore just what the monarchy got up to in such a ‘secluded place’, it may be possible to demonstrate the credibility, or otherwise, of this schema (functional vs. dignified, public vs. private). In effect, if it could be demonstrated that a great deal more politics and government work went on in this most private of places than the historiography acknowledged, the schema itself may prove vulnerable to deconstruction, and thus our thinking about the role of the monarchy during this period could be refreshed and enlivened. To paraphrase Thrift, it may be possible to bring the dead geographies of the Victorian monarchy to life.[8]

The representational turn can thus be cast as a direct result of the dominance of this schema. Were Bagehot and his later acolytes correct, then the history of the modern monarchy was necessarily a representational history, whether in its epistemological or ontological forms. There was very little else to be said of the monarchy outside of its dignified role (or, for the biographers, the continuing exercise in royal personality study). A concept of practice, of political and institutional practice as performance within a network of connected actors, thus provides a valuable means to challenge this paradigm. The representational ceases to be both the genesis and the apotheosis of monarchy, but can rather be seen to be a product of what the monarchy did, as well as a practice in itself. The symbolic function of the monarchy does not cease to be, but it can no longer be privileged and cast separately from what else the institution did. The functional and the dignified become intertwined and inseparable, the public and private enmeshed. For example, that the royal family created the image of bourgeois family life at Osborne (and elsewhere), and distributed this image via photographs and other media is indisputable. However, that image existed because of the practice of family life; that the Queen married, had a large family, and constructed a family centred life at the residences (at Osborne this was built into the residence, the nursery in the pavilion, the Swiss Cottage in the grounds, for example). Practice and image were inseparable. The image that resulted of a productive family life, which maintained bourgeois values, was a deliberate effort to push the image of the depoliticised (read, harmless) nature of a new monarchy escaping its “disreputable” Georgian ancestors. The creation of a depoliticised bourgeois family was in itself a political act. To court favour with the public, to ensure that the institution survived a turbulent period, a depoliticised monarchy sought to appeal to the nation by countering what were viewed as the harmful image created by their immediate royal ancestors. It was a political strategy for survival. It may be seen as ironic that this political act has been accepted at face value by generations of royal historians. The depoliticised nature of the Victorian monarchy largely, and uncritically, accepted. The historical woods have been obscured by the historical trees.

How then have digital sources contributed to this effort? The digitised journals of Victoria have provided an opportunity to explore royal political practice in a systematic manner. To observe royal practice, it is necessary to trace the performance of the actions of that institution. An institution like the monarchy had a particular and developing rhythm, a set of steps danced in partnership with other institutions, together forming a routine of national political life. To trace royal practice, it is thus necessary to trace the steps in place and through space that the monarchy enacted. Queen Victoria’s journals, digitised and made available online in 2012, provided a valuable source to trace her steps. Having been digitally catalogued and searchable, the ability to export the information contained in this source into a quantifiable format has been a key element in this project. I have compiled a database of 1745 data points, distilling the 20,000 odd entries of Victoria’s journals into a Geographical Information System database, allowing both for the mapping of Victoria’s whereabouts from 1832 to 1901, and for the statistical analysis of this data. Initial results have allowed me to begin to answer some fundamental questions about Victoria’s spatial practices, such as; which was the most frequented residence? If most frequented can be seen as a proxy for importance, this question is relatively important for a political geography of the monarchy. It is essential if I am to understand Osborne’s place in the royal scheme of things. The answer is; Windsor Castle (38%), Osborne (28%), Balmoral (22%), and finally Buckingham Palace (16%), measured in number of days spent at each.

More usefully, as the data is recorded by date, as well as duration of each visit, an analysis of change through time has been possible. This has demonstrated that Victoria’s spatial practices can be divided into four distinct stages. Between 1837-1844 (spanning her accession and marriage), there were long stays at Buckingham Palace and Windsor. 1845-1861, which encompassed the Queen’s marriage, the birth of the royal children, the purchase and construction of Osborne and Balmoral, saw Windsor and Buckingham Palace vie with each other for top spot, closely followed by Osborne, and long way behind, Balmoral. The death of the Prince Consort heralded the third period of spatial practice. In 1862, in the immediate aftermath, saw Victoria spend the vast majority of her time at Osborne. The rest of the period up to 1890 saw gradually diminishing oscillations between Osborne, Balmoral, and Windsor. Most notable is the near abandonment of Buckingham Palace after 1861, characterised by short half day visits for the few formal functions presided over by the Queen. Only shorts visits are recorded, perhaps surprisingly, during the Jubilee years of 1887 and 1897 to London. The final period, from 1890 to Victoria’s death in 1901, saw a three-way parity emerge between Osborne, Balmoral and Windsor. This was the height of the Queen’s holidaying in the south of France. What this suggests is that, as expected, Victoria avoided London, but it is the contention of this research that this act did not so much distance the monarchy from political life, rather that it reshaped the political geography of the nation. The nature of political activity was altered, fewer large formal events, greater weekend retreats, and a greater reliance on communication at a distance. The development of communication technology, particularly telegraphy, undoubtedly provided an opportunity for the monarch to remain involved while not being in direct personal contact with her ministers.

How than did the monarch’s connections with the political classes developed over the period? This I explored by scouring the Queen’s journals for visits by the Prime Ministers to the monarch, recording these by date and location. What we see, by location, is the importance of Buckingham Palace (49%) and Windsor (40%), followed by Osborne (8%), then Balmoral (3%). Skewing the figures towards Buckingham Palace, despite its near abandonment from 1861, is the overwhelming appearance of Lord Melbourne. Confirming what historians had previously said of the close relationship between Victoria and her first Prime Minister, Melbourne represents 52% of all Prime Ministerial visits to Victoria, which is an astounding number given that he only served for five years of her reign. Melbourne can thus be seen as an outlier among the Prime Ministers. Excluding Melbourne (so beginning the sample with Sir Robert Peel in August 1841) adjusts the residence figures to Windsor (39%), Buckingham Palace (38%), Osborne (16%), and Balmoral (7%). The increase for Osborne is particularly striking, perhaps demonstrating the importance of the residence later in the period. Over time there is a gradual diminishing of the number of visits by the Prime Ministers per year, nonetheless these do not disappear altogether. There is a sustained engagement between the monarch and her Prime Ministers during Victoria’s reign. Despite expectations the immediate period after 1861 does not see the nadir of political visits, despite a noticeable dip in 1862 and 1863. The mid-1860s, and again in the mid-1870s, see a resurgence in visits, particularly to Windsor. The late 1880s and the mid-1890s see Osborne’s heyday as a location for Prime Ministerial visits. There are notable peaks in 1868, a year of intense political instability, seeing the end of the third Derby administration, the start and end of the first Disraeli government, and the commencement of the first Gladstone administration. The peak in 1875 may relate to Disraeli’s decision for Britain to purchase a majority stake in the Suez Canal, as well as discussions over the Royal Titles Bill (conferring on Victoria the title Empress of India, passed in 1876). A further peak in 1886 coincided with the collapse of the first Salisbury administration, the start and end of the third Gladstone government, the general election of that year, and the formation of the second Salisbury administration. A final large peak in 1895 may reflect of the collapse of Lord Roseberry’s Liberal government, a general election, and the formation of the third Salisbury, in coalition with the Liberal Unionist breakaway group led by Joseph Chamberlain.

These figures suggest that royal involvement in the ‘functional’ role of politics and government increased as politics became less stable. Essentially, as the political parties and the House of Commons became less able to resolve matters for themselves, and Prime Ministers entered into discussions with the monarch about dissolving and forming administrations (as well as attending to the formal processes of both), the role of the monarchy in politics increased. This can be seen across the period, from the start to the end. This was certainly the case in 1846, the year which saw the largest number of Prime Ministerial visits, as Sir Robert Peel’s decision to support repeal of the Corn Laws spilt the Conservative Party into ‘free trade’ and ‘protectionist’ wings, depriving the ruling party of maintaining a majority in the House of the Commons, without conferring on the Liberal opposition, led by Lord John Russell, a working majority to command the support of the legislator. Victoria’s journal and her published letters, demonstrate close negotiation between monarch, Prime Minister, and the Leader of the Opposition, as they sought to resolve the parliamentary deadlock. A representational history of the monarchy, which fails to attend to questions such as these, fails to account for the wider range of important constitutional and political practices of the monarchy. Deploying concepts of practice, alongside the comprehensive interrogation of sources such as Victoria’s journals, using the latest digital and quantitative methods, provides the historian with new ways to view this important institution to Britain’s political development.

Digitised sources, such as Victoria’s journal, and now the vast number of manuscripts now being digitised by the Georgian Papers Programme, are important tools for the historian. The attempt to use these techniques using only manuscripts would be prohibitively time consuming, and require more resources than are typically available to researchers who are not part of a broader research team. The ability to search such documents, and to have entries catalogued and visible in a systematic manner, enables the kinds of research that I have sought to detail in this article. The hard work of archivists, researchers, and volunteers in projects like the Georgian Papers Programme enable historians to undertake increasingly complex research using ever larger collections of primary source material. As the previous digitisation of Victoria’s journals have enabled me to construct GIS and statistical analysis of this substantial historical source, so historians of the Georgian period will be enabled to deploy novel methodologies, and formulate new research questions, which could substantially reshape our understanding of the history of the monarchy during that period.

[1] For example, Nigel Thrift, Non-Representational Theory (2007), and Hayden Lorimer, ‘Cultural geography: the busyness of being ‘more-than-representational’, Progress in Human Geography 29, 1 (2005) pp. 83-94

[2] Important contributions include Margaret Homans, Royal Representations (1998) and Adrienne Munich, Queen Victoria’s Secrets (1996).

[3] Such as David Cannadine, ‘The Context, Performance, and Meaning of Ritual: the British Monarchy and the ‘Invention of Tradition’, c.1820-1877’, in Hobsbawm and Ranger, The Invention of Tradition (1983), William M. Kuhn, Democratic Royalism: The Transformation of the British Monarchy, 1861-1914 (1996), and John Plunkett, Queen Victoria: First Media Monarch (2003).

[4] Walter Bagehot, The English Constitution, (1867) pp.61-93

[5] Frank Hardie, The political influence of Queen Victoria, 1861-1901 (1935)

[6] Janet Maslin, Review: ‘Victoria the Queen’ [by Julia Baird] Delves Into Her Epic Reign, The New York Times, Dec. 20, 2016,, accessed 23/12/2016

[7] Such as in the English Heritage Guidebook for Osborne, “Here they built a new private home as an escape from court life in London and Windsor”, in Michael Turner, Osborne, English Heritage Guidebooks, p.3, (2007). Elizabeth Longford, in referring to the purchase of Osborne and the royal family’s first overseas holiday writes of “The Queen’s fulfilment as a private person”, in Elizabeth Longford, Victoria R.I., p.191 (First ed. 1964, reprint 2011)

[8] Nigel Thrift, John-David Dewsbury, ‘Dead geographies – and how to make them live’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 2000, vol. 18, pp. 411-432

The Abdication Speech of George III

Professor Arthur Burns, Vice Dean for Education, Faculty of Arts and Humanities, Professor of Modern British History, King’s College London

There are few more dramatic incidents in the recent history of the British monarchy than the abdication of Edward VIII on 11 December 1936, not least because the act was captured in such a vivid manner in the speech Edward delivered the same day on the radio. The occasion is often referred to simply as ‘The Abdication Crisis’, no doubt partly because such renunciation of the throne has been a rare occurrence in the history of the British monarchy. In Scotland Mary Queen of Scots had been forced to abdicate in favour of the thirteen-month old James VI (later I of England) in 1567.  It was convenient for some of his subjects to believe that James II of England had abdicated the throne in 1688, but this was a legal fiction designed to disguise the constitutional implications of his deposition. In fact no English monarch had voluntarily relinquished the throne since Anglo-Saxon kings such as Centwine (king of the West Saxons 676-85) and his successor Caedwalla (685-8) had done so for religious reasons, the former to enter a monastery, the latter to seek baptism at Rome.

There was at least one other monarch who contemplated voluntary abdication, however, and more than once, in the course of his 59 years on the throne: George III. The first occasion on which George seriously considered abdication came in 1782, when the king got as far as drawing up a terse declaration of his intention to abdicate for delivery to parliament.[1] This followed crushing blows related to the war with America: first the military disaster of the surrender of Lord Cornwallis and the capture of his army following the Battle of Yorktown in October 1781; secondly the passing in the House of Commons of a motion against the further prosecution of the war on the 27 February 1782, signalling the doom of Lord North’s administration (North would resign as First Lord of the Treasury on 20 March) and indicating the lack of support in the House for the king’s preferred policy of resisting American independence at all costs. No decisive evidence has yet been found of precisely why or when the king changed his mind, although his Lord Chancellor Edward Thurlow for one certainly sought to dissuade him and instead to accept the unwelcome inevitability of a ministry headed by Charles Watson Wentworth, marquess of Rockingham, whose supporters not only sought an end to the war and the concession of American Independence, but also promoted measures designed to curb what they saw as the undue influence of the monarch in parliament.

It was not long before George was once more driven to consider his position. The following year Lord Shelburne, who had succeeded Rockingham as premier on the latter’s unexpected and sudden death in July 1782, offered his resignation on 24 February 1783 following a defeat in the Commons over the terms of the peace then being negotiated. There followed five weeks which the historian John Cannon correctly identifies as ‘one of the most protracted cabinet crises in British history’.[2] Shelburne’s fall had been a consequence in part of the formation of a new and remarkable political alliance between George’s estranged former premier Lord North, and Charles James Fox, a leading figure in the Rockingham party — and a politician personally offensive to the king, hated on account both of his apparently malign influence on the prince of Wales and his vituperative critique of Lord North’s American policy. Until the end of March the king desperately sought to form a new administration that could save him from humiliation: the creation of a ministry from the unnatural and hostile coalition of Fox’s and North’s followers, ‘men who I know I cannot trust’ and who, by imposing conditions for taking office, would make him ‘a kind of slave’.[3] He finally conceded defeat and allowed Fox and North to kiss hands on 2 April 1783.

Fragment of ‘Draft of a message of abdication from George III to the Parliament’ (1783?) RA GEO/MAIN/5367. Royal Archives / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017

The draft of an abdication speech in the king’s hand reproduced and transcribed here was written during the endgame of this process (it is undated, but historians concur in attributing it to the last week of March 1783; on the 28th the king told Thurlow that he was perhaps only a couple of days away from delivering it).[4] He had already countenanced the thought earlier in the month, telling John Dunning, Lord Ashburton, that he had prepared an abdication address ‘without assistance’.[5]  The seriousness of the proposal is underlined by the survival of a contemporaneous draft letter to the prince of Wales in which George spoke of ‘a cruel dilemma’, leaving him ‘but one step to take without destruction of my principles and honour; the resigning of my crown’.[6] Just how cruel a dilemma it was is in turn emphasised by the fact that George was prepared to see the prince of Wales, not yet come of age, prematurely promoted to his throne despite the serious reservations the father entertained about his fitness to rule. (Indeed he wrote to Thomas Thynne, Viscount Weymouth, that he envisaged that, were this to come to pass, his son would become ‘the puppet …. the House of Commons [is] not disinclined to see their sovereign’.)[7] The king was, however, eventually persuaded that there were better options by Thurlow and William Pitt the Younger’s cousin Thomas, MP for Old Sarum, the key argument being perhaps that, if the king systematically and visibly starved his new government of patronage and support, it would soon be rendered sufficiently unpopular that it would not long survive.[8]

If we examine the text of the speech itself, a number of things strike the reader. That care was taken in the writing is apparent from the corrections made to the draft.  Given the context in which the proposed abdication is usually mentioned – the loss of America – it is worth noting how little of the speech is directly concerned with this issue. The casual reader might wonder why this was not the public justification for abdication at this moment: either because George could not persuade politicians to resist the concession of defeat; or simply from defeat in the cause which he had to such an extent made his own. But this would be to underestimate the importance of George’s providential understanding of history and his own life, articulated in the final paragraph with reference to the future of the kingdom under the prince of Wales. At a certain point the loss of America had to be acknowledged as a providential outcome rather than resisted or ignored. The address reflects the fact that by this point George had finally come to accept defeat.

Such an understanding, however, did not preclude – indeed it necessitated – a clear understanding of the course of events which had led to this outcome. The speech very clearly sets out the analysis, both short and long-term, at which the king had arrived by March 1783. He was clear in his belief that, as he stated near the start of the speech, ‘Unanimity … must have rendered Britain invulnerable though attacked by the most powerful combinations’. Therefore the fact that it had proved only too vulnerable could be attributed to the absence among the governing political class of ‘the first of public Virtues, attachment to the Country’, this having been replaced by ‘selfish views’. This development in turn George attributed to the decline of a proper ‘sense of Religious and Moral Duties in this Kingdom’, to which ‘every Evil that has arisen owes its Source’.[9] And here we see George placing the immediate context of the loss of America within a much longer timeframe, one bringing into consideration the whole history of the high politics of the nation since his accession in 1760 and indeed before. In particular, he located the actions of leading politicians in the cabinet crisis within a much broader interpretation of the actions of a political class who had collectively frustrated the ambitions which he had set out for himself as monarch on his accession, and indeed trespassed upon his royal prerogatives. His efforts to recruit the brightest and the best to his government had been continually obstructed by politicians’ refusal to serve unless in particular combinations (of factions or parties) or on particular conditions regarding policy or personnel. Here ‘the powerful party that has long publicly manifested a resolution not to aid in the service of their country’ clearly fingered the Rockinghamite branch of the whig tradition and Charles James Fox. At key moments, moreover, he felt himself to have been abandoned by those who should have felt an obligation to continue to serve as long as their king desired it: here Lord North was clearly in the firing line. It was thus the internal crisis of the British polity, identified by both George and his opponents in parliament, but attributed by the latter rather to his own attempt to redefine the position of the monarch, which was for George the main justification for the threat of abdication, not the loss of America, which he understood as its consequence.

The sense of disillusion here is underlined by George’s proposition that, on his abdication, he should retire to Hanover, ‘my electoral dominions [and] the original patrimony of my ancestors’. This was of course in one sense the obvious place for ‘exile’ – but it was nevertheless clearly a pointed remark from a king who explicitly recalled that, in his accession speech in the same venue as he intended for this address, he had announced that ‘Born and educated in this country, I glory in the name of Briton’ above his association with what he had once called the ‘horrid electorate’. Several historians have in fact identified what amounts to a ‘Hanoverian turn’ in George III’s orientation during the mid-1780s, crystallised in 1785 in his negotiating independently of his ministers regarding involvement in a north German Fürstenbund (league of princes). One should not underestimate his engagement with Hanover even before this, but it may be that this British constitutional crisis played a part in any reconfiguration of his priorities.[10]

This document has usually been considered in the context of George’s struggles with party politicians or as part of the fall-out from the crisis in America. This may explain why one interesting question it provokes has received insufficient attention. Where did George get the idea of abdicating from? The fiction of James II’s abdication would clearly not have been a welcome precedent, quite apart from the fact that it was taken to apply equally to James’s heirs, leaving parliament to determine the succession, whereas George explicitly designated this for his son. In that George spoke of retiring to Hanover, his proposed abdication had more in common with the action of another monarch presiding over a multiple kingdom, the abdication on his accession to the Spanish throne in 1759 of Charles III from the monarchies of Naples and Sicily in favour of his son. However, in this instance not only was the relationship between the status of the positions involved the inverse of that between the British monarchy and the electorate of Hanover, but there had been no hint of monarchical failure in the rationale. We’ve already seen that there were no other English precedents. Did it come from the classical precedents of the emperor Diocletian or dictator Sulla? If nothing else, the proposal underlines the significance for understanding George III as monarch of the various essays he composed as a young man and which form part of the first release of documents under the Georgian Papers Programme. In these he reflected on forms of government, the constitutional history of Britain and Europe, and on politics. This was a king who had thought long and hard about what it was to be king, and who in the document before us instinctively referred back to his understanding of that role at the point at which he had ascended the throne in 1760. George was also clear that he knew what it was to be a good king; and it was against this measure that, in 1783, faced by what appeared momentarily an irresolvable crisis, he judged that he could no longer be of ‘utility’ to his kingdom. In that circumstance, his own understanding of what it meant to be a good king meant that it was time for him to go.


Note: In this transcription, the underlinings of the document are reproduced; these appear to represent intended deletions. The text in italics and square brackets indicates material that has been added between the lines of the original text in the document. Spelling, punctuation and capitalization follow the original.

Page 1 of 4 of Draft of a message of abdication from George III to the Parliament, RA GEO/MAIN/5367. Royal Archives/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017

The original document is available online here.

I cannot at the most serious, as well as most painful moment of My Life, go out of this Great Assembly, without communicating to You My Intentions, not asking Your Advice.

The first time I appeared as Your Sovereign in this place now above twenty two years, I had the pleasing hope that being born among You, I might have proved the happy Instrument of conciliating all Parties and thus collecting to the Service of the State the most respectable and most able Persons this Kingdom produced. Of this object I have never lost sight, though sad experience now teaches Me that selfish Views are so prevalent that they have smothered the first of public Virtues, attachment to the Country, which ought to warm the breast of every Individual who enjoys the advantage of this excellent Constitution, and the want of which Sentiment has prevented that Unanimity which must have rendered Britain invulnerable, though attacked by the most Powerful Combinations.

My own Inclination to alleviate the Distresses of my People, added to the Change of Sentiments of one branch of the Legislature which rendered the real object of the War impracticable, made Me undertake the arduous task of obtaining the Blessings of Peace, rendered indeed more difficult by the Resolution above alluded to. I cannot sufficiently acknowledge the candour with which the Courts of France and Spain have conducted themselves during the Negociation of the Preliminary Articles, which greatly accelerated that desirable Work.

Circumstances have since arisen that might make those Courts more doubtful of the stability of the Councils of this Country, in forming the Definitive Treaties. I have therefore again attempted to collect the most efficient Men of all Parties that [who] under My Inspection the completion of Peace might be speedily and effectually concluded. [might with dispatch  and confidence proceed on forming the Definitive Articles.] But this Patriotic attempt has proved unsuccessful by the obstinacy of a powerful party that has long publicly manifested a resolution not to aid in the Service of their Country, but if employed to have the exclusive management of this Country and who has on[ce] again declined any assistance but agreeable to its own ambitious views, And the [the Empire, unless the whole Exclusive management of Affairs is thrown entirely in its hands, and from which it has not on this Occasion departed; at this same time] want of Zeal prevents others from standing forth at this critical conjuncture; to become the tool of a Party neither My Duty to the Station I hold among you nor to[o] my own Character will permit. [My obedience to the Oath I took at my Coronation prevents my exceeding the powers vested in Me, or submitting to be a Cypher in the trammels of any self created band.]

I must therefore to end a conflict which certainly puts a stop to every wheel of Government make a final Decision, and that I think my self compelled to do in this Assembly of the whole Legislature.

A long Experience and a serious attention to the Strange Events that have successively arisen, has gradually prepared My mind to expect the time when I should be no longer of Utility to this Empire; that hour is now come; I am therefore resolved to resign My Crown and all the Dominions appertaining to it to the Prince of Wales my Eldest Son and Lawful Successor and to retire to the care of My Electoral Dominions the Original Patrimony of my Ancestors. For which purpose I shall Draw up and Sign an Instrument to which I shall affix my Private Seal. I trust this Personal Sacrifice will awaken the various parties to a Sense of their Duty and that they will join in the Support and Assistance of the Young Successor.

You may depend on my arduous attention to Educate My Children in the Paths of Religion, Virtue and every other good Principle that may render them if ever called in any Line to the Service of Great Britain, not unworthy of the kindness they may hereafter meet with from a People whom collective I shall ever Love.

May that All Wise Providence who can direct the inmost thoughts as well as Actions of Men give My Son and Successor not only every assistance in guiding his Conduct, but Restore that sense of Religious and Moral Duties in this Kingdom to the want of which every Evil that has arisen owes its Source; and may I to the latest hour of my Life, though now resolved forever to quit this Island, have the Comfort of hearing that the Endeavours of My Son, though they cannot be more Sincere than Mine have been for the Prosperity of Great Britain, be Crowned with better Success.

[1] Sir J. Fortescue (ed.), The Correspondence of King George the Third, 6 vols (London, Macmillan, 1927-8), v. 425, no. 3601 [March 1782]:

‘His Majesty during the twenty one years he has sate on the throne of Great Britain, has had no object so much at heart as the maintenance of the British Constitution, of which the difficulties he has at times met with from his scrupulous attachment to the rights of Parliament are sufficient proofs.

His Majesty is convinced that the sudden change of sentiments in one branch of the legislature has totally incapacitated him from either conducting the war with effect, or from obtaining any peace but on conditions that would prove destructive to the commerce as well as essential rights of the British nation.

His Majesty therefore with much sorrow finds he can be of no further utility to his native country which drives him to the painful step of quitting it for ever.

In consequence of which intention His Majesty resigns the crown of Great Britain and the dominions pertaining thereto to his dearly beloved son and lawful successor, George Prince of Wales, whose endeavours for the prosperity of the British Empire he hopes may prove more successful.’

[2] John Cannon, The Fox-North Coalition: Crisis of the Constitution, 1782-4 (Cambridge, University Press, 1969), p. 65.

[3] George III to Prince of Wales, draft, Mar. 1783, reproduced in A. Aspinall (ed.), The Correspondence of George Prince of Wales, 1770-1812, i. 1770-1789 (London, 1963), no. 71.

[4] See e.g. Cannon, Fox-North Coalition, p. 79 fn. 2. A pencil date of ‘1782’ on the reverse is a later addition.

[5] Cannon, Fox-North Coalition, 72 fn. 2 plausibly suggests that this draft is that preserved as Royal Archives,  GEO/MAIN/5366, reproduced as Fortescue (ed.), Correspondence of King George, vi. no. 4259.

[6] George III to Prince of Wales, draft, Mar. 1783, in Aspinall (ed.), Correspondence of George Prince of Wales, no. 71.

[7] George III to Lord Weymouth, 25 Mar. 1783, no. 447 in Fortescue (ed.), Correspondence of King George, vi.

[8] The king would, however, once more at least mention the possibility of abdication, in a letter to Pitt the Younger as the latter struggled to form a ministry over Christmas 1783: see Cannon, Fox-North Coalition, p. 153, citing Geo III to Pitt, 23 December 1783, British Library, Add.  MS. 42772, fo. 3.

[9] Four years later George would issue a ‘Proclamation for the Encouragement of Piety and Virtue, and for the Preventing and Punishing of Vice, Profaneness and Immorality’ which explicitly linked this to avoiding divine retribution on the nation as a whole.

[10] See on this e.g. the work of Torsten Riotte, esp. ‘George III and Hanover’, in Brendan Simms and Torsten Riotte (eds.), The Hanoverian Dimension in British History 1714-1837 (Cambridge, University Press, 2007), pp. 58-85.

[11] Published as Sir J. Fortescue (ed.), The Correspondence of King George the Third, 6 vols (London, Macmillan, 1927-8), vi. no. 4260 [?28 March 1783].