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. 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’. 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’. He finally conceded defeat and allowed Fox and North to kiss hands on 2 April 1783.
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). He had already countenanced the thought earlier in the month, telling John Dunning, Lord Ashburton, that he had prepared an abdication address ‘without assistance’. 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’. 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’.) 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.
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’. 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.
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.
TRANSCRIPT OF RA, GEO/MAIN/5367
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.
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.
 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.’
 John Cannon, The Fox-North Coalition: Crisis of the Constitution, 1782-4 (Cambridge, University Press, 1969), p. 65.
 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.
 See e.g. Cannon, Fox-North Coalition, p. 79 fn. 2. A pencil date of ‘1782’ on the reverse is a later addition.
 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.
 George III to Prince of Wales, draft, Mar. 1783, in Aspinall (ed.), Correspondence of George Prince of Wales, no. 71.
 George III to Lord Weymouth, 25 Mar. 1783, no. 447 in Fortescue (ed.), Correspondence of King George, vi.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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].