J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, June 08, 2022

“George III’s unusual accessibility”

You may have noticed reports that Britain is celebrating Queen Elizabeth II’s “Platinum Jubilee”—a new term since few peoples have imagined their monarch ruling for seventy years.

Last week at the Social Bodies blog at the University of Birmingham, Sarah Fox looked back on the first British ruler to have a Jubilee: George III. The empire celebrated the fiftieth year of his reign in 1809 and 1810.

As Fox writes, the king and his household advisors had managed to build his popularity through what Linda Colley has called “a cunning and influential blend of ritual splendour and winning domesticity.”

George III and Queen Charlotte became a model for Britain’s growing middle class, or upper class of commoners, despite their royal trappings and responsibilities. That’s not dissimilar to the current queen.

Fox’s essay focuses on how the British public literally saw the king:
George’s Hanoverian predecessors had shunned the Stuart monarchy’s tendency to ‘progress’ round the country. George III reinstated regular royal processions, particularly in London, creating a sense of familiarity between him, his family, and large numbers of the general public. Such processions were often connected to the militia: aligning the monarchy with an important engine of growing British power, patriotism, and global expansion as well as developing notions of nationhood and identity. . . .

George III’s unusual accessibility was, in part, due to restrictions on space and money in the royal household. When he, or a member of his family, wished to see an opera, or visit the theatre, he went to London like many of his subjects. There he could be seen behaving in ways that onlookers both recognised and understood.
This strikes me as a London-centered view, despite the blog’s roots in Birmingham. Traditional royal progresses covered large parts of the kingdom. In contrast, George III never went 100 miles from London until he had to recuperate at Cheltenham Spa in 1789, and he stuck close to the capital after that. And of course the only people who would see the royal family at the theater were London theatergoers.

There are other aspects of George III’s relations with his subjects beyond the scope of this essay. Most prominent, of course, are his periods of insanity. Those became a matter of public debate in 1788, and the king had serious relapses in 1801 and 1804. He was stable as the Jubilee year began, but suffered deep troubles before it ended. The regency officially began in 1811. Those psychological difficulties apparently made the king and his family more relatable.

This analysis also makes me wonder about the number of times people attacked George III, or were grabbed for doing so. (I started discussing those back here.) Those assaults were possible precisely because he was visible in London. There was even one plot to assassinate him in a theater. How do we reconcile the king’s popularity with so many reported attempts on his life?

A couple of those assassinations were politically motivated, but in most cases the lone assailants appear to have become fixated on the king precisely because they felt a personal connection or believed he could help them. In other words, his humanity and approachability produced false hopes, then frustration and desperation.

George III survived all those attacks, of course, and stayed on the throne for over fifty years. That let British society be as forgiving of most of the obsessed attackers as they were of the king’s own mental illness. While attacking the king was still capital treason, most of the accused would-be assassins were put into asylums.

TOMORROW: Who had the idea for a Jubilee?


Susan Holloway Scott said...

In a way, George Washington's presidential tours through his new country were more in the spirit of the old "royal progress" than George III's carriage rides throughout London.

J. L. Bell said...

I strongly agree. Most of the analysis of Washington’s trips discuss them in terms of American politicking, but the obvious precedent is monarchical.