EDITOR’S NOTE: She is America’s most delightful King. And he is America’s last King. Herewith another review–this time of Christopher Hibbert’s acclaimed biography, George III–by our beloved Florence (it originally appeared in the March 22, 1999, issue of National Review). Of course, you will have a royal time reading it.
And of course, you will want as much of Miss King as can be dished out–you can’t ever get enough of a good thing. That is why NR has faithfully collected and republished each and every one of her “Misanthrope’s Corner” columns in STET, Damnit, The Misanthrope’s Corner, 1991 to 2002. We are certain that you will want to have it. STET, Damnit is available only from NR, and may/must be ordered (securely!) here.
George III: A Personal History, by Christopher Hibbert
(Basic, 464 pp., $27)
America’s last king was the first national figure we condemned as “out of touch,” yet if George III reappeared today he would energize so many focus groups that both parties would draft him for Campaign 2000. He had enough virtues for Bill Bennett, enough family values for Gary Bauer, enough ethnic insecurities for Bob Torricelli, and enough depraved sons to start a new Clinton administration.
His reign of 60 years (1760-1820) was longer than most due to the death of his father, the Prince of Wales, when he was 13. Nine years later his grandfather, George II, died and the stripling prince became George III, the first of the “German Georges” to be born in England instead of their native duchy of Hanover.
Despite his youth he had no interest in sowing wild oats. Legend has it that he had an early affair with a Quaker woman, Hannah Lightfoot, and fathered three children by her, but the letter he wrote to his tutor, Lord Bute, suggests he was still a virgin and wanted to remain one. He confessed to:
a daily increasing admiration of the fair sex which I am attempting with all the philosophy and resolution I am capable of to keep under. . . . How strong a tussle there is between the boiling youth of 21 years and prudence! The last I hope will ever keep the upper hand, indeed, if I can weather it out a few years, marriage will put a stop to this combat in my breast.
The slightly priggish tone of this letter and its undercurrent of self-conscious pride in his own rectitude were typical. One of the first acts of his reign was a proclamation entitled “The Encouragement of Piety and Virtue,” in which he vowed to “punish all manner of vice, profaneness, and immorality.” As a constitutional monarch he had nothing but the power of example, but he used it, sometimes with comical ineffectualness, as when he made a point of rationing his mourning for the adulterous Horatio Nelson while all of England was awash in grief.
His concern for his image was rooted in insecurity. He longed to be seen as a true Englishman, but the Hanoverian claim to the throne was a stretch, going back to a daughter of Charles I who had married the Elector of Hanover, whereas Bonnie Prince Charlie, who was still alive, was the grandson of the deposed Stuart king, the Catholic James II. The Hanoverians were offered the Crown because they swore to uphold Protestantism, but the Stuarts had the stronger claim.
It may have been a subconscious desire to inject his descendants with some Stuart blood that made George fall in love with Lady Sarah Lennox, great-granddaughter of Charles II by one of his mistresses, and propose to her. As a Protestant she was eligible, but Lord Bute, fearful that an English queen’s male relatives would clamor for government posts, insisted that George marry a German princess. Eager to please Bute, whose Scottish accent he imitated, George gave in without a struggle, using the opportunity to issue another virtue bulletin: “The interest of my country shall ever be my first care, my own inclination shall ever submit to it. I am born for the happiness or misery of a great nation, and consequently must often act contrary to my passion.”
He took no interest in the choice of a bride. Any Protestant princess would do, and while a pretty one would be nice, it wasn’t necessary: Whatever Lord Bute decided was fine by him. Bute, assisted by George’s mother, Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, chose Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, whose simian features jarred with the freshness of her 17 years. The contrast grew less jarring in middle age, when a Court wag would observe, “The bloom has gone off her ugliness.”
They were married the same day they met. Such brutal dynastic arrangements spelled disaster for many another royal couple, but not these two. Charlotte was as pliable, dutiful, and as eager to please as George, so they pooled their virtues and pleased each other.
Though delicately built and small-breasted, Charlotte proved a champion whelper. She had 15 children–eight boys and seven girls–nine of them before she was 30, all of them big and several born so fast that she barely had time to get into bed. George was as devoted to his children as he was faithful to their mother, ever alert to the need to set a good example for them, especially for the two oldest boys, George, Prince of Wales, known as “Prinny,” and Frederick, Duke of York.
He set the best of examples, getting up at 5 a.m. and lighting his own fire, writing a precis of every book he read, and demonstrating the pleasures of self-denial with his abstemious dietary habits, such as eating only the fruit filling of pies and leaving the pastry. Charlotte went along with all of it, doing her part by upholding the standards of Court decorum described by novelist Fanny Burney, one of her women-in-waiting.
“If you find a cough tickling your throat you must arrest it from making any sound; if you find yourself choking with forbearance, you must choke–but not cough.
“In the second place, you must not sneeze . . . you must oppose it by keeping your teeth grinding together; if the violence of the repulse break some blood-vessel, you must break the blood-vessel–but not sneeze. . . .
“If, however, the agony is very great, bite the inside of your cheek for a little relief; taking care to make no apparent dent outwardly. If you gnaw a piece out, it will not be minded, only be sure either to swallow it or commit it to a corner of the inside of your mouth, for you must not spit.”
The parents whose multitude of virtues concealed a multitude of virtues ended up with a litter from Hell. Prinny and Freddie became so obstreperous that their tutor, to save time, beat them both at once like the Katzenjammer Kids. Prinny became a compulsive eater, drinker, and gambler who brushed off suggestions of constructive activity with, “The day is quite long enough to do nothing.” Convinced that his father hated him, he got even by entering into an invalid marriage with a Catholic in a secret ceremony, and later accused his legal, Protestant wife of adultery in the House of Lords. Craving maternal warmth, he sought out mistresses older than himself, often sharing them with his favorite crony and the King’s sworn political enemy, Charles James Fox, an atheist who spat on the floor, paddled naked in a giant bowl of cream, and urinated on the dinner roast.
Freddie’s mistress, Mary Anne Clarke, was arrested for selling army commissions. The third son, William, Duke of Clarence, lived with the actress Dora Jordan, who had 14 illegitimate children, ten of them his. Edward, Duke of Kent, lived in voluntary exile in Paris with his French mistress. Ernest, Duke of Cumberland, was suspected in the murder of his valet. Augustus, Duke of Sussex, took up radical politics and married his much-older mistress, who tried to shake down the King with threats to publish royal documents in her possession.
By the time this dynastic Jerry Springer show played itself out, virtue junkies George III and Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz had 56 illegitimate grandchildren, including one by Princess Amelia. Add the King’s periods of insanity, his attempt to strangle his heir, and the Queen’s terrified flight from his boudoir in her shift and you have another irresistible biography by British writer Christopher Hibbert, peerless master of history with its pomp down.