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Goodbye ‘Farmer George’: the life and death of George III

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We often talk about the life of George IV who built the Royal Pavilion but seldom mention his father. Clare Hartfield looks at the life of George III and why his nickname of ‘Farmer George’ marks such a contrast with his son.

When George III died in 1820 he had been king for almost sixty years. Only Queen Victoria and our current Queen Elizabeth II have reigned in the UK for longer.

George III by Joshua Reynolds, c1765

George III was the third reigning monarch of the house of Hanover, but even though this was a German royal family, George was born in Britain, spoke English as his first language and never visited Hanover. Unlike his predecessors, he was very much viewed as a British king through and through.

How did the public feel about George III, his subsequent illness and his passing?

Early years and marriage

George III was only 12 years old when his father Fredrick died in 1751 leaving him as heir to the throne. As his parents had a terribly bitter relationship with the king, his mother Augusta of Saxe-Gotha and his mentor Lord Bute encouraged him to deny the offer of his own residence at St James’ Palace and stay with them. They instilled a sense of strict morality and helped to prepare him for the responsibility of the crown.

George III ascended to the throne following the death of his grandfather in 1760. He married Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz on 8 September 1761and on September 22 of the same year, they were both crowned at Westminster Abbey. In comparison to his predecessors and his sons, George III never took a mistress and seemed to have a good marriage. They had 15 children – nine sons and six daughters.

George and Charlotte’s happy marriage and many children became an ideal in the eyes of the public. Their predecessors had not shown such a happy example. George III’s great grandfather, George I, locked his wife up for the rest of her life for adultery while his mistress bore him three children.

It was George III who established the royal marriages act of 1772. It followed the marriage of his brother Henry Duke of Cumberland to Anne Horton, a lady of a lower social class than George would have chosen for him. It was this same 1772 Act that would invalidate George IV’s marriage to Maria Fitzherbert.

George was viewed by the public as a moral and respectable king. He gained the nickname ‘Farmer George’ thanks to his agricultural interests. Satirists mocked his interest in mundane topics such as agriculture, industry and science rather than art. Later this name would be used to portray his relative frugality in comparison to the wreckless spending of his son, the Prince of Wales.

A cure for the king?

George III had his first serious bout of illness in the summer of 1788 and there has been much research over the years to discover what the illness really was.

He began to suffer from severe stomach pains and became increasingly confused. Symptoms included speaking for many hours without pause, which led to foaming at the mouth. He would repeat himself and write sentences with up to 400 words at a time. Doctors were at a loss to explain this condition and by December he was unable to rule effectively.

In 1788, Doctor Francis Willis was recommended to Queen Charlotte by the wife of an equerry. There was the usual blood letting and blistering of the skin, but also the use of a straitjacket and restraints. These upsetting events happened in the White House at Kew Palace and his wife Queen Charlotte was kept separated from him at this time.

In February 1789, the Regency Bill, authorised the Prince of Wales to act as regent, a role which appoints a person to administer the state because the monarch is a minor or is absent or incapacitated. The bill was introduced and passed in the House of Commons but George III recovered before the House of Lords could pass it.

Dr Willis was celebrated for his achievements in ‘curing’ the king, but it would only prove temporary. Twelve years later in 1801 he suffered a relapse and all his symptoms retured. He was treated again by the two sons of Dr Willis but suffered a third and final relapse in 1810.

So what caused his illness? The long standing theory of porphyria, a disease that can affect the nervous system, has recently been challenged. In 2013 a study was made by Dr Peter Garrard and Dr Vassiliki Rentoumi by analysing his use of language.

According to this new research, there is strong evidence to suggest that the original diagnosis of a mania of some kind was actually correct. The features of repetition, more colourful and creative language, and talking non-stop until foam ran from the mouth, are the same features recognised in the speech and writing of patients who are in the manic phase of psychiatric illnesses like bipolar disorder.

Even his tell-tale blue urine may have been down to the medicinal use of gentian, a blue flowering plant.

Garrard suggests that the explanations we come up with for patients in the past reflect our own current attitudes and opinions on illness. A hereditary blood disease caused by a ‘pure’ bloodline was seemingly more palatable than a mental heath issue.

Their work is interesting as it goes back to the doctors’ original diagnosis at the time, attributing it to mania or another form of mental illness. There was even talk at the time that it was the behaviour of the Prince of Wales particularly his acute debt and perceived lack of morality which pushed his father over the edge.

A grand and imposing spectacle

When King George III died on 29 January 1820, the country was already mourning the loss of his son Edward, Duke of Kent, only six days earlier.

To announce his death, the great bell of St Paul’s Cathedral rang at midnight. The proclamation of George IV’s accession was delayed for a day to avoid January 30th –  the anniversary of the execution of King Charles I.

The ceremony of Lying in State took place in the Royal apartments at Windsor Castle on the morning of 15 February, with his funeral and interment taking place at St George’s Chapel the following evening.

According to The Globe newspaper, the casket was ‘covered with a fine Holland Sheet and a Purple Velvet Pall, adorned with Ten Escocheons of the Imperial Arms, carried by Ten Yeomen of the Guard, under a Canopy of Purple Velvet’. The procession was lined by Grenadiers of the Foot Guards, ‘every fourth man bearing a flambeau to light their way.

‘As the long array consisting of the mourners in their sable costumes, of heralds in their gaudy tabards, and Princes of the Blood in their sad-coloured mantles – moved, by torchlight, from the principal porch of Windsor Castle to St. George’s Chapel, it presented a grand and imposing spectacle. The flourish of trumpets, and the sound of the muffled drums, mingling with the peal of the minute-guns and the tolling of the death-bell, added to the solemnity of the scene.’

The newly ascended George IV was notably absent. His brother Fredrick, always his father’s favourite, was the lead mourner at the funeral. But it was the new king’s own ill health which kept him away and there were fears that another king’s funeral might soon follow.

Even fashion was affected by George III’s death. The following is from the April 1820 edition of the fashion magazine La Belle Assemblee,  published around three months after his death:

‘As we have before observed, Taste and Genius know how to draw aside the sable veil of woe, and to divest it of its cloudy monotony. The change of mourning which took place on Sunday, the 19th of March, aided, also, in a great degree, to lighten the heavy appearance of solemn black, and to give a diversity to the garb of sorrow…

Yet the needy manufacturer, who has been toiling at the loom in vain to impart brilliancy and freshness to the various hues of spring, and has racked invention for the newest patterns, call loudly for our commiseration, and makes us wish for the outward appearance of sorrow to be laid aside, as soon as is consistent with a proper and decorous respect paid to the memory of one of the best of England’s Kings.’

Image credit: Los Angeles County Museum of Art

This fashion plate shows how long official mourning periods were – even by the spring there was still only a tiny amount of white decoration on a fashionable dress of that month.

George IV’s coronation soon cost the country £240,000, equivalent to almost £14 million today. When the public looked back at the much smaller sum of £70,000 spent by his father on his joint coronation with Queen Charlotte, some may have felt even more sorrow that their good king ‘Farmer George’ had met such a sad end.

I feel that George III was probably even more loved and respected after his passing. Perhaps his strong relationship with Queen Charlotte would prove to be a role model for the young Queen Victoria and Prince Albert?

Clare Hartfield, Visitor Services Officer