The teaching of history to children often or usually involves blaming all or most of one event on one person. This is done in the name of simplifying things so that they’re easily understandable. For American children, one of those figures is George III.
He was used as a figure of hate at the time too–so perhaps this isn’t surprising.
And all sorts of stories are trotted out in support of this theory, and no doubt they will go on being trotted out for decades to come. Proof of his incalculable stupidity is found in his not learning to read until he was 16, for example.
Yet, (and I apologise if this comes as a rude shock to anyone) history is rarely so simple as to be entirely the making of one man. Even a king.
And in George III’s case, although I was raised and taught to hold him in contempt, I found, when confronted by some facts that I had to rethink my conclusions and abandon my happy nationalist view of the man.
Because, as it turns out, he wasn’t at all as they portrayed him either in the press of his day or in my childhood history lessons.
I came face to face with this at a rather unusual and fine exhibition about him at the Queen’s Gallery in London a few years ago. For this exhibition focused on his patronage of the arts and sciences. And what a patron he turned out to be.
He was tremendous! No other word for it.
He was a fiend for books, and was ever acquiring and reading all the latest books on discovery, exploration, scientific endeavour. Moreover, he was in contact with the authors, writing to them, asking them questions, encouraging them to take their work further. Then he’d recommend the book to everybody he met…(What writer couldn’t use a friend like him?)
He was utterly fascinated by all the technological advances in clock-making–a hot technology at the time. George was held spellbound by all the work going into developing barometers and had a vast collection of the things. Because he didn’t just take a passive interest.
No, if you developed the thing and built it, he bought one, he kept it, he wanted you to come and explain it all to him while he asked intelligent questions; then he shewed it off to people as a proud father. Which got you more customers…
He brought this same level of commitment, this same spark, to the agricultural developments and technological innovations of the time too.
He was constantly in touch with his great friend, the father of modern agriculture, Coke of Norfolk. And he would write letters, get answers, and then try it all out on Crown lands–draining, using better types of seed, breeding his pigs and cows carefully so as to build stronger herds…he wasn’t called Farmer George for nothing.
He was so devoted to farming, in fact, that he used to drive his coachman crazy–because all along the routes they travelled, instead of twiddling his thumbs like a good monarch, he was always looking out the window at the landscape, at those fields…
Every time he’d see one that looked particularly good, he’d rap on the roof of the carriage and demand to be let down so that he could inspect it, so that he could talk to the farmer, maybe learn something or make some suggestions or offer to send the seed from a kind of wheat he was testing at home…
It took them hours and hours to make simple journeys because of this.
He kept up a correspondence with all the farmers he spoke to too, and there are thousands and thousands of letters to prove it in the Archives.
And did you know that, although he was the king, and even though he’d only met his bride some 48 hours earlier, on the morning after their wedding, he got up early and went and made her tea and brought it to her in bed? He remained that faithfully devoted to her all their lives too.
As for that not reading until he was sixteen–I’ve latterly come to wonder if he didn’t suffer from severe dyslexia…which puts a whole different spin on that nugget of information.
I’ve also concluded that had he ever have been allowed to travel outside Great Britain, to the American colonies, for example, there very well might not have been a Rebellion.
Because through his interest and devotion to their husbandry, he would have become a personal friend of all those New England farmers, writing to them about their farms, sending samples of his best wheat seed, a piglet for Farmer Brown, a calf for Farmer Peach…so much so that when the Revolutionary boys came around, they wouldn’t have been talking about a distant tyrant, they would have been talking about a friend. And their hot words would have fallen on cold ground.
I’ve been thinking about all of this a great deal recently, because of a book I’m reading on the fall of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna in 1814.
Because this setting aside of much-cherished nationalist myths in the face of facts just didn’t happen for the author. Instead, he allowed his heritage as a Pole to get very much in the way of his understanding of his subject.
As a Pole, he clearly views the Russians as a pernicious influence, so he’s not used any Russian sources. But since at least one half of the Allied forces which defeated Napoleon were Russian, this may sound a little skewed. (It is.)
Moreover, he’ll use any source he can to discredit Tsar Alexander–even a source whose judgement he himself will have done everything to discredit a few pages earlier in the text.
Given that outstanding work on the Russian contribution to the war was going on at the time of writing (2007), which would have been accessible to him, his lop-sided approach is all the more remarkable.
He’s not keen on the British either, even though their financial contribution to defeating Napoleon came to some £700,000,000. (That’s in their money.) So he undercuts everything he says about them with little stories about their inadequacies, or what he perceives as their eccentricities. For example, he frequently mentions Lord Castlereagh’s clothes, particularly a red coat he was fond of wearing…
But this author is so lacking in any understanding or appreciation of the era, of its mores, even of the basics of their dress and sensibilities, that one has to wonder at his comments–he mistakenly labels one picture a ball scene, even though it clearly cannot be one as the men are all wearing riding boots.
He does quote, at extensive length, however, from the hyperbolic gushings of Metternich to his mistress…which self-smooching ramblings most of the rest of us have learned to, er, temper with a measure of…well, reality.
All of which has rendered his 580 pages of text somewhat limited in their usefulness. I can’t trust his conclusions, and I know and can prove that much of what he says about the Russians and Alexander is just plain wrong. (He’s not much better on the Prussians…)
Which leaves me slogging through this tome for the names, dates and locations, and not much else.
Still, it’s research. And I trust that at the end of it, I shall have a better sense of how my third novel will unfold. That is, if I haven’t gone spare with all the inaccuracies and done something stupid.
But that I’ll leave that to your imagination…ha ha ha.