George III: the genius of the mad king – BBC 2


Word PressGeorge III is usually referred to as “the king who went mad”, or, sometimes, as “the king who lost America” (as if it was his fault!), so it made a refreshing change to see a programme about his “genius”. Even if it did have to refer to “the mad king” in the programme title.

The programme was strangely devoid of gossip. Not a single mention of the Hannah Lightfoot story. All right, it’s almost certainly a load of rubbish! Nor, although the sad tale of the doomed romance between his youngest daughter Princess Amelia and one of his equerries was discussed, was there any mention of the rumour about (her sister) Princess Sophia having an illegitimate child. But obviously this was very good, as we are Serious Historians and do not deal in gossip … no, no, we don’t. Ahem.

Poor “Mad King George”. It seems the fashion now to say that his mental health problems were caused by bipolar disorder, but I still think that the porphyria theory’s very convincing. There was an episode of Casualty (or was it Holby City?) once, in which a patient had porphyria, and it took the Holby staff the entire episode to work out what the problem was, whereas I’d diagnosed it as soon as the patient’s symptoms were mentioned, thanks to all the books about George III!   Anyway, I don’t suppose we’ll ever know for sure, and the people interviewed in the programme said that too.

The reason for the programme was that a load of George III’s papers have just been made available to the general public. And they cover some very momentous times, as the presenter (Robert Hardman) reminded us. George III was the first monarch of the United Kingdom, the last monarch of America, the first monarch of Australia, and the monarch at the time of the Battle of Waterloo. Hardman also said that George III was king at the time of the Industrial Revolution, which had me wanting to howl that the flying shuttle was invented during the early part of the reign of George II; but, OK, most of the changes took place during the reign of George III! It was also pointed out that George III was the first of the Hanoverian monarchs who was really British and thought of himself as such. No mention of the Jacobites, incidentally. He was also the first of the Hanoverian monarchs who didn’t face a threat from them. Why was that never mentioned?

They cover a lot generally. George wrote everything down. Yay!! Future historians are going to have a nightmare trying to study the 2010s. What are they going to do – try to go back through umpteen years’ worth of Twitter feeds and Facebook newsfeeds?  But George had lists, notes and essays about everything. Despotism – this being a very bad thing, existing in many European countries but not, of course, in Britain. MPs’ voting habits. All sorts of family stuff. And a lot of notes about how bloody annoying it is that politicians are always busy trying to score party political points instead of trying to work

together for the good of the country. Some things have changed very little in 250 years. In 1783 he even considered abdicating, during the political crisis following the loss of the colonies. And he had his own private spies. I bet the Queen’d love to have her own private spies, rather than having to rely on politicians for info. Maybe she has. It’d be quite nice if she did: she’s got more sense than any of them!

Anyway. Moving on. Nothing got covered in very much detail, because the programme was only an hour long and part of that time was wasted showing people getting excited over the documents being released, but George’s interest in the arts, astronomy, nature, geography, climate, music … a whole load of things, really, was obvious. We don’t really talk about people being “cultured” any more. Maybe because it’s because the word’s now seen as having snobbish overtones and suggesting someone who sits in a box at the opera and thinks that anyone who likes pop music is common, but it was only really meant to mean someone who had an interest in and knowledge of a wide range of things. I’m not sure that “genius” was exactly the right word, but he was certainly well into all sorts of things.

However, the programme then ended with the subject of George’s daughters … who, like Muscovite tsarevny in a terem, weren’t allowed to marry and weren’t allowed to do anything else very much. Well, they weren’t officially banned from marrying, but they’d have needed George to arrange marriages for them and he didn’t, except in the case of the Princess Royal. There wasn’t much else for princesses to do at the time, so their lives weren’t much fun. But that really should’ve been covered by a different programme.

So, although nothing was covered in very much detail, there was a lot to think about in this programme. But did they have to include “the mad king” in the title? Surely the whole point of it was that he was so much more than that?

3 thoughts on “George III: the genius of the mad king – BBC 2

  1. I suspect that being a Mancunian may be a factor in implying that the flying shuttle, patented in 1733, was more significant to the industrial revolution than the partnership of Boulton and Watt, formed in 1775. (The flying shuttle was also more dangerous than a Boulton and Watt steam engine.)


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