George III in London: What Hamilton Tells Us About the King’s Role

by Arthur Burns (King’s College London) and Karin Wulf (Omohundro Institute)

[After reading this, why not visit our virtual Hamilton and George III exhibition?]


We’ve written before for the Georgian Papers Programme about King George III in American popular culture, and about the importance of Hamilton to that oeuvre.  Seeing Michael Jibson in action in a brilliant take on the role of King George III in the award-winning London production got us thinking again about the importance of rendering this essential monarch in Britain, and in a transatlantic context.  We wondered whether this American-rendered/British-played British king/American-Revolution, might serve as a metaphor for the current state of scholarship on George III, and even, in some ways, his place within research associated with the GPP to date. For here too one might suggest that, rather than taking centre stage (as a monarch who believed that his authority was a God-given responsibility would surely have assumed he should), George is illuminating others’ stories.  Yet that might be changing.

The phenomenon of a British actor as George III shouldn’t be so remarkable.  After all, several remarkable actors have portrayed the king.  Simon Callow’s wonderful vocal rendering of the king in John Bridcut’s documentary The Genius of the Mad King (2017), marking the launch of the GPP, may be the most recent.  Nigel Hawthorne cut an empathetic figure in both stage and screen versions of The Madness of George III/King George (1991 and 1994 respectively; you can also watch writer Alan Bennett and director Nicholas Hytner discuss the creation of both play and film for the GPP here).  Keenly anticipated is Mark Gatiss’s turn in the role this autumn at the Nottingham Playhouse.  But these are British actors in roles written by British authors.  In Hamilton, Jibson is a British actor playing George III as written by an American, and in a role that has otherwise only been filled by Americans, in a play that has, until its London opening late last year, only been performed in America.  Jibson’s George III has to carry the weight of transatlantic context and expectations, and he does it brilliantly.  With a monarch that is less campy (though still pretty campy!) than Jonathan Groff’s version on Broadway, more direct, and even a little more angry, Jibson’s lines get a lot of laughs. But they’re earned differently when the Revolution is seen from the other side of the ocean.

The American-ness of Hamilton is obvious in every dimension, from the main setting (American Revolutionary-era New York and Virginia) to the arc of the story (Alexander Hamilton’s biography as the biography of the young American nation).  It is nowhere more obvious — to us at least — than in the character of George III.  He is, as he often is in American renderings, a foil.  Scholars as well as popular writers have positioned the king as a figure in the distance of the action.  And in Hamilton, too, he sings for fewer than ten minutes to discourage, to warn, to rage, and then finally to lament.  In the London staging, however, the meaning of this king for the American characters to whom he addresses his every word is quite different.  He is at the centre, and what they are doing is … over there.  Across the sea.  Jibson’s sharp, sly, witty king is very funny, but he isn’t as broadly comical as he might be for an audience in, say, New York.

An evocative wax cast of George III, from Madame Tussaud’s original mold, painted “with inspiration from contemporary portraits of the king.” © Historic Royal Palaces

This is not because the British public now enjoying Hamilton know more about George III than American audiences. They may even know less, certainly about the War of Independence/American Revolution and George’s role in it (the Hanoverian period has long been surprisingly neglected in British schools, save for a specific focus on the slave trade and abolitionism). For most — unless they were among the more than 2 million who have tuned into Bridcut’s documentary! — the one thing they might know about George is that he was “mad.” The older generation know this from memories of Bennett’s play and film on the subject; for younger generations one source is Simon Farnaby’s caricature as one of the ‘Four Georges’ Boy Band singing ‘Born to Rule’ – “I was the mad one!”  — in the popular BBC children’s series, Horrible Histories. Nonetheless, British audiences will be conscious that this is a British monarch, and take a mildly proprietary interest.

It is striking how few biographies of George III have been published in recent years. The most significant British offering since the millennium has been Jeremy Black’s George III: America’s Last King, the title of which might suggest an expectation of a North American audience as its primary target (and it is dedicated to ‘Philadelphia friends’!). We currently await a new biography from Amanda Foreman, a British historian domiciled in the United States. Both these volumes, however, sit within comprehensive series – Yale English Monarchs and Penguin Monarchs respectively – of necessity required to cover each British monarch, rather than being the result of independent authorial initiative (the same is true of John Cannon’s handy extension of his entry on George III for the new Oxford Dictionary of National Biography into a short book for OUP’s Very Interesting People). The title of Grayson Ditchfield’s George III: An Essay in Monarchy, underlines that it is an exception that proves the rule, as this insightful study offers us not so much a biography as George as a prism through which to explore wider themes in the history of both monarchy and Hanoverian Britain.  Otherwise we must turn to the standard works by John Brooke and Stanley Ayling both published more than forty years ago, or Christopher Hibbert’s more popular George III: A Personal History from 1998.

More generally, George as a political actor engaging with the politicians has also been hard to find in recent years. During the 1950s and 1960s, in this regard George was a key figure in one of the most fertile fields of British historical scholarship as leading scholars such as Lewis Namier, Herbert Butterfield and Richard Pares  (at whose feet once sat a young Alan Bennett) used the political history of the first half of George’s reign as not only the battleground for determining the best interpretation of the dynamics of the fraught struggles of those years, but as a proving ground for rival models of political action. Their pupils, and the institutions and projects they left behind, not least the History of Parliament as reinvigorated by Namier, carried these discussions on in an avalanche of books often covering only a few years each of the reign so that in the 1980s Ian Christie felt able to contribute to an ongoing debate on ‘George III and the Historians: Thirty Years On’.  By then, however, for many the discussion was yielding diminishing returns, even for those who had contributed directly to it.  Frank O’Gorman, a former pupil of Butterfield’s, later confessed in a letter to the historian Michael Bentley, to “a sense of mystery” as to “why …it seem[ed] so exciting, important and controversial in the 1950s and 1960s to work out whether George III was a tyrant or not.”

A handful of books that explore the American Revolution from the British perspective include Elijah Gould’s The Persistence of Empire: British Political Culture in the Age of the American Revolution and Andrew O’Shaughnessy’s An Empire Divided: The American Revolution and the British Caribbean, in both of which the king is mostly offstage.  Similarly, in Julie Flavell’s When London was the Capital of America, which explains the magnetic pull of the empire’s centre for American colonists who could afford to do business and visit, the king is mostly a point of reference (for Americans who resided close to Buckingham Palace, for example). In O’Shaughnessy’s recent work, however, The Men Who Lost America:  British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of Empire, George III is much more central.  As a politician, even as a military leader, the king is beginning to take shape again as a figure of historical significance, but so far mainly through the work of historians based in America.

But if George as leading man and historical actor in politics has been ‘resting’, the last three decades have seen George delivering a wide range of smaller parts, crucial to plot development if not lead roles, and not necessarily by playing the villain (so often the fate of the British character actor in Hollywood!). Thus to cite only a few examples, Linda Colley in Britons has presented his embodiment of monarchy as crucial both to the development of the modern British crown and its relationship to the nation as a whole; Holger Hook has explored his role in fostering high art, while William Weber and others write on his parallel contribution to musical culture; a thriving cottage industry has used his mental illness and its treatment as a key window into Georgian medical and therapeutic cultures, as well as wider issues of mental health (to the extent that when one of us was hospitalized following an accident, he was distracted from his injuries by enjoying a well-informed discussion of George’s illness with medical students who had studied his case in their training!); historians of science have written of him as both patron or, as in the work of Florence Grant on his remarkable collection of scientific instruments, as student; and a new interest not in kingship or princes, but in queenship and the experience of princesses, highlighted by the recent Enlightened Princesses exhibitions in London and New Haven, has explored his relationship with Queen Charlotte and their six daughters.

Indeed, one of the other contexts that George III has been illuminating is that of relations between the sexes and family life among the British elite.  In a series of recent books, notably The Strangest Family / A Royal Experiment) by Janice Hadlow and Flora Fraser’s Princesses, the family life of King George and Queen Charlotte is adding rich texture to our understanding of eighteenth-century culture.  Fraser relied on her extensive research in the Royal Archives for her book; in this, and in her participation in the exhibit on the Enlightened Princesses, she shows how the daughters of George and Charlotte had to work around the expectations of their parents to create a comfortable, family-centred home, in the midst of the extravagance and pressures to marry (or not). As the GPP develops, the rich resources it contains documenting the life of the royal family and those who most immediately tended to its needs, such as the governess Charlotte Finch, will undoubtedly support much further research on such themes, and more generally on the settings in which these lives were played out – the buildings, streetscapes, finances, meals, objects and cultures with which they were engaged. We will similarly deliver new impetus to the study of medicine and illness, not least because as the papers make clear, the king was not the only royal patient whose travails are documented in remarkable and sometimes excruciating as much as fascinating detail in the archives (as GPP Fellow Carolyn Day in particular has begun to reveal for Princess Amelia). Many of our fellows have also found George’s papers a useful foil for projects whose main focus lies elsewhere, in much the same way as the scholars discussed above – everything from the slave trade (Suzanne Schwarz) via agricultural practice (Bruce Ragsdale) to transatlantic religious cultures (Kate Carte Engel). And, particularly as the main sequence of George’s prolific letter-writing goes online, we hope to stimulate renewed attention to George’s politics in a narrower sense, bringing the insights of a new generation to bear on too-long neglected questions – another of the fellows, Rachel Banke, is helping to revive interest in George III’s political strategies alongside Lord Bute.

Nonetheless, we hope that one lasting legacy of the GPP will be to promote a fusion of the best of the biographical/politically focused tradition and the sociocultural approaches discussed here, which too often have failed to generate an interchange from which both could profit. At the risk of extending our theatrical metaphor beyond breaking point, we have tried to use the GPP to promote a sense of ensemble of the kind that characterized many key initiatives in modern theatre, in which a group of actors learn from each other as they bring their distinct talents together while members of a group who remain connected beyond a single performance. We accommodate all approaches as they come together to address the king’s many identities and roles from all angles and with diverse questions, and we have already seen the fruits in the exchanges that have resulted in our discussions both public and private. The process has also increased our appreciation of just how much can be done while still to a greater or lesser extent focused on the monarch himself, given the sheer range of papers and resources that sit alongside each other in the Georgian archives. For example, one way in which we will see George III as a central historical figure is in the reconsideration of his essays.  This important body of manuscripts, comprising thousands of pages of material in the Royal Archives, gives us a remarkable opportunity to investigate George’s writing. They are not ‘essays’, as we now think of them, in a narrow sense.  Some are his copying of other work for his own use and as an aide-memoire; others are clearly his own composition; some may be mere exercises in handwriting.  All digitized, they are now almost fully transcribed and will be used in a variety of ways by GPP researchers over the next months to shed further light on what and how the king was thinking, and when.  We anticipate some exciting announcements about this work in the late autumn.

Hamilton’s George III, now in London and played by a Brit, gives us a chance to think about the king in transatlantic dimension for audiences of specialists and enthusiasts.  Jibson’s acerbic monarch, making the most of his position at the margins of the action, is a great emblem of how we see the Georgian Papers Programme starting to shift scholarly attention toward the king whose materials form the major corpus of the collection, and also to the rich rewards of ensemble production.

[Visit our virtual Hamilton and George III exhibition]

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