I've always had a soft spot for George III, starting all of forty years ago when I was in the sixth form at Leeds Modern School and reading for a scholarship to Cambridge. The smart book around that time was Herbert Butterfield's The Whig Interpretation of History, which took the 19th century to task for writing history with one eye on the future, and in particular for taking as the only path through the past the development of democratic institutions. On the Whig interpretation, historical characters got a tick if they were on the side of liberty (Cromwell, Chatham), a cross (Charles I, James II) if they held up the march of progress. Because he went in for active royalty and made some attempt to govern on his own account rather than leaving it to the Whig aristocracy, George III had been written up as a villain and a clumsy tyrant. This view Butterfield had helped to discredit, so a question on George III was thought likely to turn up in the Cambridge examination, which it duly did. Sitting in the freezing Senate House in December 1951, I trotted out my Butterfield and though I didn't get a scholarship, counted myself lucky to be offered a place at Sydney Sussex, that Christmas when the college letter came the best Christmas of my life.
LRB 30 January 1992 | PDF Download