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George III's official correspondence 1772-1778

Portrait of George III

George III by Sir William Beechey. RCIN 405422 ©

The second phase of documents from George III’s Calendar, published in October 2019, dates from July 1772 to September 1778. This period, and consequently the correspondence, marks a more turbulent and troubled time in George III’s reign. These papers deal with America’s fight for independence, which gained traction in this period, and the issues which were directly and inadvertently caused by this, namely relations with European powers such as France and Spain, a near-constant reshuffling of Government, and discontent in Ireland.

A large proportion of the documents are written to George III, primarily by members of his government including Prime Minister Lord North, Lord Rochford, and Lord Sandwich. The collection also contains drafts of letters written by George III (again, primarily to his ministers), and reports sent to him from the House of Commons. These often detail the bills passed in the House and issues discussed, such as the ‘Boston Port Bill’, the ‘Bastard Children Bill’ or the resolution on the East India Company (which was deemed to be out of control and in need of reigning in).

George III to Lord North on the 'State of Rebellion' of the New England governments, November 1774. RA GEO/MAIN/1917 Royal Archives /© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

In this correspondence, the rising tensions in America caused by issues seen in previously published documents, such as the Stamp Act, come to a breaking point. Arguably, the final straw for North America comes in the passing of the Boston Port Bill which, as Lord North wrote to George III  in 1774, 'past the House without a division but after a pretty long debate'. This act intended to close Boston Port until the tea dumped into the harbour by the Rebels in 1773 was paid for. Instead, it fuelled revolutionary spirit. Later that year, the comptroller and collector in Rhode Island wrote to the Commander of HM’s Customs at Boston informing him that the American people were in a 'Spirit of Opposition' towards the customs officers. He noted also that the general assembly had 'lately passed an Act for purchasing 300 Barrels of Gunpowder, 3 Tons of Lead, 40,000 Flints and 4 brass field pieces to be deposited in the Town of Providence'.

In a subsequent memorandum, George III noted 'the serious crisis to which the disputes between the Mother Country and its North American Colonies are growing' due to their 'ill-grounded claims' for 'total independence of the British Legislature'. The following year, the King informed Lord North that 'the line of conduct now seems chalked out…the New England government are in a State of Rebellion, blows must decide whether they are to be subject to this Country or independent'. This arguably marks the point of no return for both George III, and Britain as America’s metropole.

The stages of the American War can be traced through this correspondence; for example, letters such as George III’s to Lord Sandwich of 11 January 1776, detail both the 'Vigour…shown by the Rebellious Americans' and the worrying, surprising slowness of his navy, while the King's letter of 17 December 1776 reported that the Rebels had nearly been driven out of New York.  Some discussion of offers of peace are also evident in the correspondence, such as the proposals made by Lord North in 1778

The events in America sent a ripple all over the Western world, which is also apparent in the official correspondence of the King. Spain, France and the Netherlands all became supporters of America in its revolution, causing deterioration in relations between Britain and these significant powers, which, in the case of France, led to the Anglo-French war. A number of the letters in the collection provide intelligence on the movements of European vessels, possible plans against British forces, and reports of attacks. Thomas Mant, also known as Mr. M., was one of the intelligence-gatherers who appears in the papers, however, most of his correspondence contains requests for more money rather than useful information for the British (it would later emerge that Mant was a double-agent in the pay of the French).

Letter from Captain James Cook, 1 August 1772. RA GEO/MAIN/1359 Royal Archives/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

The instability felt in Britain itself is also clearly reflected in this range of correspondence. The primary example is the ongoing reshuffling of Parliament, and Lord North’s constant pleas to resign. After several tentative letters of resignation to the King, Lord North wrote in March 1778 that, if the 'load of important duties is any longer entrusted to him, National disgrace and ruin will be the consequence'. George III still appeared reluctant to allow him to resign (Lord North remained Prime Minister until 1790), despite the fact that doubts were cast on Lord North’s capability by other ministers.

The question of the leader of the American Department (i.e Secretary of State for the Colonies) was one which was also problematic. The position was vacated several times during a decade and was difficult to fill. Several other government roles also had to be filled by George III after they were vacated in this period. The instability and ineffectiveness of George III’s ever-changing administration was evident through its reception amongst the people. In 1773, George III received a ‘Copy of the City Remonstrances’, in which the Aldermen and Livery of the City of London stated that:

the many Grievances & Injuries We have suffer’d from Your Ministers still remain undressed, nor has the Publick Justice of the Kingdom received the least Satisfaction for the frequent atrocious Violations of the Laws, which have been committed in your Reign, by Your Ministers

GEO/MAIN/1517

Despite the fact that much of the correspondence perhaps does not reflect positively on this stage of George III’s reign, there are several reminders that this era was one in which literature, art and discovery flourished. For example, Captain James Cook writes to George III from aboard the Resolution in 1772, in a letter where he reveals that a woman had sneaked aboard the ship disguised as a male botanist in order to be with Joseph Banks. She left on finding out he was no longer on the Resolution.

In another example of the more cultural aspect of the papers, in 1772, Samuel Foote, notable Georgian actor, petitioned the King to be allowed to keep the Haymarket theatre open all year. He had recently had a successful run there of a play called 'The Nabob', a satire on the East India Company which, as evidenced by this collection, was a rather sensitive topic in government. George III did, as far as we know, not respond.