Books interview with Janice Hadlow: The private lives of George III and his family

Janice Hadlow talks to Matt Elton about her book on the private life of George III and his family, which traces the legacy of their predecessors, and their hopes, fears and ambitions

A portrait of Janice Hadlow

This article was first published in the September 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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How did George’s predecessors inform his outlook on life?

I started by thinking I could write just about George III and his direct family, but I soon realised that I had to say something about George’s predecessors in order to understand how he defined himself. He thought that he could make a clean break from his own family’s history, and had a very conscious sense that he wanted to live differently.

His grandfather, George II, had a very complex, passionate relationship with his wife, Caroline, but they were at huge odds with their eldest son, Frederick – George III’s father. Even now, the rancour and hatred that George and Caroline felt for Frederick is quite shocking. So George III definitely had a sense that his grandfather’s family life was somehow wrong and corrupt, that there was something quite damaging about it – both to the humans caught within that world, and to the idea of monarchy itself.

What sense do we get of George as a young man?

The young George had what I think was a terror of the destiny of kingship, and a deep sense that he might not be up to the job. He retreated into an almost catatonic state, from which he was rescued by a very charismatic mentor: John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute, a friend of both George’s father and mother. Bute was an intellectual, handsome man, with smouldering, dark-eyed looks and legs that were said to be the best in London.

He liked George as a young man, and I don’t think that many people had liked George before. He also provided the tentative, diffident young man with a new vision of what kingship meant in a modern world in which kings were no longer called upon to be leaders in battle.

Part of this vision was political: the idea that the king’s job was to be above party divisions and to say something different and larger about the importance of the state. But Bute also stressed the value of goodness – that a king’s moral values are as important as cleverness and bravery. Because, although the young George often had doubts about whether he was clever or strong enough to be king, he always thought that he might be morally good enough. Bute taught him that one of the ways to show that he was worthy of the role was by the way that he lived – not just what he did as a king, but also as a father, a brother and a husband.

What do we make of the relationship between George and Charlotte?

There was a lot of worry, when George and Charlotte married, about whether she was properly prepared for the role. But George was always very confident, and it soon turned out that he’d picked well. For a long time their marriage worked very well, at least superficially, because they were similar in character.

Charlotte was dutiful, obedient, with a strong sense of personal duty, and happy to be guided by a more powerful man. She also shared George’s desire to live a quiet domestic life and to have a retreat from the hurly-burly of society that felt like it was theirs and not owned by the rest of the world.

For me, the most interesting thing about Charlotte is how clever she was, and what a voracious intellect she had underneath a quite compliant exterior. Both Charlotte and George never stopped reading, and the picture of their court as being stupid and dull is simply not accurate – certainly not in the early years, when they were both healthy.

What else do we know about Charlotte?

There’s no doubt that there was another side to Charlotte, revealed in her letters to her brother: she was very lonely. Right from the beginning, when she first arrived, George made it very clear that she was to keep herself separate from a lot of the people at court, and that she was not to make close friends. He was worried about people flattering her, and about potentially difficult alliances forming. Charlotte understood all of these worries, but it left her a very lonely, isolated figure.

The other key thing about her is that she became pregnant very quickly, and did what, even in the 18th century, was most required of a queen – provide an heir. Not just one, either, but a positive richness of heirs.

This went on to cause problems. The face she always presented was that she saw this as part of her duty, and that she was proud of her large and healthy family. But in later life, when she’d spent the better part of 20 years having many, many babies, she wrote to her brother saying that she wished her “long campaign” could be over. She found life very constraining: she was perpetually pregnant, isolated and not free to do the things that she wanted, and found the requirements of appearing in public exhausting.

She wondered, in these letters, whether she could sustain that life. In the end, of course, she did, because she was a very dutiful person. But the fact that she had a much darker, bleaker perception of her role for many years is a genuinely new thing to understand about her.

What impact did George’s moral ideals have on the running of the family?

It went brilliantly when the children were small. There’s no doubt that George loved small babies, and was a very loving father: there are many accounts of him carrying his naked little son around, and of him playing on the floor with his children – losing what was seen as all of the dignity of a king.

So when the children were young it was a very positive picture, and a great improvement on the situation with George’s predecessors. It got far more complicated as the children got older, though. The idea that the children might have desires or wishes that conflicted with George’s vision of the future created tensions.

Boredom was also a factor, mostly for the women: there’s no doubt that Charlotte was bored a lot of the time. She tried to bring clever women into the household with whom she could form relationships of the mind. This was partly for her own intellectual stimulation, but also because she wanted her daughters to see how important it was in the court world, with all its requirements and potential for dullness, to have an intellectual life for yourself.

It’s interesting, though, that none of those women stayed: they all, in the end, found the pressure of life in the spotlight, the endless etiquette and ceremony, just too dull – and so they left. But Charlotte couldn’t leave, and that’s one of the key themes of their lives.

What was life like for the children?

This was a period in which ideas of childhood were changing rapidly, and George and Charlotte tried to introduce many of these ideas to their own household. The children were required to have their own agricultural pursuits, for instance, and were dressed very simply, in open-necked shirts and loose clothes. But right from the start there was a contradiction between the idea of them as free, natural children, and their formal status as princesses and princes. That’s another of the faultlines in this world – between the private, intimate life and the one on public display. It’s the one that the whole family, in the end, found it most difficult to deal with.

At what point did George’s illness first manifest itself?

The first serious illness came in 1788/89. George had previously been remarkably healthy for an 18th-century man, which is why it came as such a shock to everyone.

I think it was a shock from which, actually, neither he nor the family ever quite recovered.

For reasons no one could understand, the illness affected his behaviour. George had previously always been very controlled, and regarded it as very important that he mastered emotions that weren’t required of his public role. To lose control, and to know that he’d lost control, was the great tragedy of the early phases of all of his illnesses.

All of this would have been bad enough for anyone to deal with in the 18th century, but the fact that his illness was regarded as shameful, and that it could not be concealed – that it was being debated, dissected and thought about in the public world – added an extra dimension of horror for the family. The tension that always existed between their public and private lives is perhaps most apparent during his illness.

What new impression did you get of the family while writing this book?

A lot of this story is about good intentions. Everyone went into this project hoping for the best, and they all wanted to make something better for themselves. The picture we have of the family is often sad: their lives were quite dull, and they lived these very limited experiences. These were genuinely thwarted lives, yet George and his family saw it as their duty to try and make the best of them.

But there’s also a sense of the liveliness of the family. George is often portrayed as a stolid, uninteresting character, but I think he was more complicated and varied, and combined lots of apparently contradictory characteristics: generous but unforgiving, thoughtful but obstinate, loving but sometimes not terribly sympathetic.

Charlotte was a person of contradictions, too. In later life she became a little like the negative caricatures of herself: strict, unloving, self-centred, embittered and frustrated by the experiences of her husband’s illnesses. But before that there was another Charlotte: clever, lively, intellectually curious and very interested in the world around her. These aspects of her personality got darker and darker as time went on – but how interesting to see that they were there in the first place.


In context

George III (1738–1820) was the son of Frederick Louis, Prince of Wales, and grandson of George II. Frederick predeceased his father, leaving George III to become king of Great Britain in 1760. He married Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz in 1761, and the couple went on to have 15 children. George’s reign was marked by a series of political and military struggles, including the loss of the 13 American colonies in the War of Independence.

The king’s later years were blighted by recurrent mental illness; his eldest son – later crowned as George IV – ruled as prince regent for the final decade of George III’s life.

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Born in Lewisham, south-east London, Janice Hadlow has overseen the history output of both Channel 4 and the BBC, where she worked as controller of BBC Four and, later, BBC Two. She is currently the BBC’s controller of Seasons and Special Projects and the author of The Strangest Family: The Private Lives of George III, Queen Charlotte and the Hanoverians by Janice Hadlow (William Collins, 704 pages, £25)