Now We’ll Finally Get to See the American Revolution Through the Eyes of King George
A treasure trove of nearly 350,000 documents, about to be released to the public, reveals new insights about how George III lost the colonies
Shortly after the Revolutionary War, a British father of 15 sat down to think about the world “turned upside down.” He had never seen the American continent, and rarely set foot outside London. But his private papers reveal that he closely tracked the war’s path in maps and regiment lists. A man of routine, he dated his daily letters to the minute as the conflict raged on. He tried hard to picture the England that his children would inherit. “America is lost! Must we fall beneath the blow?” he wrote in a neat, sloping hand. “Or have we resources that may repair the mischiefs?” These were the words of George III—father, farmer, king—as he weighed Britain’s future.
Many Americans, as colonists-turned-citizens, might have been surprised to hear George’s inner thoughts on the war that brought about their new nation. He was, after all, the same ruler that revolutionaries had blisteringly indicted in the Declaration of Independence. There, they called George a “Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant,” one whom they deemed “unfit to be the ruler of a free people.” Over the centuries, popular culture has depicted "America's last king" in critical fashion. His illness steered the plot of Alan Bennett's 1991 play, The Madness of George III. More recently, the hit musical Hamilton pictured George III penning a breakup letter to the colonies, titled "You'll Be Back."
Now, for the first time in over two centuries, you’ll be able to read the king’s side of the American Revolution and its aftermath from the comfort of your own castle. George III’s essay on the loss of the colonies is part of a private cache totaling more than 350,000 pages, all currently preserved in Windsor Castle’s Royal Archives after a century or so of storage in the cellar of the Duke of Wellington’s London townhouse. In April 2015, Queen Elizabeth II formally opened the trove to scholars, along with plans for the Georgian Papers Programme to digitize and interpret documents for a new website, launching in January 2017.
Only a portion of the material, roughly 15 percent, has ever been seen in print. A sea of letters, royal household ledgers and maps abound for researchers to explore. And George III is not alone: Though the bulk of the archive documents his reign, it also contains documents that outline the political and personal views of several British monarchs and their families between 1740 and 1837.
Why open up the once-private royal archive? The Georgian papers are “absolutely key to our shared past,” says Oliver Urquhart Irvine, Royal Librarian and assistant keeper of the Queen’s Archives. “It’s not just about us. It’s important to see George III’s relationship to science, to agriculture, to family and domestic life, to women, to education, and to all kinds of subjects.”
Past scholars have framed the age as one of Enlightenment and revolutionary tumult. But though founding-era figures like John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and others anchor the American side of the saga with their candid correspondence, George III's views have not always been so tantalizingly within reach. By 2020, the Georgian Papers team will make all material relating to Britain's Hanoverian monarchs freely available in digital format. “We fully expect this project to lead to discoveries that will transform our understanding of the 18th century,” says Joanna Newman, vice president and vice-principal (International) at King’s College London.
In collaborative spirit, Windsor archivists have teamed up with the Royal Collection Trust and King’s College London, and reached across the Atlantic for help in bringing royal words to life. The Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture at the College of William & Mary serves as the primary U.S. partner for the project, and has sponsored several research fellows to study the archive. (You can apply here.) In addition, Mount Vernon, the Sons of the American Revolution, and the Library of Congress have all announced their participation.
In 2015, the first wave of the program’s researchers began to explore the manuscripts in earnest. Scholar Rick Atkinson, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner writing a new military history of the Revolution, recalls that “a bit of magic” clung to his daily commute up to Windsor Castle. He passed through the Henry VIII Gate and the Norman Gate, climbed 102 stone steps, and then ascended another 21 wooden steps in order to reach his desk in the iconic Round Tower. “And there are the papers,” says Atkinson. “George didn’t have a secretary until his eyesight began to fail later in life. He wrote most everything himself. So it’s not only a visual and a visceral experience, but a tactile one, because the papers have been beautifully preserved. Your fingers really do have a sense of walking back through history 240-some years.”
History, however, has not always been kind to George III. His loss of the American colonies, an extended conflict with Napoleon and painful episodes of mania (possibly caused by porphyria) all plagued his reign. But though biographers have painted him as authoritarian or erratic, scholars say that his private papers tell a different tale that humanizes the misunderstood monarch.
While many colonists deplored the king as a despot bent on tyranny, his daily regimen—diligently recorded in his papers—was fairly routine. Family life and public duty marked out his days. He did much of his work in the morning, then headed over to St. James’s Palace for diplomatic meetups. He enjoyed visiting Spithead to see the ships. He drew long regimental lists, sizing up the Revolutionary War’s movements in painstaking detail. Within the same royal walls, George’s wife, the German-born Queen Charlotte, labored through six hours of English lessons a day. She taught her daughters world geography, and operated a printing press at Frogmore. The story of how the royals lived during the Revolution—and how Britain would fare beyond it—lies in their private papers at Windsor Castle.
Jim Ambuske, a post-doctoral fellow in digital humanities at the University of Virginia School of Law Library, was among the first scholars to tackle the archive shortly after the program’s launch. Tuning into George III’s political thought, Ambuske was struck by the king’s clear, forceful prose and a viewpoint far from a traditional tyrant.
“Coming out of the perspective of studying the Revolution, you have a sense of the George whose statues are pulled down in New York and whose proclamations are read. I guess I thought of him as a political figure, never as someone you might relate to on more than a regal level,” Ambuske says. Reading the king’s lengthy letters to his sons marked a turning point in his research. “He was also a guy who was capable of a great deal of empathy. He was very concerned, as any parent would be, about the well-being of his children and their education,” says Ambuske. “He was well aware that he was raising potential future sovereigns, but he also wanted them to be good people.”
As Atkinson traced how the American Revolution’s battles played out, he began to see George III as a man who was both “very much a domestic fellow,” and a ruler who was “the driving force behind the hard line that the British had taken” in the war. “What comes across to me, looking at him via the papers,” Atkinson says, “is someone who is puzzling through an extraordinarily complex problem for which he does not really have a vocabulary.”
Long a shadowy figure in American history, George III and his world reemerge via his private papers. So, too, does a people’s history of how the British experienced a transformative period in science, art, and culture. The archive's opening could mean a new era for scholars. Historians eager for evidence of George III’s personal politics may find that court life also needs a new history. The busy lives of Queen Charlotte and her children call out for modern biographies. Royal art collectors merit a second look, too, as do the many servants who tended to George and Charlotte (and their 15 children) in royal style. This trove provides a dizzying array of ways to see the newly unveiled papers, from recreating royal dinners and tracing Scottish emigration to examining African authors in the Georgian court or comparing Washington’s farming habits with those of his former king.
“This is very likely the last great privately held archive that will illuminate the 18th-century Atlantic world,” says historian Karin Wulf, director of the Omohundro Institute. “Sure, there is glorious material here to explore on King George III and the lost colonies, but there is also extraordinary material on transatlantic literary culture, on ideas about labor and agriculture, on politics of the highest and the most quotidian sort, of gender, family…all manner of topics. It’s not only the monarchs whose materials are preserved here. It’s the people who worked for and with them, and it’s the materials created by all kinds of people around the British Empire and beyond.”