King George III of England tried to mollify a dysfunctional royal family
It is natural enough to think of the American War of Independence not as a revolution but as a family quarrel. The colonists, like restive adolescents ready to leave home, resisted parental control. The British, having paid for room and board, reacted with predictable outrage, and George III, to an unusual degree, tended to see all political strife as a family drama. In “A Royal Affair,” a portrait gallery of the king and his many siblings, Stella Tillyard argues that the domestic troubles of the royal family during George’s first 20 years goes a long way toward explaining his inept handling of the American crisis.
Ms. Tillyard’s George III is a sad, sympathetic figure, a man of modest gifts who took his familial and royal duties very seriously. As the eldest son, he saw it as his job to act as a guide and manager for his eight brothers and sisters, who nearly all presented him with nothing but headaches. While he fretted over the integrity of the Hanoverian dynasty and its public image, his brothers pursued a life of pleasure, and his sisters, although married off to distant princes, somehow managed to disturb the royal peace in unexpected, creative ways. The colonists imagined that the king stayed up nights devising tortures like the Stamp Act. Not so. More often than not, he was putting out brushfires started by his willful, unpredictable family.
Although scrupulously researched, “A Royal Affair” looks at history sentimentally. The driving force behind events is not policy, but personality and the clash of temperaments and wills. This approach can make the House of Hanover seem like a reclamation project for Dr. Phil. The king’s main problem is not the global economic restructuring brought about by empire, but his unstable character, in which self-doubt coexisted with mulelike stubbornness, and plodding conventionality belied a lurid imagination prone to interpret events in apocalyptic terms.
If Caroline Mathilde, the youngest sister, nearly drags Britain into a war with Denmark, it’s all because she has a hungry heart, eager for love, which she finds in the arms of a sexy doctor with advanced Voltairean views. Ms. Tillyard seems happiest when emotional temperatures reach fever level.
For this reason George III drops out of the picture early on, displaced by his more colorful siblings. First in line is Edward, the buoyant, pleasure-loving second son, who quickly finds his element in a London set that Ms. Tillyard characterizes as “fast-living, fast-talking and seriously committed to folly.” Following the rake’s progress, Ms. Tillyard surveys, in arresting detail, the sexual stock exchange in which lovely young flower sellers and shopgirls traded up, thanks to patrons like Edward, to a life of luxury, notoriety and, in some cases, a nice pension.
Edward died young, but other brothers waited in the wings, each determined, it seemed to George, to chase after prostitutes and then marry precisely the wrong woman. What made his brothers’ behavior doubly maddening was George’s own example. He had given up the love of his life to marry, as duty and dynasty required, a suitable mate, Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. He lived virtuously and frugally, careful not to squander the public’s money. His brothers squandered their allowances at gaming tables and in brothels, and then turned to George for emergency infusions of cash.
Unfortunately, as Ms. Tillyard notes, many of the royal escapades ended up in the newspapers. Although there was no royal rat pack, a change in the stamp duty in 1757 made it economical to print larger newspapers, whose extra white space was quickly filled with tittle-tattle and scandal. Readers all over London, therefore, could delight in the lusty adventures of the Duke of Cumberland, yet another royal brother, as he assumed the disguise of a Welsh farmer and pursued a cross-country affair with the wife of the enormously wealthy Richard, Lord Grosvenor. All the lurid details came out in court.
The brothers were bad, but little Caroline Mathilde was worse. By all rights she should have disappeared from the story after being sent off to Denmark as the wife of King Christian VII. But Christian was no ordinary king, and Caroline Mathilde proved to be a woman of uncommon abilities and ardent temperament. Christian VII, given to manic-depressive episodes, and strongly inclined to masochism, sank into a strange torpor as king, a position he had dreaded since childhood.
Caroline Mathilde, neglected in every way, fell into the strong arms of her husband’s doctor and adviser, a forward-looking German reformer named Johann Friedrich Struensee. Together the lovers engineered sweeping political reforms, creating the freest press in Europe, abolishing ancient privileges, rationalizing the bureaucracy and raising the young prince according to Rousseauist principles. A palace coup, backed by the officer corps, restored order and wiped the slate clean. Struensee was beheaded, and Caroline Mathilde imprisoned, in Hamlet’s castle at Elsinore, touching off an international crisis that captured the English imagination, Ms. Tillyard writes, “precisely because it combined mythic entertainment and a genuine political crisis.”
The long, involved tale of doings in Denmark more or less hijacks the book. Ms. Tillyard, enchanted by Caroline Mathilde and her tempestuous love affair, throws George overboard and insists on documenting, in sometimes numbing detail, the rise and fall of Caroline Mathilde. It’s too much. The reappearance of George III, as the colonial crisis mounts, comes just in the nick of time.
By 1775 five of George III’s siblings were dead, giving him much more psychic space to devote to American affairs, described by Ms. Tillyard as just more of the same old family fuss.
“Family and nation were inseparable for him,” Ms. Tillyard writes, “and when the American men and women who were a part of his family repudiated his fatherly love and protection, it almost broke him.” There you have it in a nutshell. If only there could have been a group hug.