In defence of King George III

16 October 2021

9:00 AM

16 October 2021

9:00 AM

I’m on a book tour which involves 65 speeches in 60 days in Britain, Washington, Philadelphia, Virginia, Mexico, California and New York. I suspect the second part will be tougher than the first, as Americans understandably hold a less charitable view of King George III. I’m a lot kinder about their Founding Fathers than the woke crowd in the States, though. The National Archives in Washington is threatening to put up a sign next to the Declaration of Independence stating that some of its views are ‘outdated, biased, and offensive’. Of course they are referring to its clause about Native Americans, but I’m going to try to persuade Americans that it’s also true of 26 out of the 28 clauses lambasting the poor old king.

With the typical panache that has gained her a quarter of a million Instagram followers, Fiona Carnarvon arranged for a Winston Churchill lookalike called Stan Streather to introduce me to the audience at the Highclere Castle History Festival on 9 October, which was packed with hundreds of re-enactors. As ‘Winston’ and I walked to the tent, a lady dressed as a suffragette — complete with purple-and-green sash and big hat — shouted angrily: ‘When are you going to give women the franchise, you old bastard?’ ‘Do you get much of that kind of thing?’ I asked Stan. ‘More and more of it, funnily enough,’ he replied. But at least he hasn’t been called a racist. Yet.

I grew a beard during lockdown, which I’m now going to keep because my wife Susan has called it ‘piratical’. There was a time when I was as pogonophobic as the next man, but no longer. ‘I hate your beard,’ David Starkey told me at a drinks party recently. ‘I didn’t bring her,’ I replied. ‘I’m only here for you.’

Antonia Romeo, the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Justice, is enthusiastic about my History in Prisons project, which was so rudely interrupted by Covid. Before it restarts next year, therefore, please can any historians who would be interested in speaking in a prison get in touch with me. After a talk I gave at Wandsworth prison, I rather patronisingly commiserated with a university contemporary who was an inmate over what I had supposed must be a lack of intellectual stimulation there. ‘Oh no,’ he replied. ‘There are quite a lot of Oxbridge in C Wing.’

Michael Gove has a rule when asked to a social occasion far in the future: only to accept if he would want to attend it that same evening. In our house it’s called ‘the Gove Test’, as it’s amazing how often one accepts things that one doesn’t really want to go to simply because they seem a long way off. A party that I hope passed every invitee’s Gove Test was my publication party at the Mandarin Oriental in Knightsbridge, in which I got a serious gout attack just as the first guests arrived. It seemed somehow appropriate, considering quite how many of the people in my book suffered from this horrid disease, which for some reason people still persist in finding funny. George III’s only truly brilliant prime ministers (out of the 14 he appointed) were the two Pitts, both of whom suffered from it terribly, not helped by Dr Addington prescribing them port and no exercise. Had Pitt the Elder taken a course of allopurinol and arcoxia, he would not have had to resign in 1768 and thus wreck the best hope of our keeping the American colonies.

Lockdown has been generally good for authors in terms of book sales, but the closure of archives and libraries for research has been a problem. That is why I’m all the more grateful to the Georgian Papers programme at King’s College London, which has been putting no fewer than 200,000 excellently curated pages of the Hanoverian monarchs’ private papers online since 2015 when the Queen made them available from the Royal Archives. They are a superb historical treasure trove open to all, and I couldn’t recommend the website more highly, both for directed research and sheer serendipity.

The Cambridge University Conservative Association, of which I’m the president, is holding a dinner in the House of Commons on 14 January to celebrate its 100th anniversary. I suspect there are a large number of former CUCA members who are Speccie readers, and if you would like to come along please do contact the chairman, Hugo Williams, at Peterhouse. The last dinner we held for alumni in London a few years back got a bit out of control, as passions were running high during Brexit. What could possibly go wrong this time?

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