Thursday, January 25, 2007

George III and Bute

The new king
The death of George II on 25 October 1760 was marked by a great enthusiasm in recognition of the promise which the new king, his young grandson, seemed to offer.

George III was born on 4 June 1738 at a house in St James’s Square rented from the duke of Norfolk. He was two months’ premature and given a hasty baptism. He was the second child and first son of Frederick Prince of Wales (‘Fritz’) and Augusta of Saxe-Gotha. He was born into a deeply dysfunctional family. His father was detested by his parents, George II and Caroline of Ansbach. In 1742 the Prince and Princess of Wales moved to Leicester House in Leicester Square, and there established a court in rivalry with the king’s. Leicester House was the centre of opposition politics.

In 1751 his father died unexpectedly. George II: ‘I have lost my eldest son but I was glad of it.’ George became Prince of Wales. He was brought up at Kew by his mother, taught to be hostile to his grandfather, to deplore the lax morals of his court and his dependence on the Whig oligarchy.

The influence of Bute
In the year before he reached his majority (1755) his mother called in as companion and guide John Stuart, 3rd earl of Bute (1713-92). Bute had lost his seat as one of the representative Scottish peers in the new parliament of 1741 and for a while left politics. But from 1747 he was a favourite of Frederick Prince of Wales, and when the prince died in 1751 he remained the confidant of his widow and helped her plan Kew Gardens. He was extremely handsome and the gossips believed that he was the dowager princess’s lover. When George was given his own household in November 1756, the king grumpily agreed that he should be made Groom of the Stole and it was widely assumed that he would be a candidate for high office once the prince became king.

The young George was infatuated with Bute, who, arguably, was the father he had never had. Bute wrote to George:
‘The prospect of forming your young mind is exquisitely pleasing to a heart like mine.’
In 1756 George wrote to Bute: ‘
I will with the greatest affection and tenderness be yours till death separates us.’
George's education took place at the time of the Seven Years War. Part of the policy of Newcastle, the Prime Minister, and Pitt, the Secretary of State, was to pour subsidies into Prussia in order to defend Hanover. Bute was a fierce opponent of this policy and George echoed his sentiments as his faithful pupil. In his correspondence, Newcastle was the king’s ‘knave and counsellor’ and Pitt ‘a true snake in the grass’ and the ‘blackest of hearts’. Even the king was not spared: ‘The conduct of this old king makes me ashamed of being his grandson.’ This is the true disservice Bute did the prince: he passed on his own prejudices and guaranteed that the first period of the king’s reign would be stormy. He was determined to get rid of Newcastle and Pitt and was unaware of how divisive this would be.

A ‘patriot king’?
On the day of his accession, George met the Privy Council at Carlton House. His declaration, drafted by Bute, spoke of the ‘bloody and expensive war’ in progress. Pitt insisted that this was replaced by the formula ‘expensive but just and necessary war’.

In November 1760 George declared to Parliament,
‘Born and educated in this country, I glory in the name of Briton’.
This was a reasonable statement – he was the first Prince of Wales since 1630 to have been born in England. But the word ‘Briton’ was controversial: Newcastle wrote:
‘I suppose you will think Briton remarkable. It denotes the author to all the world.’
George’s statement was a signal that he intended to be a ‘Patriot King’. What did this mean? Whig conspiracy theorists such as Horace Walpole were soon ready to believe that the king had a secret design to undermine the constitution. This was untrue. Yet with his accession there was a change of tone and policy that had profound political repercussions. He had imbibed from his mother a ‘Leicester House’ attitude along with the admonition ‘Be a King’. He seems to have decided that when he became king he must strengthen the role of the monarch and get rid of the ‘corrupt’ ‘Old Whigs’. He told Bute that he was determined not to be trampled on otherwise his subjects would come to esteem him ‘unworthy of the Crown’.

Initially George was popular. Unlike the first two Georges he had been born in England and thought of himself as an Englishman. This theme was reflected in the congratulatory addressed which flooded the columns of the newspapers. The new regime placed much emphasis on the extinction of ancient animosities. For the first time Tory country gentlemen were welcomed at court. Peerages and honours were distributed. The process of relaxing proscription was complete. The Whig oligarchies of shire and borough were finally compelled to give up some of their local influence. There was ‘an emotional home-coming for many churchmen’.
The king’s removal of their proscription finished off the old Tory party. The texture of the Whig party loosed leaving effective political control of Whig MPs in the hands of a group of political leaders. A further landmark of the past decades had also gone. The young king had no heir - there was no Leicester House around which dissidents could gather.

The ‘slaughter of the Pelhamite innocents’
The tensions between the king and his ministers were palpable. Newcastle:
‘I am the greatest cipher that ever appeared at Court. The young king is hardly civil to me ...This method of proceeding can’t last’.
In March 1761 Bute was appointed Secretary of State for the Northern Department. This was a relatively junior position but his real power was much more extensive. Pitt described him as ‘the minister behind the curtain’.

Pitt was the first to leave the government. As the war wound to a close he insisted, against the wishes of other members of the Cabinet, on a peace treaty which would satisfy Frederick of Prussia and destroy France as a colonial power. When peace negotiations collapsed, France entered into a secret alliance with Spain, and this led Pitt to propose a pre-emptive strike against Spain. When the rest of the Cabinet refused to accept this, he resigned on 5 October 1761.

Though George was pleased to see him go, he had not been directly responsible for his departure, and when Pitt came to surrender his seals, he granted him a pension of £3,000 a year and bestowed a peerage (Baroness Chatham) on his wife.

At the Lord Mayor’s banquet the king and queen’s coach was watched in silence, Bute’s coach was attacked by the mob and Bute had to be rescued by the bodyguard of prize-fighters whom he now employed. However, Pitt was cheered to the echo. Bute attempted to calm tensions by declaring war on Spain in January 1762. George told Bute: ‘This fresh enemy makes my heart bleed for my poor country.’ He openly opposed maintaining troops in Germany, and this brought him into conflict with Newcastle who saw it as a betrayal of Frederick. On 26 May Newcastle was persuaded to resign and on the following day Bute became first lord of the treasury.

Bute Prime Minister
Horace Walpole: ‘The new administration begins tempestuously. My father was not more abused after twenty years than Bute after twenty days.’ Press abuse had reached fever pitch. Bute was attacked in prints as the lover of the Princess Dowager. In June a new weekly periodical, the North Briton, appeared, edited by John Wilkes, Pittite MP for Aylesbury. The title was chosen to counter a pro-government paper, the True Briton, edited by Tobias Smollett (a Scotsman). The North Briton made satirical references to Bute, attacked the Scots and the government’s peace negotiations. Johnson was satirized for accepting a pension, and the constant references to Isabella and Mortimer were a thinly veiled attack on the Princess.

On 3 November the peace preliminaries were signed at Fontainebleau. Though Britain had made very significant gains, the terms were promptly attacked by Pitt as inadequate. The preliminaries passed both the Lords and the Commons by decisive majorities and received formal ratification on 10 February. But in the country at large they were regarded as a sell-out and by the spring Bute was the most unpopular man in the country. He now believed that his life was in danger. He was lampooned in over 400 prints and broadsheets and his emblem, the ‘jackboot’ was regularly burned alongside that of Princess Augusta’s petticoat. ‘The angel Gabriel could not govern this country.’ On 9 April he resigned and on 10 April a reluctant king sent for Pitt’s brother-in-law, George Grenville (1712-70) – much to the anger of the Pitt/Grenville clan, furious at his ‘apostasy’. But Bute continued to be influential behind the scenes.

George’s relations with Grenville were extremely poor. Everyone found him tedious. Horace Walpole: ‘brevity was not his failing’. George:
‘When he has wearied me for two hours, he looks at his watch to see if he may not tire me for an hour more’.
He especially resented Grenville’s insistence that neither Bute nor his relatives play any role in policy decisions. But Grenville showed his political mettle by getting his way in this matter.
Grenville’s most notable contribution to politics was the Stamp Act (1765), which was so much resented by the American colonists. His other was the handling of the John Wilkes affair.