The Robust Faith of George III
The Robust Faith of George III
The smash-hit Broadway musical “Hamilton” satirizes the British monarch, George III, presenting him as a jilted lover who is bitter at his rejection by the American colonies. He agonizes over their infidelity during a few humorous musical numbers, at one point acidly voicing a common perception of European heads of state at the time: “They say George Washington's yielding his power and stepping away. Is that true? I wasn't aware that was something a person could do.”
Though “Hamilton” portrays King George as pathetic and tyrannical, George III was a remarkably noble and pious king. He demonstrated a strong conviction that God intervenes in world affairs, and often mentioned “Divine Providence” in his letters to family members and politicians.
Though George’s depth of conviction often led him to be over-zealous in his application of biblical precepts, he should be commended for the consistency with which he applied his ideology to the familial, social, governmental, and personal spheres of life. George's religious faith and practice existed holistically. Church on Sunday was meant to be part of a piety that permeated his thoughts, feelings, and actions throughout the week.
George’s devotion to a God of daily action, to whom one should pray and expect a tangible answer, stood in contrast to the deism prevalent among the founders of the new United States.
Defender of the Faith
Since 1521, when Pope Leo X bestowed the title on King Henry VIII, each English monarch has been consecrated “Defender of the Faith.” After the English Reformation, “the Faith” came to mean the Church of England, with the king or queen at its head. While not all English monarchs have fully embraced this role, George III took it particularly seriously.
Thus, when his grandfather died in 1760, George III became king and resolved to uphold the English Church as it had been handed down to him. Like each new monarch had done since 1689, George sealed his intent by reading a declaration repudiating transubstantiation and stating that the adoration of saints and the celebration of Roman Catholic Mass were “superstitious and idolatrous.” Yet, as a faithful Anglican, George considered the communion meal to be an “indispensable” moment at his coronation, and Thomas Secker, the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time, records that in reverence George III “put off his crown immediately; and all the peers, that saw it, took off their coronets.”
At the beginning of his reign, George issued a “Proclamation for the Encouragement of Piety and Virtue, and for the Preventing and Punishing of Vice, Profaneness, and Immorality.” The Archbishop of Canterbury told him that “such proclamations had been apt to be considered as matters of course, but that his example, I was persuaded, would give life and vigour to this.” George replied that “he thought it was his principal duty to encourage and support religion and virtue.” The next month, George issued a fast for himself and the members of both Houses of Parliament.
George put a high value on earnestness and personal integrity, writing to a member of the cabinet, “My mind is not of a nature to be guided by the object of obtaining a little applause. … Rectitude of conduct is my sole aim.” Later, at the urging of William Wilberforce, George’s dedication to moral purity led him to issue another “Proclamation Against Vice.” Horace Walpole, son of a former prime minister, recorded the ascent of “a Court that hoisted the standard of religion.” Religious dedication, Walpole claimed, was the most effective way for one to gain favor with the new king.
English historian Jeremy Black explained that George showed “strong religious faith, belief in the ever-active role of Divine Providence and [a] powerful sense of moral duty and personal responsibility.” Himself an atheist, Black claimed that George’s Christianity and his character are the most important aspects to understanding the king. Another biographer, John Brooke, stated that “discussion of King George III’s character must begin with his belief in God.”
Because being head of the Church of England comes with the job of monarch, some kings have taken the role of Fidei Defensor with extreme laxity. George’s own heir, George IV cared so little for church that, according to Lady Caroline Damer, he would later have a screen installed in his chapel “so that neither the clergyman nor any of the congregation knew whether his Majesty was present or not.” The clergyman was even told “never to preach sermons on moral duties and virtues, the safe course was to keep to doctrinal explanations.” That way, the heir would not be challenged on his particular sins.
In contrast, George believed that the monarch’s duty was to be seen by the British people as devoutly following the Lord’s commands, that his subjects may take after his example. For him, Christian humility was one of the best practices for godly living and for resisting sin. George elaborated, “when a person has been perfectly in the wrong, the most just and honorable thing for him to do is to acknowledge it publicly.” Admission of wrongdoing—and thence repentance—was central: “No one should be above confessing when they have been mistaken.” God would hear the Christian’s true remorse and relieve the weight of guilt.
“Divine right,” the belief that a monarch is divinely appointed to lead, took a real and present meaning for George. Threats of assassination led George to trust that the hand of God was directly protecting him. After learning of a planned attempt on his life, which was to have been carried out as he rode by carriage to the theater, he observed to Lord North, “As to my own feelings, they always incline me to put trust where it alone can avail—in the Almighty Ruler of the Universe who knows what best suits his allwise purposes, this being the week I go to Holy Communion, I had no thoughts of going unto the play.”
George rarely missed church services, whether on the Sabbath or other days of celebration in the liturgical calendar, and had a self-driven devotional at the beginning and end of every day. The devotions included prayer and reading his Bible. Immediately before his son Frederick, Duke of York, departed for Hanover, George gave the young man a copy of the Bible, saying, “I trust you will every morning and evening read in this book, and I am convinced you will soon feel the comfort I do from that constant practice. It will at least twice in the day give an opportunity of self examination without which even with the best intentions you cannot avoid much evil.”
For George, ethics was grounded in the existence of God, and human beings could genuinely show morality only by the power of the Almighty. He wrote to his son Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, “It is with great satisfaction I perceive by your letters that your mind is impressed with those sentiments of duty to our Great Creator which alone can preserve you from the snares of this world or make you with comfort either look forward to a future state or pass your life with satisfaction; besides, no real confidence can be placed in any one whose intentions are not known to be guided by a due observance of the Laws of God, for any other tie is so weak that it must break when evil advice or any inclinations pull against it.”
George and his wife, Charlotte, wanted their children to understand that divine precepts are the ultimate basis for healthy and upright living. The aim of his children’s education, George stated, was “the making of them Christians and useful members of society.” For George and Charlotte, a royal status was a gift from God. As Charlotte elaborated in a word of motherly guidance, “We are all equal and become only of consequence by setting good examples to others.”
George and Charlotte’s sons, however, did not feel the same gravity about being examples as their parents did. The philandering of his sons was a near-constant source of stress and disappointment to George, who had striven to raise his children to develop pietistic self-control. The Duke of Wellington, who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo, famously called the royal sons “the damnedest millstones about the neck of any government that can be imagined.”
By late 1817, George’s children had given him 60-some living grandchildren—all illegitimate—but no surviving heir who could legally inherit the throne.
George felt disgraced enough by the unsuitable marriages of two of his brothers—one to an illegitimate granddaughter of a prime minister and the other to a commoner—to establish the Royal Marriages Act of 1772, which made the sovereign’s consent necessary for any of the royal family to marry and rendered invalid any royal marriage thenceforth undertaken without his own consent.
Yet, George’s determination to force his children into more suitable marriages backfired. His daughters married in their 30s or never married at all. Amongst themselves, they coined the term, “Windsor nunnery,” to describe the state of utter seclusion that they endured from members of the opposite sex.
George set a standard high enough that his sons felt he was too difficult to please. They preferred to take mistresses whom they really loved rather than put up facades of commitment to women whom they had been forced to marry for posterity. George’s eldest child and namesake, the Prince of Wales, secretly married a Roman Catholic named Mrs. Fitzherbert—an event which was kept so well under wraps that, despite speculation from drawing rooms to Parliament, almost no one except the witnesses ever knew for sure until publication of the proof in 1905. George’s third child, the Duke of Clarence, lived for 20 years in domestic tranquility with an actress named Mrs. Jordan, who bore him 10 children. George’s fourth son, the Duke of Kent and later father of Queen Victoria, lived openly for 28 years with Madame de Saint-Laurent, the wife of a French colonel.
Only when the lack of an heir became starkly apparent after the death of the Prince of Wales’s one legitimate child in 1817 did more of George’s sons decide to wed according to the tight strictures that their father had imposed.
Because of George’s stringent morals, his sons found emotional connection with their father hard to maintain. He seemed so entirely focused on their behavior that he failed to establish a mutually agreeable connection. As a parent, George may have missed the apostle Paul’s entreaty not to exasperate one’s children (Eph. 6:4).
For the century leading up to his reign, relations between Catholics, Anglicans, and other religious groups in the British Isles had provided lively national discourse. When George took the throne, his declaration refuting Roman Catholicism applied to everyone in the employment of the government. In fact, since the Restoration of Charles II, Roman Catholics had faced extra restrictions by law throughout the kingdom.
During negotiations to bring the predominantly Catholic Ireland into the United Kingdom, Prime Minister William Pitt asked George about introducing Catholic emancipation to lift some of the restrictions on Catholics. George adamantly refused this suggestion because of his coronation oath and his title as “Defender” of the Anglican Church.
“It is the duty of ministers,” George had written to Lord North in 1772, “as much as possible to prevent any alterations in so essential a part of the constitution as everything that relates to religion.” Though tolerant of Catholics, George felt that changing the law would betray the state-sponsored Anglicanism that he had promised to faithfully uphold as king. The struggle with Pitt over the Catholic question caused George to relapse into an episode of mental illness.
George was also tolerant of Protestant nonconformists who practiced their faith apart from the established Church of England. A clearly-defined evangelicalism began with the conversion experiences of John and Charles Wesley and their founding of Methodism. George’s piety led him to sense an affinity with their movement, which included rigorous fasting on regular days of the week and keen, hourly attention to spiritual health. George expressed acclamation to their evangelical circle, stating a desire for someone like the Methodist Countess of Huntingdon to be part of each diocese in the Church of England. John Wesley journaled, “When will England ever have a better prince?”
A Pillar of Stability
At a time when state religion was standard, George felt compelled to uphold the status of Britain as a uniquely Anglican nation. Across the Atlantic, the Founding Fathers broke with this model and instead made provision for varied belief systems, building up to the establishment of the First Amendment.
It is logical that Americans focus on the attributes and achievements of our Founding Fathers, but it is important for us to remember that George III had many virtues of his own, including sincerity, self-discipline, and moral fortitude. For his Christian subjects, George maintained a sense of continuity through the French Revolution and Napoleonic Era, one of the most tumultuous periods of world history, in which proper interactions between the church and political power were viscerally reevaluated in Europe.
George III can inspire believers on both sides of the Atlantic to greater spiritual maturity. His holistic exercise of faith can be a challenge for fellow Christians to consider whether God is central in all aspects and identities of their lives. Those with parenting travails may take consolation in the fact that someone as devout as George did not have all his familial aspirations realized. Government figures of the present age would do well to emulate George in his sincere intention to publicly confess his own wrongdoings.
Similarly, George’s dedication to state-sponsored Anglicanism reminds Americans of how our vaunted religious freedom does not mean that Christian piety is the only sort of religious devotion in America. Unlike in George’s Britain, no single system of beliefs has a monopoly on the First Amendment. While George meant to keep Anglicanism legally integrated with the governance of his kingdom, republican leaders in the 13 colonies wanted to frame their new and lasting nation under a now-persevering separation of church and state.
In the new nation, citizens with contrasting positions could value, respect, and support the freedom of one another to exercise, in goodwill, their differing convictions without fear of suppression by fellow persons or by the law. Christians, and other groups, receive free expression to the same degree as they support it for those who think differently.
Seeing one perspective is easy, but seeing truth in various perspectives takes intentionality. Making the effort can be rewarding, and this understanding may humanize a rival like George III, the “tyrant” king of the colonies.
Tyler Streckert graduated from Wheaton Graduate School in 2015 with a master’s in history. He currently lives in Wisconsin.