Philobiblon: The re-revisionist view of George III

Saturday, January 15, 2005

The re-revisionist view of George III

A fascinating Historical Association talk today at the British Museum on George III and the King's Library, by Robert Lacey. The revisionist view of George is that he wasn't really mad, just ill, porphyria, and there is an attached claim that he had assembled his huge and expensive library of (finally) 65,000 volumes with the intention of it ending up as the property of the nation. Lacey disputes the latter, with what seemed to me persuasive evidence.

The key points (as I understood them):

* His will of 1770 (the one that seems to have been probated - although it is impossible to be sure, since monarchs' wills, unlike any others, remain secret - nice to live in a democracy) left the books explicitly to his son, the future Regent and George IV, then a "promising" little boy.

* Several unsigned wills drafted in 1808 (when he knew what his son was really like), that the King meant to sign but was prevented from so doing by illness, directed that the books "should be enjoyed by our son and heir ... and after his demise ... by the person entitled to the Crown."

* The young George bought the collection of the British Consul in Venice, Joseph Smith, of fine "high-class" books at about the same time as the Thomason collection of Civil War pamphlets. The latter he immediately gave to the then British Museum, the former he kept for himself.

When George III died, his indebted and profligate son actually tried to sell the whole lot to Czar Alexander of Russia, through the Russian ambassador's wife, the lively Princess Lieven, but pressure from politicians, including the much-maligned Lord Liverpool, forced him instead to give it to the nation (probably in a trade-off for grand building schemes at Windsor Castle and Buckingham House).

(The "old" royal library, built up from the time of Edward IV, was given to the Museum by George II, who very definitely wasn't the bookish sort; the "new", post-George IV one, was willed by his brother, William, in such a way as to ensure it has to remain in the royal family. Mischievous thought: Wonder what would happen to it if Britain became a republic?)

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