George III, the first jubilee, and the making of a modern monarchy

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This weekend, the United Kingdom is getting ready for a series of celebrations to mark Queen Elizabeth II’s platinum jubilee.  Alongside a number of large-scale ceremonial events, including the trooping of the colour, a royal procession, and an impressive flypast while the royal family are assembled in view of the public on the balcony at Buckingham Palace, plans are in place for a more accessible nationwide celebration. Harking back to the street parties of post-war England, the ‘Big Jubilee Lunch’ is an opportunity for the general public to celebrate a milestone for a monarch who is seen as both royal, and accessible.

This duality of the United Kingdom’s attitude towards their monarch can be traced back to the reign of George III in the late eighteenth-century, and the first monarch to hold a Jubilee celebration in October 1809. George’s jubilee celebrating 50 years on the throne, was the brain-child of a middle-class widow from the Welsh Borders, Mrs Biggs, and was the culmination of a shift in the way the monarchy was seen by ‘ordinary’ Britons.[1]  In making her suggestion, Mrs Biggs sought to shore up public affections for the monarchy in the face of the sexual indiscretions of George III’s children, national war-weariness, and economic discontent. ‘A jubilee’, she suggested, ‘might excite a spirit of loyal enthusiasm’ amongst the British public.[2]  Mrs Biggs represented a relatively new relationship between the broader British public, and the King and his family. This new relationship was an important driver in the resurgence of royal popularity that began to build in 1780 and that sustained the British monarchy through several royal scandals and the unpopularity of George IV.

Gainsborough Dupont, George III (1738-1820), oil on canvas, Royal Collection RCIN 404383

As Linda Colley has suggested, George III forged an image for himself still in use by the modern monarchy that was ‘a cunning and influential blend of ritual splendour and winning domesticity’.[3]  The king and his family appear reasonably regularly in our database of eighteenth-century letters.  Many of these references are by elite men and women, who moved in courtly circles and who were therefore reasonably intimate with George III and his household. Other references, however, show how non-elite Britons also had access to the King and his family through George’s cultivation of royal spectacle, patronage (particularly of the armed forces), and informal domesticity. What is remarkable is the quotidian nature of many of these interactions between the King and his public and a marked lack of reverence towards the British monarchy by the middling sorts.

George’s Hanoverian predecessors had shunned the Stuart monarchy’s tendency to ‘progress’ round the country.  George III reinstated regular royal processions, particularly in London, creating a sense of familiarity between him, his family, and large numbers of the general public. Such processions were often connected to the militia: aligning the monarchy with an important engine of growing British power, patriotism, and global expansion as well as developing notions of nationhood and identity.  Betsy Hatfield, from a Manchester merchant family, wrote to her cousin Mary-Ann Nicholson in 1803 that she had been ‘to see the Prince inspect the 4th [militia] Class last Monday, did you see him when he was in Liverpool?’.[4]  

Mary Huddleston described an acquaintance travelling ‘to town on Tuesday to see a royal procession after travelling all night’. She continued:

“While the King was saying his prayers we took a walk to see my Uncle & Aunt and then returned to Pall Mall where we all dined, the Procession that is what we saw of it was really very grand, but yet seemed rather melancholy than otherwise certainly such Pomp and such unnecessary expenses are very ill timed, and so people thought for neither going or coming back did their majesties meet with the least applause the whole length of Pall Mall, nor did any one even take their hats off they say it was otherwise in some parts of Fleet Street and the Strand but I am rather apt to think it was more on account of the sailors than for any other reason the streets were lined with Soldiers who stood but at a yards distance from the others besides the horse, the Duke of York was applauded a little…“[5]

This quote shows the extent to which royal spectacle could be absorbed into the public’s daily routine: dinner, a walk, King and prayers. Huddleston’s description of the King epitomises the informal domesticity that George III sought to cultivate, with royalty behaving in ways that were accessible to their subjects. It also shows, however, that a sense of familiarity with the monarch brought not only a sense of irreverence to the way in which the royal family might be discussed, it also allowed them to be criticised, to be seen as fallible. Thus, Huddleston felt able to write openly in her letter that the royal spectacle was ill-timed and expensive. Moreover, the lack of any applause that she described implies a disapproval of the procession (or of the monarchy at the centre of it) by the public and one that must have been evident to George III as he drove up Pall Mall.

George III’s unusual accessibility was, in part, due to restrictions on space and money in the royal household.  When he, or a member of his family, wished to see an opera, or visit the theatre, he went to London like many of his subjects.[6]   There he could be seen behaving in ways that onlookers both recognised and understood.  The King shared public spaces with his subjects not just as part of a royal spectacle, but as part of his everyday excursions.  This meant that Elizabeth Wilson, the wife of a London silk-dealer, could write to her sister that:

“I must tell you we were at Westminster Abby on Saturday at the Music Meeting when I was much entertained indeed with the Music & not less pleased to have a very plain view of their Majesties & so of the Princesses. The King looks exceeding well & his consorts as affable & as pleasant as ever it was a very pretty sight to see them all together so sociable. Their dresses were very grand The Ladies are gone today.”[7]

Mary Papillon, daughter of a Kent merchant, similarly described watching members of the Royal Family go about their daily business in a way that is reminiscent of modern paparazzi shots of royals on holiday.

“a Teusday afternoon we went to Blackheath to see the Prince & Princess of Wales who dined at Mr Draxes, the Princes secretary, who has bought Lord Gainsborough’s house. We had a full view of them from the window & at the top of the house where they stood some time”[8]

Despite a rocky beginning, by the final decade of his reign, George had come to represent a modern form of monarchy that could walk:

“…through the streets, as he came, with only one attendant, besides the lords in waiting… to behold the King of the country walking the streets as a private gentleman, with only two attendants, amid thousands and ten thousands of his subjects, without a single guard or peace-officer, happy in the love, and rejoicing in the liberty of his people, was an event, such as the oldest man then living had never seen, and such as the youngest, but a few years before, scarcely ever expected to see.”[9]

George III’s careful manipulation of his image as an accessible monarch, one who interacted with his subjects in the street, who accompanied his family to prayer, and listened to music at Westminster Abbey cultivated an enduring familiarity between the British public and its monarch. His jubilee celebration in 1809 encouraged ordinary people to participate in the celebration of royal milestones, and, in doing so, he laid the foundations for this weekend’s celebrations.

[1] Linda Colley, Britons: forging the nation 1707-1837 (London: Pimlico, 1994) p.218.

[2] Mrs Biggs to the Earl of Dartmouth, 14 October 1809, (w) 1778/I/ii/1737, Staffordshire Record Office.

[3] Colley p.206.

[4] Betsy Hatfield to Mary-Ann Nicholson, 25 September 1803, MSS 1041 1803, John Rylands Library.

[5] Mary Huddleston to Mary Huddleston, 22 Nov 1797, K488/C1/MHb/71, Cambridgeshire Archives.

[6] Colley p.199

[7] Elizabeth Wilson to Rebecca Bateman, 1 June 1795, OSB MSS 32 Box 2 Folder 36, Beineke Library.

[8] Mary Papillon to David Papillon, 19 June 1746 U1015/C60/7, Kent History and Library Centre.

[9] Joseph Taylor, Relics of Royalty; or, Remarks, anecdotes, and amusements of his late most gracious Majesty George III (London: Dean & Mundy, 1820) p.22.

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