The Abdication(s) of King George III

Politics During the War (1775-1783)

August 9, 2022
by Bob Ruppert Also by this Author


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On April 1, 2015, Queen Elizabeth II announced the creation of the Georgian Papers Programme. It is a ten-year project to transcribe, digitize, conserve, catalogue, and disseminate close to 425,000 pages related to England’s Hanoverian monarchs located in the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle. Most of the papers are personal and official correspondence—the remaining are household administrative records. The process is a collaboration between the Royal Archives, King’s College London, the College of William and Mary in Virginia, and the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture. Upon the Programme’s completion, all of the papers will be made available online to historians and the public alike. Within the 425,000 pages are 33,000 related to the reign of King George III. Two of those pages, apparently written in March 1783, are entitled “A Draft of a Message of Abdication from George III to the Parliament.”[1]

King George had already drafted an abdication on March 27, 1782 titled “Message from the King”:

His Majesty during the twenty one years He has sate on the Throne of Great Britain, has had no object so much at heart as he maintenance of the British Constitution, of which the difficulties He has at times met with from His scrupulous attachment to the Rights of Parliament a re sufficient proofs.
His Majesty is convinced that the sudden change of Sentiments of one Branch of the Legislature has totally incapacitated Him from either conducting the War with effect, or from obtaining any Peace but on conditions which would prove destructive to the Commerce as well as essential Rights of the British Nation.
His Majesty therefore with much sorrow finds He can be of no further Utility to His Native Country which drives Him to the painful step of quitting it for ever.
In consequence of which Intentions His Majesty resigns the Crown of Great Britain and the Dominions appertaining thereto to His Dearly Beloved Son and lawful Successor, George Prince of Wales, whose endeavours for the Prosperity of the British Empire He hopes may prove more Successful.[2]

The last thing King George wanted was for Parliament to consider granting the colonies their independence, but with Gen. John Burgoyne’s 1777 surrender at Saratoga in the north and Gen. Charles Cornwallis’s 1781 surrender at Yorktown in the south; with his Ministry at odds with itself and him, and with his political strategists offering no new ideas as to how to successfully end the war, he knew that everything was coming to a head. On February 22, 1782, Henry Seymour Conway, a general in the British Army, member of Parliament for forty-one years and an opponent of Lord North’s administration, introduced a motion in the House of Commons demanding an end to the war; later that day a vote was taken and the motion was defeated 194 to 193.[3] Five days later, Conway introduced a revised version of the motion; this time it passed 234 to 215.[4] Lord North knew that soon his ministry would be subject to (and likely lose) a no confidence vote. If this occurred George III would not have enough support in the House to fend off the Marquess of Rockingham and his Whigs who sought not only to put an end to the war but to grant independence to the American colonies. On March 8, John Cavendish introduced a no confidence, or censure, motion regarding His Majesty’s ministers; later that day a vote was taken and the motion was defeated 226 to 216.[5] On March 18, North, believing that he would not survive the next vote, wrote to King George,

There are no persons capable and willing to form a new Administration except Lord Rockingham and Lord Shelburne with their parties: and they will not act with any of the present Ministry but the Chancellor. It follows then that the present Cabinet must be removed.[6]

On March 19, he informed the King of the revised language in the motion that was scheduled to be brought forth the next day:

That in the present Distracted state of the Country, it is contrary to the interests of His Majesty to continue the management of Public Affairs in the hands of the Present Ministers.[7]

On March 20, North, not willing to subject the King’s ministry to another vote, announced in the House “as the object of the motion was to remove his Majesty’s ministers, he could take upon him[self] to say that his Majesty’s ministers were no more; and therefore the object being already attained, the means by which gentlemen had intended to obtain it, could no longer be necessary.”[8] The House of Commons, the people’s legislative body in Parliament, was no longer able to support the Ministry’s war position; King George believed the expression of no confidence toward the Ministry was equally an expression of no confidence toward him. He feared that he was the king of a country which had no further use for him. The House adjourned until March 25; two days later, King George appointed the Marquess of Rockingham as the new Prime Minister. Interestingly, Rockingham then asked Edward Thurlow to remain as the Lord Chancellor in his administration.

It is not known why and when King George chose to change his mind about abdication, but the person most likely to have influenced his decision was Thurlow. [9] Thurlow had been handpicked by the King for the office of Lord Chancellor in 1778 and had shared the King’s viewpoint regarding granting independence to the colonies. Thurlow also believed that the King should accept the inevitable, that is, that Rockingham and his Whigs would soon control Parliament.

Twelve months later, King George produced a draft of an abdication speech. This time it was not written by another person and was not in the form of a press release. Instead, it was a personal letter to the members of Parliament. Since the draft message in 1782, King George had to deal with the death of Rockingham on July 1, 1782 and the appointment three days later of Lord Shelburne, an ally of Rockingham and the third Prime Minister in less than four months; the resignation of Shelburne seven and half months later on February 24, 1783[10]; and the formation of a new political alliance in Parliament between his estranged prime minister, Lord North, and Charles James Fox, someone he strongly disliked. Feelings of “no further Utility” arose again but this time they were stronger. Early in March the King told John Dunning, Lord Ashburton, that he had prepared the letter “without assistance.”[11]

The draft letter read:

I cannot at the most serious, as well as most painful moment of My Life, go out of the Great Assembly, without communicating to You My Intentions, not asking Your Advice.
The first time I appeared as Your Sovereign in this place now above twenty two years, I had the pleasing hope that being born among You, I might have proved the happy instrument of conciliating all Parties and thus collecting to the Service of the State the most respectable and most able Persons this Kingdom produced. Of this object I have never lost sight, though sad experience now teaches me that selfish Views are so prevalent that they have smothered the first of Public Virtues, attachment to the Country, which ought to warm the breast of every Individual who enjoys the advantage of this excellent Constitution, and the want of which Sentiment has prevented the Unanimity which must have rendered Britain invulnerable, though attacked by the most Powerful Combinations.
My own Inclination to alleviate the Distresses of my People, added to the Change of Sentiments of one branch of the Legislature which rendered the real object of the War impracticable, made me undertake the arduous task of obtaining the Blessings of Peace, rendered indeed more difficult by the Resolution above alluded to. I cannot efficiently acknowledge the candour with which the Courts of France and Spain have conducted themselves during the Negociation of the Preliminary Articles, which greatly accelerated that desirable Work.
Circumstances have since arisen that might make those Courts more doubtful of the stability of the Councils of this Country. I have again attempted to collect the most efficient Men of all Parties [who]under My Inspection. But this Patriotic attempt has proved unsuccessful by the obstinacy of a powerful party that has long publicly manifested a resolution not to aid in the Service of their Country.
I must therefore to end a conflict which certainly puts a stop to every wheel of Government make a final Decision, and that I think my self compelled to do in this Assembly of the whole Legislature.
A long Experience and a serious attention to the Strange Events that have successively arisen, has gradually prepared my Mind to expect the time when I should be no longer of Utility to this Empire: that hour is now come;I am therefore resolved to resign My Crown and all the Dominions appertaining to it to the Prince of Wales my Eldest Son and Lawful Successor and to retire to the care of My Electoral Dominions the Original Patrimony of my Ancestors. For which purpose I shall Draw up and Sign an Instrument to which I shall affix my Private Seal. I trust this Personal Sacrifice will awaken the various parties to a Sense of their Duty and that they will join in the Support and Assistance of the Young Successor.
You may depend on my arduous attention to Educate My Children in the Paths of Religion, Virtue and every other good Principle that may render them if ever called in any Line to the Service of Great Britain, not unworthy of the kindness they may hereafter meet with from a People whom collective I shall ever Love.
May that All Wise Providence who can direct the inmost thoughts as well as Actions of Men give My Son and Successor not only every assistance in guiding his Conduct, but Restore that sense of Religious and Moral Duties in this Kingdom to the want of which every Evil that has arisen  owes its Source; and may I to the latest hour of my life, though now resolved forever to quit this Island, have the Comfort of hearing that the Endeavours of My Son, though they cannot be more Sincere than Nine have been for the Prosperity of Great Britain, be Crowned with better Success.[12]

The letter has three parts. To start, King George made it very clear that “Unanimity . . . rendered Britain invulnerable though attacked by the most powerful combinations” and inferred that the lack of unity going forward would render her vulnerable. He declared that the governing political class had lost “the first of Public Virtues—attachment to the Country,” and replaced it with “selfish views.” To him these selfish views represented a lack of unanimity.

Next the letter expressed that King George found it difficult to get “the most Efficient men of all parties” to join his government because many refused to serve unless they were joining others of the same party or faction, or the body they were joining had exclusive management over the affair or issue in question. “The obstinacy of a powerful party . . . has long publicly manifested a resolution not to aid in the Service of their Country.” The powerful party he was referring to were the Whigs under Rockingham and then Shelburne. King George called this partisanship “a conflict which certainly puts a stop to every wheel of Government.” There is part of a sentence that King George scratched out in the draft that read “to become the tool of a Party neither My Duty to the Station I hold among you nor to my own Character will permit.” By aligning himself with a party, he would be acting contrary to his duty and character and risk moving in a direction that could only lead to less unanimity. In his eyes the British polity was broken and he was powerless to do anything about it. He could no longer be of “utility” to his people and his kingdom.

The King concluded by writing, “I am therefore resolved to resign My Crown and all the Dominions appertaining to it to the Prince of Wales my Eldest Son and Lawful Successor . . . I trust this Personal Sacrifice will awaken the various parties to a Sense of their Duty and that they will join in the support and Assistance of the Young Successor.” He was hoping that his son would be extended something that had not been extended to him: “I trust this Personal Sacrifice will awaken the various parties to a Sense of their Duty.” In the draft of a letter that he never sent to his son, King George referred to “a cruel dilemma.” The dilemma was not whether he needed “to take without destruction of my principles and honour; the resigning of my crown” but rather, should he be leaving the crown to his son who had not “yet come of age,”[13] not been schooled in political machinations and could become “the puppet . . . of the House of Commons.”[14]

Who then convinced King George not to resign for a second time and why?  It appears again to have been Edward Thurlow, the Lord Chancellor, with some help from Thomas Pitt, the cousin of the next prime minister, William Pitt the Younger. Their solution was for him not to resign, but rather to cut back on the patronage available to his ministers and the ranking Whigs in Parliament. This would in time make them unpopular and cost them their offices. It would also give the Prince of Wales more time to be groomed for his eventual position.

Little did anyone know, but George III would threaten to resign for a third time twenty-one months later on December 23, 1783.


[1]Royal Archives, GEO/MAIN/5367.

[2]“Draft Message from the King, March 1782,” in John Fortescue, ed., The Correspondence of George the Third from 1760 to December 1783 (London: MacMillan, 1927), 5:447.

[3]William Cobbett, The Parliamentary History of England, from the Earliest Period to the Year 1803 (London: T. C. Hansard, 1814), 22:1028-48.

[4]Ibid., 22:1064-1085.

[5]Ibid., 22:1114-1150.

[6]“Lord North to the King, March 18, 1782,” in Fortescue, The Correspondence of George the Third, 5:395-96.

[7]“Lord North to the King, March 19, 1781,” ibid., 399-401.

[8]Cobbett, The Parliamentary History of England, 22:1214-1215.

[9]Edward Thurlow was the second closest member of the Privy Council to King George III; the closest was Lord North who had wanted to resign as far back as 1778 after Burgoyne’s surrender.

[10]Shelburne resigned over the peace terms being negotiated.

[11]John Cannon, The Fox-North Coalition: Crisis of the Constitution, 1782-4(Cambridge, University Press, 1969), 72n2.


[13]“George III to Prince of Wales, March 1783,” in Arthur Aspinall, ed., Correspondence of George Prince of Wales(London: Cassell and Company, 1963), 1: No. 71.

[14]“George III to Lord Weymouth, March 25, 1783,” in Fortescue, The Correspondence of George the Third, 6:310.

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