Currently our news cycles are stuffed full of BREAKING NEWS. I love that there can be breaking news in history, even if it isn’t urgent enough to require ALL CAPS. This particular news will probably have a wide-ranging and long-lasting effect on historical research and will fill historians and enthusiasts with anticipation about what they might find.
In April of 2015, Queen Elizabeth II launched the Georgian Papers Programme, releasing more than 350,000 pieces of paper from the years 1714-1837, which will be digitized for availability to anyone interested. This time period includes the reigns of several monarchs, but because George III was king for almost 60 years, much of the material is directly from him.
The digitized papers will be searchable, making them an incredible primary research resource in many different subject areas. George III (1738-1820) was king during the French Revolution, the American Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, so you can imagine the information just on those issues. The papers include letters between the king and queen, an assortment of other letters, essays, bills, notes, menus and even a draft letter of abdication which was never completed.
If you ask many Americans about George III, they will mention that he was crazy or that he was a tyrant. After all, he had to be bad enough that the American Colonies would fight to leave and become our own country.
But labels are easy and negate the fact that we are all human beings with varying opinions and flaws. The harder truth is that George III did have some form of mental illness, although historians and others are still debating the exact parameters of that illness, and that one man’s tyrant is another man’s protector.
George III was greatly interested in science in all forms and was generally intellectually curious. He was a husband who reportedly never took a mistress despite the norms for men of his status during his time. He was father to 15 children. Probably mad, possibly a tyrant, but like most of us, he was also much more than that.
So why is this release of papers important? Why are historians so excited by this?
- Primary resources allow us to learn about people in their own words. If we want to know why George III did one thing rather than another, we may find that information in one of these letters.
- Because these resources will be searchable, information about any subject relating to the eighteenth and early-nineteenth century may be found here. Interested in gardening, medicine, astronomy or spies? Any of those may be found in these papers.
- Opinions about George III have varied over the years depending on the writer and the time when they were writing. This collection of papers allows today’s writers to get past speculation and to interpret a primary resource.
- Ultimately, more data usually leads to better analysis. This is a lot of data about a lot of subjects. I imagine this incredible resource will lead to many new journal articles.
The digitization is expected to be completed in 2020. If you want a sneak preview, check out this special from BBC Two “George III – The Genius of the Mad King“.