Vindication For The 'Mad King'? New Archive Gives George III A Second Chance : The Two-Way History hasn't been kind to the British royal who lost the Colonies. But a project that launched Saturday plans to digitize over 350,000 letters and papers that may humanize the much-maligned monarch.
NPR logo Vindication For The 'Mad King'? New Archive Gives George III A Second Chance

Vindication For The 'Mad King'? New Archive Gives George III A Second Chance

King George III: Mad, villainous brute — or flawed, misunderstood man? A new, publicly available archive aims to give scholars and dabblers alike a chance to decide for themselves. This image was rendered in 1795, more than a decade after George nearly abdicated. William Perther/Library of Congress hide caption

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William Perther/Library of Congress

King George III: Mad, villainous brute — or flawed, misunderstood man? A new, publicly available archive aims to give scholars and dabblers alike a chance to decide for themselves. This image was rendered in 1795, more than a decade after George nearly abdicated.

William Perther/Library of Congress

King George III isn't exactly a hero of history.

In most U.S. textbooks, he is portrayed as the British tyrant who lost the Colonies in the American Revolution. He's scarcely more popular in his native U.K., where his bouts with mental illness late in life earned him the impolite epithet "Mad King." And lately, on stage in Hamilton, George's alleged villainy is played for laughs.

But starting Saturday, the much-maligned monarch may get a second chance.

In partnership with Queen Elizabeth II, the Royal Archives in the U.K. have launched the Georgian Papers Programme, a vast project to digitize hundreds of thousands of the king's papers. These documents, which are held both in the Royal Archives and the Royal Library at Windsor Castle, include letters to his wife Charlotte, essays, notes about the Revolution — even a handwritten draft of a statement of abdication he wrote in 1783.

He wrote it, marked it up with revisions — but he never sent it. George went on to become the longest-ruling king in British history, his reign only ending with his death in 1820. (Elizabeth II, who still reigns today, takes the top spot as longest-ruling British monarch.)

A page from the draft of George's would-be abdication letter, which he wrote in 1783 but never sent. Supplied by the Royal Archives/(C) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth 2016 hide caption

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Supplied by the Royal Archives/(C) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth 2016

The online archive is "a major milestone," Oliver Uquhart Irvine, librarian and assistant keeper of the Queen's Archives, tells The Guardian.

"The opportunity to make available for the first time a vast, largely unseen, private archive of this scope and quality is rare at any time and, today, probably unequaled," Irvine says to the British newspaper.

By 2020, he project aims to digitize more than 350,000 of George's documents, all of which will be freely available to scholars and historical dabblers alike.

The BBC gives a hint of some of the documents historians have uncovered.

"One [of George's private agents], code-named Aristarchus, asked for payment for intelligence that France was plotting to assassinate the king — dubbed 'the mad king' — as he walked at night in the Queen's Garden.

"Another discovery was a blonde lock of the hair of Prince Alfred, who died when he was a baby, sewn into a letter from Charlotte

"Academics also uncovered a letter in which the king told Prime Minister Lord North how the Prince of Wales had an 'improper connection' with an actress who was blackmailing him."

The online launch precedes a documentary, set to be broadcast in the U.K. on Monday, which depicts the early stages of the project, including the discovery of some of the papers discovered above.