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George III Collection: the King's Library

At the heart of the British Library in London, a tall glass tower - the King's Library Tower - houses books collected by King George III (reigned 1760-1820). It is considered one of the most significant collections of the Enlightenment, containing books printed mainly in Britain, Europe and North America from the mid 15th to the early 19th centuries. Consists of 65,000 volumes of printed books, with 19,000 pamphlets

Formation and scope of the collection

When George III came to the throne in 1760, there was no substantial royal library. The so-called Old Royal Library had been moved out of St James's Palace in 1708, before being finally presented to the new British Museum by King George II in 1757. (The Old Royal Library is now dispersed in the British Library.) George III therefore inherited only small collections of books, located in various royal residences.

 King's Library Tower

View of the King's Library Tower at the British Library's St Pancras site © The British Library Board.

He seems to have decided early in his reign to form a new library, one worthy of an 18th-century monarch. The first major step towards this was achieved in 1763 with the acquisition of the library of Joseph Smith (1682-1770), who had been British Consul at Venice. This collection was especially rich in the classics and in examples of early printing. From around this time, King George's agents attended many of the major book sales held in London and on the Continent. They acquired both individual volumes and entire private libraries, benefiting especially from the closure and dispersal of Jesuit libraries across southern Europe. Some significant works were also donated, including examples of early printing as well as contemporary works presented by their authors.

From 1774, and for the rest of the King's life, Frederick Augusta Barnard (1742-1830) was the Royal Librarian. Barnard tried to develop the collection in a systematic way, and sought guidance from notable intellectual figures, including the writer and lexicographer Dr Samuel Johnson. With this advice, the collection grew to be rich in classical literature, British and European history, English and Italian literature, and religious texts. 

It also contains many examples of early printing, including a copy of the Gutenberg Bible (copy printed on paper at shelfmark C.9.d.3,4), and Caxton's first edition of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (shelfmark 167.c.26). But it also contained less scholarly material, including many of the more general periodicals of the day. By the time of the King's death in 1820, the Library comprised around 65,000 volumes of printed books, with a further 19,000 pamphlets. There were also manuscripts (now in the British Library Manuscript Collections), as well as bound volumes of maps and topographical views (mostly with the British Library Map Collections).

Although the collection was first kept in the Old Palace at Kew, it was soon moved to purpose-built rooms at the Queen's House (formerly Buckingham House), on the site of what is now Buckingham Palace. It was generally open to scholars, and even former adversaries such as the American revolutionary John Adams were admitted.

The King's fascination with books extended to their bindings. He established an on-site bindery which was in operation by 1780 and continued to work until well after his death.

Later history of the collection

At the death of George III in 1820, the collection passed to his son George IV, Prince Regent since 1811.

The Octagon Library at the Queen's

The Octagon Library at the Queen's (or, Buckingham) House,original home to George III's collection. From The History of the Royal Residences... by WH Pyne (London, 1819), shelfmark: 747.f.3. © The British Library Board.

The new king was soon set on rebuilding the Queen's House to provide a suitable palace, and after some negotiation with the government, the library was offered as a gift to the British nation in 1823. It was decided that the gift should be placed in the British Museum, on the understanding that it would keep its separate identity. After a temporary sojourn in Kensington Palace, in 1828 the books (with the exception of a few choice items withheld by the King and today at the Royal Library Windsor) were moved to the new King's Library Gallery, designed in Greek Revival style especially for the collection by Sir Robert Smirke. The arrival of the King's Library doubled the size of the British Museum's printed book collections.

For the next 145 years, King's Library volumes were regularly consulted by readers in the British Museum's Reading Rooms. The most significant event to affect the collection during this long period was the aerial bombardment of the Museum during the Second World War. On 23 September 1940 a small bomb fell on the Gallery. 124 volumes were completely destroyed, a further 304 were damaged beyond repair, and many others required substantial restoration. As a result the collection was moved to the Bodleian Library at Oxford for the remainder of the war. In the following decades, attempts were made to replace the lost works, but even today there are a few gaps.

In 1973 the British Library was established, and responsibility for the King's Library transferred to the new UK national library. The books however stayed where they were until 1998, when they were moved to the British Library's new St Pancras building.

The King's Library Tower

The collection's home is the six-storey King's Library Tower, designed specifically for the purpose by the building's architect Sir Colin St John Wilson (1922-2007). Many of the books are on view to visitors behind UV-filter glass which, together with the environmental control system, helps maintain appropriate light, temperature and humidity levels. Behind the moveable bookcases containing George III's books, there is in fact another row of shelves containing a similar collection formed by Thomas Grenville (1755-1846) [see entry in the directory of Named Collections of Printed Materials]. The King's Library remains a working library, and throughout the day volumes are retrieved for readers working in the Rare Books and Music Reading Room.

Catalogues and access

Descriptions of books and pamphlets in the King's Library appear in Explore the British Library, in printed editions of the Library's main catalogues, and over the internet in Explore the British Library. Most volumes can be ordered into the Rare Books and Music Reading Room using the reading room Online Catalogue.

A dedicated catalogue of the collection (but excluding the pamphlets), the Bibliothecae Regiae Catalogus, was compiled after the death of George III by F.A. Barnard. This was privately published in 10 volumes from 1820 and 1829. An annotated set is shelved in the Rare Books and Music Reading Room in the RAC sequence. There is also an earlier subject or 'classed' catalogue of the collection, believed to have been compiled by FA Barnard between 1812 and 1820. This work was never published, and the only known copy is in the King's Library itself at shelfmarks 102.gg & 103.gg. 

The pamphlets are listed in a separate unpublished catalogue produced in the 1850s. A complete set in 9 volumes is stored at shelfmark L.R.419.b.3. (A second set in 18 volumes is at L.R.419.b.2, but the first two parts have been missing for many decades).

Identifying King's Library books

Books in this collection are shelved in the ranges 1.a.1 - 304.k.23 and C.1.a.1 - C.16.i.16. Many of the bindings incorporate a George III monogram stamped at the head of the spine. Examples of King George III bindings can be seen on the British Library's Database of Bookbindings. Where King's Library volumes were destroyed in the Second World War, copies of the same work from elsewhere in the collections were sometimes substituted. Please refer to the Library's Early Printed Collections curators for assistance if identifying exact copies is important to your research.

Further reading

The following works give more detailed information about the King's Library and its history:

  • 'Most Curious, Splendid and Useful: the King's Library of George III', by Graham Jefcoate. In: Enlightenment: discovering the world in the Eighteenth Century, edited by Kim Sloan with Andrew Burnett (London, 2003), pp.38-45.
  • The King's Library, by EM Paintin (London, 1989). 32p. (Copy in Rare Books and Music Reading Room at RAR027.541).
  • 'The Library of King George III', by John Brooke. Yale University Library Gazette, vol. 52, no.1 (July 1977), pp.33-45. (Copy in British Library stacks at Ac.9726.b).
  • A History of the British Museum Library, 1753-1973, by PR Harris (London, 1998). 833p. (Copy in Rare Books and Music Reading Room at RAR027.541).
  •  ‘Destroyed, damaged and replaced: the legacy of World War II bomb damage in the King’s Library’, by Adrian S. Edwards. Electronic British Library Journal (2013), art. 8, pp. 1-31.