A King’s Madness

HALLOWEEN 2016: BY SCARLETT GRANT

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Known in America as a tyrant and in the United Kingdom as a man who weakened the power of the British Empire, King George III is a person who has gone through multiple evaluations and re-evalutations. During the majority of his almost 60 year long reign, George III is generally seen as a competent ruler. However, other than his role in the American Revolution, George is remembered for his long history of mental health problems.

George became king when he was 22, after his grandfather, George II died. Soon after, he married Charlotte of Mecklenberg-Strelitz. The marriage was a genuine success, as they were both happy with one another and George never took a mistress (unlike his grandfather, sons and pretty much any other nobleman of the era). He and Charlotte had a large family of 15 children, all of which he cared for deeply. The British people saw him as a pious and family man and this is what endeared him to the public.

It is thought that what caused George’s episodes was the genetic disease Porphyria, although there is no concrete evidence for this. Nonetheless, as a genetic disease it does make a sound case given that the royal houses of Europe were all horrifically inbred. Plus, it is also argued that an ancestor of George, Mary, Queen of Scots also suffered from the same condition and so did his several of his descendants. A study published in 2005 found that arsenic was in George’s system, it is unknown how it entered the body but arsenic was widely used in medicines and cosmetics at the time. Arsenic has been linked to causes of Porphyria, which strengthens the theory that this is what caused his mental illness.

His first episode of mental illness may have been in 1765. Queen Charlotte was not even informed of her husband’s condition, despite the fact that a bill had been drawn up declaring Charlotte to become regent in case George became permanently incapacitated. As this bout was only temporary, Charlotte was never informed of the bill.

However, George was to have a far longer bout of mental health issues in 1788. The deaths of two of his children, Prince Alfred and Prince Octavius, within the space of six months in 1782-83 is known to have caused a deep depression in George which no doubt exacerbated his condition. In fact, George was known to have hallucinations involving conversations with his two youngest sons. He went to Cheltenham Spa to recover, believing it would help him, but his condition only worsened.

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Soon after his return extreme behaviors occurred. He would talk for hours on end to the point where his voice would become hoarse and foam at the mouth. Treatment for mental health was incredibly primitive, usually involving restraining the person or drawing out the “evil humors” with painful compresses. Furthermore, rumors began to spread about the behavior of the King, with one story involving him talking to a tree believing it to be the King of Prussia. Therefore, in 1789 a bill proclaiming the Prince of Wales to become regent was passed in the House of Commons, but George recovered before it could be passed by the House of Lords.

Over the next few years George would continue to have relapses of his illness. As anything could set George off, Charlotte was now under great stress herself to make sure nothing provoked another episode. As George gradually grew worse, the friendly and outgoing Charlotte became depressed, bitter, and reclusive. Although she still cared for George, she found him hard to bare with his erratic behavior and occasionally violent reactions. So she began to sleep and eat without him and would only visit him if someone accompanied her.

By 1810, George was at the height of his popularity but dealing with cataracts which rendered him blind and suffering from painful rheumatism. Later in the year, George’s youngest daughter, Princess Amelia died. As with Alfred and Octavius, her death further lead to the decline in George’s health. He was known to cry out to her asking for help and believed that she had never died and was only living in Hanover with a large family of her own. George however seemed to acknowledge the fact that he couldn’t rule anymore and accepted the Regency Act of 1811. The Prince of Wales then acted as a regent for the rest of George’s life, ushering in the Regency Era which has since been immortalized by the works of Jane Austen.

By the end of that year, George had become permanently mentally ill and lived in seclusion at Windsor Castle. Over the next several years he developed dementia, deafness, and his cataracts rendered him completely blind. Several major events occurred during the last years of his life such as being declared the King of Hanover in 1814, the victory against Napoleon in 1815, and the death of Queen Charlotte in 1818. But he was incapable or unable to understand the significance of these events. During Christmas 1819, he spoke gibberish for 58 hours and during his last few weeks he was unable to walk. George III died on 29th January 1820.

The mental illness of King George is a landmark upon the history of the British Royal Family, and provided inspirations for the 1991 play The Madness of George III and its film adaptation The Madness of King George (1994). Although it is still extremely sad that the most notable thing people remember about this man is his mental illness.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Scarlett Grant will graduate university this year. She is half scared and excited to be entering “the real world.” She is an amateur history buff, and interested in music, film and writing.

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