Mad King George III: was he really insane or was he suffering from an undiagnosed disease?

Libby-Jane Charleston

For centuries the rumor of the “mad King” has haunted the history books and finally the answer surrounding his sanity has been revealed.

"King George III in coronation robes" painting by Allan Ramsay.Source:supplied

King George III reigned for 59 years, overseeing England through the upheaval of war, widespread social change and the industrial revolution.

He was a popular King, much loved by his people, as he genuinely cared for the livelihood of the “common man” and delighted in encouraging both the arts and science (in 1768 George founded the Royal Academy of Arts.)

He also led England’s successful resistance to Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, oversaw a British victory in the Seven Years’ War and supervised the loss of the American Revolution.

But what was he most remembered for?

Sadly, the incredibly accomplished monarch is known today as Mad King George. He was widely labeled a lunatic, even though some later believed he suffered from a debilitating metabolic condition known as porphyria.

He was poorly handled by his doctors, who didn’t really know how to treat the King; they gave him medication that was laced with poison, making the fits that accompanied his illness even worse.

His recurrent fits of madness grew worse until 1810, when his son was required to step into his place. It was 209 years ago that King George was unofficially declared mad. But was he really insane? Whether he was a Mad King or not he was a high achiever and despite Britain losing its American colonies, under George, the nation still managed to become one of Europe’s leading powers in Europe.

King George III of Great Britain (1738-1820).Source: supplied

The early years

George was born on 4th June 1738, the eldest son of Frederick, Prince of Wales and Augusta. When his father died in 1751, George became heir to the throne. He lived in relative isolation, cared for by his mother and tutored by the Scottish nobleman Lord Bute before he succeeded his grandfather, George II, in 1760.

What set George apart from other monarchs is that, even though he was the third Hanoverian monarch, he was the first to be born in England rather than Germany and have English as his primary language.

In his accession speech to parliament, the 22-year-old monarch played down his German heritage: “Born and educated in this country, I glory in the name of Britain.”

A year later, George married Charlotte of Mecklinburg-Strelitz, the daughter of a German duke and, even though the union was a political one (they met for the first time on their wedding day), it was very successful, lasting 50 years.

George was said to adore Charlotte and they certainly fulfilled the quota of having an “heir and a spare”, with Charlotte giving birth to 15 children; nine sons and six daughters (13 reached adulthood, which was a great accomplishment in those days.)

Princess Amelia, was among one of the daughters of King George III of England.Source: supplied

Two years later, the American Revolution began with the Battles of Lexington and Concord. A Declaration of Independence put forward America’s bid for freedom, referring to King George III as a stubborn tyrant who could no longer govern the colonies.

One thing the Americans were wrong about: It was not the King but parliamentary ministers who set the laws for colonial policies. On hearing that his army was defeated at Yorktown in 1781, King George planned to abdicate but changed his mind and decided to direct parliament towards peace negotiations. This resulted in the 1783 Treaty of Paris which recognized the United States and ceded Florida to Spain.

George III was an incredibly learned man and was interested in every aspect of the war in America. He spent weeks recording details about the French fleet, even taking note of how many soldiers and blankets were required — details he recorded in his own handwriting.

When American independence was declared on 4 July 1776, George felt that he had defended the national interest by conceding defeat and avoiding a long war with revolutionary France.

The madness begins

Some modern doctors believed King George suffered from the blood disorder, porphyria, which causes cramps, abdominal pain and seizures, similar to epileptic fits.

George’s extremely violent attacks led to him being labeled by doctors as “insane”. And, to make matters worse, the most common medication was “James” powder’ which contained arsenic, now known to trigger severe porphyria attacks.

When George lapsed into a period of violent insanity in 1788, lasting several months, his doctors treated him appallingly.

He was often forced to wear a straitjacket while doctors used him as a human guinea pig.

According to historian Lucy Worsley, doctors tried various treatments on the King that were both painful and unnecessary. They described George’s symptoms as “evil humours” and subjected him to everything modern medicine had to offer at the time.

They used techniques such as bloodletting, urine analysis, blistering and also purgatives such as rhubarb, senna, castor oil and antimony to cure his chronic constipation.

Dr Francis Willis was one of several doctors to treat the King. In his diary, on March 2, 1801, he wrote:

His Majesty’s feet were put into hot water and vinegar for half an hour. Soon after this His Majesty put on such an appearance of being exhausted, that his life was despaired of — his pulse too had rapidly increased.

Gave him a strong dose of bark which had the effect of composing him and putting him to sleep for an hour and a half which he had not had for I think, nearly 48 hours before which time too he had been in a very restless and unquiet state. He waked with a slower pulse and in every respect appearing better; so that the physicians were enabled to give a favourable report to the Prince of Wales in ye evening. If the report had been otherwise it was intended that other physicians should have been called in aid — the medicines of today since two o’clock were chiefly composed of musk and bark — his nourishment jellies and wine.

Blistering was probably the worst thing the doctors did to him because that’s when they used the James’ Powders — mostly made up of arsenic — to blister his skin in an attempt to rid the body of toxins. Many believe it was the arsenic that made his condition worse and led to his death.

October 25, 2001: Queen Elizabeth II stands in the 18th Century Room at London's Buckingham Palace. A 1771 Johann Zoffany portrait of King George III hangs in the background.Source:AP

How mad was King George?

Whether the King suffered from porphyria or was just mad has long been debated. That theory formed the story of a long-running play by Alan Bennett, The Madness of King George, which later became a film starring Nigel Hawthorne and Helen Mirren.

But a recent research project at St George’s, University of London, concluded that the King did suffer from mental illness after all.

Researchers used thousands of George III’s own handwritten letters, to analyse his use of language. Dr Peter Garrard and Dr Vassiliki Rentoumi discovered that during the King’s episodes of illness, his sentences were much longer than when he was healthy.

When he was going through a “mad episode”, the King would repeat himself and his vocabulary became more complex and colorful. These are features common to patients going through the manic phase of a psychiatric illness, such as bipolar disorder.

According to historian Lucy Worsley, the researchers are adamant that the porphyria theory is wrong and that the King definitely suffered from a psychiatric illness.

“But it certainly did not stop George III from being a successful king. In a prosperous, industrialising Britain, it was growing more important for a monarch to reign rather than rule, providing background stability rather than aggressive leadership,” Worsley said.

“With his 60-year reign, George III certainly provided continuity, and I believe that his short episodes of illness tend unfairly to diminish our views of him.”

An analysis of letters written by “Mad” King George III supported the psychiatric diagnosis of mania.Source:Supplied

A letter written by King George III. Picture: National Army MuseumSource:Supplied

King George III war letter sold at auction in 2019. Picture: CheffinsSource:Supplied

The end of King George

By 1779 the King had recovered and managed to reign for another 12 years, until he suffered his final bout of “madness”. That meant his eldest son George, Prince Regent, had the difficult task of trying to govern according to the unpredictable notions of his father.

The Prince wrote a letter at the time describing how tough those days were:

… There he was sitting on the Throne with his King’s Crown on … and held his speech written out for him, just what he had to say. But, oh dear, he strode up and made a bow and began ‘My Lords and Peacocks’.

The King’s final months were spent being bound in a straitjacket and sometimes chained to a chair. Towards the end, he was deaf and blind and living in misery.

He died at Windsor Castle on 29th January 1820.

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I'm a journalist and author writing across a wide range of topics, including tech, travel, history, business/startups, relationships, beauty & fashion, British royal history, & local stories concerning Charleston, S.C (where I have a long family history on my father's side: hence my surname! ) Former HuffPost Assoc Ed, ABC TV, ATV Beijing correspondent and many more. Author of "Fatal Females." Mother of three boys: I will love them until the Statue of Liberty sits down.


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