George III – The Truth of Britain’s Own Mad King

One of the United Kingdom’s longest-reigning monarchs, George III ruled as king for nearly 60 years, initially as both King of Great Britain and King of Ireland and later as King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland after the unification of the new nations in 1801. His long reign was marked by some of the British Army’s greatest triumphs, culminating in the the defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. However, many also remember him as the king that lost America. Towards the end of his life, George III suffered bouts of severe mental illness that would ultimately become a permanent condition. While many readers are more likely to associate the term ‘the mad king’ with Game of Thrones, George III was known by the same moniker by both contemporaries and later researchers alike. While his mental health undoubtedly deteriorated severely towards the end of his life, our modern understanding of medicine and mental illness gives us a better understanding of just what caused the original ‘mad king’.

A young George III in his coronation robes. Image: Art Gallery of South Australia

At the time of his death, George III had ruled for 59 years and 96 days, making him the longest reigning British monarch at the time. Since then, only his granddaughter Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II have enjoyed longer reigns. Six years before his death he was also proclaimed King of Hanover following the Congress of Vienna. During his final years of mental illness, beginning in 1811, his son George ruled as Prince Regent and eventually succeeding him as George IV.

Having already demonstrated periods of strange behaviour as early as 1760, the King’s bouts of madness became more frequent and more serious in 1788, at the age of 50. When well he was a diligent and committed ruler that took a keen interest in legislation, to the point of frustrating ministers with his careful attention to detail, but during his periods of illness he would withdraw from public view. While the king was already prone to bouts of madness, George III’s descent into permanent insanity appears to have been at least partially triggered by his grief over the death of his youngest and supposedly favourite daughter, Princess Amelia. 

A portrait of Princess Amelia, painted in 1791. Image: Royal Collection

From the age of 15 Amelia had suffered from spells of ill health, including measles and the early symptoms of tuberculosis. Her father was largely kept in the dark about her illness, with his wife Queen Charlotte fearing the news would trigger one of his increasingly frequent bouts of madness. Sent to the seaside town of Worthing in the hopes that the sea air would aid her recovery, Amelia was bedridden by a bout of the skin infection erysipelas, known at the time as St. Anthony’s fire due to the painful rash it causes. By this time her father was aware of her condition, and would question her physicians in minute detail regarding her condition every morning. Despite their efforts, her health continued to decline and she died on the 2nd November 1810 at the age of 27. Before her death, she commissioned a mourning ring to be made for her father, comprising a lock of her hair and set with diamonds. The king was reportedly reduced to tears on receiving it.

The death of his favourite daughter seemed to accelerate the king’s decline, and it was less than a year later that the Regency Act acknowledged the king’s insanity and handed power to his son as Prince Regent. George III was described as spending long periods crying and screaming, delirious, beseeching his lost daughter to come and rescue him from the physicians that were attempting to treat him. At other times, he would talk joyfully of how Amelia was living happily in Hanover with a large family of her own and would never grow old. By the time he was declared King of Hanover in 1814 he was totally incapable of understanding. Similarly, the famous Anglo-Allied victory at Waterloo a year later and even the death of his wife in 1818 seemed to fail to register with him. Over Christmas 1819, a month before his death, he was said to have talked rambling nonsense for 56 hours.

Many writers attribute George III’s overall poor health towards the end of his life, including being rendered near totally blind by cataracts and near immobile from rheumatism, to porphyria. The theory was even immortalised in the long-running play ‘The Madness of George III’ by celebrated English playwriter Alan Bennett.  The illness occurs when a person is unable to produce enough of a substance called haem, a key component in haemoglobin, the protein used to transport oxygen around the body. This results in a lengthy list of symptoms, including joint and abdominal pain, hypertension, breathing difficulties and vomiting as well as anxiety, insomnia, confusion, hallucinations and paralysis. Modern testing of the king’s hair samples found traces of arsenic, a substance known to trigger the symptoms of porphyria. The disorder is also known to turn a sufferer’s urine blue, one of the most famous symptoms recorded of the mad king. 

New research by the University of London, however, has cast doubt on the assumption that porphyria was responsible for the king’s symptoms, instead asserting that he suffered from a mental illness, most likely bipolar disorder. Analysing samples of the King’s writing they found that when well, he was a competent writer. During periods of ill-health, his writings became rambling and disjointed, in some cases including sentences that would run for as long as 400 words. His vocabulary would become more complex and varied, and he would frequently repeat himself. Similar patterns are seen in the speech patterns and writing of modern patients suffering the acute, manic stages of illnesses such as bipolar disorder. Contemporary accounts of the king’s behaviour during these periods of mania, also known as harmful euphoria, match what we might expect from someone suffering from this form of mental illness. The king would become highly engaged in conversations, talking rapidly and using complex terminology, often to the point that he would foam at the mouth. On some occasions these would culminate in a seizure, sometimes so serious that his pages would be forced to hold him to the floor to prevent him injuring himself. 

Gentian flowers, believed to have been employed to make tinctures used in the treatment of the king. Image: Victorian Health

The king’s medical records also show that he was administered a tonic made from gentian, an intensely blue flower. Still used today in some herbal tonics, gentian has been observed to give urine a blue tinge, and could explain one of George III’s most well-known symptoms. Overall, modern research seems to establish that George III suffered from severe bipolar disorder, and porphyria doesn’t fit for many of his symptoms. Less understood in the past, it could be that porphyria was initially seized upon as an explanation to move the rest of the Royal Family away from the stigma of mental illness, despite us knowing today that as a genetic issue, if he had suffered from the disorder it could well have passed on to his children.

To focus on George III’s madness, and particularly to remember him as ‘the mad king that lost America’ seems an extremely unfair legacy for a King who by many respects was a committed regent, genuinely passionate about understanding the needs of his kingdom and improving Britain’s place in the world. During his bouts of illness many politicians from both sides of the house acknowledged that his calming influence on their squabbles was sorely missed, and he was popular with the people as a frugal and thoughtful king, in direct contract to his son and successor George IV, who was irresponsible with money, heavily in debt and who pursued a number of long-term affairs. 

Feature Image: A 1762 portrait of George III by painter Allan Ramsay. Image: Historical Portraits

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