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The Mood of Madness

By Julie Cooper, author of A Stronger Impulse

In my newest novel, A Stronger Impulse, Fitzwilliam Darcy experiences what we in the 21st century would call an aneurism. His post-apoplectic symptoms are curious ones, baffling his family and the ‘expert’ called in to diagnose him. But worry not: Lady Catherine summons the best medical mind in the land.

What’s the worst that could happen? Well, a look into the well-documented and little understood history of ‘the madness of King George’ provides some idea.

“His hair was left uncut and combed over his shoulders, he was dressed in a simple cotton shift as if it was always bedtime; he was a flute and harpsichord player who sometimes sat and hammered out well-known tunes, but often lapsed into melancholy silence, sometimes raved and sometimes wept at the sadness of the world. He was the king of England, 72 years old…and all-but abandoned by his family. At the end of 1810, George III was declared insane. On 5 February 1811 a Bill ‘for the care of the king during his illness’ was enacted, and George’s son, the Prince of Wales, declared Regent. Until George III died…the prince ruled…; thereafter he became George IV and ruled as king until his own death in 1830[1].”

In the mid-1960’s, King George III’s illness was reframed as acute porphyria, a rare metabolic disease; much of current research points instead to a bipolar disorder. Either way, in his own time, the king’s diagnosis was simple and demeaning: madness.

The diaries of Frances Burney, author of Evelina, who was Second Keeper of the Robes to Queen Charlotte from 1786 to 1791, give an insider’s look at how it was to live with the king during an outbreak of his illness. As one entry describes: “O my dear friends, what a history! The king, at dinner, had broken forth into positive delirium, which long had been menacing all who saw him most closely; and the queen was so overpowered as to fall into violent hysterics. All the princesses were in misery, and the Prince of Wales had burst into tears. No one knew what was to follow—no one could conjecture the event.”[2]

But if the queen and her children were upset, his kingdom was deeply affected as well. During an early episode of the disease that would cost him his throne, public prayers were offered for his recovery. The Archbishop of Canterbury required a prayer for the king’s health be added to the liturgy in 1788; when he appeared to recover in 1789, a prayer of thanks was added, thousands of people participating in a special pageant held in Saint Paul’s Cathedral to celebrate his return.

According to The Georgian Papers Programme, “The scale of the Thanksgiving event surely reflected the enormous anxiety, familial and political, associated with the king’s illness. The morning began with a grand procession of the House of Commons, peers, judges, and more travelling a route through London, from Westminster to St Paul’s. At Buckingham Palace (the Queen’s Palace as it was known then), King George, Queen Charlotte, and their family joined at the very end of the procession. The service itself, at which a choir of 5,000 children sang the 100th Psalm, lasted more than three hours. Celebrations continued into the next evening.”[3]

Commemorative fans were distributed to ladies of the court, inscribed with this sentiment: ‘Health Restored to One, and Happiness to Millions’. Frances Burney herself was evidently presented with one.

Of course, the king did not suffer from any common illness, and it was hardly a secret; there was plenty of evidence of George’s unstable mental state. Members of the court witnessed and diarized multiple accounts of the king, ‘erratic in his habits, disordered in dress, sexual in his behavior, and garrulous in speech.’[4]

The era was a time of intense political mockery. No one in the public, and especially the political purview, was exempt from the heat of print shop cartoons and broadsheet spectacles—and one would expect to find hostile caricatures of ‘the lunatic king’ as we certainly do of his son, the Prince Regent. And yet, Thomas Rowlandson’s print ‘Filial Piety!’ of 1788[5] is one of the few satirical cartoons depicting the king during his illness. Even then, we see him portrayed symbolically and sympathetically, with his eldest son the butt of the joke.

Perhaps, had anyone wished to portray a more realistic depiction, it might have revealed a king in convulsions, frothing at the mouth, hair wild, clothing missing, believing he was the king of Prussia.

Plainly, no one wished.

To be afflicted with illness was one thing, but mental illness? It was feared and dreaded. Obviously, no one was eager to count the king amongst its sufferers.

While on the one hand, they were at times better in those days at categorizing the condition as a disease, rather than as a sub-human defect, sadly, they also tried to cure it. Perhaps some have viewed the ‘Horrible Histories[1]’ version of the royal physicians’ attempts to treat unfortunate George. While presented in a humorous manner, his doctors actually devised doses of arsenic, batteries of blistering, lavish layers of leeches, and bouts of bloodletting as remedies in treating this mysterious ailment. Of course, nothing worked. Finally, during the Christmas holiday in 1819 he reportedly spoke gibberish for 58 hours straight, and on 29 January 1820, at Windsor Castle, he died—his second son, Frederick, Duke of York, at his bedside.

An ignominious ending for the poor king, treated by the best medical minds in all the land.


[1] [2] The Diary and Letters of Madam D'Arblay Volume 2, Author: Madame D'Arblay, Project Gutenberg [3] [4] [5]

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