King George III: Insane, Ill, or Belligerent?

King George III was one of the most influential kings in English history. He ruled England for sixty years, through the American, French, and Industrial Revolutions. Unfortunately, he was debilitated later in his reign and died after a long struggle with an unknown condition. Some, especially the English people at the time, questioned whether George had succumbed to illness, insanity, or simply belligerency. In his biography George III, Christopher Hibbert argues the king was lucid through the American Revolution, but physical illness adversely affected his mental health during the French Revolution and also after 1811.

King George was a belligerent youth. When he took the throne in 1760 (he would hold it until his death), he showed contempt for the deceased George II’s two chief ministers, Secretary of State William Pitt (the Elder) and First Lord of the Treasury Thomas Pelham-Holles. Pitt, known as the Great Commoner for his stunning rhetoric in the House of Commons, he considered “the blackest of hearts”, “a true snake in the grass” and “the most dishonorable of men”; Pelham was “my grandfather’s knave and counselor”. George was upset with them because they did not pay any attention to the advice of his mother’s former tutor and rumored lover, John Stuart, the Earl of Bute.

George was also absorbed by The Ideal of a Patriot King, which declared that England needed a king that would save the throne from Parliament. His mother and father exhorted him to be a strong king. The Earl of Bute portrayed George’s grandfather George II as an old fool controlled by his mistresses and cabinet ministers and said Parliament was controlled by corrupt politicians who put their own interests ahead of the good of the nation. George deeply admired the Earl; when he became King, he sought to make Bute the Prime Minister and eventually succeeded after a long struggle with Pitt and Pelham. The British people came to dislike George, and Bute even moreso, but the king paid them no heed.

After the American Revolution, the king maintained good health for a few years but was soon stricken with illness. He suffered from a “pretty smart bilious attack” in the summer of 1788, believed to be gout. He recovered but relapsed in October. He complained of “very acute pain in his stomach, shooting to the back and sides and making respiration difficult and uneasy.” He was “much tormented in the night by a cramp in the muscles of his legs” and “suffered much from the rheumatism which affected all his limbs and made him lame…the pain continued all day and did not cease entirely until [strong laxatives having been administered] the bowels had been emptied” (Hibbert 257). By the end of the twenty-four hours, the king had a fever, swollen and painful feet, yellow whites of his eyes, and brown urine. He tried to write a letter to William Pitt the younger about official business but could not concentrate; he eventually concluded, “I am afraid Mr. Pitt will perceive that I am not quite in a situation to write at present” (258).

Without a doubt, George was ill, but he was oblivious to the fact and doggedly pressed on in his work. He insisted to all that would listen that he was well, but according to his friend Fanny Burney, he spoke in “a manner so uncommon, that a high fever alone could not account for it; a rapidity, a hoarseness of voice, a volubility, an earnestness – a vehemence, rather – it startled me inexpressibly” (259). During this period, he depended on the queen and disliked his doctors.

On the 5th of November, the Prince of Wales visited for dinner. As the meal progressed, George was progressively more agitated and, when the conversation turned to murder, he suddenly rose from the table and, in his rage, grabbed the prince by the collar, pulled him for his chair, and threw him against the wall. The queen was hysterical; the prince burst into tears and was saved from fainting by his sisters, who rubbed Hungary water on his forehead.

After that outburst, Sir George Baker decided the king was “under an entire alienation of mind and much more agitated than he had ever been. The pulse was very quick” (261), though Baker could not determine the exact pace. British newspapers took the story of the king’s insanity and ran with it. The doctors released conflicting stories; the Duchess of Devonshire was told “nobody [could really] get at the truth” (266). Rumors flew everywhere; one which was printed was that the king had confronted an oak tree in Windsor Great Park, shook a branch with his hand, and conversed with it, believing it to be the king of Prussia. The Duchess of Devonshire wrote in her diary:

The King shew’d his backside to his attendants saying that he had not the gout. He pulled off Sir George Baker’s wig and made him go upon his knees to look at the stars; he begins by beating the palms of his hands, then crying and then howling; he got naked out of bed but C[olonel] Digby threaten’d him back (267).

Rumors aside, the King was truly in terrible shape. He ate little and “refused all medicine, throwing what he could away” (269). At night, pages had to sit on him to keep him down and tie him to his bed. He swore and uttered strange indecencies; he begged his attendants to “end his pathetic life.” He alternated between deep depression and spasms of childish mischievousness. Doctors suggested that he would never recover.

The country of England, however, was in need of a leader. The Prince of Wales desired for George to be declared insane so the prince could take the regency for himself. Pitt crafted a Regency Bill giving power to the prince, but it gave him restricted power. The bill passed the House of commons, but before the House of Lords could approve it, the Lord Chancellor of England returned with news that the king was quite in control of his mental faculties. Under the care of the Doctors Willis, the king had recovered. By May 21st, he appeared much better; Sir William Grant described him as “extremely well, stout, and upright” at a Privy Council meeting that day (318). Thomas Willis, however, felt him “not so right as he should be” (319).

He was well for a period of years, but at the beginning of 1804, he relapsed. He continued to struggle with his condition, and by 1811 he was again having delusions. He sometimes appeared to believe that the deceased Princess Amelia was alive and happily married, living in Hanover where she would “never grow older and always be well” (400), and tried to comfort one of his doctors whose wife died with news that his wife was perfectly fine and was staying with Amelia in Germany. In mid-July 1811, he became violent again; by October, he was often uncontrollable; on the 20th of that month, Princess Elizabeth reported “a great deal of violent action in stamping with his feet on the floor” (402). He rambled constantly and refused food. Later, he was more docile and retreated into his own fantasy world; when the queen visited him, he rarely acknowledged that he knew her. When the queen died in 1818, the deaf and blind king was never aware of it. He lingered on with his delusions, even fearing that God was punishing the world and decreeing another flood. Some days he believed himself dead and was eerily happy about it; he occasionally mourned George III’s memory, “for he was a good man” (407). He also liked to believe in his own supernatural powers; he sometimes cursed his doctors to hell. George finally died January 29, 1820.

So the king was ill, belligerent, and finally insane, and recent medical evidence has proven that the three conditions were connected. The psychiatrists and historians Drs. Ida Macalpine and Richard Hunter diagnosed him with porphyria, endemic in the Stuarts and passed to the Hanoverians by Electress Sophia, granddaughter of James I and mother of George I. The disease causes “abdominal pain, discolored urine, weakness of the limbs, neuritis, and mental derangement leading to rambling speech, hallucinations, and symptoms of hysteria, paranoia, and schizophrenia which a layman might loosely term madness” (267). A few historians and porphyria experts have dissented with his opinion, but most historians put stock in it.

According to Macalpine, Hunter, and the historical community, then, those who say losing the American Revolution drove King George to insanity are incorrect; the true fault was really his poisoned genes. The king was not to blame for the problems he caused in the later part of his reign; his demons were beyond his control.

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