The illness and decline of King George III
King George III ruled Great Britain and Ireland between 1760–1820. His reign was marked by the loss of the American colonies in 1783, yet he is also primarily remembered as the so-called ‘mad king’. Following the king’s mental decline due to an illness, his son acted as regent from 1811 until the king's death. Charlotte Hodgman and Amanda Foreman explore Kew Palace in Richmond, where George III was incarcerated during several bouts of mental illness, and consider the king's life in his final years…
Strolling through the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew on a summer’s day is a veritable assault on the senses. Lush green lawns stretch far into the distance; row upon row of colourful plants and flowers turn their faces to the sun, their many scents rising in the heat. So dazzling is the foliage that it is easy to miss the 17th-century, four-storey red-brick house, small by royal standards which is one of the few surviving parts of the Kew Palace complex.
Although today referred to as Kew Palace, the site was originally known as the Dutch House, with a far more impressive Palladian-style building standing opposite. Commissioned by Frederick, Prince of Wales in 1730 and named the White House, today just a sundial marks the site of that long-gone royal residence.
Life of George III: In contextGeorge III (1738–1820) was the son of Frederick Louis, Prince of Wales, and grandson of George II. Frederick predeceased his father, leaving George III to become king of Great Britain in 1760. He married Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz in 1761, and the couple went on to have 15 children. George’s reign was marked by a series of political and military struggles, including the loss of the 13 American colonies in the War of Independence.
The king’s later years were blighted by recurrent mental illness; his eldest son – later crowned as George IV – ruled as prince regent for the final decade of George III’s life.
It is for its connection with one of Britain’s most famous monarchs that Kew Palace is perhaps best remembered. George III, the so-called ‘mad king’, was incarcerated here during some of the episodes of mental illness that plagued much of his adult life.
Born in 1738, almost two months premature, the future George III became heir to the throne at the age of 12 following the death of his father Frederick, Prince of Wales. Raised by his mother, Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, in relative isolation at Kew Palace, the young prince struggled with his studies, unable to read properly until the age of 11, but diligent and keen to learn. The Dutch House became a schoolhouse for the young prince and his brother.
“When George III became king in 1760, the country was delighted and full of hope,” says historian and presenter Amanda Foreman. “For the first time since Queen Anne in 1714, Britain was to be ruled by a monarch who had been born in England. George II had been deeply unpopular for his long periods of absence, so hopes were high that George III would be a king who would uphold British traditions and values.”
When George III became king in 1760, the country was delighted and full of hope
At first it seemed George would tick all the boxes required of a good British king. Despite his early struggles he was exceptionally well educated with a deep passion for learning. He had been taught about the arts and architecture by leading architect Sir William Chambers; he understood mathematics and science; he loved music and sport. He was a Renaissance man in many ways.
George married Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz in 1761 and the rapidly expanding royal family took over Richmond Lodge at Kew, with their eventual 15 children housed in various buildings around the estate.
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How did George III lose America?
Yet the good times weren’t to last. “George was incredibly unlucky to have acceded to the throne when he did,” explains Foreman. “He was immediately plunged into the political wrangling that was taking place at the time and eventually became a victim of it. He was unfairly branded a tyrant by Americans wanting independence from Britain as well as by the Whigs at Westminster who resented their fall from power on George’s accession to the throne.
“But George was far from tyrannical, even in his dealings with America. He took his responsibilities as king incredibly seriously, agonising over decisions and passionately devoted to his country. The idea that he was an ogre who wanted to suppress the rights of Englishmen and limit freedom of speech and freedom of the press was simply a concept that his enemies could use against him.”
George III’s dismay at losing the American colonies is well recorded. Although he strongly objected to American independence from Britain, he accepted that the way in which the colonies were being ruled did need reforming.
“America is lost! Must we fall beneath the blow? Or have we resources that may repair the mischief?” he wrote in the 1780s, commenting on America’s fight for its independence. But the colonies were eventually lost and, in 1782, British forces in America surrendered.
What illness was responsible for George III's 'madness'?
The 1780s were to bring more heartache for George III when in 1788–89 he suffered his first serious bout of mental illness, widely attributed to the genetic blood disorder porphyria. Symptoms displayed during what was probably a mild attack of the disorder in 1765 had been put down to a period of depression and a serious chest infection. But in 1789, the affects of the illness could no longer be ignored.
Symptoms of porphyria include skin sensitivity, strong abdominal pain and bluish urine, accompanied by psychiatric symptoms, all of which George III displayed. Alongside severe stomach pains and terrible insomnia, the king experienced convulsions so violent that his pages were forced to sit on him to keep him safe on the floor until the fits had passed.
The king’s behaviour, too, was affected by the condition. He became manic, often behaving inappropriately towards women, and experienced hallucinations. On one occasion he planted a beef steak in the ground, fully believing it would grow into a beef tree. On another, at Windsor Castle, the king was seen talking to, and trying to shake hands with, an oak tree, believing it was the king of Prussia. Meanwhile, at Kew, he would become obsessed with, and try to climb, the Great Pagoda, a 50 metre-high structure that still stands today.
How was George III treated during his illness?
To hide the true extent of his illness, George was moved under duress from Windsor Castle to the relative privacy of Kew. With a team of court physicians unable to diagnose the problem, the royal family turned to Dr Francis Willis, who was thought to be an expert in mental health conditions. “Willis believed that mental illness was caused by overexcitement and could be cured by calm and control,” says Foreman. “The treatments applied to the king reduced him to a childlike figure. If he became manic or overexcited, he was placed in a straitjacket (his “hated waistcoat”). He was denied a knife and fork at mealtimes, which meant much of what he ate was soft nursery food that could be eaten with a spoon or hands. The king wasn’t even allowed out of the house by himself and had to earn privileges such as seeing his family or using cutlery.”
The treatments applied to the king reduced him to a childlike figure. If he became manic or overexcited, he was placed in a straitjacket
George was confined to the ground floor of the Dutch House, and a visit today takes you through some of the rooms occupied during his periods of illness. Shoes echo on floorboards, left bare because of the king’s hatred of carpet when incapacitated. The small, panelled schoolroom at the front of the house was turned into the king’s library, and once boasted a number of works from his magnificent collection of 65,000 books and manuscripts.
In the 18th century, the west side of the Dutch House was connected to a service wing where George III was kept secluded. Most of this was demolished in 1881 but visitors can still see a door in the Page’s Waiting Room that once led to the area where the king slept and underwent treatment.
“During the 18th century, the four humours – black bile, yellow bile, blood and phlegm – were still believed to influence the body and its emotions”, says Foreman. “If one of these humours was thought to be out of balance, efforts were made to bring it back into line. George III’s medical care was strongly aligned with this theory, and he was subjected to treatments that today we would probably think of as torture.
“Arsenic-based powders were applied to his skin causing it to blister – a method thought to draw the illness out. He was forced to fast, locked up, forced to sleep, bled, and given freezing cold baths as a way of ‘shocking’ the illness from his body. Purgatives such as rhubarb, castor oil and senna were used to treat his constipation and cause diarrhoea, while emetics were given to make him vomit, purging him of disease.”
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What happened to George III during the Regency?
When the full extent of the king’s illness was realised, a power struggle broke out at Westminster between Tory prime minister William Pitt and the opposition Whig party. The Whigs called for a regency, which would see George III’s son, the Prince of Wales, rule in the king’s stead as Prince Regent. Pitt, who knew the Prince of Wales (a Whig ally) would restore his rivals to power, resisted a regency for as long as possible. When the crisis finally came to a head, Pitt got parliament to vote in a regency that gave the Prince Regent as little power as possible, essentially making him into a puppet king.
Within a few weeks of the crisis George III recovered and was able to leave Kew. But in 1801 he suffered a relapse of porphyria. This time the king was duped into a second incarceration at Kew by his doctor, who pretended to be interested in the copy of a self-portrait of Van Dyck, by Nogari – that still hangs above the fireplace in the dining room of the Dutch House. Once there, the king was persuaded to leave his family to undergo treatment once more. Throughout his treatment, his wife and daughters stayed at Kew with him, living in the upper floors of the Dutch House, while they waited for news of the king. These sumptuous rooms were a far cry from the spartan rooms occupied by the king and are still decorated in the fashionable styles of the day.
George had another relapse in 1804 and then a final, full-blown attack in 1810 from which he never fully recovered. Ailing and virtually blind with cataracts, he became permanently insane and finally died in 1820.
“George III has been much maligned by history,” says Foreman. “He is remembered as the ‘mad king’ who lost America, yet he did so much more for Britain. Both George and his wife were incredibly well educated people who played a huge role in promoting Georgian culture, particularly the architecture with which we’re so familiar today. How many people know that it was George III who founded the Royal Academy?
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“George III was a passionate advocate of all things British; the mistakes he made more often than not resulted from circumstances beyond his control. It’s high time to reassess this massively misunderstood monarch.”
George III: five more places to explore
Windsor Castle, Berkshire
Where George III retired and died
George III and Queen Charlotte were incredibly fond of Windsor Castle and carried out a series of renovations. George became ill and was confined here in 1788 before being moved to Kew. During his final illness, from 1810, he was kept in the state apartments and is buried in the castle’s St George’s Chapel.
The British Museum, London
Where George III’s books resided
George III’s collection of 65,000 books was given to the nation on his death and a grand 300-foot long room was built at the museum in 1827 to house them. It is now called the Enlightenment Gallery, with an exhibition on the 18th century. The books are now held at the British Library.
Where George III holidayed
In 1789 George III travelled to Weymouth seeking the health benefits of salt water. While here, he used one of the first bathing machines to take a dip in the sea. Gloucester Lodge on the promenade became his holiday home and the chalk horse and rider on the hillside overlooking Weymouth bay is said to depict the king.
Royal Academy of Arts, London
Where George III’s legacy is found
The Royal Academy was founded by George III in 1768 to promote arts and design in Britain through education and exhibition. The academy moved several times before settling at Burlington House in 1867. Its first exhibition of contemporary art opened on 25 April 1769.
Royal Pavilion, Brighton
Where a prince regent partied
Built as a seaside retreat for George III’s son, the Prince of Wales, Brighton Pavilion’s most dramatic transformation was in 1815 when John Nash was commissioned to turn it into the magnificent oriental palace we see today.
Amanda Foreman is an author, historian and presenter, and the author of a volume on George III for the Penguin Monarchs series
This article first appeared in the September 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine
Charlotte Hodgman is the editor of BBC History Revealed and HistoryExtra's royal newsletter. She was previously deputy editor of BBC History Magazine and makes the occasional appearance on the HistoryExtra podcast