The “Madness” of King George III?

January 29, 2017 in General

The madness of King George III has been the subject of an eponymous play of the same title. But was he? In the United Kingdom itself, his bouts with mental illness late in life earned him the impolite epithet “Mad King.” And lately, on stage in Hamilton, George’s alleged villainy has been played for laughs. However, recently, in partnership with Queen Elizabeth II, the Royal Archives in the U.K. have launched the Georgian Papers Programme, a vast project to digitize hundreds of thousands of the king’s papers. These documents, which are held both in the Royal Archives and the Royal Library at Windsor Castle, include letters to his wife Queen Charlotte, essays, notes about the American Revolution — even a handwritten draft of a statement of abdication he wrote in 1783.

George wrote it, revised and annotated it — but he never sent it. He went on to become the longest-ruling king in British history (1760-1820), his reign only ending with his death in 1820 after sixty years, which makes him the third-longest lived monarch in the United Kingdom behind his granddaughter, Queen Victoria (1837-1901) in second place, and his great-great-great-granddaughter, Elizabeth II, the incumbent monarch (1952- ). By 2020, the Georgian Papers Project aims to digitize more than 350,000 of George III’s documents, all of which will be freely available to scholars and historical dabblers alike.

The BBC gives a hint of some of the documents historians have uncovered to date, which will be the feature of a forthcoming documentary shortly to air as well:

“One [of George's private agents], code-named Aristarchus, asked for payment for intelligence that France was plotting to assassinate the king — dubbed ‘the mad king’ — as he walked at night in the Queen’s Garden. Another discovery was a blonde lock of the hair of Prince Alfred, who died when he was a baby, sewn into a letter from Charlotte. Academics also uncovered a letter in which the king told Prime Minister Lord North how the Prince of Wales had an ‘improper connection’ with an actress who was blackmailing him.”

As the Guardian (27.01.2017) notes, one of the most intriguing aspects of the Georgian Papers Project is his mental illness, which would manifest itself in breakdowns where he was often confined to Windsor Castle or Kew, sometimes in a straitjacket. Modern medical opinion suggests that George experienced bouts of bipolar disorder. The symptoms – talking ridiculously fast, being excitable and irritable and sexually inappropriate – would be called hypomania today, Sir Simon Wessely, the president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, told viewers of the aforementioned documentary. He may have also suffered from a rare inherited blood disorder, porphyria, which comes with symptoms including insomnia, high blood pressure, sensitivity to sunlight, and confusion, which during George’s lifetime were seen as signs of insanity.

However, that is open to debate. In 2003, vaults of a London museum disclosed a scrap of paper containing a few strands of hair. The paper was crudely fashioned into an envelope but the words on it immediately caused a stir: “Hair of His Late Majesty, King George 3rd.”

For Professor Martin Warren, it was the clue that would help him finally solve the mystery of King George’s illness. His investigation is featured in a BBC documentary, Medical Mysteries.

“King George is largely remembered for those periods when he lost his mind. But it’s been difficult to explain these attacks, so I was keen to analyse this hair sample,” said Professor Warren. When the hair was tested by the Harwell International Business Centre for Science & Technology in Didcot, Oxfordshire, the results were surprising. The king’s hair was laden with arsenic. It contained over 300 times the toxic level. However, as a BBC News article noted at the time, this remarkable finding was just the start of Warren’s detective work.

In King George’s time, his bizarre behaviour and wild outbursts were treated as insanity. He was bound in a straitjacket and chained to a chair to control his ravings. King George was officially mad. It wasn’t until the 1970s that a new and controversial diagnosis was made. Two psychiatrists – Ida MacAlpine and her son Richard Hunter – revisited the king’s medical records and noticed a key symptom; dark red urine – a classic and unmistakable sign of a rare blood disorder called porphyria. Porphyria can be a devastating disease. In the acute form, it can cause severe abdominal pain, cramps, and even seizure-like epileptic fits. It is frequently misdiagnosed, and even in modern times, some sufferers have been thought to be mentally ill.

One of the great mysteries of King George’s porphyria was the severity of his attacks. It is rare for men to suffer this acute form at all – normally males show no symptoms. And – a final puzzle – King George didn’t have any attacks before his fifties.

Professor Warren knew that porphyria attacks can be triggered by a wide range of substances – alcohol, common medication, even monthly hormones. Perhaps arsenic could also be a trigger. He contacted Professor Tim Cox, an expert on extreme cases of porphyria at Addenbrookes Hospital in Cambridge. Professor Cox confirmed his guess – arsenic was listed as a trigger. And the massive levels found in King George’s hair suggested that the arsenic had been liberally ingested over a long period of time. The two professors consulted the King’s medical records preserved in the Royal Archive at Windsor Castle.

There was passing reference to arsenic used as a skin cream, and as wig powder, but nothing that could explain the staggering levels of arsenic showing up in the king’s hair.

The most common medication he was given was “James’ Powders”, a routine medicine he was being given several times a day – made of a substance called antimony. Tracking down James’ powders at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, Warren found the final piece of the puzzle in a 19th century almanac. Antimony, even when purified, contains significant traces of arsenic. Thus, the arsenic from the very medication he was being given to control his “madness” seems to have triggered more attacks. His porphyric attacks were brought on after a lifetime’s arsenic accumulated in his body, and then were made much more prolonged and more severe by the medicine to treat him. For Professor Warren, the discovery marked the end of a long trail.

“It is a very convincing explanation of the king’s attacks, and could account for why he had them at such a late stage in life and why they were so severe. So in that sense, yes, it’s very satisfying.”

Apart from his mental illness, George’s intelligence and love of science was reflected in detailed drawings and calculations he made for the transit of Venus on 23 June 1769, an event he witnessed from his specially commissioned observatory in Richmond Park. He wrote, accurately, that such an event would happen again in 1874 and 2004, as it indeed did. George III was the last British king of the American colonies and the first of Australia and he took a keen interest in the exploration of the time including the voyages of Captain Cook to Hawaii, Antarctica, New Zealand and Polynesia.

One paper reveals secret instructions to Cook that he should treat any locals he finds with respect and “endeavour by all proper means to cultivate a friendship with them, making them presents of such trinkets as you may have onboard … showing them every kindness, civility and regard”.

Recommended:

Colin Dwyer: “Vindication for the Mad King?” National Public Radio: 28.01.2017: http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/01/28/512147256/vindication-for-the-mad-king-new-archive-gives-george-iii-a-second-chance

Mark Brown: “Second thoughts on George III: Online project could alter views about mad king” Guardian: 28.01.2017: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/jan/28/second-thoughts-on-george-iii-online-project-could-alter-view-of-king

“King George III historical documents published online to show mad monarch misunderstood” ABC Online: 18.01.2017: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-01-28/king-george-iii-documents-archived-online-for-public-reading/8219788

“King George III: Mad or misunderstood?” BBC News: 13.07.2004: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/3889903.stm

Ida McAlpine and Richard Hunter: George III and the “Mad Business”: London: Pimlico: 1992

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