King George III Illness: Real Story of Monarch’s Death

king george iii illness

Royal Family/Getty King George III.

King George III has been introduced to modern audiences through the Netflix streaming series, “Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story,” and his illness is part of the plot line.

What was his illness in real life? The real story of “Mad King George III’s” illness is controversial and in dispute. Despite his well-documented sickness, though, King George III led a long life, dying an elderly man.

The Royal Family’s website notes, “He died at Windsor Castle on 29 January 1820, after a reign of almost 60 years – the third longest in British history.” He was 81 years old. “After suffering intermittent bouts of acute mental illness, he spent his last decade in a fog of insanity and blindness,” reported.

What is well known is that George II was a very sick man. Even the Royal Family’s own website says, “George III is widely remembered for two things: losing the American colonies and going mad.”

“It is well known that, in the course of his 60 year reign as King of Great Britain and Ireland (1760–1820), George III suffered from recurrent episodes of physical and mental ill health,” says the article, “The acute mania of King George III: A computational linguistic analysis.” It was authored by Vassiliki Rentoumi, Timothy Peters, Jonathan Conlin, and Peter Garrard.

“These illnesses compounded many of the great political issues of the day, and gave rise to at least one major constitutional crisis—the Regency Bill, which was debated during the King’s first documented period of mental derangement (1787–88),” the article says. “Towards the end of his life King George became cognitively impaired, and authority was transferred to his eldest son, who acted as Regent between 1811 and his accession as George IV in 1820.”

Here’s what you need to know:

Researchers in the 1960s Argued that King George III Suffered From a Physical Disorder Called ‘Variegate Porphyria,’ Although This Is Disputed

The Royal Family’s website says, “After serious bouts of illness in 1788-89 and again in 1801, George became permanently deranged in 1810. He was mentally unfit to rule in the last decade of his reign; his eldest son – the later George IV – acted as Prince Regent from 1811. Some medical historians have said that George III’s mental instability was caused by a hereditary physical disorder called porphyria.”

According to the Royal Family:

George III was the most attractive of the Hanoverian monarchs. He was a good family man and devoted to his wife, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, for whom he bought the Queen’s House (later enlarged to become Buckingham Palace). They had 15 children, 13 of whom reached adulthood.

In the 1960s, Ida Macalpine and Richard Hunter wrote the book, “George III and the Mad Business.” In it, they argued that George III’s problem was a physical disorder called variegate porphyria. These researchers first developed the porphyria theory to explain George III’s illness.

According to PBS, also called “acute porphyria,” the disease “interferes with the body’s ability to make hemoglobin.”

George III’s symptoms included abdominal pain, seizures, blindness and deafness, according to PBS.

According to the Mayo Clinic:

Porphyria (por-FEAR-e-uh) refers to a group of rare disorders that result from a buildup of natural chemicals called porphyrins in the body. Porphyrins are needed to make heme, a part of hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is a protein in red blood cells. It carries oxygen to the body’s organs and tissues.

Eight enzymes are needed to change porphyrins into heme. Without enough of any of these enzymes, porphyrins build up in the body. High levels of porphyrins can cause major problems, mainly in the nervous system and skin.

The blurb on Google Books reads, “This text is a combination of medical, psychiatric and historical detection showing the political, personal and cultural dilemmas that arose in the early days of psychiatry when the person who went out of his mind was none other than the king himself.”

A. H. T. Robb-Smith, writing in The English Historical Review, critiqued that paper, noting that, in 1966, the authors “first wrote a paper suggesting that George III was not suffering from mental illness but rather “a consequence of a disorder of metabolism.” They argued that he suffered from “variegate porphyria and that this had been inherited from Mary Queen of Scots and that certain other members of the royal family might also have been affected.”

However, the Robb-Smith review says that they made this diagnosis “without producing any new scientific evidence.” It describes the variegate porphyria malady as a “disturbance of pigment metabolism which is inherited as a dominant.” A series of cases in South Africa were “traced back to a Dutch free burgher who married at the Cape in 1688,” wrote Robb-Smith.

Other Researchers Found Linguistic Patterns in the Letters of King George III That Might Point to Bipolar Disorder

king george iii

GettyCirca 1750, King George III of Great Britain.

The acute mania article authors argued that linguistic patterns in the king’s letters point to episodes of “acute mania,” not porphyria. According to PBS, psychiatrists see “this same form of nonstop speech and writing during the manic phase of bipolar disorder.”

The article’s authors wrote: “Despite early skepticism from some quarters the porphyria hypothesis gained widespread acceptance, not only in the medical sphere, but among historians and in popular culture. Recent evaluations of the King’s medical records by Peters and colleagues, however, revealed not only that the evidence for porphyria is insubstantial, but that its interpretation was seriously flawed.”

They found instead: “During the period of mental ill health the king’s letters showed a reduced vocabulary, with fewer distinct word types, but also a tendency to greater redundancy and predictability compared to the letters written prior to onset or after recovery.”

The abstract reads,

We used a computational linguistic approach, exploiting machine learning techniques, to examine the letters written by King George III during mentally healthy and apparently mentally ill periods of his life. The aims of the study were: first, to establish the existence of alterations in the King’s written language at the onset of his first manic episode; and secondly to identify salient sources of variation contributing to the changes. Effects on language were sought in two control conditions (politically stressful vs. politically tranquil periods and seasonal variation). We found clear differences in the letter corpus, across a range of different features, in association with the onset of mental derangement, which were driven by a combination of linguistic and information theory features that appeared to be specific to the contrast between acute mania and mental stability. The paucity of existing data relevant to changes in written language in the presence of acute mania suggests that lexical, syntactic and stylometric descriptions of written discourse produced by a cohort of patients with a diagnosis of acute mania will be necessary to support the diagnosis independently and to look for other periods of mental illness of the course of the King’s life, and in other historically significant figures with similarly large archives of handwritten documents.

Arsenic Was Detected in King George III’s Hair

queen charlotte

Gettycirca 1775: Charlotte Sophia of Mecklenberg-Strelitz (1744 – 1818), Queen consort of George III from 1761.

Other scientists discovered high levels of arsenic in King George III’s hair, and they have argued that might have been at the root of his problems.

This article, published by Lancet, and called, “King George III and porphyria: an elemental hypothesis and investigation,” says that “metal analysis revealed high concentrations of arsenic. Since arsenic interferes with haem metabolism, it might have contributed to the King’s unusually severe and prolonged bouts of illness. We have identified sources of arsenic in the context of the medication George III received from physicians.”

However, this article also argued, “A re-examination of the medical evidence and the appearance of new historical material have suggested that porphyria did indeed exist in the Royal Houses of Europe.”

According to Live Science, this article “suggests that the king’s doctors may have exacerbated his illness by inadvertent arsenic poisoning.”

Live Science reports, “During his illness outbreaks, they prescribed him emetic tartar — an antimony-based medicine used to induce vomiting.” In other words, by treating the illness, the doctors worsened the symptoms, according to Live Science.

READ NEXT: The Allen, Texas, Mall Shooting Victims