The Royal Malady
In the early summer of 1788, George III was gently but steadily going off his head. He had been mad before, early in his reign shortly after his marriage, but only briefly, and his cure had seemed reasonably complete. After all, he had withstood the strains and anxieties of twenty years of politics which included both the Wilkesite agitation and the loss of America. He was odd: everyone recognized that. He was both inordinately loquacious and inordinately curious. A day out with the King was always thoroughly exhausting; nevertheless his own stamina seemed unshakeable. He had ridden through the dangerous tempests of his domestic worries with the same resolution as that with which he had faced his public defeats. The scandalous life of the Prince of Wales infuriated him; he argued, pleaded, threatened, and cajoled in a tumult of verbiage, but at least his sanity held. As this summer wore on, however, the signs grew ominous. George III may or may not have shaken the lower bough of an oak tree in Windsor Park thinking it was the King of Prussia’s hand and settled down to a long conversation with it, but certainly during his visit to Worcester he was extremely odd, climbing with the Queen all over a half-constructed china shop, up and down the ladders, bewildering the workmen with his rapid fire of questions to which he expected no answers. Then the physical symptoms started up—hives, swollen feet, cramp, bile, and chronic insomnia. After denouncing the importation of senna to his physician for three hours and sending a blank check to the actress, Mrs. Siddons, the Court and the politicians had to admit that the King was, mad. And Britain was plunged into a major constitutional crisis.
If the King were to be declared incurably insane, the Prince of Wales would become Regent. But did he become so automatically with the full rights of the Crown’s prerogative to use as his own? Yes, said Charles James Fox, and Edmund Burke was set to work to provide the historical and philosophic justification. No, said William Pitt; the conditions of Regency would be laid down by Parliament. After all, Pitt held the majority there and had no wish to return to the Bar if he could help it. But even with conditions, Pitt knew he was done for once the Prince of Wales took the reins of government in his hands. So all depended on how mad the King was: was his case hopeless or curable? And if so, how soon?
The British royal family detests discussion of the private lives of its ancestors and George III’s illness has been clothed in a certain amount of mystery. The rumors, of course, were dramatic enough—the Foxite Whigs saw to that. They said that George III had tried to strangle the Prince of Wales, that he had poured a full chamber pot over the head of his physician, dubbing him Knight of Cloacina, that he had become …