|Poster for"The Madness of King George,"
the story of the King's suffering and recovery
from a bout of porphyria in 1788
But during the summer of 1811 King George III was suffering from another type of blues, for which there really was no cure. During that first year of the Regency, August marked the Court’s final acceptance of the King’s mental incapacity and the certainty that he’d never be a functional king again. That month the old King’s apartments at Windsor Castle were padded, signifying that no one expected him to ever regain his sanity or resume his duties as the ruling monarch of Great Britain. And indeed, he never did.
That August renovation of the King’s quarters marked a melancholy milestone; prior to 1811 King George had weathered several bouts of what appeared to be madness, but he’d always recovered his wits. However, in November of 1810 King George had a particularly bad spell from which he never fully recovered. By an act of Parliament his eldest son the Prince of Wales officially became the Prince Regent in January of 1811. Though the King’s mental state appeared to be improving in the early months of 1811, his condition soon deteriorated again. “Prinny” ruled as Regent in his father’s stead until King George III died in 1820.
During the nine years the Regency lasted many significant events occurred: there was the abdication of Napoleon in 1814, the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, the marriage and death of Princess Charlotte and her infant son, the royal heir, in 1817. Through it all the old king whiled the years away in a detached dream world. Though he was mentally untethered to the present, he was often quite cheerful according to his doctors. He insisted on wearing a long white robe and both his white hair and beard grew long. He became blind and went almost completely deaf before he died at age 82.
|1817 engraving of King George III by Henry Meyer,
showing the king confined to his apartments
in Windsor Castle
But was it madness that killed King George? Today the general consensus is that he suffered throughout his life from acute, intermittent attacks of porphyria, a rare metabolic condition caused by the body’s inability to synthesize heme, a complex molecule that transports oxygen to the cells. Porphyria is not a single disease but rather a group of at least eight disorders. There are two general types of porphyria, one which affects the skin and one which affects the nervous system. The King most likely suffered from the latter type.
Porphyria can produce manifestations of what appears to be mental illness. Historically it’s been wrongly diagnosed as schizophrenia, hysteria and even neuropsychosis. Symptoms may include abdominal pain, blisters and deep red or purple urine. Though nowadays porphyria is treatable, it is still uncurable. Most significantly, it is an inherited condition.
Evidence suggests that Prinny himself had occasional if not very severe attacks of porphyria, and that three of his brothers (the Dukes of Kent, Sussex and York) were ill with the disorder at times. Additionally, Princess Caroline of Brunswick (Prinny's wife and cousin) showed signs of the disorder, as did her daughter Princess Charlotte.
|Mary, Queen of Scots
A postmortem analysis confirmed that Queen Victoria's granddaughter Charlotte, sister of Kaiser Wilhelm, had porphyria. Researchers suspect that her mother Vicky, Victoria's daughter, had the disorder as well.
Scientists who have studied the link to porphyria in Britain's royal family believe it may have started with Mary, Queen of Scots, who was the fifth great-grandmother of George III. Her son, James I, showed symptoms of the condition too, especially when he descried his urine as being the same color as Alicante wine (a Spanish red wine).
|Prince William of Gloucester
In more modern times, Prince William of Gloucester (1941-1972) was diagnosed with porphyria. Prince William was the grandson of King George V and Queen Mary, and the son of Queen Elizabeth II’s uncle, the Duke of Gloucester. A diplomat and a dashing pilot, Prince William died on another August day in 1972 at 30 years old in an airplane crash, flying his own plane during a competition.
As a side note, Prince William was close to his younger cousin Charles, the Prince of Wales. Prince Charles named his son William (the current Duke of Cambridge and recent proud papa of another royal George) after his cousin.
Other notable people who are believed to have suffered from this disorder include Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia of the House of Dracula (known after his death as Vlad the Impaler). His symptoms may have contributed to the vampire legends that now surround his name.
|Vlad the Impaler
Tortured artist Vincent Van Gogh was another possible porphyria sufferer.
|Self-Portrait of Vincent Van Gogh , 1887
Those who carry the genes to this group of disorders have a 50-50 chance of passing it on to their offspring. However, porphyria is not the tragic and baffling disease it once was; today it can be diagnosed and treated.
Children in the royal family are now tested for this condition as a matter of routine. So the threat of this deadly but rare disorder doesn't have to cloud the reign of any future British king or queen - including that of baby Prince George Alexander Louis, who may one day rule Britannia as King George VII.
Sources for this post include:
- Laudermilk, Sharon and Hamlin, Teresa, The Regency Companion, Garland Publishing, New York and London, 1989.
- Priestley, J.B. , The Prince of Pleasure and His Regency 1811-1820, Harper and Row Publishers, New York and Evanston, 1969.
- Information and Resources on Porphryria, Web MD
- Treatment options from the American Porphyria Foundation
- The Royal Family’s Toxic Time Bomb,” article in the Bulletin of the University of Sussex at Brighton, Friday, June 25, 1999.
- Wilson, Christopher, "Th other Prince William: The uncanny parallels between Wills and the dashing but doomed cousin in whose memory he was named," The Daily Mail Online, November 4, 2011.