In the Autumn of 1788, King George III is a sober, virtuous sovereign, of robust constitution. He has been reigning over England for the last twenty-eight years. Deeply religious, in a century which isn’t, he prefers the simple, modest joys of domestic life to the luxury and refinement ordinarily cherished by the greats of this world. As a loyal servant of God and of his People, he is, however, conscious of the dignity of the task, to which he is unrelentingly devoted, even if the loss of the American colonies has greatly shaken him, by underlining the failure of his personal politics. Despite this painful memory, England, led by Prime Minister William Pitt, has rapidly recovered prosperity and confidence.
Thanks to a Spartan lifestyle, combining frugality at table with daily physical exercises, the King is rarely ill. Queen Charlotte, a dull creature, who lacks both beauty and intelligence, is a paragon of feminine virtue, a faithful spouse, entirely and almost fanatically devoted. She uncommonly admires her husband, to whom she has given fifteen children. A frustrated amateur of women, the King feels only affection, mixed with tenderness and resignation, for this unattractive woman, who more and more resembles a little monkey, as she ages. But with the sense of duty which characterises him, he has always remained a model of conjugal virtue, a faithful and attentive husband. This exemplary attitude satisfies the moral conscience of the deeply loyal and honest man. But it torments the senses of the spirited and passionate being who has inherited the warm temperament of the Hanovers.
In the libertine England of the XVIIIth Century, which is frivolous, venal and elegant, the royal couple incarnates a completely “bourgeois” comportment. This would probably have delighted the subjects of Queen Victoria, one century later. But this reasonable temperance, the enemy of the luxury, extravagance and sin in which the English high aristocracy continuously indulges, with no qualms of conscience, at this time, makes the sovereigns look ridiculous, coarse and petty, in the eyes of high society. On the other hand, they appear severe, simple and good to the humblest of their subjects, for whom they like to multiply charitable acts. Each year, this Queen with the prudish and provincial soul, the only royal thing about her being her rank, and this King, whose passion for Botany and Agriculture has given him the nick-name of the “Farmer King”, personify Stability and Harmony in the eyes of the nation. No-one dreams that it could be any different.
No-one except their eldest son, the Prince of Wales, heir to the throne, who, as has been the custom in England for the last few generations, is the King’s worst enemy. Unlike his parents, he prefers pleasure to duty, and knows how to appreciate the luxury and excentricities of London life. In a city which has become a gigantic casino, where fortunes are won and lost each evening, he is, himself, covered in debt. But his laziness – visible in his ungraceful excess weight, despite his youth – does not stop him from interfering in politics. He maintains very close relations with Charles Fox, who holds the reins of the Whig Party and dreams of driving the Chariot of State in William Pitt’s place. Fox is a lively, witty little man, a brilliant orator, who fascinates the greats, both men and women, in spite of his ugliness and his sloppy dressing. Surrounded by his disciples, he never stops fustigating the King and, as a perfect agitator, even dares to prophesy the approaching end of his reign, which, in his eyes, has been one of boredom and mediocrity.
For some time now, nothing has been going right at Windsor Castle. To the dull and desperately monotonous life at Court, have succeeded anxiety and agitation. The King is acting strangely. Suffering from insomnia, he wakes his servants and his equerries at Dawn, to roam around the castle corridors and gardens with them, in his nightshirt. He stops only to pray, or to talk to dead or imaginary people. In front of his horrified wife, he proffers obscenities directed at the beautiful Lady Pembroke, lady-in-waiting to the Queen, whom he had loved in his youth, and who is today a very seductive grandmother, aged fifty.
Is the terrible rumour true? Has the impossible happened? Has the King gone mad? In the middle of October, a domestic is reported to have surprised the King in great conversation with a venerable oak tree, alias the King of Prussia, of which he had firstly seized, in the most cordial manner, a branch bending towards the ground, as if to shake its hand. The authenticity of this anecdote is doubtless contestable, for the servant in question had just been fired from the royal household. But on 5 November 1788, during a dinner at Windsor Castle, the signs of mental derangement are manifest: George III savagely attacks the Prince of Wales, and attempts to fracture his skull. His immense, globulous eyes, which he has inherited from his father and his grandfather, are injected with blood. He is frothing at the mouth. He is talking non-stop, vociferating and letting out inarticulate cries. There is no more doubt about the ill that has struck the sovereign: in everyone’s eyes, George III has really gone mad. England is about to know one of the most serious political crises of her History. Is he who can no longer rule really King? Will he be allowed to recover, when his illness is a stake in a game which stirs the passion for power in numerous ambitious hearts?
To be continued.