Throughout the Summer of 1788, the King’s health had not been excellent, without anyone being particularly alarmed about it. He was mostly suffering from digestive troubles, which sometimes led to very painful spasms, and his doctors had diagnosed a simple attack of gout. On their advice, George III had spent several weeks in the little township of Cheltenham, famous at the time for the curative virtues of its waters. He returned to Windsor on 16 August, enchanted with this little holiday, after which he was feeling perfectly well.
Despite a pain in his face, which had deprived him of sleep for a few days, the month of September passed by peacefully. And the King had started to hunt and gallop through the countryside again, just like he had been doing for so many years now. While out, he liked to pop in unexpectedly at nearby farms, and chat about his passion for Botany and Agriculture, as simply as possible with those whom he found there. He generally received his Ministers in the afternoon, and spent his evenings playing cards, watching the Queen embroider, or listening to music, which he cherished the most among the Arts.
When, at the beginning of October, he is again suffering from violent colics and develops hives, there is still nothing to indicate the gravity of his case. On Thursday 16th, he has a series of convulsions after an outing in the rain, during which he caught cold. On the following days, his state barely improves, particularly as his first neurological troubles appear. They can be seen through difficulties in writing, dressing and, above all, in concentration. Already very weak, on the 20th, he is unable to succeed in an attempt to answer letters sent by William Pitt. On the 22nd, he starts to become really delirious for the first time. He is annoyed with Sir George Baker, his official doctor, who, the day before, had been unfortunate enough to prescribe a large dose of senna to his royal patient, to relieve him of his persistent constipation. But the remedy’s effect had been more rapid than expected. George III spent the whole night on the toilet, for his own discomfort and for the misfortune of Sir George, whom he detained for three hours, heaping vehement reproaches on him.
Despite precautions taken to keep it secret, mocking rumours begin to circulate. It is said that the famous actress, Mrs Siddons, has received a signed blank cheque from the King. After having sufficiently made fun of the royal parcimony, everyone immediately interprets this strange attitude as an evident sign of mental alienation. And the official appearance of the sovereign at the “grand rising” of the 24 October, is impatiently awaited. Sir George Baker had advised against it at first. But, decidedly ill-inspired, he had just sold 18,000 pounds worth of State Bonds. Public opinion sees in this the irrefutable proof of the aggravation of the King’s health, which leads to a spectacular drop in the Stock Market. George III therefore goes to Saint James, and it is naively hoped that his presence will reassure those present, despite his sick look and his uncombed hair. His voice is husky to the point of seeming strange, while his word flow is inhabitually rapid.
Officially, George III is still the victim of a simple attack of gout, but the King, himself, is not fooled. With moving lucidity, he is doubtless the first to understand that his mind is tottering, and that his body is abandoning him, all at the same time. His sight has already considerably worsened. Soon, his hearing fails. On the evening of 29 October, he declares to the Orchestra Conductor, who has just conducted a concert of Haendel in his presence:
“Sir, I fear that I shall never be able to listen to music any more. It is as if it were affecting my head, itself.”
As for Sir George Baker, exhausted by these long weeks of royal malady, he is on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and can only admit that he is unable to do anything. From the beginning of his illness, the King’s state has not ceased to grow worse. He has lost weight with surprising rapidity, and has become so weak that he needs to use a walking stick to get around. His accesses of delirium are now daily occurrences, and the excitation which animates him is such, that it is impossible for him to sleep. As well as this, on 5 November, his aggressive comportment toward his eldest son definitively confirms the true nature of his illness, in everyone’s eyes. There is no longer any question of hiding from the public that the King has gone mad, even if this word is pudically not pronounced.
The Prince of Wales is delighted with this situation. His father’s folly is a providential event for him, and he plans on profiting from it as rapidly as possible. To the delicious perspective of becoming the master of the kingdom, or at least its Regent, there is added another, which is not negligeable: that of at last paying his debts and giving himself up freely to his own pleasure. The austere William Pitt has effectively refused to ask Parliament for the necessary credits to resolve this financial problem. The royal malady is also the occasion to take vengeance for this humiliation.
As early as the first week of November, the Prince of Wales had brought to Windsor a doctor who is very much in fashion in the worldly milieux of the Opposition: Richard Warren. For a few days already, Doctor William Heberden has been assisting Sir George Baker. They both welcome this third colleague with open arms. But the King refuses to receive him. To his request for an audience, he objects that no man can serve two masters. He hastens to add:
“You are the Prince of Wales’ doctor, you cannot be mine!”
Dr Warren effectively does not meet the King that day. He satisfies himself with eavesdropping, from behind a door, on the elucubrations of George III. Then he asks his colleagues about the sovereign’s pulse, judged to be high. This seems to have been sufficient for him to form a diagnosis that same evening. All await it with impatience, and he is aware of its capital value in the political stakes.
To be continued.