In the first week of November 1788, Richard Warren, a doctor sent by the Prince of Wales, diagnoses the King’s illness without having been received by him. Queen Charlotte, without news, awaits the doctor’s visit for a whole day, in vain. Unable to wait any longer, she has Sir George Baker, one of the King’s doctors, called, but he refuses to speak to her alone. She then turns to Mr Hawkins, the official surgeon of the royal household, but he too remains silent. All now refer to Warren, but decline the responsibility of speaking in his name. However, Warren cannot be found. He had immediately gone to see the Prince of Wales, and it is to him that he delivers his terrible prognosis. The King will certainly not recover. Even if he survives, he will never recover his intellectual faculties. Shattered and humiliated, the Queen will never pardon Warren this double affront. But she has to submit when, a few days later, it is made known to her that, in the opinion of all of the doctors, she should move out of her apartments, and stay away from her husband. From this moment on, the sovereign is entirely delivered into the hands of his doctors, who will unfortunately aggravate his sufferings more than they will relieve them.
Immediately, Warren’s ill-intentioned information is carefully transmitted to London. Contributing to the agitation in people’s minds, it makes even more pressing the question of the Regency, which cannot be declared without having been voted by Parliament. But the vote in question cannot be proposed without the King’s consent. The Prince of Wales tries to avoid this procedural difficulty by putting the Houses before the fait accompli. He is supported in his efforts by Charles Fox. As soon as he returns from Italy, where he has been pursuing a love affair with Mrs Armistead, a former mistress of the Prince of Wales, Fox is quite determined to seize the chance offered him.
George III is still suffering from delirium, and the doctors fear that he has water on the brain, or that the membrane might sustain an ossification. They prescribe only quinine, or what is then called “James Powder”, which is more or less the aspirin of the XVIIIth Century. On the stiff and swollen members of their patient, they place cataplasms and unguents, without observing any amelioration, quite the contrary.
Meanwhile, the official circles prepare themselves for a change of government. On 9 November 1788, the excitement is at its peak. Ill informed, the playwright, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who is also a Member of Parliament and one of the most illustrious leaders of the Opposition, sets off the rumour that the King has died during the night. Already, the Prince of Wales’ partisans are distributing the different Ministeries among themselves. But that’s going a bit fast, for George III has survived the night, in spite of spending part of it in a coma. When he regains consciousness, his mind even seems considerably calmed. He asks his faithful equerry, Robert Fulke Greville, how long he has been confined to bed. He attentively observes those who are watching over him, and several times gives them a little smile. Then he rises, and completely in his right mind, lets them know that it is time that his linen was changed. A vague hope of a cure is then held, supported by the fact that the days were going by without Warren’s fatal prognosis occurring.
The Opposition then changes tactics. It is no longer enough that the King believes himself to be married to Lady Pembroke, or that he is certain of having invented the telescope, through which he likes to contemplate the Hanover of his ancestors. It is not enough that he has seen London submerged under water, and that he has found his son Octave, who died in 1783, at the age of four, very much alive. To give more weight to these unfortunately true facts, other anecdotes are invented, which seem even more picturesque. The beautiful and perfidious Duchess of Devonshire, a passionate admirer of Fox, spreads the most absurd stories: the King wanders naked in the corridors of Windsor Castle, while playing the flute; he makes Dr Warren sit on his lap to contemplate the stars with him. Among the People, the sovereign’s folly is attributed to the supernatural. The phantoms of the brothers David and Robert Perreau, two presumed forgers whom he had sent to the scaffold in 1776, are supposed to have so persecuted his soul, that they had succeeded in making him lose his reason. As for the official health bulletins, they are as laconic as they are imprecise, and do not contribute to the calming of people’s minds.
At Windsor, the King again rapidly shows serious nervous troubles. He has become violent again, and above all, refractory to the presence of the doctors. On 19 November, after only two hours of sleep, he talks for around eighteen hours, without stopping for more than a few seconds. Dr Warren finally indicates to him that he shouldn’t become agitated like that, but his patient boldly retorts:
“I know that as well as you do. Cure me then of what is only my complaint! Only then, will I feel better.”
From now on, George III has difficulty chewing and refuses to eat. He also refuses to be shaven, or only on one side of his face, which makes his uncertain and pitiful allure even more grotesque.
The doctors are all the more powerless in that they are trying, as well as they can, to respect royal protocol. Their situation is hardly enviable. To treat a mad King is doubtless a privilege, but it is a privilege which is difficult to assume. The publication in the Press of rumours which contradict one another, has finally discredited them in the eyes of the public. They receive threatening anonymous letters, and also suffer pressure from the highest ranks, whose opposing interests are all tributary to the King’s health. In the last week of November, another one of their colleagues is added to their number, Sir Lucas Peppys. He displays a lot more optimism than Warren, and he is much more cordial and compassionate toward the Queen.
To be continued.