The Opposition is getting impatient. Stimulated by the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Devonshire, it fans the already burning debate about the Regency, claiming that the King is in fact more and more ill, and that all hope of a cure must be definitively forgotten. Never has the power of the doctors been so great. The future of the greatest people seems to depend upon their diagnoses. But the doctors themselves, divided by rumbling rivalities, are unable to agree. At the two extremes are Willis and Warren. The first incarnates the absolute certainty of a total recovery, while the second refuses to envisage the slightest possibility of a remission. If Willis is right, the Regency will escape the Prince of Wales’ clutches and Charles Fox will not take over from Prime Minister William Pitt. If Warren is right, the contrary will be inevitable and probably permanent.
Under pressure to assure definitive victory, Fox and the Prince of Wales attempt a final effort to have the Regency Bill voted. But Pitt is quite decided to defend the King’s cause, which is also his own. His caustic eloquence disarms his adversaries more than once. Above all, he wants to gain time. He proposes the creation of a Commission destined to seek out the precedents from which inspiration might be taken. He confronts Willis’ competence with that of Warren, which he of course judges to be inferior. Then follows a furiously impassioned debate which is prolonged throughout the whole of December 1788.
Each of the Parties throws the optimistic or pessimistic reports of the different doctors in each others faces. The pressure that is put on them stirs up their own quarrels. Most of them, jealous of Willis’ increasing ascendant and worried about their own fate, soon refuse to recognize his competences, arguing that he is not a Member of the Royal Doctors’ College. But Willis has a very strong character and does not allow himself to be moved by the daily attacks directed against him. Supported by Queen Charlotte, he is determined to play a major role in his patient’s recovery. To arrive at this end, he does not hesitate to crowd out his colleagues. Soon, he forbids them to go to the King’s bedside in his absence, on the pretext that their visits are contributing to George III’s nervous agitation.
At the end of their tether, wounded as much in their pride as in their ambition, Baker and Warren decide to manifest their disapproval on 16 December, by refusing to sign the official health bulletin, which is now drawn up by Willis. The preceding night, George III, who has been suffering from insomnia since the beginning of his malady, was able to sleep six hours in a row. Enboldened by such progress, Willis proposes officially announcing that “the King had an excellent night”. But the formula in question seems too enthusiastic to Baker and Warren who prefer: “The King had a good night.”
Willis finally wins the battle, but the incident comes to Parliamentary ears. It immediately contributes to inflaming the debate. Could it be possible that the official bulletin does not represent the sovereign’s real state? Could it be possible that Members of the Royal College have accepted to sign a report that they know to be false? Baker and Warren are caught in their own trap. Like their colleagues, they protest that they had never signed anything which had not seemed to them to be true, and Pitt is delighted to win points so easily.
At Kew, it is true that the King’s state is improving as best it can. But George III is far from being cured. His abnormally rapid pulse is still a subject for worry. In the hope of reducing and regulating his heart beats, he is now prescribed six daily doses of digitaline. The therapeutic virtues of this substance, which owes its name to the flower from which it is extracted, had been discovered only three years earlier by Dr Withering. So George III is among the first patients to benefit from a treatment which is still used today in some cardiac cases. Unfortunately, the doctors who assist him are not always so well inspired. On Warren’s orders, they continue to apply salt, mustard and cantharides to his wounds. His sufferings are therefore even more intolerable, and it has become very painful for him to sit down or to move from one room to another.
The Willises, father and son, condemn these practices, without admitting that they, themselves, are terrible torturers. In the third week of December, George III again displays such agitation that he refuses to sleep, and on the morning of 20 December, Willis estimes that it is necessary to punish him for having slept only two-and-a-half hours. The sovereign is hardly awake than the straightjacket is forcibly put on him. He will only be delivered at lunch time. All morning, his servants and his equerries are witnesses to a very painful sight. The King, who is tied up in a way that prevents him from moving any of his members, seems to seek refuge in the memories of his lost happiness. He calls upon the image of Amelia, his youngest daughter, then aged five, who is also his favourite. With sobs in his voice, he murmurs:
“Why don’t you come to help your father? Why must a King suffer such a horrible condition? I hate all doctors, but most of all Willis, who treats me as if I were mad.”
Then he adds:
“Digby, Greville, good men that you are, come and free me! Take this devilish thing off me!”
But his pleas are in vain. John Willis, who has heard them, contents himself with concluding that the patient’s state is worsening, and that it would soon be necessary to administer a dose of quinine to him.
To be continued.