On 21 February 1801, the Reverend Thomas Willis, with whom George III has maintained permanent contact since 1789, is called to his bedside. The King is already in fear of again sinking into folly and confides to this visitor who is also his friend:
“I feel very ill, and I am getting weaker and weaker. I prayed to God all night, either to lead me to death, or to leave me all my reason… If it should be otherwise, the Regency would be inevitable.”
Willis tries to reassure him but his kind words are rapidly proven false. That same evening, the sovereign’s mind wanders, and he wiggles his hips around his bedchamber, partly draped in a nightshirt, which he had been unable to put on properly. When, in the middle of the night, he sends for Willis, he doesn’t even recognize the man who had left his side only a few hours earlier. After an hour-and-a-half, the Reverend nonetheless triumphs over his resistance, and manages to convince him to go back to bed. But he has scarcely lain down than he sits up suddenly, and demands to be taken to Queen Charlotte. There is no doubt, the King is again mad.
The next morning, the Duke of York and the new Prime Minister, Henry Addington, the first in the name of the Royal Family, the second in the name of the Government, decide to urgently call upon Dr John Willis to second his brother Thomas. John arrives in a hurry the same day. As soon as the King sees him, he recognizes the man who has always remained in his memory as one of his most terrible tormentors. Horrified, terrorised, he hopes to be able to avoid him by escaping into another room. But he is quickly caught. John Willis then forbids his illustrious patient to leave his bedchamber as long as his state has not improved. To impose his authority, he has two “nurses” from the Hoxton Asylum, who more willingly use violence than James Powder [quinine], brought in that same evening. On Monday 23 February 1801, the third brother in the Willis family, Dr Robert Darling, arrives in turn. Too young in 1789, he was not at Kew during the Regency crisis and doesn’t know the King. However, the family is not complete. Addington is reluctant to call upon their father, Dr Francis Willis, who has retained the reputation for being rough, uncultivated and violent. Further, he is now in his eighty-fourth year, and seems too old to assume such a responsibility. As for his former rival, Dr Richard Warren, he died in 1797, followed shortly after to the tomb by Sir George Baker.
While the three Willis brothers are imposing their control over the King’s bedchamber, the monarch’s state is worsening. On 24 February, after having been delirious all night without once recovering his reason, George III falls brutally into a coma. The King’s bedchamber, which only a few hours before, rang with his cries and his elucubrations, is soon in deathly silence. The Privy Council immediately orders that religious services be held and prayers be recited for the sovereign’s recovery. The Prince of Wales is jubilant. Once again, the spectre of the Regency, and perhaps even the English Crown, is haunting him. It flatters both the ambition of a man born for power, and the vanity of a being who is still fundamentally frivolous. Therefore, he loses no time in testing the ground and sounding minds. Rapidly, he sends for Addington. But the Prime Minister doesn’t know how to react to this disastrous situation, and seems to be losing control over the events. He has barely started to consecrate himself to his heavy task than the King’s illness has left him alone to take on the heavy responsibility of governing the Kingdom.
William Pitt, both cleverer and more brilliant than his successor, remains in fact, unofficially, the State’s strong man. It is really to him that the Prince of Wales addresses himself. But Pitt wants to avoid the situation degenerating into a Parliamentary crisis. He insists that the King’s malady not be a pretext for any political manoeuvring, and strongly advises His Royal Highness not to take advice from members of the Opposition. In exchange, he assures him that, if no other solution can be envisaged, that is to say, if the King does not recover, he would not oppose the Prince taking direction of a restrained Regency which conforms to the legislation voted in 1789. The Prince of Wales finally accepts Pitt’s conditions, which doesn’t please the members of the Whig Party, who are quite decided to benefit from the situation, anyway, with or without the help of their champion.
But their hopes wilt before blooming. Almost all of the political chiefs tacitly agree to avoid engaging Parliamentary debates on the King’s illness, as long as its true nature has not been discovered. When a thoughtless voice is raised to propose the examination of the doctors’ reports, as had been done in 1788, it is the Opposition’s illustrious Sheridan, himself, who has the audience suspended. Before lending himself to this about-face, he had pocketed a nice little sum of money, paid by Pitt in person. Indignant about this betrayal, the Leader of the Opposition, Charles Fox, leaves the room so as not to be associated with what he calls a machiavellian manoeuvre.
Meanwhile, the King is still between life and death. His reason can hardly lose itself farther into the world of delirium and incoherence. But in view of the physical weakening and the advanced age of their patient – he is sixty-three – his doctors fear that he might succumb from his malady this time. On 24 February 1801, he nevertheless regains consciousness after three days of absence, but without recovering his reason. Addington is then authorised to go to his bedside. The pitiful sight that he sees is sufficient to convince him that the King has completely lost his mind.
Shortly afterwards, at lunchtime, Lord Loughborough knocks at the Willises’ door. He also asks to be introduced into the King’s presence. He is given a categorical refusal, but this unexpected visitor refuses to retire without having obtained that for which he has come. He doesn’t much care about the King’s health. What he wants is to allow the abrogation of an agrarian law, voted the preceding year, by arguing royal consent. To do this, he must obtain George III’s signature in any way that he can. And as he is unable to get it in person from the sovereign, he asks Thomas Willis to get it for him.
To be continued.