The King’s great age, the weakness of his constitution, and the handicaps given to his poor body by old age, prevent anyone from hoping for a recovery this time. So it is without much difficulty that the Prince of Wales, whose waistline has not ceased to expand since his youth, busies himself with getting the Regency Bill passed. After having reassured the holders of official posts who fear losing them, as is often the case when a reign changes, he succeeds in obtaining the backing of the Minister of Justice. The ceremony of investiture is celebrated with great pomp on 5 February 1811, at Carlton House. The future George IV, then aged forty-eight, becomes the master of the Kingdom.
Left to his own devices, George III will spend the rest of his life within the walls of Windsor, without ever recovering his reason. In April 1811, he declares to his son Adolf, who has come to visit him, that he does not understand why he is not allowed to go to see Lady Pembroke, when everyone knows that he is married to her. The elderly Countess has never ceased to haunt the sovereign’s heart, and is among the many beings who people his imagination now. Several years later, his real spouse, Queen Charlotte, passes away at Kew, on 17 November 1818. But George III has no longer been asking about her for a long time. He will know nothing of this disappearance. Only the names of those who have died years before come back to his memory.
It is a very sad sight, this King who has outlived his reign, wandering through the corridors of Windsor, dressed in a violet dressing-gown, a fur hat on his head, and with a long white beard. When he is not having a conversation with an imaginary interlocutor, he prides himself on playing the harp or the piano, or else remains prostrate, with his hands on his head, for hours at a time. Only the Star of the Order of the Garter pinned on his chest shows that this wreck is the King of England. On 29 January 1820, he at last breathes his last breath, at the age of eighty- two. The phantom that he had become leaves this world, body and soul this time.
During his lifetime, none of the doctors who tried to treat him was able to discern the real nature of his ill. And for a long time, posterity will hold the memory of a King for whom the exigencies of royalty had been too heavy. At the beginning of the XXth Century, doctors and historians attempted to explain his illness in psychological terms. They considered that King George III was suffering from a maniaco-depressive psychosis. His natural indecision, his severity toward himself, his affective and sexual frustrations are all elements that had contributed to his mental instability. The physical symptoms of his malady were relegated to the background. So, his high pulse rate, his colics, his croaky voice were only interpreted as the consequences of his depressive state. His worrying stupor, the insensitivity in his hands and feet, in fact all of his sufferings, seemed only to be manifestations of attacks of hysteria. But the fundamental error in this analysis is precisely to have interverted the causes and the effects. The sovereign’s physiological disorders are in no way the consequences of his mental disorder.
The truth is that a rapid pulse, exanthema, yellow or blood-injected eyes, swollen feet and hands, constipation, urine coloured red are all symptoms that lead to the supposition that George III was suffering from porphyria, a very rare, hereditary illness which was only really studied in the 1930’s. It consists of a trouble of the porphyric metabolism which provokes a red pigmentation in the blood. If this pigment develops too much, the urines are of an abnormal colour, and the nervous system can be poisoned in its totality, including the brain. George III therefore suffered a particularly exacerbated form of this malady, which went as far as making him go mad.
Historians have attempted to establish the genealogy of this hereditary trouble. Their conclusions show that it could have touched no fewer than two dynasties of the Kingdom of England. The Stuarts could have transmitted the malady to the Hanovers through the granddaughter of James VI of Scotland, Sophia of Hanover, the mother of George I. Apart from George III’s madness, knowledge of this genetic illness permits the elucidation of some of his ancestors’ deaths which have remained mysterious for a long time.
Everything leads us to believe that the premature disappearances of the Prince of Wales in 1612, James VI of Scotland [James I of England] in 1625, the Duchess d’Orleans, Henrietta Maria of England [Charles II of England’s sister], in 1670, and George III’s own sister, Queen Caroline Mathilda of Denmark and Norway, in 1775, were not caused by poison, as has been thought for a long time. These four illustrious people could in fact have succumbed to a violent and unexpected attack of porphyria. But unfortunate King George was the one who endured the longest, the most terrible and the most humiliating sufferings. Further, porphyria not only took away his reason. It also made him lose his crown.