Episode 19: Curious King George

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Despite being one of the longest-reigning British monarchs as well as wildly popular among his own people, King George III gets a bad rap as the “mad king who lost America.” In truth the story of George’s life is touching and sad. After dealing with not one but two world wars that occurred on his watch, as well as two world-shaking revolutions in America and France, George was ultimately felled by a mysterious illness that affected his body as well as his mind. Signs of his recurring malady appeared as early as 1765, but in 1810, the beginning of the second decade, the King was finally unable to discharge his royal duties. Supplanted by his son (the future King George IV) as regent, George’s illness ended an entire era of British history, the Georgian Era, and began another, the Regency. But this is more than a story of politics and power. It’s a story of a family, struggling to deal with the far-reaching effects of a difficult and ultimately tragic illness whose nature and origin is still debated more than 200 years later.

Historian Sean Munger shines a light on the personal and family stories of King George and the British royals during the 1810s, including eyewitness accounts of the King’s condition and his often curious behavior. In this episode you’ll be thrust into the midst of several acrimonious royal family disputes, you’ll learn to fear the King’s doctors and their straitjackets, and you’ll find out why a blue-stained chamber pot is such a contentious historical artifact. At the end of it you may even have a bit of sympathy for old George and his long-suffering family. Far from being “the mad king,” George III emerges as a historical personality who must be judged on his own terms.

(Some background music for this episode licensed CC3.0 by Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston).

Additional Materials About This Episode

(Above) Portrait of King George III at the beginning of his reign, about 1760. He is pictured in coronation robes.

(Above) Princess Amelia, whose death in November 1810 was the precipitating factor in George’s descent into his longest (and final) period of mental illness.

(Above) George III as he appeared in his “Gandalf the White” period, about 1818. He was blind and deaf by this time.

(Above) Trailer for the 1994 film The Madness of King George. The film focuses only on George’s episode between 1788 and 1789, and does not deal with the most serious period of his illness, in the Second Decade.

All images are believed in to be in the public domain.

2 thoughts on “Episode 19: Curious King George

  1. While he could be stubborn I have always respected the memory of America’s last King. George faced a major civil disorder crisis in 1780, which is the basis for Charles Dickens’ other historical novel, “Barnaby Rudge”: the Gordon, “No Popery” Riots when for a few days the city of London was basically in the hands of a mob led by Lord George Gordon, an anti-Catholic nobleman. It was thought that the King and his ministers were going to reduce anti-Catholic laws as a step towards reconciliation with Rome (actually, and sadly, King George never had that intention, taking his role as the central figure of the Anglican Church very seriously). But George proved he deserved his role as monarch in this dreadful moment. The mob was making serious motions to move from London towards Windsor, where the King and Court were. George was begged by his cabinet to leave Windsor, at that point the seat of his full government, and head for a safer location. Sternly, and knowing his duty to his subjects, George told his cabinet he refused to leave Windsor Castle. Supposedly he said, “If I desert Windsor, George Gordon is ruler of England!” His firmness translated to his ministers – soon they stiffened resistance in London (aided, ironically, by the Lord Mayor John Wilkes – formerly a thorn in the side of King George, but now showing a determination to end the rioting with force. The riots was smashed as a result, and the government to considering the problems of the revolt of the colonies, and war with France and Spain.

    Liked by 1 person

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