Royal row continues as unearthed letters shine light on George III’s infamous ‘madness’
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George is well known as the monarch who fought and lost the American War of Independence, as well as the sovereign who ruled when Napoleon Bonaparte was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo. However, his reign was overshadowed by his severe mental illness. During the last ten years of his life, he was put in a straitjacket, chained to a chair and force-fed medication. A regency was established in 1810, and his eldest son — later King George IV — took over.
Yet, the exact source of his erratic behaviour has been a hot topic for decades between historians.
Chemical analysis of the king’s hair led scientists to believe that he had been poisoned with arsenic, which triggered an inherited predisposition to porphyria — a metabolic disease which causes toxins to build up in the blood.
This would have caused his urine to turn red and cause temporary mental disturbance among other symptoms.
In 2005, historians suggested the king’s doctors may have caused his health to decline by treating him with arsenic doses.
However, in 2018, a new study put forward another theory.
Published in the Plos One journal, researchers put the monarch’s letters, written during his 40-year reign, into a computer to analyse the language used.
The results suggested George may have had “acute mania,” which is a hyperactive condition, akin to the manic phase of bipolar disorder.
The researchers taught the computer to differentiate writing features between those with and those without mental disorders — these include the complexity of sentences, how rich vocabulary is and the frequency or variety of words.
Comparisons between the king’s letters from when he was mentally sound and those where he struggled exposed a set of telling differences.
Neurology professor from St George’s medical school, University of London, Peter Garrand explained: “King George wrote very differently when unwell, compared to when he was healthy.
“In the manic periods, we could see that he used less-rich vocabulary and fewer adverbs.
“He repeated words less often and there was a lower degree of redundancy, or wordiness.”
The researchers also compared writings to external influences which could have altered George’s writing such as wartime and peacetime.
However, there was no difference in the language the king used at this time, which indicates the differences were due to mental illness.
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Professor Garrard claimed in a statement: “In the modern classification of mental illness, acute mania now appears to be the diagnosis that fits best with the available behavioural data.”
Other studies have also debunked the porphyria hypothesis, as there is little evidence to suggest the monarch had discoloured urine.
Professor Garrard also claimed that the porphyria diagnosis is “thoroughly discredited”.
The expert and his team were not alone in thinking George may have suffered from bipolar.
A 2010 paper from the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh claimed: “Our re-evaluation of the nature of George III’s clinical condition has indicated that he most probably suffered from recurrent bipolar disorder, with at least three episodes of acute mania and with chronic mania and possible dementia during the last decade of his life.
“This conclusion is in agreement with previous psychiatric evaluations, which concluded that George III suffered from recurrent manic depressive psychosis.”
This report examined the key bouts of illness George suffered from in his life.
When 27, in 1765, George had a chronic chest infection, although few notes have been found on the matter.
Retrospectively, it appears he may have had mental health issues at the time as the possibility of enacting a regency began.
Then in 1788 he had an episode of obstructive jaundice and by October was suffering with acute mania, prompting a regency bill to pass through the House of Commons.
In 1795, he had a severe bilious attack, but he remained in good mental health until 1801, when a relapse of bipolar disorder struck again.
Another short episode struck when he was 65, in 1804, when he suffered from six months of acute mania.
Although the regency discussions were briefly put to bed, George’s vision then deteriorated between 1804 and 1808. By 1810, he was suffering from fluctuating chronic psychosis and possible dementia.
Regency was enacted in 1811 and he died in 1820.
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