At the Court of the Mad King
Hello, all! This post may be rather less organized than intended, since I’m all in a flurry packing to begin my author tour extravaganza. I leave for Boston in, er, an hour, to read from my new book, “The Seduction of the Crimson Rose”, and from there on to various other cities (if anyone’s in Boston, I’ll be at the Harvard Coop tonight at 7:00!). Flurry and disorganization, however, are entirely appropriate for what I intended to write about today: the madnesses of King George.
The book on which I am currently working (still untitled), takes place in 1804 at the court of George III, where my heroine is a maid of honor to Queen Charlotte. Has anyone else ever noticed that historical fiction seems to make a leap from THE madness of King George in 1788 (the one popularized in film) to the Regency? And yet, there is a twenty-three year stretch between that first madness and the Regency, twenty-three years where court life went on much as usual. Twenty-three years in which the King went mad again… and again, and, even more miraculously, recovered and continued to rule.
The King suffered relapses in 1801 and 1804. On both occasions, the same symptoms reappeared. The King suffered from what his intimates referred to as “hurry,” a tendency to speak quickly and unceasingly, until the royal voice grew hoarse. He became coarse in his speech and vulgar in his attentions to women. Princess Caroline (no slouch in the vulgarity department herself) later claimed that the King had chased her around the room with lascivious intent, and there is also some question, reading between the lines of letters, as to whether he made sexual advances towards his own daughter and staunchest supporter, the Princess Sophia.
In his madnesses, the King was simultaneously a pathetic and a grotesque figure. The treatments inflicted on him, while considered the norm in the “mad-doctoring” profession at the time, sound horrifying to modern ears. The Willis brothers, immortalized in “The Madness of King George”, applied hot vinegar to his feet, blisters to various parts of his body, dosing him with preparations of quinine, musk, digitalis, camphor, and emetics of tartarized antimony so strong that the King prayed to be allowed to die. Sometimes the sores left by the blistering treatment supporated and festered, leaving the King in indescribable agony. By the illness of 1804, the King flat out refused to have anything to do with the Willises. Two of his younger sons, the Dukes of Kent and Cumberland, barred the doors to the Willises and called instead for Dr. Simmons of St. Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics. Simmons’, methods, however, were much the same as those of the Willis brothers, including liberal use of the straight waistcoat. If the King hadn’t been mad before, it’s a wonder the pain of his treatment didn’t drive him mad. (That picture, by the way, is of Dr. Simmons).
Astoundingly, the treatments worked—or, at least, the King recovered—in 1788, 1801, and 1804. In 1801, the King credited his recovery to a pillow of hops suggested by Addington. On such small things did the fate of the nation rest. It becomes even more incredible and frightening when you consider that England was at war with France and the King’s signature required to ratify vital treaties and legislation. Although the Prince of Wales behaved rather badly throughout the whole affair, often working more to exacerbate his father’s illness than cure it, there was some justification to his complaint that it was absurd to have the country ruled from a straightjacket.
I did mean to also write about court life in general—aside from George’s mad moments. The later Georgian court represents an interesting transitional period where power was shifting towards Parliament and the traditional avenues of influence (personal service to the King and Queen) no longer yielded the fruits they once had. Fanny Burney, for example, could not even use her personal position with the Queen to successfully advance her brother’s career. During that period, maids of honor (like my heroine) went from living in the royal residences with the monarchs as an integral part of court life to “living out,” and just coming in when needed to stand behind the Queen on public occasions.
I was most struck by the bizarre mix of formality and informality one sees—the royal princesses had all sorts of gushing, affectionate nicknames for their attendants; the Queen cried on Burney’s shoulder; the King liked popping in on friends in Kew and Windsor unannounced. But, at the same time, the Queen refused to allow a pregnant attendant to sit in contravention of etiquette and, when the King popped in on his friends, they had to stand with their backs against the wall lest they accidentally turn their backs on the King.
Has anyone else looked into the court of George III? I’d be interested to hear your takes on court life, particularly during that stretch between his first and last madness. My own sense is that Burney’s journals, especially that one famous passage on court etiquette, tend to get over-emphasized, but I’d love to hear other opinions on the matter!