The True Story Behind King George III's Mental Illness
In Netflix’s latest drama, Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story, fact and fiction are woven together to deliver a poignant message about mental health. The series follows a young princess forced into an arranged marriage with the King of England. These newlyweds share surprisingly steamy chemistry, but their blossoming romance is upended when the Queen learns that her husband is battling a secret ailment.
The show—which premiered on May 4th—is helmed by Shonda Rhimes, who also created the original Bridgerton series. This spinoff stars India Ria Amarteifio as Queen Charlotte and Corey Mylchreest as King George. Since its premiere, fans have devoured the series, but its shocking twist has left many wondering if the story is based on real-life history.
For the most part, Queen Charlotte is pure fiction. The characters' names reflect historic monarchs, but the plot is fabricated. A key similarity, however, is King George’s declining mental health, which is depicted in the series as manic behavior. One episode, for instance, shows him standing naked in the palace garden while yelling for Venus to come down from the sky.
Despite the king's clear need for assistance, the characters around him are ill-equipped to help—although to be fair, the series is set in the 1700s, long before mental health professionals were established. As such, George never receives a formal diagnosis; instead, he’s simply referred to as “mad,” and is subjected to inhumane remedies. Though many people in his orbit are concerned for his well-being, George’s mother, Dowager Princess Augusta, dismisses their fears to keep her son in power. In Episode Four, she says, “The king is not mad. The king is merely exhausted from holding the greatest nation in the world on his shoulders.” As the series unfolds, George and Charlotte depend on one another to navigate his mental health episodes. While some suggest he should be shunned or hidden away, Charlotte champions his dignity. In the end, her love for him never wavers.
In actuality, King George's story is quite different. The real monarch ascended the throne when he was 22, and he ruled Britain until he died in 1820. According to a report by the National Institute of Health, King George was considered mentally stable for the majority of his life. His first bout of illness was recorded in 1788, when he was 50 years old. The NIH's research claims that the king experienced hypomania, which then worsened in the fall. He reportedly experienced relapses in 1795, 1801, and 1804. An additional study published in PLOS One describes his manic episodes as “agitation, rambling incoherent speech, and episodes of violence and sexual impropriety.” In 1810, King George reportedly fell into a "persisting relapse," where he experienced chronic mania and possible dementia. His condition remained this way until he died at 82 years old. During the final decade of his life, King George was declared mentally unstable, leaving his eldest son, Prince George, to carry out his royal duties.
Over the years, historians have debated the nature of the king's illness. According to Elle, a 1960s study conducted by psychiatrists Ida Macalpine and Richard Hunter claimed that George had acute porphyria, which impacts the nervous system. Years later, researcher Timothy Peters claimed their diagnosis was incorrect in an issue of Clinical Medicine. In 2013, Peter Garrard, a researcher at St. George’s University of London, agreed with Peters, telling the BBC that the porphyria theory is “completely dead in the water.” Instead, he argues that King George endured a psychiatric illness. Present-day historians think it’s likely that King George suffered from bipolar disorder, which can cause unusual changes in behavior, mood, and activity. The modern definition seems to align with King George's reported symptoms.
Even so, the hard truth is, the illness that King George endured may never be confirmed. The necessary details are lost in history. Queen Charlotte merely fills in the gaps with a harrowing tale about love, mental health, and supporting those in need.
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