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Death of a King: George III

He remains Britain’s longest ruling king but the real character of the monarch whose reign ended exactly two centuries ago remains shrouded by the long standing claim that he was mad. George III, whose time on the throne encompassed some of the biggest social changes seen in Britain for decades, died 200 years ago today.

The king’s end was sad and quiet. George had been living at Windsor Castle where, just before 9pm on January 29th 1820, he passed away with his second son, Frederick, at his side. For those who loved him, his death was in someways a relief for George’s later life had been plagued by ill health.

George III had suffered serious mental health issues several times in his adult life. However, in 1810 his ill health became acute – something he attributed to the death of his favourite daughter, Princess Amelia, in 1810. The Regency Act of 1811 put power, temporarily, in the hands of his eldest son, George, but the king never recovered. Within twelve months of the Prince Regent taking power, George III was living in seclusion at Windsor Castle as his mental and physical health declined rapidly.

He became increasingly unaware of changes taking place around him and may well have developed some form of dementia. Major events in his life remains a mystery to him. When his beloved wife, Queen Charlotte, died in 1818, he showed no signs of understanding that she had passed away. In January 1820, their fourth son, Edward, Duke of Kent, also died but by then George was unable to communicate with anyone. He perhaps never knew that Edward had left a baby daughter, Victoria, who would one day inherit his throne.

Instead, as the last days of George III were lived out behind the ancient stone walls of Windsor, he was labelled in the wider world as a ‘mad’ king. The tag stuck. For generations of school children, he was the mad monarch who had seen Britain lose her American colonies. But behind the headlines was a far more measured story.

Medical experts now believe George lived with some kind of porphyria, an inherited blood condition which can come on rapidly and cause symptoms including mental confusion. Modern historians have argued that George’s interest in social reforms including his support for agricultural changes which led to an expansion of England’s rural economy as well as his backing for scientific projects show a depth of political knowledge missing from earlier interpretations. However, his opposition to the abolition of the slave trade and his determination to hang on to his American realms remain key planks in the argument that George’s intransigence and opposition to modernisation were instrumental in weakening the power of the Crown.

Two hundred years on, the king they called mad is viewed more sympathetically. Two centuries ago, his death came quietly and did little to change the political status quo of the time as power had already been vested in his successor for almost ten years. In the 21st century, George is an interesting example of kingship and a reminder that the personality of those called to rule can change the course of history.

About author

Lydia Starbuck is Jubilee and Associate Editor at Royal Central and the main producer and presenter of the Royal Central Podcast and Royal Central Extra. Lydia is also a pen name of June Woolerton who is a journalist and writer with over twenty years experience in TV, radio, print and online. Her latest book, A History of British Royal Jubilees, is out now. Her new book, The Mysterious Death of Katherine Parr, will be published in March 2024. June is an award winning reporter, producer and editor. She's appeared on outlets including BBC 5 Live, BBC Radio Ulster and BBC Local Radio and has also helped set up a commercial radio station. June is also an accomplished writer with a wide range of material published online and in print. She is the author of two novels, published as e-books. She is also a marriage registrar and ceremony celebrant.