What History and "Queen Charlotte" Tell Us About George III's Illness


From the earliest episodes of "Bridgerton" (and, depending on your high school history classes long before that) we've known that King George III has been affected for years by a serious illness. The prequel series "Queen Charlotte" dives more into George's illness from a young age, revealing more about what's going on and how it affects his relationships.

Although the "Bridgerton" universe takes artistic license with plenty of historical events, there's also some truth to its depiction of this particular storyline.

King George's Illness in "Queen Charlotte" and "Bridgerton"

"Queen Charlotte" explores in more depth the early days of the illness that would come to affect George's life so much. The first indication that something is wrong comes on his and Charlotte's wedding night, when he abruptly drops her off at her own palace and leaves her completely alone. Over the next few episodes, we learn more from his point of view: he's suffering from a variety of symptoms that include manic episodes that his doctors cannot seem to diagnose and that their rudimentary treatments fail to cure. He feels enormous guilt over his secret, which is known only to his mother and a few trusted members of the household, and admits to feeling unworthy of Charlotte. When she does eventually learn the truth, she vows to help him as much as she can.

By the time we get around to the era of the main "Bridgerton" series, George is unwell more often than he's lucid. Charlotte is very matter-of-fact about it, but in the rare instances when she lets her guard down, it's clear that the situation is heartbreaking for her. There are moments of joy — a Season 1 scene where he has a few hours of lucidity and invites her for an affectionate dinner — and heartbreaking one (said dinner ends badly when George believes their deceased daughter is still alive). In the second season, Edwina Sharma earns the Queen's trust and respect when she smooths over an awkward moment when George escapes his caretakers and barges in, giddily believing it to be his and Charlotte's wedding day.

King George's Illness in Real Life

These storylines are dramatized from the life of the real George III, who has become known by the dismissive nickname "Mad King George." Historical records suggest that George began showing signs of illness as early as the 1760s, although it was not recorded in any intense bouts until the 1780s. Episodic manic behaviors characterized his mental illness, which steadily worsened over the years. In 1810, following physical health problems and the death of his favorite daughter Amelia (the daughter mentioned in a "Bridgerton" episode), George relapsed again. This time, his illness was so severe and prolonged that the Regency Act of 1811 was instituted, making his son, the future George IV, the monarch in all but name.

Today, the exact nature of George's illness remains hotly debated by historians, psychologists, and others. The original suggestion was that he suffered from porphyria, a genetic disease that can cause mental changes, such as anxiety, hallucinations, or mental confusion. A 2005 study published in "The Lancet" found high levels of arsenic (from an unknown source) in a hair sample from George III's remains, which some scientists suggested could have triggered a disorder such as porphyria.

Today, a large contingent of modern experts believe that George's symptoms actually lined up more with what we now know as bipolar disorder, which medical professionals of the time would not have even had a word for, let alone had effective treatments for.