IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

What is King George III's illness on 'Queen Charlotte'? A historian explains

“Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story” touches on the inner turmoil and mental health of the late monarch.

Shonda Rhimes’s “Bridgerton” spinoff “Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story” has officially hit Netflix and takes its plot to territory only briefly charted in previous seasons: The former king of the United Kingdom, George III.

Up until “Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story,” King George III appeared in random spurts in the world based on Julia Quinn’s romantic stories.

Right away, it’s clear he is a character the queen is determined to shelter away. Each time he bursts into a room in a nightgown, actor Golda Rosheuvel’s version of the queen signals for guards to drag him off as he jabbers away incoherently, leaving viewers with a slim understanding of his situation.

With “Queen Charlotte,” the curtain is finally pulled back, and younger versions of Queen Charlotte (India Amarteifio) and George III (Corey Mylchreest) step to the fore. The spinoff dives into the circumstances of the monarch to reveal his long-debated — never officially — diagnosed mental illness and the effect it had on the young royals’ marriage and roles.

Still, this season leaves behind various questions, including what it was George III struggled with exactly and if, for all of his treatments, he ever made a complete recovery.

Here’s everything we can tell you about George III and the state of his mental health that inspired the Rhimes’ spinoff series.

Was King George III mentally ill?

King George III’s mental illness or “madness,” as it was referred to at the time, is well documented. According to the official website of the Royal Family, the late monarch experienced various bouts of mental illness from 1788 to 89 and again in 1801.

Martin Warren is a professor of Biochemistry at the University of Kent in Canterbury, England, who has researched and written about George III’s mental state for years. Speaking to TODAY.com, Warren notes that the state of his deteriorating mental health was documented in medical records at the time.

According to Martin, samples of George III's hair provided to him by the Natural History Museum in London confirm the royal received treatments for severe ailments.

“We could certainly detect a reasonable amount of arsenic that was clearly embedded within the hair. In other words, the king had digested arsenic," he explained. “That was likely from the medication that he was provided.”

What was King George III’s disease?

As Martin points out, the field of medicine was not as developed in the Regency era of British history — so named for the period the monarch’s son served as regent due to his father George III's mental state — as it is today. As a result, the condition the king suffered from was not entirely known by experts of the time and was often referred to as “madness.”

Still, various modern experts and psychiatrists have narrowed down his symptoms to a few potential diagnoses, including manic depressive disorder or a mental disorder brought on by stress. 

Warren says a theory brought to the fore by a mother and son team, Ida McAlpine and Richard Hunter, is most likely: variegate porphyria.

Warren notes that this theory is especially likely given that the genetic condition is one that the king's future relative — Queen Elizabeth II’s second cousin, Prince William Gloucester — had also been diagnosed with prior to his death in an airplane accident.

According to the Mayo Clinic, variegate porphyria is a rare genetic metabolic disorder. Symptoms of the disorder include skin symptoms, abdominal pain, constipation, extremity pain, weakness, anxiety, restlessness and convulsions. 

“In essence, by looking at all that information, we saw that there’s evidence to suggest that some of the symptoms and the diagnosis suggest that there was that (George II) could have suffered with porphyria,” Warren says. 

What symptoms did George III have?

In his research, Warrens found George III’s bouts of “madness” appeared to be coupled with a number of physical symptoms.

“It looked as though he was suffering from some kind of abdominal pain,” Warren shares, noting that people with acute porphyritic attacks can experience symptoms related to the autonomic nervous system.

According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), people with porphyria can experience a number of symptoms, including skin symptoms, such as blistering from sun exposure. Warren notes that people who suffer from porphyria have described the pain associated with it as reaching worse levels than labor pains. Symptoms can also present with pain in the abdominal, back, legs and arms, as well as digestive symptoms such as constipation, nausea, and vomiting.

“That’s when it starts to give rise to apparent bouts of madness where people sort of move away from a level of reality,” Warren explains. “And that can give rise to things like sleeplessness People can start to talk, become incoherent, can start babbling.”

With a severe attack, a person’s pain can become so unbearable that their general cognition can deteriorate. This tracks the various symptoms that George III in the Netflix series appears to display.

At the end of Episode Three, for the first time, Queen Charlotte finds the monarch in what appears to be the throws of a manic episode.

While senselessly muttering to himself, he appears to have been scribblings drawings on a wall for hours. Soon after finding him, Charlotte follows him as he wanders out into the moonlight to take off his clothes and declare his love for the goddess Venus.

Other episodes of the series show George III in deep anguish, often doubled over in pain.

How did affect King George III’s madness affect his ability to rule?

In “Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story,” George III’s increasing mental health becomes a concern to the parliament members around him. In reality, the monarch’s condition pushed Parliament to nominate his son, the Prince of Wales as regent with the Regency Bill of 1789.

Though the king recovered before his son could step in, Parliament would later have to pass Regency Acts at other periods in George III’s life. For instance, in 1810, after the death of his youngest daughter, Princess Amelia, King George III experienced another spell of mental illness and a bill called the “Care of King During his Illness, etc. Act 1811” was enacted.

Due to the act, George III’s oldest son George, Prince of Wales, became appointed prince regent until his father died in 1820.