‘The Last King of America’ and proto-psychiatry (2022)

by Federico Soldani – 24th March 2022

Andrew Roberts‘ ‘George III – The Life and Reign of Britain’s Most Misunderstood Monarch’ (Allen Lane, 2021) is an almost eight-hundred pages long biography of George III, King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The book is published in the U.S. as ‘The Last King of America, The Misunderstood Reign of George III’.

French political cartoon; French satire on the British recruitment of Hanoverian mercenaries and the Duke of Cambridge’s flight from Hanover ahead of a French invasion. Also refers to George III’s madness, showing his doctor, Willis.; Dated in pencil: “9 August 1803”; Dated: 26 Thermidor An XI [i.e. 9 August 1803]

As previously written in PsyPolitics, (emphasis and links added in subsequent quotes from other sources as well) “According to biographer Desmond King-Hele, after the events of the American Revolution started in 1773, “the Lunar circle’s father-figure, Benjamin Franklin was still in England in 1774, acting virtually as American ambassador: King George III [who came to be known in history for his madness, ed.] was to call him the evil genius behind the Revolution, and Lord North branded him as ‘the great fomenter of the opposition in America.’”


Henry VIII

One might wonder what would have happened if anyone tried to “treat” against his will a monarch as powerful as Henry VIII (1491-1547), who – as recently as 2018 at an exhibition in Oxford, at the university libraries – was presented as follows: “Henry VIII was rightly paranoid about begin infected during epidemics of sweating sickness – which killed his brother – and bubonic plague. Despite isolating himself and his courtiers, he nevertheless contracted smallpox and malaria. As a young man he was fit and athletic, but in 1524 a jousting accident led to migraines and mood change. He developed leg ulcers, started to overeat and gained a lot of weight. His symptoms indicate that he probably developed diabetes and hypertension.”

Weston Library, University of Oxford 2018 (photo by the article’s author)


George III of England as compared to Dodda Veera Rajendra, Rajah of Coorg

Jain and Sarin in 2015 published in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry an interesting article comparing the events related to George III in England to those of a local Indian King, Dodda Veera Rajendra, Rajah of Coorg, through the personal papers of the Hon. Arthur Henry Cole – son of William Willoughby Cole, 1st Earl of Enniskillen, Ireland – the resident of Mysore (Madness and Rulers: Events in Coorg and London in 1810, as observed by the Hon. Arthur Cole, the resident at Mysore – PMC (nih.gov).

Cole’s papers included “a well-preserved copy of the Madras Courier (Volume 27, #1343, dated July 2, 1811) that talks about the madness of King George III, and its impact on the nature of governance. One also finds letters about the insanity of a local King, who had become pathologically jealous and suspicious. One can only speculate why Cole kept these two sets of documents, and perhaps wonder why the social and political consequences of insanity were so different in these two cases. Insanity and politics are often entwined, and one is tempted to draw lessons about both from history.”

“The King had developed his first major episode in 1789, but recovered sufficiently between episodes to function as the sovereign. He was replaced by the prince regent in 1811 and died in 1820. It was the process of disempowerment of the King while he was still alive and by a prince regent, which concerned the Madras Courier. “The Pilot” of January 30, 1811, which is excerpted in the Madras Courier, mentions that a constitutional crisis was brewing due to the “unfortunate” malady (insanity) that the King suffered from, who was now being “attended by physicians appointed for their skill to that unhappy malady, and supporting their authority by the ordinary attendants in such cases (…) a condition (in which he) could (not) have left 10 pounds by a will” (was legally of unsound mind). […]

The “Pilot” protests that though the incapacity of the King had been discussed in Parliament […] the British Constitution (was) not merely shaken, it (was) dissolved, and the reign (was) given to every revolutionary projector, who may seek to raise himself hereafter upon the ruins of his country,” and the situation makes “the sovereign a slave of his servants.”

“This implies, in a sense, a belief that the King, whether sane or not, could not be deprived of his absolute power. The threat to the State posed by this questioning was larger than the threat raised by the debate between rationality and irrationality. […] They warn the Prince Regent that his concurrence was tantamount to high treason against himself […].

Despite these views, the parliamentary process went on, and the King was divested of his executive role by the Regency Act on February 5, 1811.”

“[Cole] describes certain events recounted by Mr. Ingledon, Esq., his physician, concerning a Rajah (King Veera Rajendra of Coorg) near Mysore, who had previously developed a paranoid disorder.

In 1809, about the middle of Novermber last, the Rajah having found out a formidable conspiracy that was against his life, ordered 2000 men to be killed, without any trial, and all male children to have their head bashed on rocks. On the 16th November, the Rajah ordered a certain number to be slain (for what reason I cannot ascertain; only that his faculties must have been deranged at the time he issued the above inhuman order). The said Rajah has also become very suspicious and ordered many of his concubines to be executed (by bamboo tube being driven into the private parts of his concubine and molten lead poured in); while the eunuch who was found “fondling her” was ordered to be buggered to death” describes Mr. Ingledon.”

“The two accounts” – Jain and Sarin concluded – “preserved in the same set of documents by Arthur Cole, regarding events in Coorg in 1809 and London in 1810, highlight the tension between madness and a sense of political order. The account in the Madras Courier emphasizes that the paramount power of the Regent cannot, and should not, be restricted by any other process, parliamentary or medical, as it was absolute, even though the King was insane. The suggestion that there should be parliamentary oversight was tantamount to treason.”

“These concerns two centuries ago have had profound consequences. A clause of sanity, being a prerequisite for rulers, has been inserted into most political and civil processes, so that those wielding political authority could only be the “sane.” The impact of this formalization of prejudice against the mentally ill is quite obvious [… a] trickle-down effect […]. The distinction between the “madness” of yesteryear and some “common mental disorders” of today has progressively become more blurred.”


Maria ‘a Louca’ and other European monarchs after the Enlightenment

Maria I, Queen of Portugal. Thomas Hickey or Giuseppe Troni (attributed). Oil on canvas 1783.

Interestingly, many “mad” monarchs were qualified as such around the time when the ideas of the Enlightenment were spreading and parliaments as well as other forms of political control over the monarchs were becoming stronger in Europe, which coincided with the time psychiatry emerged as a discipline.

For instance, the same Doctor Francis Willis who was responsible for the treatment of George III was also called to treat another “mad” monarch of the time, Maria I of Portugal, known as “a Louca.”

See for instance, within a List of mentally ill monarchs – Wikipedia [accessed 24th March 2022]:

  • Maria I of Portugal (1734–1816; ruled 1777–1816), known as Maria, a Louca (“Mary the Mad”).  Around 1790 Maria’s long-expressed anxieties developed into religiously-themed delusions. Her ministers determined that she was insane and appointed her son João to govern the kingdom.
  • George III of the United Kingdom (1738–1820; ruled 1760–1820) exhibited signs of mental disorder, in the form of logorrhea, as early as 1788. He fell into a profound depression after the death of his beloved Princess Amelia, and Parliament delegated his state duties to George, Prince of Wales.
  • Christian VII of Denmark (1749–1808; ruled 1767–1808).  Although never completely incapacitated, Christian [George’s brother-in-law, as Roberts points out in his book, ed.] displayed severe emotional and moral instability, and members of his court and personal staff struggled to build a functioning government around him.
  • Ludwig II of Bavaria (1845–1886; ruled 1864–1886) irritated his ministers with his uncontrolled spending on magnificent castles. With no end in sight, they arranged for a panel of psychiatrists to declare him insane and installed his uncle as regent. Although the ministers were motivated by political concerns, medical explanations have been offered that include frontotemporal dementiaschizotypal personality disorder and Pick’s disease.
  • Otto of Bavaria (1848–1916; ruled 1886–1913) suffered from depression, anxiety and insomnia throughout his life. In 1886, the senior royal medical officer wrote a statement declaring that Otto was severely mentally ill.  Otto is believed to have suffered from schizophrenia.
  • Wilhelm II, German Emperor (1859-1941, ruled 1888-1918) is believed to have had histrionic personality disorder.

Roberts, in his biography, notes as well that “Madness in royal houses was not particularly unusual in the eighteenth century”. He highlights that “King Gustav IV of Sweden (1778-1837)’s increasingly erratic behaviour lead to a coup in 1809; and in Russia there were serious questions about the mental health of both Tsar Peter III (who was assassinated in 1762) and Tsar Paul (who suffered the same fate in 1801).”

Doctor Francis Willis, portrait by John Russell, pastel, 1789


Taizu, better known as Genghis Khan. Portrait cropped out of a page from an album depicting several Yuan emperors (Yuandjai di banshenxiang), now located in the National Palace Museum in Taipei. Paint and ink on silk, 14th century – Genghis Khan – Wikipedia

Genghis Khan and Frederick the Great in a 60s TV debate

As previously discussed in PsyPolitics, it might be relevant to note how psychiatrists Masserman and Visotsky during a TV debate with Szasz during the 60s were speculating about what might have happened if psychiatrists were around at the time of rulers such as Genghis Khan or Frederick the Great.

Masserman: “We must also judge as to what his behavior can be social-wise.

I wish we had psychiatrists at the time, shall we say, of Frederick the Great, who was a paretic.

We could have saved an awful lot of trouble. Or Genghis Khan who may have been a paretic.

But if psychiatrists had judged that these people should have been put under regulation, despite the laws that they themselves passed, a great deal of human sorrow would have been saved.

To which Visotsky replied: “You, Jules, feel that if psychiatrists were around when Genghis Khan was around, or Frederick the Great, that they could have stopped the activity.

That was a political power decision, and I’m not quite sure that psychiatrists are as powerful as you would want them to be or as Tom fears that they are, and I think maybe this is the concept that we have to discuss.

Masserman concluded: “Let’s take general paresis.

Or you can say this syphilis of the brain, this is a disease, this belongs to neurologists and internists, not psychiatrists.

But suppose the general paretic is still infectious and he thinks he’s a Napoleon and he can go around and infect as many women as possible and he is a real social danger.

He doesn’t think he needs to be hospitalized and as a matter of fact, he can hire a lawyer to defend him.

Would you let such an individual, just because he has the advantage of the Constitution, free in society to infect women, to invoke this delusional system on other people, when as a matter of fact he’d be much better off in the long run, so would society, if he were treated under temporary involuntary commitment.

See Psychiatry, constitutional law, and political power in a 60s TV debate (2020) – PsyPolitics.

Portrait by Johann Georg Ziesenis in 1763 – Frederick the Great – Wikipedia


Bust of Philippe Pinel on the Pinel Memorial, Royal Edinburgh HospitalPhilippe Pinel – Wikipedia

Philippe Pinel about George III

In 2019 it was noted how “Michel Foucault, in his 1973-74 lecture series on “Psychiatric Power” at the Collège de France, pointed to the madness of King George III of England, monarch of a global British empire, as reported by Philippe Pinel in the seminal “Traité médico-philosophique sur l’aliénation mentale; ou la manie,” published in 1800 in Paris.

According to Foucault, such emblematic scene of madness marked the birth of psychiatry as well as the passage from sovereign to disciplinary power in the modern world.”

As noted in PsyPolitics in 2021, and to my knowledge not elsewhere previously, the first genuine translation of the “father” of psychiatry, as he came to be identified, Philippe Pinel describing the scene of the psychiatrization of George III of England was the one in Michel Foucault’s lectures, translated into English, at the College de France on “Psychiatric Power”: Foucault’s “lectures on “Psychiatric Power” (1973-1974), [were] published only in 2003 (and, by the way, its 2006 English translation included to my knowledge the very first English translation of Pinel openly talking about King George III of England – the “mad king” – after more than 200 years from the original in French, an observation that I am making here for the very first time).”

Indeed two editions of Pinel’s work were published, the first one (1800) containing explicit references to a king that could be relatively easily identified as George III, the second one (1809) in which the text was changed so much as to not allow such identification. The first edition was translated into English in 1806 and in such translation all references to regality were accurately removed. This was the only translation into English during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. See for instance, Betrayal! The 1806 English translation of Pinel’s traité médico-philosophique sur l’aliénation mentale ou la manie – PubMed (nih.gov).

A new translation was published only a few years ago in 2008 by Wiley-Blackwell, sponsored by the French pharmaceutical company Servier, but this time around it was based on Pinel’s second edition (1809), in which the description of George III psychiatrization was not present as such. As a result the first published English translation of the psychiatrization of King George III was in the translation of Foucault’s lectures on psychiatric power in 2006.

A comparison of texts between the original first (1800) and second (1809) French editions of Pinel’s seminal book, as well as their 1806 and 2008 English translations – and the 2006 fragment translated in Foucault’s lectures – wold require a dedicated article.

Robert’s 2021 biography of “The Last King of America” includes an appendix “The Misdiagnosis of ‘The King’s Malady’ as Porphyria” which I found unconvincing as it attempts to deal with such critical turning point only from a medical and not from a political historical perspective.


Weston Library, University of Oxford 2018 (photo by the article’s author)

The Nollekens bust of Willis in the church at Greatford – Francis Willis (physician) – Wikipedia

Cite this article as: Federico Soldani, "‘The Last King of America’ and proto-psychiatry (2022)," in PsyPolitics, March 24, 2022, https://psypolitics.org/2022/03/24/the-last-king-of-america-and-proto-psychiatry-2022/.

Last Updated on March 29, 2022 by Federico Soldani

Leave a Reply