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Medical records of George III published online for the first time

Release date: Friday, 16 November 2018

Samuel Williams Reynolds, George III, c.1820 ©

Letter from Sir Lucas Pepys to the Prince of Wales, 18 December 1788 ©

Medical records and documents detailing the symptoms, behaviour and torment of George III during periods of illness have been digitised and published for the first time as part of the Georgian Papers Programme, which is transforming access to over 350,000 papers in the Royal Archives and Royal Library relating to the Georgian period.

George III’s first significant period of ill health occurred in 1788–89 and the changes in the King’s manner and health during this time were documented in a diary kept by his Equerry, Robert Fulke Greville.  In an entry from October 1788, he notes that ‘His Majesty had become more peevish than he used to be’ and is agitated and talking incessantly and incoherently.  By December, the King’s health has worsened and a physician, Dr Francis Willis, who has experience of dealing with mentally ill patients, is summoned.  Later that month, on 20 December, the King’s condition has deteriorated still: ‘H.M became so ungovernable that recourse was had to the strait waistcoat: His legs were tied, & he was secured down across his Breast, & in this melancholy situation he was, when I came to make my morning Enquiries.’

Throughout George III’s illness, the Prince of Wales (latterly the Prince Regent and then George IV), received regular letters from his father’s physicians reporting on eating and sleeping habits, along with any further notable changes or developments in the King’s behaviour.  In a letter dated 18 December 1788, Sir Lucas Pepys informs the Prince of a deterioration in his father’s health, which he attributes to the King’s reading of Shakespeare: ‘This morning he is in nearly the same state he was in the evening, but is more agitated and confused, perhaps from having been permitted to read King Lear.’


Letter to the Prince of Wales signed by four physicians, 29 January 1820 ©

By March 1789, the King had recovered but there were to be further spells of ill health in 1801 and 1804, before the final, long period of illness from 1810 until his death in 1820.  A volume entitled The progress of the Symptoms of the King’s Illness since November 1810, taken from the Reports of the Attending Physicians provides a daily account of the King’s wellbeing and highlights the close monitoring he was subject to.  The entry for 21 March 1811 states: ‘There is a nervousness and anxiety to be declared well; and a distrust of the physicians.  Slept four hours.  Occupied when awake in adjusting the bedclothes, by rolling them down and up again. Did not talk much but twice betrayed delusion.’

The regular reports to the Prince of Wales continued until the King died, aged 81, on 29 January 1820.  The final letter sent that day, signed by four physicians Henry Halford, Matthew Bailie, Robert Willis and David Dundas, states:  ‘The King's extreme weakness made it proper to spare His Majesty's every exertion…for we perceived that each effort brought His Majesty into peril. Since midday yesterday therefore His Majesty has been kept as much as possible in a horizontal position, and the little sustenance He has taken has been given in a spoon. His Majesty's pulse is still regular, but very feeble, and we cannot conceal from Your Royal Highness our fears that His Majesty may not be spared to us much longer.’

The Georgian Papers Programme is a partnership between Royal Collection Trust, lead academic partner King's College London and international participants, including primary U.S. partners the Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture and William & Mary, as well as other key U.S. institutions such as the Library of Congress, Mount Vernon and the Sons of the American Revolution.