Why bother giving ‘mad’ King George a modern label? CHRISTOPHER STEVENS reviews last night’s TV

Why bother giving ‘mad’ King George a modern health label 200 years after his death? CHRISTOPHER STEVENS reviews last night’s TV

Madness of King George: Lucy Worsley Investigates


Elephant Hospital


King George III’s physicians tried to treat his insane delusions and hallucinations in 1788 by attaching leeches to his temples, ‘to suck madness out of his brain’.

Lucy Worsley, investigating the Madness Of King George (BBC2) in the last of her historical detective series, produced a plastic pot of leeches.

They were labelled ‘Little Wrigglers: not for medical use’ and she’d bought them online. ‘They’re just like tiny little monsters,’ she enthused, popping the top off.

She didn’t try attaching them to her skin, though. That’s taking academic diligence too far.

It’s tempting to snigger at the crudity of 18th-century medicine, but our ancestors were not deliberately barbaric. They were simply applying the best knowledge they had.

Lucy Worsley investigates the well-known Madness of King George in her latest episode

Lucy Worsley investigates the well-known Madness of King George in her latest episode

Future generations might sneer at us, too, for our obsession with labelling people in history with shades of mental illness. A large segment of this programme tried to categorise the King’s condition.

Genetic match of the night

DI Salisbury (Robert Glenister) identified the crossbow killer in Sherwood (BBC1) by swabbing for DNA inside the mouth of a dog that bit him. That seems dodgy. They’ll end up charging a can of Winalot as an accessory to the crime. 


For decades it was believed to be caused by porphyria, a complaint that affects the liver. Lucy dismissed that as fake science peddled by arch-royalists who wanted to absolve the monarch of the stigma of mental illness. Instead, she turned to Sir Simon Wessely at King’s College London, who entered all George’s known symptoms into a computer to come up with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Sir Simon did admit that one frequent symptom of bipolar is ‘grandiosity’ — which is also a common side-effect of being a king.

George III’s delusions included cradling cushions and pillows in the belief they were his dead children come back to life. And at Kew Palace, he attempted to climb the 50 ft pagoda. As one of his equerries remarked in a diary: ‘His Majesty was entirely deranged.’

Since we can’t prescribe 21st-century medications for a man who died 200 years ago, there seems little point in saddling the poor fellow with a modern diagnosis.

Accounts unearthed in ancient documents of treatments for madness were disturbing. The King was plunged into ice baths and knotted into a cotton straitjacket — supposedly a gentler treatment than the manacles inflicted on inmates at Bethlem Royal Hospital for the insane (or ‘Bedlam’) in London’s Bishopsgate. Lucy also traced the fate of seamstress Margaret Nicholson, who attempted to stab the King. ‘The poor creature is mad, do not hurt her,’ George cried out.

His clemency saved her from the gallows but condemned her to something arguably worse: 42 years in Bedlam. Hospital records described how, long after her mental balance returned, she was kept under lock and key — elderly, resigned and deaf. ‘Do you know what,’ Lucy said, sounding choked, ‘I’ve got a little tear in my eye.’

It was hard to stay dry-eyed as another old lady, octogenarian Boon Nim, went for her daily shower at a sanctuary in Thailand on Elephant Hospital (C5).

It was hard to stay dry-eyed during Elephant Hospital, set in a Thai sanctuary (file image)

It was hard to stay dry-eyed during Elephant Hospital, set in a Thai sanctuary (file image)

Narrator Jill Halfpenny told us that vets know Boon Nim is over 80 because of the pink pigments on her trunk and the rolls of fat at the top of her ears.

And she has to wear a plastic bucket on one foot in the shower, to protect a wound from infection. You have to feel for the dear old girl. It’s hardly dignified.

Other elephants, including a cheeky baby, splashed around in the river at bath time. That was a charming scene, and it’s a shame that Elephant Hospital doesn’t screen more of this. Instead, the show has an endless obsession with dung. Who over the age of four wants to see that?


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