The true story of King George III’s mental illness and his connection to Kew Palace
PUBLISHED: 12:17 04 June 2020 | UPDATED: 17:20 08 June 2020
© Historic Royal Palaces
On the 200th anniversary of the death of King George III, Kew Palace invites us to discover the real man behind the myth. Claire Saul learns more
This article was written prior to lockdown and all information should be checked before your visit
The bicentenary of George III’s death is a timely opportunity to celebrate the achievements of this remarkable and complex king.
Opening at Kew Palace, George III: The Mind Behind the Myth also examines common assumptions and misunderstandings about him, presenting a more rounded appreciation and tipping the balance of focus from the one aspect – his mental health - which tends to define him.
“George III was fantastically clever,” says Rachel Mackay, manager of Historic Royal Palaces at Kew.
“He had a huge library of books, he was very musical, a great patron of the arts and also very interested in science.
“He was interested in clocks and would take them apart and put them together again, and he would visit the observatory in Richmond every Saturday to take measurements. There were many aspects to his personality.”
Joining the Kew
Kew Palace is the building most closely associated with King George. He spent much of his childhood there, tutored by some of the most celebrated theologians, architects and musicians of the day.
During adulthood, Kew was a beloved riverside summer home for the king, Queen Charlotte and their fifteen children.
George supported the development of the surrounding botanic gardens that we still enjoy today, a fascination with the natural world which is reflected in Kew’s new displays, along with items from his world-famous library and examples of artworks he acquired for the Royal Collection.
“We have some great objects, including his porcelain flute and some of his clothes,” Rachel elaborates.
“One of my favourites is a letter written to him by his father, which is essentially instructions on how to be a good king, such as ‘don’t lose the colonies’, which as we all know didn’t work out that well!
“I think it is really symbolic of the amount of pressure that George must have been under, becoming king at the age of 22, dealing with all the political crises that happened in his reign and trying to keep the empire together. There was a lot of weight on his shoulders.”
It was at Kew that George was treated for periods of mental and physical ill health.
His daughter Princess Mary’s handwritten instructions for the king’s care will be on display, along with notes made by George’s doctors, whose methods of treatment were often extreme.
“Reading through some of his writings, the thing that stood out to me was really how relatable he was and how common the sentiments he talked about, are,” says Rachel.
“In one letter, written after he becomes ill again in 1789, he says that he has been ill for 13 weeks and he says, ‘I think I must’ve lost some friends in that time’.
“That self-awareness, his fear of rejection is very relatable and something that many people would still feel in the modern day.”
King George’s illness, now thought to have been a form of bipolar disorder, has tended to eclipse his achievements over his 60-year reign although it was actually one of the drivers to the development of 2020’s new displays; Kew’s visitors have often spontaneously shared their own stories of mental ill health with palace staff.
One in four people in the UK are affected by mental illness yet even today, two centuries on from George’s death, male mental health largely remains something of a taboo subject, although attitudes are thankfully now changing.
Rachel and her team have partnered with local community members to interpret a selection of the exhibition items relating to the king’s treatment.
“We have worked with a group of men who all have experienced mental ill health,” explains Rachel.
“We have discussed issues such as diagnosis and the use of restraint and they have been writing object labels for the exhibition that present their own view of the item and how it relates to them. It has been really interesting to have their perspective.”
The palace’s atmospheric second floor will be devoted to a display of personal objects as a medium to generate reflection and discussion on how we think and talk about mental health today.
“Last year we asked members of the public to send in their suggestions for objects relating to their own personal mental health stories and received a fantastic response,” says Rachel.
“The items are symbolic of different aspects of their experience, such as getting help or of that lowest point that they experienced, and some of them are very moving.”
The idea of making fun of someone’s mental ill health is abhorrent. No one should be defined by it. And as Kew Palace will demonstrate this year, certainly not King George.
When visiting Kew Palace…
…don’t miss the Royal Kitchens nearby, boarded up after the death of Queen Charlotte and left untouched for 200 years, they were reopened to public in 2012 after extensive conservation work. Admission to Kew Palace and the Royal Kitchens is included in admission to Royal Botanic Gardens Kew.
On the opposite side of Kew Gardens is the recently restored Great Pagoda, constructed in 1762 for George’s mother Princess Augusta and the largest of many fashionable follies and garden scenes created for the Royal Botanic Gardens. Free for Historic Royal Palaces members.
Tucked away in a bluebell wood in the gardens is Queen Charlotte’s Cottage, a rustic building used by the royal family for rest during their walks. In the paddock there, the queen kept cattle, pheasants and at one point in time, 18 kangaroos.