The Death of a King

George III in old age

After the action of my novel, God Save the King, George III spent his life in a lonely, twilight world, cooped up with his doctors in the north apartments of  Windsor castle. He had tried, in vain, to help organise the execution of his daughter Amelia’s will, but his comprehension began to fail him. For some time, the public still hoped he would recover, especially when they saw him walking on the terrace of Windsor castle with the two doctors Willis and Dr Heberden. He even rode down the Long Walk with his daughters and seemed in recovered spirits. But it wasn’t to be.  By the end of May 1811, he was giving instructions to imaginary servants again. In stark contrast to the Regency scuffle that marked the last prolonged bout of his insanity in 1788/89, the 1811 Regency bill was passed “with much composure and calmness”, according to Princess Mary. The Prince of Wales was in power and the Regency period had begun.

For the years 1811-1820, the spotlight swung round to the future George IV, leaving his father in the shadows. Information about George III’s final years is patchy and heartbreaking. All communication with his family was dropped, while his faithful pages were replaced with intimidating asylum keepers. This didn’t mean his family were hard-hearted to his plight.  As his daughter Augusta explained “Probably I shall never see him again…as I cannot serve him. I could do him no good and he would not know me.” Consequently, the Queen and her daughters were shut up on one side of the quadrangle, coping with a reduced income, while the King occupied the other. Flora Fraser says that Windsor took on an “Asiatic stillness” at this time.  It’s no surprise to find out that young Princess Charlotte found visiting duller than death. Indeed, it was a strange purgatory existence and the King’s death would have been a great relief to all. But his famously strong constitution kept him going, refusing to be shaved, talking to his dead children and planning to send his Queen to Botany Bay.

At times George III had to put his hands over his ears to shut out the voices that troubled him. But he was not always unhappy in his delusions. We have records of him playing (very tunelessly, one imagines!) on his flute and the harpsichord and eating cherry tarts. Most moving of all is the account of his behaviour as his wife, Charlotte, lay ill and then died in 1818. Up to her last breath, she was thinking of her husband and longing to be back at Windsor so she could at least die near him. But the King no longer remembered who she was. He was happy with his music and make-believe world throughout the funeral and beyond. When he mentioned George III, he spoke in the third person. “He was a good man,” he said.

Remarkably, the King’s strength held out until a massive paroxysm at Christmas 1819. He neither slept nor stopped talking for two days straight.  After this he began to weaken and gave up eating. Finally, at 8.32pm on 29 January 1820, the long-tortured man breathed his last.  He was 81 years old. Quite astonishing, when you consider that very few of his fifteen children lived to this age. George IV, now King, received the news with a “burst of grief” and his sisters were devastated. But in truth, they had lost their father long ago. As Princess Mary had written 9 years before, “Nobody who loves the poor King can wish his life to be prolonged an hour”.

It would have pleased George III to know that he died just before the anniversary of Charles I’s death, as he revered the Stuart King and applauded his collection of art. However, it made things difficult for his son, who was unable to be proclaimed King until the last day of January 1820. That wasn’t the end of the tragedy for the family, though. One of the sons, Edward, Duke of Kent and father to the future Queen Victoria had died unexpectedly during the same month. Then, on 1st February 1820, the new King George IV was struck down with an inflammation of the lungs. He suffered severe difficulty in breathing and his death seemed imminent. The public were expecting him to set a new record for the shortest reign in history. As Princess Lieven wrote, “Father and son have been buried together in the past – but two Kings!”

Thankfully, the King recovered, though not in time to attend his father’s funeral. This must have weighed on his conscience. Father and son had shared a difficult relationship and the ceremony may have given him some closure.   For two days, George III lay in state in the Audience chamber at Windsor, raised on a dais, under a rich black canopy. The town was packed full of people, from all classes, coming to pay their final respects to a beloved King.

The courtyard was still full of spectators when the funeral took place on 16 February. The corpse was bound in waxed linen before being placed in a mahogany coffin, lined with white satin. This was sealed in a second, lead, coffin before being put in a third coffin, Russian-doll style. Then, as night fell on Ash Wednesday – a suitably solemn day -  the  body was carried into St George’s chapel to the Dead March from Handel’s Saul.  George III would have approved of this, and the second Handel anthem that ended his committal service. Amid the light of flambeaux, he sank down into the family vault, to rest beside his beloved wife, daughter, granddaughter and stillborn great-grandson. Although people were relieved that his suffering was over, they could not help but “shed a last tear over the grave of a father and a friend”.

While these sad events were taking place, George III’s niece, Caroline, the prodigal Princess of Wales, was living the high life in Italy with her lover. All at once, her beloved uncle was dead and she was Queen of England. However, her estranged husband was less than keen to grant her any new title. Bitter arguments ensued and spurred her to return to England, determined on claiming her rights. If you want to find out more about the chaos caused by Caroline’s fight, look out for my next novel, A Forbidden Crown.

Funeral of George III

3 Comments on The Death of a King

  1. LordBeariOfBow
    29/01/2013 at 11:28 pm (2 years ago)

    What a melancholy life those last few years must have been for George and those who cared for him.

    Reply

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