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‘Queen Charlotte’ Seems To Favor This Theory About King George’s Mystery Illness

Charlotte (India Ria Amarteifio) and George (Corey Mylchreest) in 'Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story'

Shonda Rhimes’ new Bridgerton prequel, Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story, shows us the early days of Queen Charlotte and King George III’s relationship, expanding on a lot of things that had only been hinted at during the two seasons of Bridgerton we’ve had so far. Fans who aren’t 18th century history buffs are particularly interested in the truth behind the mysterious illness afflicting George III. Do we actually know the illness the real monarch suffered from, and is Bridgerton’s depiction of it true to life?

Though it’s impossible to say for certain given the gaps in medical knowledge between then and now, we have several very good guesses presented by psychiatrists, research scientists, and historians of medicine.

Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story: What is wrong with the king?

Bridgerton‘s George III (James Fleet) is erratic, prone to emotional outbursts, and clearly suffering from paranoia and memory problems similar to dementia. He forgets important events, like the death of his daughter, and loses his sense of propriety. As much as Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel) clearly loves him, she’s also careful to ensure that when he does manage to appear in front of people outside of their immediate family, he’s swiftly removed from the situation and hidden away again. This desire to hide George III and his condition is typical of the period. The rampant ableism of 18th and 19th century society meant that a member of the royal family being afflicted by “madness,” as was the king’s official diagnosis at the time, was seen as an embarrassment; the member in question would be hidden away from the public to protect the reputation of the crown (something that continued in the British royal family until disturbingly recently, and which continues in parts of society).

Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story‘s George III (Corey Mylchreest), on the other hand, is something of a “before” picture. He’s already suffering from his illness, but in the form of episodes rather than an ongoing state. The state of 18th century medicine and its brutal, highly ineffective methods of treatment for so called “nervous diseases” only serves to exacerbate his condition. Though Charlotte (India Amarteifio)’s support is significantly more useful than any of those treatments, and helps him function as king, we know that George’s condition is progressive and will ultimately reach a point where he’s unable to continue as reigning monarch.

There’s a number of theories as to what the king was actually suffering from. Complicating attempts to retroactively diagnose George is the fact that certain symptoms may have actually been caused by the treatments he was subjected to, some of which were traumatic, while others involved ingesting poisonous substances like arsenic. It’s hard to know which symptoms were related to his illness, which symptoms were the result of PTSD or poisoning, and which symptoms weren’t actually present at all but were recorded anyway based on the preconceived ideas of his acting physicians (something we still see happening with psychiatric patients, particularly in marginalized communities).

One strong contender is bipolar disorder, with the king’s erratic periods the result of untreated or inappropriately treated hypomania, and his severe depressive episodes the result of tragedies like the death of his daughter Amelia. Another popular theory is variegate porphyria, a disorder that impedes the body’s production of heme—an essential compound numerous systems of the body need to function. With symptoms affecting different parts of the body, from the liver to the skin, acute attacks also include hallucinations, anxiety, and a number of other neuropsychiatric symptoms that would map fairly well on to what we know of George III’s episodes. The severe pain from these acute attacks could also impede the sufferer’s cognitive function for the duration of the episode, both directly and as a result of the sleep deprivation induced by intense pain.

Adding weight to the variegate porphyria theory is the fact that one of the king’s descendants, Prince William Gloucester, was diagnosed with the condition. As the majority of people with variegate porphyria experience no symptoms at all—giving the disorder the appearance of skipping generations—it seems likely that Prince William Gloucester shared the same condition with his ancestor. Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story certainly seems to be leaning toward the variegate porphyria hypothesis, as this George III appears to be experiencing the same bouts of physical pain that come from acute attacks of the disease, as well as its neuropsychiatric symptoms.

Though it’s impossible to confirm that the king suffered from variegate porphyria, so far it seems that Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story is providing a fairly accurate picture of what it would have been like if he had.

(featured image: Netflix)

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Siobhan Ball is a historian, an archivist, and loves Star Wars so much her English teacher once staged an intervention with her family to try and get her to read other books. Now writes about it for a living.