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The Princess and the Physicians

By Alice Marples, Research Associate, John Rylands Research Institute. She completed her PhD at King’s College London in 2016. Her thesis is entitled ‘Collecting and Correspondence in the Papers of Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753). 

Hidden within some of the early Georgian papers at Windsor Castle is a collection of letters written by the Princess of Wales, Queen Caroline, to her friend and confidante, Charlotte Clayton. The letters were written between 1716 and 1737, and concern Caroline’s daughter, Princess Amelia. There are no dates on these letters, being copied in French and English seemingly by Charlotte Clayton herself. However, in 1952, John Keevil, then Keeper of the Library of the Royal College of Physicians, rearranged them in chronological order according to his reading of the course of Amelia’s long-running illness.

The letters appear to have been written to reassure Caroline that her daughter was receiving the best care, and to provide an outlet for her fears that she was not. Amelia was being attended to by various royal physicians, including Johann Georg Steigertahl and Hans Sloane (the physician, naturalist and collector who was the subject of my research). Through Clayton, though, Caroline was also secretly consulting with her ‘Esculapius’, Dr. John Freind, often acting against the wishes of both royal physicians and her husband. These letters reveal interesting things about the power dynamics within medical consultations, particularly those within the court, and the ways in which patients and practitioners alike had to engage with conflicting networks and bits of advice, and negotiate with one another in order to settle as much as possible on a course agreeable to all.

Princess Amelia of Great Britain (1711-1786), painted by Jean Bapiste van Loo, oil on canvas, c. 1738.
Princess Amelia of Great Britain (1711-1786), painted by Jean Bapiste van Loo, oil on canvas, c. 1738.

Caroline refused to let Steigertahl (whom she repeatedly called ‘the Butcher’) and Sloane give Amelia emetics or lessen the quantities of kinkana she was taking. In return, they refused to apply various requested blisters and only complied with Caroline’s demands (and Freind’s advice) regarding blood-letting once Caroline had ‘made the Prince speak a little warmly’ to them. Once, when Amelia was particularly suffering with a fever and swelling in her throat, Caroline wrote: ‘Dr Hans & Bussier alltogether blame me & say we have done ill to bleed her. That does not disturb me a moment. I am sure your friend [Freind] is the most capable of any in the world to give advice. What misfortune is it, not to be able with respect to my daughter allways to have his advice follw’d.’ When Steigertahl told the King that he thought repeated bleeding would weaken the Princess, Caroline stated that she believed she could have ‘pull’d his eyes out.’ Such disagreements only increased Caroline’s anxiety and her reliance on Clayton and Freind’s advice. She promised in the fourth letter: ‘I will make them put down in writing the course of the medicines that they would give her & then I will send it to your friend to put down his method, & they shall be given accordingly to his directions.’ In the next letter, Caroline wrote: ‘I have suspended every thing till you my dear friend have spoke with our Esculapius. If He approves of this or any thing else that He thinks proper, I beg you to send before Six for the physicians or rather the executioners will be there then, therefore dont come my dear Clayton.’


Despite such clashes in medical authority and patronage, though, Sloane’s archive at the British Library reveals something of a ceasefire between the three Royal Society physicians and the Royal family. All three continued to serve as royal physicians: in April 1723, Steigertahl wrote to Sloane, informing him that Amelia was to visit the waters at Bath under the direction of Dr Freind. Indeed, when Freind died in 1728, Steigertahl wrote touchingly of his loss. Sloane, meanwhile, was forced to write to Friend’s brother to try and regain the various medical books he had loaned him over the years.

Digitising Monarchy: Mapping Victoria and Future Prospects

Lee Butcher is an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award PhD candidate with King’s College London and English Heritage.

I am a historian and political geographer. I am undertaking PhD research on behalf of King’s College London and English Heritage exploring the spatial and political practices of the Victorian monarchy, focusing on the royal residence of Osborne House as a case study. I am interested in exploring the ways in which the monarchy’s spatial practices can be examined as a means to highlight the development of the institution’s political and cultural roles. By spatial practices I mean the processes by which ‘royal places’, such as royal residences, were made by the monarchy, and how the institution constructed ‘royal space’, i.e. how their spatial patterns (where they travelled to and from) changed over time.

A central source for this research has been Queen Victoria’s journals, digitised and made available online in 2012. A technological ancestor of the current Georgian Papers Programme, Victoria’s journals provides the digital historian with an unparalleled resource to explore this critical period in Britain’s political history. The digitisation of these 24,805 journal entries not only facilitates convenient access for researchers to this invaluable resource, it makes possible the kinds of digital and quantitative research that historians in the 21st century are increasingly endeavouring to undertake.

For my own part, naturally for a geographer, I have been keen to map the data present in the journal. With each entry usefully attributed with the name of the location of writing, I have been able to construct a database of the Queen’s whereabouts, showing where she was for each entry in the journal. Recorded by time, as well as place, it has been possible to map (using Geographical Information System (GIS) software) how the Queen’s spatial practices developed from the first entry in August 1832 until the last in January 1901. It has enabled me to produce statistical analysis of the changing patterns of royal visitations to the principal residences (Osborne, Windsor, Balmoral and Buckingham Place), and thus to explore the changing role of each residence over the course of Victoria’s reign. Such an endeavour would have been logistically challenging, and prohibitively time consuming, using either the manuscript copies held at Windsor, or the previously published selections. Improving access to sources, particularly in digital and online formats, allows researchers to be inventive and enables them to undertake complex research projects more efficiently.


The Georgian Papers Programme is an exciting extension of the agenda first articulated by the digitisation of Victoria’s journal. It promises to make readily available a wealth of sources previously accessible only to those researchers with the time and the resources to be able to visit Windsor. The commitment of the Royal Archives to improve access to their vast range of sources is highly commendable. For historians of the monarchy it promises exciting new possibilities for formulating new and inventive research agendas. For historians like myself, whose interests lay in the digital analysis of historical sources, projects such as this can only be good news. The rapid development of digital technology since the completion of Victoria’s journal suggests that the Georgian Papers Programme will provide more advanced tools for researchers seeking to engage with this material, compared to its predecessor, and will undoubtedly prompt a renewed interest in this critical period for Britain’s monarchy. I for one cannot wait to see what the project comes up with, and I cannot wait to get stuck into, and do some mapping of, the resources they produce.

The Madness of Historians: An evening with The Madness of King George

By James Fisher

James is researching his PhD on the relation between agricultural books, knowledge & labour in eighteenth-century Britain, at King’s College London. He also works as the Academic Administrator, Georgian Papers Programme.
Panel at the talk, ‘Just Write It, I’ll make it work’: King George III through the eyes of Alan Bennett & Nicholas Hytner’, Edmond J Safra Lecture Theatre, King’s College London All rights reserved.

The mental illness of King George III and corresponding political crisis of 1788-89 was “a gift”, said the playwright Alan Bennett, speaking at the opening of this year’s Arts & Humanities Festival on Monday 10th Oct alongside theatre and film director Sir Nicholas Hytner. The king’s descent and recovery formed “a self-contained episode”, while the connection between an individual’s plight with national politics was perfect theatre: you couldn’t wish for “a more dramatic plot”. Thus the episode became the acclaimed play, The Madness of George III, later adapted into the Oscar-winning film.

This raises a series of questions: was the plot already there in the historical record? How much was in the eye of the playwright? And how does the eye of the historian differ?

“It’s a tragedy”, declares King George III toward the end of the film. He is not referring to his own personal story (or the film in which he appears), but to Shakespeare’s King Lear. In contrast the film tips heavily into the comic mode: parading the absurdity of royal ceremonies, juxtaposing the high and the low (a servant spit-cleaning the crown, a learned physician’s fixation with the king’s “stool”), but most importantly, the triumphal and cheerful ending. The difference is deliberate and the extended references to King Lear are made to accentuate the parallels and divergences. Bennett was re-writing Shakespeare. He tells the audience as much in the following lines voiced by the Lord Chancellor (animated by George’s apparent recovery):

“Have you read King Lear? Tragic story… Of course! If that fool of a messenger had got a move on, Cordelia wouldn’t have been hanged, Lear wouldn’t have died, and it would all have ended happily. Which I think would have made a much better ending, because as it is, it’s so damned tragic.”

In the film the messenger, George himself, does arrive on time to avoid the tragic ending, performing his sanity for Parliament to prevent the passing of the Regency Bill and the effective end of his reign.

No doubt some of the dramatic potential Bennett saw in the 1788-89 regency crisis was because he already knew the dramatic tale of Shakespeare’s mad king. A twentieth-century dramatist reading about the life George III would inevitably see Lear, with countless other lesser characters and subplots from wider culture. The decision to end with the recovery in 1789 rather than the demise of a blind and deaf old man in 1820 allowed the film to finish on an upward trajectory. This king would not end as Lear had.

The relation to Shakespeare’s tragedy is indicative of the complex blurring of literature and history. Shakespeare derived his character from the pre-Roman legendary King Leir of the Britons, as described in the twelfth-century chronicle of Geoffrey of Monmouth, through a potentially diverse range of sixteenth-century histories and plays. But in earlier versions, Cordelia lives and restores Lear to the throne. The tragic ending was introduced by Shakespeare.

Such are the circle of influences that shape the narrative of a king’s madness: screenplays upon histories upon scripts upon chronicles upon legends upon – what? Think of the profusion of stories that were filtered through Shakespeare’s quill in the early 1600s; elements of which found their way into the minds of the politicians, physicians and courtiers in 1788, even the King’s own collapsing faculties, and were scattered through the hall of mirrors of action-interpretation-reaction; the sum total, again, combined and refashioned through the typewriter of Alan Bennett in the early 1990s.

Yet the story has a twist: after the Restoration in 1660, it was the adaptation by Nahum Tate that formed the basis for the staging of King Lear for the next one hundred and fifty years. And Tate’s revision had a happy ending. The King Lear known in the 1780s was not the same tragedy that we know today. However, the king still exhibited a violent madness and the comparison with the malady of George was all too painfully obvious. The play was eventually banned from the stage in the period of his final and inescapable mental retreat from 1810 to his death in 1820.

Each history hides a tale; each tale has a history.

However, in a famous scene, Bennett uses Lear in another way: it is through the public reading of Shakespeare’s play that George is shown to have recovered his sanity: “Your Majesty seems more yourself.” It is, ironically, his ability to play a role that is not himself that demonstrates his capacity to truly be himself. This is a common definition of madness: the inability to distinguish between what is real and what is fiction. The fact George can perform as a fictional character and know that is what he is doing signifies his return to normality.

The film as a whole is an exploration of the complex relation between kingship and madness. As Dr Willis remarks, “the state of monarchy and the state of lunacy share a frontier”. How do you tell if a king has delusions of grandeur? The behavioural treatment of Dr Willis seeks to break down the King into a mere human being, to separate the individual from his office of kingship – that is, to remind the King that he is only playing a role. “I have remembered how to seem”, the King says with fresh lucidity.

Many historians accept that the practice and writing of history involves a necessary act of imagination. The arguments of Hayden White that historical writing mirrors literature and relies on narrative forms for meaning and interpretation have been influential and controversial. We do not need to accept the full structuralist baggage of tropes and emplotments to appreciate the way “literary” forms shape historical writing and interpretation.

What plots do historians see in the archives? What beginnings and endings, characters and agency, tragedies and parodies? But more than this: what narratives do historical actors see and experience and how does this shape their behaviour? Did George III perceive himself as a tragic hero?

It is often said that the particular value of history is the way it blends the arts and sciences. Perhaps we could say it is the peculiar madness of historians to artfully confuse fiction and reality, until the latter achieves meaning.