Mad Georgians: An Interview with Elizabeth Foyster & Laura Purcell

Lucinda Byatt

The treatment of madness was on the cusp of change in the Georgian era. This was driven in part by the very public bouts of insanity experienced by the “mad king” himself, George III, and also by calls for the “moral treatment” of madness, a disorder so prevalent that it was known as the “English malady.” Even definitions of what constituted “madness” were slowly shifting, although lunacy, with its associations of melancholy, continued to predominate. Cibber’s statues of “Melancholy Madness” and “Raving Madness” remained on the gates of Bethlem Hospital, Moorfields, London, until 1815.

Starting with the Act for Regulating Private Madhouses (1774), greater controls were placed on private madhouses. Moreover, as some of the worst conditions of patients at public asylums were exposed – like those of James Norris at Bedlam in 1814 – public scandal ensued. Yet the institutionalisation of the insane remained the order of the day, and the numbers of “lunatics” registered in asylums continued to rise as the population exploded. Some of the large public asylums resulting from the County Asylums Act (1808) still survive on the outskirts of towns and cities across Britain. Private houses guarded their secrets in towers and attics, as epitomised by Bertha Mason.

Elizabeth Foyster made the find of a lifetime in Lambeth Palace Library, London, in 2014 when she started to read the uncatalogued records of a court case, running to 600 or 700 pages, that had lain undisturbed in boxes for years. The records relate to a cause célèbre of 1823 for the annulment of the marriage of John Charles Wallop, 3rd Earl of Portsmouth, on grounds of insanity. As a professional historian, Elizabeth said that, rather than revealing a story limited to the privileged classes, “many of the depositions were made by ordinary working people, whether from Portsmouth’s estate or house servants.” It is this aspect that gives her work its immediacy. “I felt a much greater sense of freedom writing this book compared to other academic works, because I could tell the story. There is analysis here but it is behind the scenes. First and foremost, I tried to let the witnesses speak, so I brought in the dialogue and the reported speech.”

Novelists might argue that “telling the story” through dialogue is a prerogative of fiction, but Foyster shows how far narrative non-fiction can push traditional boundaries while remaining firmly anchored in academic writing. In this case, the material gives lie to the saying that truth is indeed stranger than fiction. Foyster says that she remembers thinking: “If this were a novel, would anyone believe it?”

Madness was not unknown in Portsmouth’s family, and both an aunt and a cousin had been confined in private madhouses. At some stage, Portsmouth’s mother threatened to put him “in the custody” of Dr Thomas Monro, one of four generations of this family who held sway in Bethlem. It was under the Monro dynasty that Bethlem, also known as Bedlam, became notorious. Yet Portsmouth was not obviously insane, since he had a quick mind for figures, could speak decent French, successfully managed his large estates, and could conduct himself in public with propriety. However, aspects of his behaviour seem clearly psychotic to the modern reader, including his perverse habit of chasing servants, his absolute sexual naïvety, his indulgence in blood-letting (not self-harm since he insisted that others bleed him) and the pleasure he derived not from death but funerals (which he referred to as “black jobs”).

Foyster remarks on a familiar problem facing all writers: “Sometimes there was so much to go on, and sometimes very, very little.” However, faced with those “gaps,” she enjoyed “constructing that story and imagining what it must have been like, and thinking about the different characters.” Undoubtedly, one of those characters was the earl’s mother, Urania, an intimidating lady in all respects. With characteristic forthrightness – not to say cold disregard – Urania married her son to an older woman, Grace Norton, in 1799. However, it was the earl’s second marriage that escalated the situation to a tipping point, since Mary Ann Hanson was young enough to give birth to a child, in this case a daughter, although the earl was almost certainly not her father. The prospect that a son might be next jolted the family into bringing the case for annulment before the Commission for Lunacy in 1823.

While the Commission usually sat for one day, on this occasion the trial lasted for two weeks. The jury passed a verdict of insanity. Portsmouth, however, was not confined to Bedlam or even tricked into entering a private madhouse – rather, the verdict was a liberation. Thanks to the care of his nephew, Henry Arthur Wallop, Portsmouth was able to return to his family home at Hurstbourne Park, Hampshire. Hurstbourne became quite literally his kingdom; a throne was installed in the ballroom for the days when he thought of himself as King of Hampshire. The earl remained within the bounds of the estate, unseen by the outside world, and died there in 1853, at the age of 86.

Except for this generous nephew, the general reaction shown by the earl’s family reveals the characteristic stigma towards mental illness that has proved impervious to wealth and period. The family’s reaction was also driven by self-interest: “a nobleman was being sacrificed in the name of property, at the behest of his family, and by the words of ordinary, working people.” No portrait of the earl exists, and he was buried in an unmarked grave, whose presence is only revealed by a line in the parish register. Foyster hopes that the objective retelling of the trial will allow readers to draw their own conclusions and wrestle with the difficult questions it raises about mental illness and society.

Laura Purcell based the plot of her debut novel, Queen of Bedlam, on madness at the very apex of English society, focusing on the “mad king” himself and on his wife, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Her research included eyewitness accounts from the court, such as the diaries of Charles Greville and Fanny Burney, which give an insight into how George III’s illness affected the royal family and the day-to-day workings of the palace. “It was this ‘human’ side of the story that interested me,” Purcell writes, “although it was also useful to read the many academic papers that have been written on the subject. Nearly every biography of George III and George IV lists a range of treatments the poor king was subject to in 1788. The difficulty was deciding how many of them to list in my novel!”

Clearly, there was never any question that the king would be confined with fellow sufferers, yet to some extent, Kew and later Windsor became George III’s private asylum. However, Purcell adds, “The spectre of asylums did loom over the court, especially with the introduction of Dr Willis, a specialist who came from his own institution to treat the king.” In the public imagination lunacy was associated with strait-waistcoats (invented at around this time) and chains, the prevalent methods of restraint used in asylums.

The historical diagnosis of mental illness is fraught with risk, and controversy still surrounds the diagnosis made in 1963 that King George III suffered from acute porphyria. Purcell writes, “While I do not believe George III enjoyed full mental health, I do attribute the majority of his troubles to porphyria. The physical symptoms, such as his rashes, abdominal pains, visual interference and swellings all suggest the disease. Although some academics claim to have ‘disproved’ the porphyria theory, their basis for this argument seems to be that the King’s urine was not really blue.” Purcell points out how “easy it is to blame eighteenth-century doctors for their ignorance, when in reality they could not possibly have known how useless their treatments were. To modern eyes, it is almost comical to discover that opium and even marijuana was recommended to bring a patient back to a sense of reality! In the case of George III, the doctors tried every treatment, especially those designed to expel fluids. As a consequence, he suffered purges and vomits, blistering and cupping, bleeding and cold baths, all within a short time of each other. It’s no wonder his physical health deteriorated significantly! Perhaps the most useful part of his treatment came from Dr Willis, who encouraged outdoor exercise and a kind of ‘music therapy’ for when the King had ‘behaved.’”

The question of the stigma of insanity is far more insidious, and despite huge advances in treatment, attitudes are slower to change, as is shown by today’s persistent taboos regarding mental illness. Purcell concurred that, “as far as his contemporaries were concerned, George III was ‘deprived of his wits’ and he (and his family) endured all the stigma and social shame that came with that.” Similarly, Foyster describes the 3rd Earl of Portsmouth as “a faceless man whom his family wanted to forget.” However, she leaves it to the reader to explore the borderlines between eccentricity and mental illness. In an age of institutionalisation, both king and earl could rely on privilege and some family support to ensure the relative privacy of their lives. For Foyster and Purcell, the human aspect of how individual and family lives were affected by mental illness is of prime interest. Like the best historical writing, whether non-fiction or fiction, readers are challenged to explore past attitudes, but also to make connections with key modern issues regarding mental illness.

Elizabeth Foyster is a history lecturer at Clare College, Cambridge. The Trials of the King of Hampshire: Madness, Secrecy and Betrayal in Georgian England is published by Oneworld Publications, 2016.

Laura Purcell is the author of the Georgian Queens series about the Hanoverian dynasty, and spine-tingling Gothic fiction.

About the contributor: LUCINDA BYATT is HNR’s Features Coordinator. She blogs at “A World of Words,”


Published in Historical Novels Review  |  Issue 79, February 2017

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