4 ‘Mad’ Royals in History: Was It Mental Illness?

Monarchs like George III and Caligula are known for being 'mad' royals, but how did they experience mental illness in a world without modern medicine?

Feb 13, 2023By Molly Dowdeswell, MA Early Modern History, BA History

mad royals in history mental illness paintings


Many monarchs have left their stamp on history for many reasons. Some gain fame from staggering military wins, others from social reforms. There are also those who gain infamy from disastrous reigns where money is lost, or the country is defeated. Then there are those who are immortalized for their mental illness. While the stories of ‘mad’ royals like King George III or Caligula are told often, do we truly understand the lives of these monarchs? This article tells the story of four of history’s ‘mad’ royals.


1. King George III of England

George III (1738-1820) by Allan Ramsy, c. 1761-2, via Royal Collection Trust


King George III of England is perhaps the most well-known European monarch to suffer from ‘madness’. History immortalizes him as the King who lost England its colonies in America and much of its wealth.


Born in the June of 1738, George was the eldest son of the Prince of Wales, Frederick, and his wife, the Princess of Saxe-Gotha, Augusta. George was not only the first Hanoverian monarch to be born in England but also the first to use English as his first language.


Until recently, historians had put the King’s ‘madness’ down to a genetic blood disorder named porphyria, which had symptoms including blue urine alongside aches and pains. However, recent research by historians from the University of London has discovered that the ‘madness’ was probably caused by mental illness rather than a hereditary illness.

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They arrived at this conclusion by analyzing George III’s own handwritten letters and considering his use of language. They found that during his periods of ‘madness‘, George tended to use much longer sentences than he usually would.


King George III standing, in military uniform: horse in the background by B. Smith after W. Beechey, 1804, via Wellcome Collection


For example, one such sentence was a staggering 400 words long. He also tended to repeat himself when ill and used much more creative and complex vocabulary. Researchers noted that these tendencies are the same as those noted in modern-day patients who were in the middle of a manic phase of psychiatric illness.


They, therefore, concluded that it was likely that George was experiencing a manic episode when writing these particular letters. Historians have also looked at letters written by those who observed the King during these episodes. Some report him talking until he foamed at the mouth as well as experiencing convulsions.


Historians have explained the accounts of blue urine as the product of the King’s medicine. This medication contained a deep blue flower named gentian, and famous for often turning urine blue.


Eventually, George’s manic episodes returned so often that by the end of his reign, he withdrew completely from the public eye. He resided in Kew Palace, Richmond where he conducted business in private.


2. Caligula, Emperor of Rome

Caligula, Emperor of Rome by A. Sadeler after Titian, c. 1700 via Wellcome Collection


Caligula was emperor of Rome from 37 CE – 41 CE and is arguably another of the most famous rulers to have suffered from ‘madness’. Many believe he was insane, and his reign has been immortalized in history as disastrous.


There is some debate, however, over whether Caligula was really mentally ill or if he was just an example of the disasters that can occur when a 24-year-old is given unlimited power and seemingly infinite money.


A common myth about Caligula is that he was so mad that he made his horse consul. The horse was named Incitatus, and it was said that the animal (or Caligula in its place) would invite important people over to dine with him. However, scholars are now almost certain that this is a myth and that Caligula did not actually make his horse consul.


Most scholars believe that Caligula did have some kind of mental illness, however. Some believe it was a disease likened to modern-day epilepsy. Like many of the royals on this list, Caligula experienced many traumatic events, and it was thought that these may have been the cause of his mental illness.


Regardless of his mental state, Caligula was extremely cruel and made some questionable choices. For example, it was said that in early 40 CE, he took his army all the way to the northern shoreline of Gaul, where he ordered the troops to collect seashells. He called the seashells the spoils of the conquered ocean.


He also quickly burned through the money left in the treasury after his accession. Whether this was an act of ‘madness’ or due to his inexperience is contested, however. In order to make up for what he lost, Caligula had to resort to extorting the richest Roman citizens as well as confiscating their estates.


3. Charles VI of France

Charles VI bedridden and his physician, in Froissart’s Chronicles, c. 1300s, via Gallerix


The case of ‘madness’ experienced by Charles VI of France (ruled 1380 to 1422) is particularly interesting. Writing in 1613, Miguel de Cervantes recorded that the King was an “unhappy man” and that he “imagined he was entirely made of glass.”


Known as the “glass delusion,” Charles was not unique in suffering from this particular delusion. The illness was characterized by the belief that one could easily have part of or their entire body smashed to pieces as if it was glass.


In 1990 in his work titled An Odd King of Melancholy: Reflections on the Glass Delusion in Europe (1440-1680), Gill Speak wrote that Charles was “possibly the first case of a man believing his whole body to be made of glass.”


There seem to be records of this particular mental illness throughout history, and it seems to have been present in its earliest form in the classical period as a fear of being made from earthenware rather than glass. In the second century CE, for example, Rufus of Ephesus recorded the case of a man who thought himself to be constructed entirely from pottery.


The coronation of Charles VI, by Jean Fouquet, c. 1300s, via SkyHistory (public domain)


Those around him worried about the King’s mental state, even Pope Pius II noted that:


His malady grew worse every day until his mind was completely gone. Sometimes he thought he was made of glass and would not let himself be touched. He had iron rods put into his clothing and protected himself in all sorts of ways so that he might not fall and break.


It was said that Charles was so concerned he’d smash that he took to wearing reinforced clothing and often forbade his courtiers to come anywhere near him. It seems that his first manic episode took place in 1392 when he, seemingly unprovoked, slaughtered four of his knights.


Then, just a year later, Charles and some of his courtiers were dressed in costumes for a celebration. To everyone’s horror, a flyaway spark landed on one of the costumes and set it alight. The fire spread to the other men. Only the King and another of his companions survived. It is now commonly thought among historians that this event led to an increase in the King’s ‘madness’.


Charles’ ‘madness’ extended further than this “glass delusion,” however. He was said to, at some time, not recognize his wife or children and run madly around the palace. He was given the nickname “Charles the Mad.”


In November of 1405, it was recorded that the King refused to wash for five months! He became covered in infected sores as well as lice, and he only gave in when he was forced to bathe by his physician.


4. Princess Alexandra of Bavaria

Princess Alexandra of Bavaria by Walb Straucher after Joseph Karl Stieler, c. 1845-70, via Royal Collection Trust


Another royal who shared Charles VI of France’s “glass delusion,” hundreds of years later, was the princess of Bavaria, Alexandra (lived 1826-1875). Alexandra’s glass delusion was slightly different in nature from Charles’. She believed, rather than that she was made of glass, that she had, as a child, swallowed a glass piano.


It was said that she would creep around the palace corridors in fear of shattering the piano inside her. She was convinced that this could happen if she knocked into something or someone.


Some scholars believe that Alexandra may have also had a mental illness similar to modern Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. She was fixated on cleanliness and was reported to only wear white clothes.


The glass delusion seems to have first appeared for Alexandra after a scandal that involved her father, King Ludwig I. He bestowed titles on Lola Montez, who was an actress, dancer, and his mistress. This would have encouraged anger from officials around the king and had lasting consequences for his children, who were still living at the palace.


Understandably, this was highly stressful for Alexandra and her other siblings, so it is highly likely that the development of the “glass delusion” was a response to these traumatic events.


It is posited today that the delusion was also linked to ideas about purity. It was commonly believed in this period that purity could be easily lost. Despite this, it was highly esteemed, especially for young women. Some believe that the pressures on these individuals to be pure were so intense that they developed a crippling fear of being impure and therefore corrupted, like glass when it smashed.


Portrait of Alexandra Amalie von Bayern by Karl Joseph Stieler, 1838, via Schönheitengalerie (Gallery of Beauties)


People in the 17th century, however, believed the glass delusion was a form of melancholy. While there are no other records of people who thought they had swallowed a piano, as we have seen, there are many accounts of those who believed themselves to be made of glass.


Some believed only certain parts of their bodies, like their arm, for example, were made of glass. Some are believed to have turned into a lamp, vase, or some kind of jar. Despite these nuances, this mental illness was characterized by the fear of being broken and, in some cases, the fear of direct sunlight.


The delusion was common from the ancient period until the 19th century and was most common among the nobility. Many believe this was because of the pressure placed on people, especially those of noble birth, to remain pure and chaste until marriage. Of course, it may also be because it is from these kinds of people that we have the most records of the illness because they were the ones who could read and write!


Mad, Mad Royals

A barber-surgeon extracting stones from a woman’s head, symbolizing the expulsion of ‘folly’ (insanity) by J Cast, After B Maton, 1787, via Wellcome Collection


In conclusion, it is evident that many monarchs had some kind of mental illness. Many of these individuals in power would have experienced highly traumatic events, like Charles and the costumes or Alexandra and her father’s mistress, which may have had lasting mental impacts. Others may have simply been young and inexperienced.


While there are many records of monarchs who suffered from what we may consider madness, their stories may provide an interesting insight into the early perceptions of mental illness and its treatments; it is important to acknowledge the power our modern ideas have. It is now commonly taught that retrospective diagnosis is a problematic endeavor, and we must be cautious when applying our modern definitions of illness to the past. We now have an entirely different understanding of disease, which has largely been defined by scientific advancement.


Historians, therefore, urge that we be cautious when applying modern definitions of illness and disease to individuals in the past. Especially because many mental illnesses which we today can differentiate clearly between, like epilepsy or bipolar disorder, were in the past considered simply as different manifestations of the same illness – ‘madness’. Nevertheless, if approached with an objective, non-judgmental attitude and research approach, the investigation of early ‘madness’ can tell us a lot about attitudes towards the mentally ill in history.

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By Molly DowdeswellMA Early Modern History, BA HistoryMolly graduated from the University of Birmingham with a master's degree in early modern history and from Swansea University with a bachelor’s degree in history. She has a long-standing interest in the subject and enjoys researching and writing on a broad range of historical topics and is most interested in the history of medicine and disease. Molly is currently working as a writer based in Birmingham, England and is planning on returning to university to complete a PhD in history.