In Shonda Rhimes’s Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story, a royal romance takes centre stage: that of Queen Charlotte and King George. (Warning: many spoilers to follow.) In the show, the couple marries within hours of meeting each other, and at first, their union is a love-hate one: George seemingly has no interest in spending any time with his wife. Charlotte is left hurt and enraged. But when they do see each other, their chemistry is undeniable.
While Queen Charlotte is a fictional television drama, its main characters are indeed based on two real-life historical monarchs—King George III, who ruled the United Kingdom from 1760 until 1820, and his wife Queen Charlotte.
What was the real story behind their romance?
When an unmarried King George III ascended the throne in 1760 at the age of 22, finding a wife became an immediate priority to secure his family’s lineage. It was a task easier said than done. First of all, any potential match needed to be of aristocratic birth. Then, she needed to be Protestant, as George headed the Church of England. (This ruled out any nobles in Catholic France or Spain.) There also needed to be a political argument for the match: according to Janice Hadlow’s A Royal Experiment: The Private Life of King George III, advisors found no reason for George to marry someone from Holland or Denmark, for example, as his siblings had already taken spouses from those regions. Finally, there was his temperament: an intellectually curious but reserved man, George didn’t want a wife who was high-maintenance or had any sort of agenda of her own. (George’s grandmother, Caroline, very much sought and exuded influence—a dynamic that, in his own marriage, he wished to avoid.) “George had a very clear idea of the kind of woman he was looking for: he hoped to find a helpmeet and a companion who would share his vision of a morally regenerated monarchy, and who would be happy to play her allotted role in his great domestic project,” Hadlow writes.
After much searching, he found the perfect match: the 17-year-old Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, who came from a rural region of Germany. “Young, inexperienced, and untutored in the ways of courts or politics, her naivety emerged… as her most powerfully attractive quality, an enticing blank page for a man to write upon,” Hadlow recalls. (Although that’s not to say Charlotte was a complete babe in the woods: the teenager was well-educated, bookish, and intellectually curious.)
On August 17, 1761, Charlotte set sail for England. She arrived on September 8—and the two wed six hours later.
It turned out the match was remarkably well suited: they were both passionate about music (which Charlotte had remarkable taste in—early in her reign, she discovered an eight-year-old Mozart and invited him to perform in London.) They shared a passion for the countryside, with George holding a deep interest in agriculture and Charlotte in botany. Both also desired a relatively private domestic life and spent much of their time at Kew Palace outside London. Letters between the two show an affectionate, content couple: “I have this instant been made very happy with Your very Affectionnate [sic] & kind letter, for which I want words to Express both my joy & happiness, but I can say with great Truth that tho my Pen cannot express my feeling my Heart most does most deeply feel,” Charlotte wrote in 1797, three decades into their marriage. The two eventually bore 15 children together.
There was, however, sad troubledness to their union: the madness of King George.
“Madness” is an archaic umbrella term for a condition that, back in the 1700s, the medical community had no word for. Historians today believe that George likely suffered from bipolar disorder and chronic mania—possibly made worse by his doctor’s prescribed treatment of arsenic. Throughout his reign, there are documented historical accounts of at least five episodes.
In a medical journal article, “The madness of King George III: a psychiatric re-assessment”, published by Timothy J Peters in the History of Psychiatry, he writes that by 1765, at age 27, the King was already showing signs consistent with mild depression. Following a tough physical illness that involved bleeding and chest pains, George exhibited lingering mental duress: “It was a difficult time for the King who admitted that he had slept for no more than two hours a night during this period and clearly was having difficulties in making decisions over the appointments of his prime ministers and governments,” writes Peters.
In October 1788 came acute mania, triggered by a bad bout of jaundice. Accounts from the time stress his incessant and obsessive talking: The king’s physician recorded that he had “agitation of spirits bordering on delirium… he talked with more than usual rapidity & vehemence… he talked continually, making frequent & sudden transitions from one subject to another.” A month later, one of his physicians wrote of an incident where the King ran into the Queen’s bedroom naked. By December, the King was often put in a restraining jacket. He also obsessively fiddled with handkerchiefs. An account from March 1789 found “his state of nerves seemed to compel him to roll up the handkerchiefs as soon as given him: of which, I believe some days he had not less than 40 or 50.” Rumours even began to swirl among the populace that the King had died. Hadlow writes that, during this time, Charlotte was extremely frightened and anxious, yet somehow kept her composure. George would suffer several more debilitating episodes in 1795, 1801, and 1805.
By 1810, George showed signs consistent with chronic mania and, in the next few years, possibly even dementia. In 1811, the king was considered permanently insane. (“We have seen His Majesty sometimes in a state of delirium, sometimes strongly impressed by false images, neither of which states has characterized this day so much as a degree of irritability, which could only be met by coercion, and which was only varied by occasional exclamations and noises without meaning,” wrote one of the King’s physicians Robert Willis in September of that year.)
Soon afterwards, the Prince of Wales officially became Regent. Charlotte then became George’s permanent guardian until her own death in 1818—remaining loyal to the end.
This article was originally published on Vogue.com.