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Thursday, January 26, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Britain's Royal Family: Dynasty Of Dementia? -- Mental Illness Traced To George Iii

Larry Hedrick

History films are doubly entertaining when they shed new light on the present moment. And "The Madness of King George," which opens tomorrow, ties into the messy state of today's royal family.

The George in question is America's last king, George III, who was dismissed by the Declaration of Independence as a "tyrant . . . unfit to be the ruler of a free people." The film accurately portrays him as a madman.

Elizabeth II and her family are directly descended from George III, who suffered recurrent bouts of mental illness from middle age to the end of his life. Since part of the mad old king's genetic inheritance lives on in the Windsor blood today, some of his mental estrangement may have come all the way down to Prince Charles.

The `Loony Prince'

Charles, who has long been known as "The Loony Prince," once took pen in hand to deny this possibility. In an essay produced after he finished his studies at Cambridge University, Charles stressed his belief that his ancestor George suffered from a physical - not a mental - illness.

George's shocking eccentricities, wrote the Prince, were caused not by madness but by "a mental state akin to the sort of delirium experienced by patients with very high fevers."

Unfortunately for Charles' theory, George was out of his mind for weeks and weeks after his temperature returned to normal.

In fact, George's diagnosis remains in question. Dr. Richard Galbraith of Rockefeller University says that the cause of the king's physical symptoms might have had nothing to do with his mental condition; "George might just have been batty at the same time."

But you can't doubt the sanity of a member of the current generation on the basis of one controversially mad ancestor. What we need here is a collection of crazy royals. And we have them.

Concern for Victoria

Take, for instance, Queen Victoria, who was George III's granddaughter. Her faithful and conscientious husband, Prince Albert, was so appalled by Victoria's frenzied response to her mother's death that he thought her on the brink of insanity.

Albert, who was haunted by the thought that the dynasty suffered under a curse of madness, even wrote to the Privy Council about the possibility of a permanent separation from his wife.

In a cruel twist, his wish was granted when he died of typhoid at the age of 42. Victoria's reaction was part of the pattern that began with her mother's death; she became so distracted that she wasn't fit to appear in public for 10 years.

The 20th century also has its share of royal aberrants. Elizabeth II's Uncle John, who died in 1919, suffered from tantrums and fits throughout his short life. He spent his final years in enforced seclusion. When he died at the age of 14, his mother Queen Mary described his passing as "a great release." (For herself, she meant.)

As for Prince Philip, he brought more exotic blood into the royal family. Royal biographer Charles Higham notes that "Philip was born, in 1921, into a family whose tormented history involved assassination, death by blood poisoning, judicial murder, slaughter of the innocent, exile, and disgrace.

Saintly, but . . .

Philip's mother Alice, a saintly woman in many ways, was nevertheless an embarrassment to the royals throughout the last 20 years of her life. She died in 1969, having spent her last years out of public view, aimlessly roaming the back corridors of Buckingham Palace. The British press of the time never presented the British people with a clear picture of her whereabouts or condition.

There was also Eddy, the dim brother of George V (who was Queen Elizabeth's grandfather). And the Queen Mother's mentally handicapped nieces, Nerissa and Katherine. And it's safe to assume that other compromising bits of Windsor family history have been censored.

The acts of censorship continue to this day. They are performed by the Queen's librarians at Windsor Castle, who, according to the respected British writer A.N. Wilson, destroy all embarrassing documents that come to their attention.

But you cannot censor the possibility that inbreeding is a major factor in the royal family's unique psychiatric history. Take the case of Charles's parents, who are both direct descendants from the line of George III and Queen Victoria, which makes them third cousins. (By another line of descent, they are second cousins once removed.)

Inbreeding a royal practice

Unfortunately, the inbreeding didn't start in this century; it's been a royal practice for generations, since it was useful for shoring up political alliances. One result is that Prince Charles has 22 separate lines of descent from Mary Queen of Scots.

Such thickening of the blood can lead to unhappy consequences. As the Encyclopedia Britannica puts it, inbreeding tends to result in "the appearance of relatively many individuals with hereditary diseases." Inbreeding thus may have increased the likelihood of latent insanity in the Windsors' genetic makeup.

If the royals are inclined by nature to eccentric behavior, they have little opportunity to minimize the risk of further embarrassments. The hostility of Princess Diana alone is placing them under enormous pressure, and the continuous strain is likely to accentuate their moods of desperation, which are still generally hidden from the public eye.

It is, of course, Prince Charles who has had the underside of his character most completely revealed - though there is, I think, much left for us to examine. Even now, polls indicate a majority of Britons consider him unfit to wear the crown upon the death of his mother.

No one is more aware of his shaky position than Charles himself, so viewing "The Madness of King George" wouldn't be a confidence-building experience for him. The Prince would do well to stay away. But royals-watchers, history buffs, and appreciators of good film will find it worthwhile.

Larry Hedrick, a Seattle writer, lectures nationally on the British royal family. His forthcoming book will be titled "The Last Royal Family Album."

Copyright, 1995, by Larry Hedrick.

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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