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Furman research on Princess Amelia, King George III shines light on historical treatment of mental, physical illness

Windsor Castle, where the Royal Archives are housed.

Last updated June 28, 2024

By Madison Powers, Contributor

When Megan Nunn ’25 began thinking about her plan for the summer, Carolyn Day, a Furman University professor of history, hooked her on research when she read an excerpt from a letter Princess Amelia of the United Kingdom wrote to her lover in the early 19th Century.

“That sounds more entertaining than being an intern anywhere,” said Nunn, a fan of the royals who’s watched the fictional show “Bridgerton” and read the book series it’s based on.

Day, a specialist in 18th- and 19th-century British history, roughly the period covered in the Netflix series, needed help researching the illness of King George III of the U.K. and the illness and death of his youngest and favorite daughter, Amelia.

Two white women stand in front of a red brick building for a selfie.

Megan Nunn ’25 and Carolyn Day, professor of history, in front of Kew Palace, home of King George III and Queen Charlotte. Photo provided.

Day and Nunn collaborated and spent a week in London in early June visiting the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle, the Royal College of Physicians and sites at Kew Palace, including Queen Charlotte’s cottage and the Dutch House, where King George III would often go for treatments during his episodes of mental illness, which remains undiagnosed. The summer research project was made possible through the Waco F. Childers Jr. Research Fellowship in History.

At the Royal Archives, Nunn recorded Amelia’s receipts of purchases made throughout her life to provide insight into her romantic relationship with Charles FitzRoy, one of King George III’s equerries, or officers of the household. Nunn made an exciting discovery there, a receipt of a bracelet commissioned by Amelia for Charles. “It had an ‘A’ and a ‘C’ on it with two hands clasped,” Nunn said. “It was very obvious that it was supposed to represent Amelia and Charles.”

Hands-on learning is a hallmark of The Furman Advantage, with 42% of undergraduates like Nunn doing research. For students not into Georgian-era royal history, there’s study away (44%) and the arguably less romantic internship (51%). In all, about 85% of Furman students do at least one of these high-impact practices.

Nunn’s research will inform Day’s third book, which will focus on Princess Amelia, whose death from tuberculosis in 1810 precipitated her father’s final break with sanity. The researchers brought the data they gathered in London back to Furman, where they are transcribing Amelia’s love letters, which were kept from the public for hundreds of years and only recently made available through the Georgian Papers Programme. Day is also hoping to create one of the first-ever catalogs of Amelia’s correspondence.

“The fun part of this is that Amelia not only is ill and the king’s daughter, she’s quite sassy, and she is also carrying on a scandalous relationship,” said Day, who began this project a decade ago.

Day said historical figures often omitted undesirable history from their accounts, making it difficult to know how people really acted. Much of Amelia’s correspondence was destroyed by the royal family —  contributing to the “sanitization of history,” she said — but some of her letters were saved by FitzRoy’s family.

Two white women stand outside a round castle tower.

Day and Nunn ’25 outside the Royal Archives, which are housed in Windsor Castle. Photo provided.

This research comes during a popular era of 18th and 19th century British history due to Netflix’s adaptation of the “Bridgerton” and “Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story” series. Though Day said much of the shows are inaccurate, she liked the sympathetic treatment of King George’s illness.

“Understanding mental illness and not stigmatizing it, but being sympathetic to that plight is a really important way in which we can think about George differently,” she said. “To understand that is also something we can carry forward.”

Nunn said she enjoyed the on-screen portrayal of George’s relationship with Charlotte.

“It was nice to see him portrayed in that way and Charlotte standing by him the entire time, as she probably would have done in real life. Because lots of kings aren’t very loyal,” Nunn said.

Day’s upcoming publication will be the second ever about just the princess. The last, “The Romance of Princess Amelia,” was published in 1910 and reflects outdated views of women, according to Day.

Day said her thousands of pages of transcripts will shed light on the way Amelia dealt with her disease and will seem familiar with how people today manage chronic illnesses.

“These are still the kind of things that people have to deal with in healthcare today,” Day said. “There’s the great, fun scandal part of it, as well as interesting personal dynamics, but there’s also the reality of somebody who is suffering from a terminal illness for a decade and trying to manage her own healthcare.”

Nunn said Princess Amelia’s story can appeal to a variety of people – history buffs and Bridgerton fans alike. “She has the intrigue to pull in a wider audience outside of just historians and academics because she does have the scandal and the heartbreak and the dad situation,” Nunn said.

The Georgian period carries relevance, Day said. “People in the past were people and they dealt with things in very similar ways that we do today. There’s a lot of resonance there.”

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