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The Madness of King Talal

Peter Day delves into documents recently released from the National Archives to review the short and sad career of Talal, father of King Hussein of Jordan.

The devastating effect of mental illness on the Jordanian royal family at a crucial moment in Middle Eastern history has emerged in British Foreign Office papers.


Prince Talal (1909-72) acceded to the throne of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in July 1951, on the assassination of his father Abdullah who had ruled the region since 1923, and who many feared was preparing to make a separate peace with Israel. Hussein, Talal’s son and the future king of Jordan, was at his grandfather’s side in Jerusalem when a Palestinian opposed to Israel shot him; the young man grappled with the assailant and was wounded himself.


But in the preceeding months, Talal himself had twice tried to murder his own wife, and had been found torturing his ten-year-old son Muhammad, in the belief that the boy knew of a plot to assassinate him. British diplomats assisted in hustling him out of the country for psychiatric treatment and he was in a mental hospital in Geneva when he became king.


The Foreign Office file on Talal was due to be kept secret until 2027 but has been released, partially censored, as part of an open government review, at the National Archives at Kew.


One British official likened the crisis to the madness of George III, with Talal’s brother Naif, who acted briefly as regent, being compared to ‘Prinny’, the dissolute Prince of Wales who played a similar role.


Britain had installed the Hashemite dynasty as kings of Jordan and Iraq after the First World War and was intent on maintaining them in power as a buffer between Israel and the hard-line Arab states of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria.


By 1950 Abdullah was convinced that Talal was unfit to succeed him and toyed with the idea of handing the succession to his nephew King Faisal of Iraq, who was only fourteen.


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