Medical Histories of English Royalty
If you're like me, your confused by all the Edwards and
Elizabeths and Tudors and Plantagenets and so forth.
You might want, therefore, to take a look at a simple
graphical diagram of the
lineage of English monarchs
- Unless noted otherwise, information on this page comes from:
The Death of Kings: A Medical History of the Kings and Queens of England, by
Clifford Brewer. London: Abson Books, 2000. ISBN 0-902920-99-5
- Another book on royal medical history appeared in 2003:
The Death of Kings: Royal Deaths in Medieval England, by
London, New York: Hambledon and London, 2003.
- The Stuart monarchs have their medical history laid bare in:
The Sickly Stuarts: The Medical Downfall of a Dynasty, by
Stroud, UK: Sutton Publishing, 2003.
Pre-Norman kings (reigned before 1066)
- Harthacanute -- sudden death at a wedding feast at age 25.
This might suggest a cardiac problem until one remembers that
he was succeeded as king by Edward the Confessor and that Edward's
father-in-law, who had once led an uprising against Edward, also
died suddenly while dining -- with Edward. [pp. 13, 14]
- Edward the Confessor -- When examined 23 years after
death, his body had not decomposed. His flesh was said to be
"firm and pure as crystal, whiter than snow" and his beard was
"white as frost." [p. 16] Poisoning with some heavy metals, such as
antimony, can retard decomposition, but a more likely explanation
is confabulation -- there was a campaign underway to have Edward
canonized, so the description of his corpse may have been tainted
by religious fervor.
- Harold -- Known by generations of British schoolchildren
as "the king with the arrow in his eye" because of the wound he received
in the Battle of Hastings. [p. 19] Interestingly, Philip, the father of
Alexander the Great, was also wounded by an arrow in the eye.
- William I ("The Conqueror") -- William died as the result
of a riding accident. "His horse reared in fright... and threw its
ponderous rider against the iron of his saddle." William collapsed
in pain and died ten days later. Brewer thinks William ruptured his
urethra and died from progressive renal failure. [pp. 23-4] Of note,
William's physicians said his death was inevitable after examining his
urine. [p. 21]
Even before the accident William had assumed a huge size.
In death, his legs and lower torso were especially large, and it
was found that the coffin was much to small to receive the King's body.
"Those who tried to force him in did so with the greatest difficulty,
but to add to the horror,
the body burst open and filled the church with such a stench of fearful
corruption that the service was concluded with great haste." [p. 26]
- Henry I -- died after eating a large meal of lamprey
eels, of which he was inordinately fond. [p. 34]. Lampreys were
considered a delicacy in the middle ages. A Medline search in September 2000
did not turn up any articles written after 1966 about the hazards of consuming
lampreys. King John also died after eating gluttonously.
- Richard I ("The Lionhearted??") -- died from an
arrow wound to the right shoulder.
Then the king entrusted himself to
the hands of Marchadeus, a physician, who after trying to get out the
javelin, removed only the wood, and the head remained in the flesh.
It was only when the bungling rascal cut freely round the kings [sic]
arm that he succeeded in withdrawing the head, but the king died on
April 6th, the eleventh day after he had been wounded.
Marchadeus, a Jewish physician (the name is a form of "Mordecai"),
was executed after the king's death. [pp. 43-44]
-- Roger de Hoveded.
- John -- Like Henry I, John died after eating
gluttonously, this time after pears or peaches and new cider.
- Richard II -- According to Brewer [p. 70],
a legend says that Richard "was born without
a skin and had to be nourished in the skin of goats. What this
signifies is not clear." Does anyone know of a medical condition
that could be interpreted this way? Some disorders, such as
Ehlers Danlos type IV, include translucent, almost clear skin.
- Edward VI -- Measles can activate latent tuberculosis.
This is what happened to Edward VI. [p. 128] His decline was
unstoppable, "his physicians discerning an invincible malignity
in his disease" according to contemporary accounts. [p. 130]
- Henry VIII wife -- Anne Boleyn -- "In February 1533, Anne
is said to have come from her room and announced that for some
three days she had felt a great desire to eat apples. The King
told her that this was a sign she was with child." [p. 141]
- Elizabeth I was bald because of smallpox
- James I -- Probably had porphyria. His physician, Dr. Myerne,
kept detailed notes on his patient. These notes describe the king's urine
as being "purple as Alicante Wine." [p. 225] James was the product of a
consanguineous union, i.e. he was descended from
Margaret Tudor through both his father and his mother, so it is likely
that Margaret had the porphyria gene. [p. 154] It is now thought that
George III, a sixth-generation descendant of James, also had porphyria.
Knife-weilding assassins made an attempt on James' life in 1582. Ever afterwards, he was
fearful "to the extent that it is said he wore padded clothes to prevent
such an occurrence." [p. 154] Interestingly, the life of
President Jackson was saved by the loose
clothing he wore in a duel. Of course, James lived before the age
James had a harsh view of smoking which is now legendary: "A custom
loathesome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain,
dangerous to the lungs and in the black, stinking fume thereof, nearest
resembling the horrible Stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless." [p. 156]
In 1625 James developed a fever that, to most observers, did not appear serious.
He was treated by the Duke and Lady Buckingham, but died. [p. 152] The Duke then
desired the physicians who attended his Majesty to sign with their own
hands, a writ of testimony that the powder he gave him was a good safe
medicine, which they refused. In the meanwhile, the Kings [sic] body
and head swelled above measure, the hair with the skin of the head stuck
to the pillow, and the nails became loose upon the fingers and toes.
Brewer thinks there was an attempt to discredit Buckingham, and believes
James died of tuberculosis. He does not rule out the possibility of
arsenic, however. [p. 157] Would thallium also be a possibility?
-- Harleian Misc.
- Charles I -- "The possibility of his having porphyria is
not very likely as there is no history of any alteration in his urine,
a sign which would have been noted by his physicians." [p. 154]
He and his brother Henry both had a speech impediment. [p. 160]
- Oliver Cromwell (interregnum) -- Cromwell was treated
for malaria with the bark of the Peruvian quina-quina tree. This
pre-dated the discovery of cinchona (the "fever bark tree" that
contained a truly effective treatment for malaria -- quinine).
Brewer thinks Cromwell died of pyelonephritis and uremia. He writes:
The embalmers filled the body with aromatics, removed the
brain and then enclosed the body in a wooden coffin. This was placed
in a second lead coffin. In spite of this "yet the filth broke through
them all" and the stench became overbearing, as is typical after
death from uraemia. It was found necessary to bury the body with all
haste. [p. 171]
When the monarchy was restored, Cromwell's body was dug up. It was
hanged from a tree, then beheaded (it took eight blows).
The head was displayed on a high pole of Westminster Hall for
25 years, until it was blown down in a gale. A guard saw it,
recognized it, hid it under his cloak, and later sold it.
It passed through several owners over the years, and was ultimately
willed to Sidney Sussex College of Cambridge University. The college
gave it a proper burial in 1960. A plaque at the college states
the head is buried "near to this place," but the exact location
is a guarded secret. [p. 173]. In the 1930s the head was examined,
and the results published in the journal Biometrika.
- Charles II -- Brewer believes Charles died of renal failure,
with a possible contribution from syphilis [p. 182]. Holmes
believes Charles died of mercury poisoning as a result of inhalation
that occurred while conducting experiments with the Royal Society.
- Anne -- Between ages 18 and 45, Queen Anne became pregnant 17 times.
Eleven of these pregnancies ended in miscarriages and there was one stillbirth.
Of the five live births, two died in less than a day, two died of
smallpox, and one lived until age 11. [pp. 202-203]
Poor old Carl Sagan interpreted her childbearing difficulties as
an indication of the miserable state of 17th century medicine.
(The Demon-Haunted World, p. 9). This is unfair.
She is now thought to have had the "antiphospholipid syndrome" (APS),
a condition which was "discovered" by medical science only in 1975 [p. 203].
Even today this condition is difficult to treat.
Dr. Frederick Holmes believes Queen Anne had systemic lupus erythematosus
in which APS sometimes appears.
- George II -- His wife Caroline died of a strangulated
umbilical hernia. At that time, Royal physicians did not examine their
patients, so her doctors did not even know that this [correctable
problem] existed. [p. 10]
- George III -- There has been much recent discussion about
the possibility that, like his ancestor James I, George III had porphyria.
(Discussion started in the British Medical Journal 1966;I:65.)
This includes a feature-length movie called "The Madness of George III."
George III was, of course, King of England at the time of the American
- George IV -- After a difficult 52-hour labor, the daughter of
George IV delivered a stillborn son. She then died. Three months later,
the accouchier, Sir Richard Croft, committed suicide. [p. 228]
- William IV -- When his brother George IV died, William was
awakened in the middle of the night and told he was now king. He
promptly returned to bed, on account of "having never yet slept with a Queen." [p. 237]
He died of cardiac failure, complicated by terminal bronchopneumonia. A
post-mortem examination was performed, showing both mitral and aortic
stenosis, right-greater-than-left ventricular enlargement. Although the
public was informed that the King was ill, his death came as a surprise.
There was an outcry against the "wildly optimistic" medical updates that had been
released by his physicians. [pp. 238-240]
- Victoria -- Victoria escaped a total of seven assaults on her
from 1840 to 1882. [p. 249]
In her later years she had a 46-inch waist, and appeared to have lost
several inches from her youthful height of 5 feet 2 inches. [p. 251]
Victoria's son Leopold had hemophilia. The gene appears in several other
Euro-royal families with descendants of Victoria's line,
e.g. that of Russian Czar Nicholas II [p. 252]
[Scientific American. August 1965;213(8):88-95].
At least one geneticist thinks the hemophilia gene arose spontaneously
in Victoria, possibly as a consequence of having an older father (he was
52 when she was born)
Given the cardiovascular risk associated with abdominal obesity, it is
reasonable to ask why Victoria might have lived until age 81.
Interestingly, she may have benefitted from the deleterious gene she passed to her
son and to others: female carriers of the hemophilia gene have (in the
21st century) a 36% lower risk of death from heart attacks
- Elizabeth II -- In the first week of March 1999 a stack of
medical records pertaining to the Royal Family was discovered in a
dumpster. Talking heads claimed that public knowledge of the medications
the Queen takes is dangerous, because other chemicals could be substituted
into her pills.
- Brewer, Clifford. The Death of Kings: A Medical History of the Kings and Queens of England. London: Abson Books, 2000.
- Evans, Michael. The Death of Kings: Royal Deaths in Medieval England. London, New York: Hambledon and London, 2003.
- Holmes, Frederick. The Sickly Stuarts: The Medical Downfall of a Dynasty. Stroud, UK: Sutton Publishing, 2003.
- Appleby, Louis. A Medical Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain. London; Boston: Faber and Faber, 1995.
- Marion, Robert. Was George Washington Really the Father of our Country?. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1994.