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THE MYSTERIOUS DEATH OF EDWARD IV

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Edward IV 1442-1483

For a king whose reign is otherwise well documented it is curious that the cause of Edward’s death remains a mystery.  It would appear that his death was unexpected.  It seems he was first taken ill at the end of March and despite having access to some of the best medical care available at that time, died on the 9 April at his Palace of Westminster.

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Edward IV’s Coat of Arms, British Library royal manuscripts

Mancini attributed his illness to a cold caught while fishing.  Commynes mentions a stroke while the Croyland Chronicler wrote he ‘was affected neither by old age nor by any known kind of disease which would not have seemed easy to cure in a lesser person’ – in other words the doctors didn’t have a name for the illness that sent Edward to his grave.  How strange.  Rumours abounded of death by poisoning some even going so far as to blame it on a gift of wine from the French king.  Molinet ascribed it as the result of eating a salad after he had become overcome by heat (in April! in England!!)  which caused a chill, others said it was an apoplexy brought on by the treaty of Arras, malaria was even suggested.  Later,  Sir Winston Churchill in his History of the English Speaking Peoples,  would put it down fair and square to debauchery.  But at the end of the day , as Richard E Collins points out (1) most people were concerned with what happened AFTER Edward’s death, rather than what caused it.

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The Old Palace of Westminster where Edward died 9 April 1483

Collins wrote an essay on Edward’s death that was included in Secret History the Truth About Richard lll and the Princes.  He had a considerable knowledge of medical matters and having done some very through research into the death of Edward presented his findings to other medical professionals for their opinions.  They all concluded ‘that the cause of death which best explained all the known facts was poison, probably by some heavy metal such as arsenic’.

First of all an attempt to solve the mystery  was to run though Edwards symptoms but first of all deal with the timescale.  Given that the Croyland Chronicler wrote that Edward took to his bed around Easter and since Easter Sunday was on the 30 March ‘we are dealing with a period of around 10-12 days from inception to death.  If peoples behaviour was anything to go by his death came as a surprise to the Court’.    As Edwards body was laid out naked for viewing,  Collins was then able to rule out death caused by violence, there being no traumas/injuries, accidental or deliberate, no puncture wounds, bruises etc.,  Furthermore there were no marks to be seen of specific diseases such as mumps, smallpox, measles, scarlet fever, chicken pox, bubonic plague, typhus, enteric fever.  Other non-infectious conditions that mark the skin are also able to be ruled out such as purpuras (blotches caused by bleeding under the skin) which can be caused by leukaemia, haemophilia, plague and alcoholism.  Thirdly there was not the  ‘wasting’ caused by cancer, unrelated diabetes, septicaemia or starvation caused by malabsorption.

Anything sudden such as a massive coronary, stroke, pulmonary embolism or a perforated ulcer can be ruled out due to the timescale.  Long drawn out conditions such as ulcerative colitis, diverticulitis and cancer can also be ruled out.

Collins then considers the contemporary sources beginning with Sir Thomas More, who writing 30 years after the event makes no comment on the cause of death save ‘he perceived his natural strength was so sore enfeebled that he despaired all recovery’.  More, as was his wont, wrote a pages long speech delivered on his deathbed.  Collins who had been present at  least on 200 natural deaths had never heard a deathbed speech.  However as we know More never let the truth stand in the way of a good story.  The Crowland Chronicler also gave no cause while Vergil wrote that ‘he fell sick of an unknown disease’.  The only definite accounts actually come from those who were least likely to be in the know such as Mancini and de Commines,  Mancini puts Edward’s death down to a mix of ‘sadness’ plus a cold he caught while on a fishing trip.  According to Collins this does not add up as the suggestions of Edward dying of grief cannot be taken seriously and as for the chill he would not have been able to indulge in such a frivolity during Holy Week – therefore the latest this trip would have been taken place was the 22 March –  which would mean that Edward hung around in a fever for 10 days without treatment which is also unlikely.  Collins add ‘Mancini is remarkably popular with those who dislike Richard and it is sad to proclaim that their supporter is a speaker of Rubbish’ – priceless!  De Commines ascribes his death to apoplexy and ‘while it is possible to have a stroke 10 days apart, the second proving fatal, it is quite impossible to believe that no-one expected him to die after the first, but obviously they didn’t’.

Hall later wrote ‘whether it was with the melancholy and anger that he took with the French king…or were it by any superfluous surfeit to which he was much given, he suddenly fell sick and was with a grevious malady taken, yes so grievously taken, that his vital spirits begun to fail and wax feeble..’.  Basically Hall didn’t know how Edward died either.

Collins makes the observation that ‘medieval physicians had at best a poor understanding of medicine and at worse a ridiculous and dangerous one.  This represented a falling away from the common sense views and practices of the Greeks, which if they could not cure much knew how not to make a patient worse.  In 1483 most medieval practices were designed to do just that – make the patient worse that is – and they succeeded well.  Almost any condition was treated by drawing off a pint of blood or more and administering emetics and laxatives to ‘purge evil humours’.  Such a regime is seldom good for a sick person and will often kill rather than cure by dehydration if you go slowly or by shock if quickly.  Only rarely did they have a treatment that was effective, one case in point is apoplexy where bleeding will reduce the blood on the cerebral vessels…medieval medicine was more often more dangerous than the disease and most people avoided doctors if they could.  Despite this medieval doctors were rarely at a loss for a diagnosis and the terms they used are a joy to read – Chrisomes, Frighted, Griping-in-the-Guts (a small town in Gloucestershire?), Head-moult-Shot, Rising of the Lights Lethargy and meagrome’.

Collins sums up with it may well worth be listening to Crowland after all, he may have been present at Westminster at the time and spoken to physicians about the case, when he said that Edward was affected by ‘no known disease’.

As to why someone would want to send Edward to an early grave by poisoning, that dear reader is another story.  I have drawn heavily from R E Collins excellent treatise on the subject but would mention that anyone who is interested in this theory would do well to read (if they have not already done so) The Maligned King by Annette Carson, who also covers this theory thoroughly in chapter 1.

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ELIZABETH WYDEVILLE, EDWARD’S ‘QUEEN’ WHOM HE MARRIED BIGAMOUSLY

  1. Secret History Part II  R E Collins

 

 

 

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12 thoughts on “THE MYSTERIOUS DEATH OF EDWARD IV

  1. “Anything sudden such as a massive coronary, stroke, pulmonary embolism or a perforated ulcer can be ruled out due to the timescale.”

    Not really. In fact, it’s quite likely that a series of progressively debilitating strokes brought on by hypertension caused by his excessive weight (this last being a problem with him for over a decade; he couldn’t take an active part in military campaigns because he was too fat to climb onto a horse) and over-rich, over-salty diet is what laid him low. Furthermore, strokes, heart disease and hypertension are all intimately linked.

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  2. viscountessw on said:

    Whatever Edward died of, he left his youngest brother with a headache second to none. Edward was the cause of everything that befell Richard, and could not have done better had he actually signed a death warrant. I have little time for Edward IV, Yorkist king or not. He had every intention of leaving the throne to his baseborn son, when all the time he knew Richard of Gloucester was his rightful heir. So bah! to Edward, no matter what carried him off! I sometimes think that if Edmund of Rutland had not died so young at Wakefield, Edward IV would have eventually been responsible for HIS demise as well. Disposing of brothers was clearly his speciality.

    As to why he breathed his last, apparently so unexpectedly, well perhaps his heart just stopped beating. If he’d been suffering from some short, very sharp illness, perhaps it was the final straw for a heart that had been under strain for so long because of Edward’s lifestyle and weight.

    Another excellent article, sparkypus!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. sparkypus on said:

    The interesting thing is that the doctors didnt know what it was.

    Liked by 1 person

    • mry4441 on said:

      Didn’t Collins say something along the lines of that if it had been a stroke or a heart attack there would have been indications on his body and as his body was displayed after his death it would have been noted but no one commented.

      Liked by 1 person

      • sparkypus on said:

        Collins said that there were no marks of violence on his body, wasting or infectious disease such as smallpox, plague etc. He didn’t mention that a heart attack would leave indications though as far as I can see.

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  4. Esther on said:

    I recall reading somewhere that medieval doctors sometimes used arsenic in their medicines … so I’m not suprised that the doctors didn’t know what it was (no one would realize it if the medicine killed him). I thought it was sad that Annette Carson made specific accusations in her otherwise-well-argued book, since her description of the “motive” is (IMO) weak, and, making unsupported assertions opens all conclusions up for attack (as we do with More and Vergil).

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  5. halfwit36 on said:

    There were a lot of diseases 15th century doctors didn’t know anything about, including diabetes, appendicitis, hemophilia, etc, etc. He could have been poisoned, but it’s equally possible he had a simple bowel blockage, which might result in death if left untreated. Or appendicitis, treated with a purgative, which would be exactly the wrong thing to do, but they didn’t know any better.

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  6. hoodedman1 on said:

    A few thoughts…although 40 year olds sometimes on rare occasions do have sudden heart attacks and die, often the face will go blue from lack of oxygen; no mention of this in his ‘laying out.’ I doubt a stroke from HBP, because again none of the symptoms were described as such. (Incidentally, I have known people with extreme HPH unresponsive to meds to live a normal life span without ever having a stroke.) I do remember one interesting point mentioned in one of the primary sources–that Edward would purge while eating at a banquet so that he could have another go. Purging has devastating effects all on the organs, not just digestive. Lose enough electrolytes and you can develop lethal heart arrythmias. So if this is true, and his death was heart related, it might well have been from this rather than from his obesity.

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  7. What is sure is that when Edward died, he signed his youngest brother’s unhappy life, death and bad reputation. He did not on purpose of course but we know very well what happened next. Unfortunately…

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    • My diagnosis for Edward IV is appendicitis. For several days Edward lay on his right side, groaning. From what little is available, I strongly suggest appendicitis was the cause of Edward IV’s death. I gleaned enough information to give Gloucester [later RiiiR] the following lines in “Dark Sovereign”:

      “This is not my brother [Edward IV] from remembering.
      So comes he a no-king; he is rather their fatted bullock than a bull;
      nay, he is their ox; they ring him to trot him about.
      Whom reputation dubb’d the fairest prince in Christendom 120
      is by these devils* driven to a caesar’s grave / *The Woodvilles
      prepar’d with bacchanalian feasts, as lewd as Priapus.
      His light, which gloriously forth did shine,
      now-a-days is dark. Ha! Edward is so corpulent,
      were a’ boil’d for render’d tallow,
      he’d furnish a thousand of candles with his fat!”

      Dark Sovereign 2.1 © Robert Fripp

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  8. My diagnosis is appendicitis. For several days Edward lay on his right side, groaning. From what little is available, I strongly suggest appendicitis was the cause of Edward IV’s death. Look at the fat in his portait.) I gleaned enough information to give Gloucester [later RiiiR] the following lines in “Dark Sovereign” addressed to Anne Neville, his wife:

    <

    Dark Sovereign 2.1 © Robert Fripp

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