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.
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.
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.
ELIZABETH WYDEVILLE, EDWARD’S ‘QUEEN’ WHOM HE MARRIED BIGAMOUSLY
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- Secret History Part II R E Collins