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
Easter is here again, and in these modern times it is only too often thought of as a time of pretty bunnies, fluffy chicks, chocolate eggs, hot cross buns and the joys of spring. But in the past it was a very different occasion, for it was the most important time of the year for the Christian church, because it marked Holy Week. Many of us still regard it in this more solemn light, of course, but what was it like in the time of Richard III? In particular, what did Richard himself do at this particular time?
I confess here and now that a lot of what follows has been paraphrased from John Ashdown-Hill’s Last Days of Richard III, in which a great many more details can be found.
In 1485, Easter came only a week or so after Queen Anne’s death (Wednesday, 16th March) and Richard must have been feeling bereft and alone. He had lost his son, and now his wife. . .and the king’s Easter duties had to be attended to. I doubt if he felt like doing anything except shut himself away to grieve, but that was not allowed.
On Sunday, 27th March, Richard must have appeared in public for the Palm Sunday procession at Westminster. It was the beginning of Holy Week, and Richard had to attend to certain religious obligations, not least the traditional “touching” for the disease known as the King’s Evil, better known to us now as scrofula. The ritual had been enacted in England since at least the time of Henry II, and was not confined to Easter, but Holy Week was the main occasion. English and French kings were believed to have healing hands that could cure sufferers; only for scrofula, not for any other condition. And first, the monarch had confessed, received absolution and taken Holy Communion, so that he was in a state of grace.
Then, when he was seated, the sufferers came before him one by one. He washed his hands and then touched the terrible sores of each person. At the same time, a chaplain chanted “Super egros manus imponent et bene habebunt.” (“They will lay their hands upon the sick and they will recover.” Mark 11:18.)
When each person had received the royal touch (perhaps one of the new gold angels, with the Archangel Michael on one side, and “Per crucem tuam salva nos Christe Redemptor” (“Christ, Redeemer, save us by your cross”) on the other.
Richard’s ordeal may not have been as great as those afflicted with this dreadful ailment, but it was bad enough because on Wednesday, 30th March, he had to appear at the Priory of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem (Knights Hospitallers) in Clerkenwell to publicly deny that he intended to marry his niece, Elizabeth of York. And this so swiftly upon Anne’s death.
The next day, Maundy Thursday, he must have appeared at St Paul’s Cathedral for the mass of the Last Supper. After a reading from John 13, it was the ancient custom for the monarch to don an apron and go down on his knees to wash the feet of thirty-two poor men – one for every year of Richard’s life. He then presented them with the apron he had worn and the towel with which he had dried them. “Additional gifts followed, including for each man a gown, a hood, a pair of shoes, bread, fish, wine and a purse containing thirty-two silver pennies.”
On the first day of the new month of April, Richard performed the penitential rite of ‘creeping to the Cross’. This required him to “prostrate himself, and then—without getting up, “slowly approach the symbol of the crucifixion” in a semi-prostrate condition.
There was more, but this is enough to show how much was demanded of the monarch during Holy Week. And in this particular year, 1485, it must have been particularly harrowing for Richard. It was also the last time he would ever see Easter, for on 22nd August that year he died at Bosworth.
To begin this post, I will confess to having an attachment to the date of birth that Richard III wrote in his personal prayer-book. In his own hand, he inscribed next to the entry for October 2 the words “hac die natus erat Ricardus Rex anglie IIIus apud ffoderingay Anno D’ni mcccc lijo” (“at this day had been born King Richard III of England, at Fotheringhay, in the year of our Lord 1452”). I was born on October 2, five centuries later. As a student of “Ricardian” history, it’s a point of pride for me to be born on the same calendar day as Richard — which makes me rather eccentric to say the least.
Richard III’s Book of Hours – with handwritten notation of his birthdate (L)
Nevertheless, it’s rare that we get to see anyone from the medieval period writing down their birthday, and so it…
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In the very heart of historic Cambridge, stands a tall and elegant late Perpendicular Gothic church, sandwiched between the colleges and market square.
The church of St Mary the Virgin has stood on the site since 1205; the first recorded rector being Thomas de Chiveley who was appointed in the reign of King John.
The church was burnt to the ground in 1290. The local Jewish population were blamed for this unfortunate event and were punished by shutting down their synagogue. After the rebuilding of the church it was re-named Great St Mary’s, to differentiate it from Little St Mary’s in 1351.
King Edward III was a benefactor of the church at this time, along with his re-founding of King’s Hall in Cambridge which was later assimilated into Trinity College during the reign of King Henry VIII.
Arms of King Edward III and his sons over the gateway to Trinity College…
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