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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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THE SEVEN PRINCES IN THE TOWER

king-richard

The title sounds like a fairy tale, doesn’t it? Well, I’m once again going to address the matter of those pesky princes in the Tower as I found myself recently debating with several folks who still want to hang on to a certain rather improbable fairy story about them—the one created by our ‘favourite’ saint, Thomas More.
We all know about the two sets of bones, undated and not properly sexed, that are currently sitting in an urn in Westminster. Enough has been said about them on this blog and elsewhere, at least for the time-being.
But what about other remains found over the centuries that have been thought to be the princes? They are more bones than there are boys.
Two children’s skeletons were said to have been found walled up in a hidden chamber in the Tower during the time of Sir Walter Raleigh (the early to mid-1600’s). Supposedly found laid out on a table, the bones were immediately believed to be the missing princes…despite their ages being estimated at between six and eight, too young to be ‘our’ princes.
That said, of course there was no archaeology or osteology in the 1600’s and any guesses as to age at death or cause would be very untrustworthy indeed. However, the idea that they were the princes had some backing….Jean Molinet, the French chronicler and poet, who died in 1507 (so someone who lived at the time the princes vanished, although he was not in England at the time, and was of course, French, which meant his writing would show the English in as bad a light as possible) wrote that the two boys had in fact been bricked up and died of starvation.
However, this tale rapidly seems to have been forgotten (presumably because Molinet was not a saint like Thomas More, and he was French to boot) and the two children’s skeletons vanished who knows where.
Later, of course two coffins were also discovered in a sub-vault adjacent to the main crypt when Edward IV’s tomb was opened in 1789. These were supposed at the time to be the coffins of his children Mary and George, who had died young; however Mary and George were found in different parts of St George’s chapel at a later date.
Sounding likely for the princes? Only until you realise we don’t know if these ‘children’s coffins’ were in fact for children at all (they were only supposed to hold children) or again, what date they were from or if that sub-vault was from another era altogether. Substantial re-ordering in the chapel had taken place throughout the Tudor era and there were later works too.
Records are sketchy and contradictory…at one point 14 year old Mary, whose body was apparently very well preserved, with open blue eyes and long golden hair that had infiltrated through chinks in her coffin, was mistaken for the middle-aged Elizabeth Woodville, her mother!
Back to the Tower of London itself, another child’s skeleton was found at a much later date….in modern times, 1977. Once again, this individual appeared to be that of an adolescent. Examination by a modern bone specialist showed it had male characteristics. A missing prince? No, carbon dating showed it was an Iron Age boy from before the Roman occupation of Britain.
So there have been seven possible princes. We could add an eighth if you want to include another set of bones found in a high up turret in the great Norman fortress—first touted as a lost and heinously murdered prince, it turned out the bones were the remains of an escaped ape!
Many would still argue that More identified the ‘right place’ (ignoring the fact of course that his history says the princes were later moved from the tower staircase by a solitary priest) and that it would be too much coincidence.…but maybe the reason he chose that spot for the ‘scene of the crime’ is simple. Perhaps occasional human bones turned up around that area (as they still do today, it would seem.) Centuries before archaeology existed, people like More would only assume one thing.

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