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THE DEATH OF HENRY VIII

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Henry VIII, known as the Hamilton Portrait and once owned by the Duke of Hamilton, this portrait used to be at  Holyroodhouse.  Philip Mould.

The deaths of all three Tudor kings were protracted and wretched.  Whether this was down to Karma, bad luck (or good luck depending on what way you look at it) or just the lamentable medical treatments available at the time,  I know not.  Perhaps a combination of all three.  But I want to concentrate here on the death of Henry VIII.

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‘The Death of Kings’ by Clifford Brewer T.D. F.R.C.S is an interesting read and covers the death of Henry in detail.   The title is self explanatory, the book being a ‘medical history of the Kings and Queens of England’.   I have drawn heavily on the book for the information I quote here concerning Henry VIII, who by strange coincidence died on the 28th January being the date on which his father Henry Tudor was born.

Henry, long since grown corpulent, was becoming a burden to himself and of late lame by reason of a violent ulcer in his leg, the inflammation whereof cast him into a lingering fever, which little by little decayed his spirits.  He at length begun to feel the inevitable necessity of death. Goodwin Annales of England.

Henry’s symptoms are too numerous to detail here and death must have come as somewhat of a relief to him after much suffering.  The actual cause of death is still debated as is did he suffer from syphilis.  Brewer points out there is no proof either way and that although , if he had,  it could explain some of the ‘happenings in his reign’ there are points which contradict this.  For example there is no evidence that his long term mistress Bessie Blount suffered from syphilis which she surely would have contracted from him (neither did  their son Henry Fitzroy ever show signs of congenital syphilis).      The same can be said of Mary Boleyn or any of his wives.

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This is believed to be a bust of Henry as a child.  What a mischievous little chap he was, the little stinker…..

He is recorded as having suffered from a bout of malaria with recurrences throughout his life although these did not seem to incapacitate him too much.  Indeed he seems to have enjoyed  robust health engaging in ‘strenuous exercise and indulged in many jousts and tournaments both on foot and on horse. He did how ever have two lucky escapes both of which could have been fatal.  One was a jousting accident where his brother-in-law, the Duke  Suffolk’s lance shattered his helm and he was very lucky not to be blinded or even killed’.  Then in 1525 whilst  trying  to vault a very wide ditch using a pole, the pole broke and he was thrown headfirst into the mud where,   unable either to get up or even breath,  his life was  saved by a footman.  .

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Henry in his prime…a portrait by Joos van Cleve c1530-1535

This jousting injury might account for the belated development of several symptoms.   Henry was to alter in appearance and put on a considerable amount of  weight,  ‘his face become moonlike,  burying his small eyes in a puffy face and accentuating  his small mouth’.  After the execution of Anne Boleyn,  Henry became even more prone to fits of temper and instability.  His  great increase in weight made it difficult for him to take exercise. Henry also developed an ulcer on his leg and  Brewer speculates that this ulcer,  which was very offensive,  ‘and a trial to his attendants’  could have been either a varicose ulcer or the result of an injury received whilst jousting which damaged the bone leading to osteitis.   This could have led to further complications – amyloid disease in which a waxy  material is laid down in the liver, kidneys and elsewhere.  Not a pretty picture.  Poor Henry.

Henry,  as he got older,  became subject of violent attacks of temper and periods of loss of memory.   On leaving London on one occasion he ordered all the prisoners in Tower to be executed.   His character become more and more unstable and by 1546 Henry had become  grossly overweight,  his legs so swollen,  due to severe oedema,  that he was unable to walk and he was moved from place to place by means of lifting apparatus.

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Henry towards the end of his life showing the  abnormality on the side of his nose which might indicate a gamma that had healed with scarring..by Cornelis Metsys line engraving 1545.

‘Towards the end of January 1547 he begun to suffer from periods of partial unconsciousness alternating with periods of alertness.  He was probably passing into a uraemia coma.  Realising he was dying he sent for  Cranmer but by he time he arrived he had lost the ability to speak.  Grasping Cranmer’s hand in his,  he pressed it when asked if he  repented his sins.    This was taken as Henry’s repentance and he ‘died in grace’ ‘ …ummm I don’t think it quite works like that!  .  However, his huge and offensive body was transferred, with some difficulty,  into his coffin.  He was then taken to Windsor to be laid to rest beside Jane Seymour.  However that is not the end of the story for it is said that his coffin burst a leak and the church was filled with a ‘most obnoxious odour’.  And so Henry passed ignobly from this life and  into history and the short reign of his son Edward Vl commenced.    As it transpired Edward’s death was to be perhaps  even more awful that that of his father.   But that dear reader is another story.

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Henry’s coffin in the vault he shares with Jane Seymour and King Charles I, St George’s Chapel, Windsor.

Here is also a link to a an interesting video.

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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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