Did doctors kill Charles II …with a cocktail of quack cures?
Did DOCTORS kill Charles II…with a cocktail of quack cures? Ground beetle, mashed vipers, goats’ hairballs… the bizarre treatments prescribed to two of our most famous royals might actually have finished them off, claims a fascinating new show
- Royal Autopsy, a new documentary, re-examines the deaths of British monarchs
- Experts reflect on the sickly Charles II last days and death of Queen Elizabeth I
- READ MORE: Prince Edward moves down the line of succession: Princess Eugenie’s new baby means Earl of Wessex will become 14th in line to the throne
The list of cures prescribed for a sickly Charles II in the last week of his life sounds more like ruin than remedy. The Merry Monarch was bled, burned, and fed ground-up human skull and bezoar stone, which is a hairball from a goat’s stomach.
Basically, says a new investigation into his death aged just 54, his doctors started at the easy end of the scale with bleeding and cupping, and worked up to witchcraft.
We know all about the purgative syrups of buckthorn and peony water fed to the king, the white hellebore (stuck up his nostrils to encourage sneezing), the ‘sacred bitter’ powder and rock salt enemas and the pigeon poo applied to the soles of the royal feet, because these ‘remedies’ were recorded by his doctors. What we have never known is what really killed him on 6 February 1685.
Now a new documentary called Royal Autopsy – a blend of cold-case medical investigation and costume drama – aims to find out.
A new Sky History documentary Royal Autopsy – a blend of cold-case medical investigation and costume drama – is aiming to uncover what really killed Charles II (pictured, a portrait of the royal in 1680)
It’s hosted by anatomist and biological anthropologist Professor Alice Roberts and Home Office pathologist Doctor Brett Lockyer, who also re-examined the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603 for this two-parter on Sky History.
It opens with a warning that the programme ‘is not for the faint-hearted…’ and there indeed lies the Restoration monarch on a mortuary slab with a tag on his toe.
We learn that Charles II was recorded as having died of apoplexy, the 17th-century term for a stroke, but there were also rumours of syphilis, malaria and poisoning – whether criminal or accidental.
Since Charles II was an amateur scientist and alchemist, it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that he could have poisoned himself.
The programme is hosted by anatomist and biological anthropologist Professor Alice Roberts and Home Office pathologist Doctor Brett Lockyer
Mark Wingett – who will be familiar to fans of The Bill, in which he played Jim Carver for 21 years – portrays King Charles enjoying an epic dinner and a night of slap and tickle with his favourite mistress Louise, the Duchess of Portsmouth.
Suddenly though, it’s more Silent Witness than Wolf Hall as we switch to a post-mortem re-created in Bristol three-and-a-half centuries later.
Dr Lockyer makes a ‘Y’ shaped incision across the late monarch’s chest, cracks his ribs open and takes the pluck – the organs between the neck and the pelvis – out (they’re ethically sourced pig’s organs, because that’s the best match).
The pathologist is intent on examining the kidneys, which for the purposes of the documentary have been lightly poached in a cup of boiling water and then rolled in semolina to alter their appearance.
If you think this is treasonable you should hear what they do to Queen Elizabeth. ‘Bronchial pus’ in Her Majesty’s lungs was re-created using Ambrosia custard and green food dye.
But these are flashes of behind-the-scenes levity in what is a serious academic inquiry. Professor Roberts is Professor of Public Engagement in Science at the University of Birmingham. Dr Lockyer’s cases for the Home Office include post-mortems on some of the Grenfell Tower victims and those who died in the London Bridge and Borough Market terror attack.
A painting of Elizabeth I’s death. ‘Bronchial pus’ in Her Majesty’s lungs was re-created using Ambrosia custard and green food dye in the documentary
Together they are in pursuit of the truth behind the deaths of two monarchs, whose endings have given rise to centuries of debate.
Charles II’s death was a shock to the country he’d ruled for 25 years. He’d brought life and fun back to court after the dour days of Oliver Cromwell.
At a towering 6ft 2in, he appeared in good health. But on 2 February 1685 he fell ill.
Professor Roberts and Dr Lockyer re-create the cuts on the king’s arm and neck that would have been made by his doctors’ blood letting, and the circular bruises on his shoulders left by ‘cupping’, which uses cups inverted on the skin to create suction and supposedly draw out toxins.
There are burns from heated irons and chemicals such as ground Spanish beetle, which was used to make his skin blister. Both were part of the purging performed by royal physicians Edmund King and Charles Scarburgh.
Medical theory in the 17th century was still focused on the doctrine of the four humours – blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm – which had existed from the time of the Ancient Greeks. Prescriptions were based on plants or superstition and surgery was a free-for-all – a surgeon could either amputate your arm or cut your hair, since they made a living doing both.
The documentary shows us how, in growing desperation, Charles’s physicians insisted on more and more plant remedies, potentially exacerbating the symptoms they were supposed to relieve. Professor Roberts speaks to Nell Jones, Head of Plant Collections at the Chelsea Physic Garden in London, who points out that a lot of healing plants are poisonous too – it’s a question of dosage.
When the plants failed to work, the court doctors turned to superstition. They administered ‘The King’s Drops’, a tincture of human skull mixed with vipers and hartshorn from the antler of a male red deer.
A skull was believed to hold the essence of another person and, like the bezoar stone cut from a goat’s stomach, was a mythical cure of last resort.
Historian Dr Onyeka Nubia from the University of Nottingham explains that the physicians ‘are afraid they are going to be blamed for killing the king, which is why they throw every remedy they know or have heard of at him, hoping something is going to produce a positive result’.
The outcome was a much more painful end than might have been experienced by people further down the social pecking order. ‘I ended up feeling desperately sorry for the king,’ says Professor Roberts.
‘If he’d been the man in the street sweeping up horse poo he’d probably have had a more comfortable death.’
Viewers learn that Charles II was recorded as having died of apoplexy, the 17th-century term for a stroke, but there were also rumours of syphilis, malaria and poisoning – whether criminal or accidental. Stock image used
After they analyse the king’s symptoms, the presenters come to a conclusion as to what they’d put on his death certificate were they signing it in 2023. To be clear, there is no record of any autopsy on Charles II – this is a reconstruction based on contemporary accounts of his final days, performed on a prosthetic body.
Alongside the costume drama segments led by Wingett, it is a first on British television.
Dr Lockyer thinks the time is right for this kind of treatment because attitudes to death have shifted. ‘Nowadays people are fascinated by it,’ he says. ‘The taboo that existed when I was a kid in the early 80s, when no one talked about death, it’s not there any more. Everyone wants to know what happens to you when you die.’
He says his role was to apply the principles of modern pathology and treat the royal death as he would any cold case.
‘I approached it in the same way I’d approach the post-mortem of a patient who dies today. The last few days of a life can give you a lot of information. If you take that as your starting point and look at all the historic documents that surround the death of Charles II, you ask questions which may not have been asked before.’
Professor Roberts agrees. ‘It’s a mystery, and mysteries are alluring,’ she says. ‘It’s fascinating to ignore centuries of speculation, and return to what was written at the time.’
If their TV autopsies prove popular, the pair are keen to keep going with the format.
Indeed, they looked at six British monarchs before choosing Charles II and Elizabeth I.
Both have other historical figures who piqued their curiosity. For Professor Roberts there’s the eternal question of what happened to Cleopatra – was it really an asp? And Doctor Lockyer is interested in another king entirely.
‘I’m not a historian so it would have to be Elvis,’ he says.
Royal Autopsy, Tuesday 7 February, Sky History.
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