Monday, March 5, 2012

Death of King Charles II

By Katherine Pym
First, a little about him…

King Charles II lived a life full of sex and sport. During his youth, he learned to keep his own counsel. He was kind natured, only allowing his need for revenge against a few of the regicides. Cromwell was one of these, even though already dead and buried.

Charles took a long time to come to a state decision. He’d put it off with a wave of his hand, and play with one of his women. He loved spaniels, and several romped in his private chambers, soiling the floors so that no one could walk across the room in a straight line.

Even though he reigned in a Protestant country, while on the run in 1651 after his defeat at the Battle of Worcester, Charles was protected at their peril by Catholics. For a few hours, Charles hid in a priest hole, very snug and claustrophobic, while Parliament men searched for him. By the end of his trek through England and into exile, Charles had gained a high regard for Catholics and Catholicism.

But I digress.

While Charles reigned, he did not confide in many. He was considered an enigma by both his contemporaries and those who study him. He had a kind heart. His nature made people comfortable. They confided in him, wanted to be near him. But when Charles wanted to be alone, or was tired of the subject, he’d pull out his watch. Those who knew of this would quickly state their business, for soon their king would walk away.

Charles loved reading (not political or religious). He brought great strides to the theatre sector, and he enjoyed science. In 1660, he approved a charter for The Royal Society. The group of great minds, Isaac Newton for one, met at Gresham College in London City. Experiments took place there, including draining the veins of a dog into the veins of another dog. The results amazed those curious people.

So, we come to his death…
‘He fell sick of a tertian fever’, but the official cause of death is: Uraemia (per—“a condition resulting from the retention in the blood of constituents normally excreted in the urine.”), chronic nephritis. Syphilis.

On the evening of February 1, 1685, Charles went to bed with a sore foot. By early morning, he was very ill with fever. His physician (Sir Edmund King) tended to his foot whilst a barber shaved his head. Suddenly, the king suffered apoplexy. His physician immediately withdrew sixteen ounces of blood. Sir Edmund took a big risk, and could have been charged with treason. The protocol was to get permission from the Privy Council prior to a bloodletting.
For several days, Charles was tormented by his physicians. As a private man this must have been difficult. Surrounded by more physicians than could gain his bed, they attempted to remove the ‘toxic humours’ that penetrated his body.
He was bled and purged. Cantharides plasters were stuck to his bald pate. They caused blistering. They attached plasters of spurge to his feet, then red-hot irons to his skin. Besides the large number of physicians crowding his bed, His Royal Highness’ bedchamber was filled to the walls with spectators (family members and state officials).

They gave the poor king “enemas of rock salt and syrup of buckthorn, and ‘orange infusion of metals in white wine’. The king was treated with a horrific cabinet of potions: white hellebore root; Peruvian bark; white vitriol of peony water; distillation of cowslip flowers; sal ammoniac; julep of black cherry water (an antispasmodic); oriental bezoar stone from the stomach of a goat and boiled spirits from a human skull.”

After days of this, he apologized for taking so long to die, then added, “I have suffered much more than you can imagine.”

Finally, on February 6, 1685 “the exhausted king, his body raw and aching with the burns and inflammation caused by his treatment, was given heart tonics, to no avail. He lapsed into a coma and died at noon on February 7.”

His death is considered by historians as “iatrogenic regicide”.

I give thanks to Royal Poxes & Potions, The Lives of Court Physicians, Surgeons & Apothecaries, by Raymond Lamont-Brown.

For more on Charles II (not his death but a bit on his return from exile), please see my historical novel, Viola, A Woeful Tale of Marriage - mostly of marriage and bigamy during the mid 17th century.

To read my historical novels in London 1660's and one odd French Revolution story, please see


  1. Poor man. Sounds truly terrible. Those without access to a doctor did better.

  2. Oh my goodness, torture indeed!
    A timely post as I've just finished reading "Darling Strumpet" by Gillian Bagwell, about the life of Nell Gwynn. Charles was touching portrayed in this and his death almost brought tears to my eyes.
    G x

  3. I adore Charles II, he's my favourite historical figure. How he died always brings tears to my eyes :(

  4. Gulp. How horrible. I assume the doctors really believed all those 'cures' would help...?

  5. Talk about too many cooks spoiling the broth! Seems the king would have done better with fewer doctors!

  6. First do no harm . . .
    Poor man.

  7. My stomach flipped at that horrid description of his physiking. They would have been kinder to slip him a poison that took him in his sleep. Thank goodness for modern medicine.

    Interesting post!

  8. My most favourite monarch, how I would have loved to be at the parade for his restoration on May 29th 1660, his 30th Birthday - my birthday too and I have always felt drawn towards him and his history. Oh to have lived in those days, pox and the Black Death aside, when London was a series of pretty villages along the Thames, meadows filled with flowers, no pesticides, chemicals or any other noxious substances contaminating everything, has anyone got a working time machine? His death must have been a great relief, poor man, after the way his illness was treated.

  9. Things haven't changed doctors only do what is right (at the time) because that is all they know,only to be proved wrong later in years


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