4th February 1685. A Long Time Dying.
It was Today when Diarist, John Evelyn recorded the death throes of Charles II whom a week before he had described as being, ‘healthy enough to be in the midst of his concubines… enjoying luxurious dallying and profaneness’.
Evelyn continued: ‘If by God’s providence Dr. King (that excellent chirurgeon) had not been present to let blood…His Majesty had certainly died that moment’, and in retrospect considering his primitive and dangerous treatment it might have been for the best.
For his heroic blood-letting a £1000 reward was approved for Dr.Edmund King, who happened to be at Whitehall, being one of 13 royal physicians, although he was never paid.
However King quickly sent for his chief, Sir Charles Scarburg, who over the next days, if he couldn’t save him, must have inadvertently poisoned him in those days of magic potions and a belief in the ancient Four Humours.
The treatment of Charles II must represent one of the most notorious cases of blood-letting, including as it did, opening both Jugular Veins, so by the end he must have been bloodless.
But it wasn’t just ‘cupping’ for as Evelyn continued, ‘the King on showing any signs of reviving, [giving confidence to the doctors], was to receive treatments ranging from scalp singeing, the application of hot plasters, and pigeon droppings to his feet, to skull-trepanning and sneezing powders, still complained and was relapsing often fainting…for which he was cupped let blood in both jugulars, and both vomits and purges [induces] which so relieved so that on Thursday they drew 12 more ounces of blood…He gave up the ghost in the morning being the 6th February 1685’.
The emetics prescribed to bring out the Yellow Humour (Bile), were based on what we now know as poisons, including antimony potassium tartrate, a caustic used for dyeing cloth, then when he stirred they applied camphor and mustard plaster to his head causing blistering and Spanish Fly would have irritated his urinary tract.
Then powder blown up his nose came from veratrum album, the poisonous rhizome of the white hellebore, then sweet julep of black cherry, peony, lavender, crushed pearls, white sugar, were among the myriads of ‘natural remedies’.
The miraculous power of religion came with ‘Jesuit Bark’ championed by the Jesuits in the 1630.s and laced with toxic quinine gave an aura of holiness..
By the Wednesday, three days before the King died, it was tried, in desperation, pulverized skull from ‘an innocent man who had died a violent death’ in 40 drops, which reeks of sympathetic magic: early homeopathy?
As monarchs are not allowed to die without strenuous efforts from their team of physicians, finally an extract of ‘all plants and animals in the kingdom’ was forced down his throat.
Unsurprisingly despite the stamina of the human body, Charles died the following Saturday, the irony being that it was thought the King had been poisoned [purposely]. Then another irony had the King been a peasant, unable to afford such ‘state of art’ treatment he might have survived.
bbc.co.uk/Death of Charles II.Based on Scarburgh’s Description.
aintnowaytogo.com.Based on Panati ‘s Extreme Endings. 1989.