Edward IV 1442-1483 Society of Antiquaries of London
For a king whose reign is otherwise well documented it is curious that the cause of Edward’s death remains a mystery. It would also appear 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 the time, died around the 9 April 1483 at his Palace of Westminster(1). According to the Croyland Chronicler Edward had taken to his bed around ‘Easter’ – Easter Sunday being the 30th March – with his death being reported to the Mayor and minuted on the 9th April in the Acts of Court of the Mercers Company:
“… Lord Audley and the Lord Berkeley now early this morning by the ascent of the Kings Council sent unto the Mayor for to show and give knowledge that the king is passed out of this present life this last night’
Prior to his sudden death and before growing corpulent things had gone swimmingly well for Edward in the looks and physique department.
Mancini – ‘He was wont to show himself to those who wished to watch him and he seized any opportunity that the occasion offered of revealing his fine stature more protractedly and more evidently to onlookers’ however’ in food and drink he was most immoderate , it was his habit so I have learned, to take an emetic for the delight of gorging his stomach once more , for this reason he had grown fat in the loins’ although ‘he was a tall man and very fat though not to the point of deformity‘
More reported – ‘ he was of visage lovely, of body mighty, strong and clean made ‘ later however ‘he was of youth greatly given to fleshly wantonness from which health of body in great prosperity and fortune without a special grace hardly refraineth’
After that all went downhill for Edward. Philippe de Commines sums it up neatly, rather too neatly perhaps
‘and in the flower of his age his excesses reached his kidneys and he died rather suddenly of a stroke‘
Mancini however attributed his illness to a cold caught while fishing 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 and/or sadness brought on by the Treaty of Arras. Malaria was also 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 in his excellent treatise points out most people at the time seemed more concerned with what happened AFTER Edward’s death, rather than what caused it.
The Old Palace of Westminster where Edward died 9 April 1483. St Stephens Chapel where Edward’s body lay in repose is shown in the centre of the picture
R E Collins’ entertaining treatise on Edward’s death was included in Secret History the Truth about Richard III and the Princes and from which I have drawn heavily here. He had a considerable knowledge of medical matters and having done some very thorough 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 Edward’s 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 Edward’s body was laid out naked for viewing, Collins is 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.
Locket containing lock of Edward’s hair. Royal Collection Trust
Edward from the Royal Window, Canterbury Cathedral
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 lets facts 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’.
Yet another lock of Edward’s hair – Society of Antiquaries of London
The English chronicler 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 ifthey 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 points out it may well be worth be listening to Crowland, as 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‘.
However whatever it was – dead he was – and after his body was washed and left clad only in a loincloth for about 12 hours for the curious to see he was taken to St Stephen’s Chapel to lay in respose for a further 8 days. After that he was taken to St George’s Chapel Windsor and finally laid to rest in the beautiful tomb that was in the process of being built.(2)
St Georges Chapel, Windsor, final resting place for Edward IV
As to why someone would want to send Edward to an early grave by poisoning, that dear reader is another story. 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.
Footnote: Edward’s early demise was to prove the death knell of the House of Plantagenet. Less than three years later the end came with the death of Edward’s able brother King Richard III brought down by treachery at Bosworth. For Edward’s death had brought about a great rattling of a massive skeleton in his closet. It transpired that his marriage to Elizabeth Wydeville had been a bigamous one – for soon after his accession to the throne he had married Eleanor Talbot, daughter to the great John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury and thus a lady of noble birth. This set about a great unstoppable and tragic chain of events. Elizabeth herself after spending many tedious months in sanctuary at Cheyneygates, Westminster, found herself once again elevated to high status as mother to the new Queen. Unfortunately this happy scenario did not last long before she was sent to retirement in Bermondsey Abbey where in June 1492 she popped her clogs and was given a cheap funeral in an even cheaper wooden coffin. It was said she got involved in the Lambert Simnel affair which indicates she knew at least one of her sons still lived.
ELIZABETH WYDEVILLE, EDWARD’S ‘QUEEN’ WHOM HE MARRIED BIGAMOUSLY
- There is some debate about the correct date of death. John Ashdown-Hill suggests Edward died either Tuesday 1 April or Saturday the 5th April ‘most probably the 5th’. John Ashdown-Hill The Private Life of Edward IV p209
- The Death of Kings Clifford Brewer T.D. F.R.C.S p98
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