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In her latest book, Mortal Monarchs: 1000 Years of Royal Deaths Suzie Edge writes about the deaths of several of England’s monarchs who died in grotesque, weird, or elaborate ways. A former medical doctor now turned history, Suzie takes an indepth look at the sciene behind the deaths of Kings and Queens of England across a thousand years of history. Today, Suzie joins us on the show today to share with us the stories of the deaths of some of the most famous monarchs whose lives and deaths touched on the life of William Shakespeare including Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots, and James I of England.
This week’s episode contains frank medical discussions of gore and violence, including disease and specifics about human demise. While our discussion is both entertaining and academic in nature, the content may be inappropriate for younger listeners. If you are listening in a classroom or where there are child ears present, we recommend you listen to the episode first before sharing it.
Dr Suzie Edge trained as a molecular biologist before moving to clinical medicine, to spend more time talking to people, rather than just bugs in test tubes. She went on to work as a junior doctor in a variety of medical specialties including infectious diseases, haematology, and trauma and orthopaedic surgery. Whilst working as a doctor she completed an MLitt in Modern History to feed her fascination for the history of the human body and the history of medicine.
Always on the lookout for gory historical details, Suzie loves telling stories of how we have treated our human bodies in life and in death.
Suzie has a black belt and is an instructor in the martial art of Sooyang Do. She lives in a wee cottage in the Highlands of Scotland with her husband, their two teenage daughters and their dog, Scout.
Her first book, MORTAL MONARHS, will be published by Wildfire in September 2022 and her second VITAL ORGANS is coming in September 2023.
I’ll be asking Suzie Edge about:
- When Elizabeth was dying, she was severely emaciated and Suzie writes that Elizabeth’s reliance on lead based makeup to hide her scars from childhood smallpox as well as the lack of good oral hygiene would contribute to horrible infections for Elizabeth that ravaged the ailing queen in her final days. Suzie, will you explain how the lead specifically in the ceruse that Elizabeth used could have contributed to the situation surrounding her death?
- Suzie writes that the reports of Elizabeth seeing ghosts might indicate the Queen suffered from cancer. Suzie, what was is about the reports of Elizabeth’s behavior at Richmond Palace that lead you to believe she may have had cancer?
- The next monarch from Shakespeare’s lifetime is Mary Queen of Scots, who died when Shakespeare was 22 years old. Suzie, I did not expect Mary Queen of Scots to be listed in your book because her death, I assumed, was straight forward—she was executed. But then I read in your book that her execution was botched? What happened to Mary Queen of Scots at her death?
- …and more!
When Elizabeth was dying, she was severely emaciated and Suzie writes that Elizabeth’s reliance on lead based makeup to hide her scars from childhood smallpox as well as the lack of good oral hygiene would contribute to horrible infections for Elizabeth that ravaged the ailing queen in her final days. Suzie explains that the lead, specifically in the ceruse that Elizabeth used, could have contributed to the situation surrounding her death.
Lead is particularly nasty, known for thousands of years as plumbism or saturnism, bothers the connections between the neural synapses which can cause problems with senses, sensation, and even coordination. In small amounts it doesn’t cause huge problems but Elizabeth used it daily and took it off with mercury as well, and it is thought the heavy metals were creating free radicals and cause problems with cell damage, and damage, and cell membranes and all of it is breaking down.
Suzie writes that the reports of Elizabeth seeing ghosts might indicate the Queen suffered from cancer, but more likely the hallucinations were brought on by other ailments. Suzie suspects cancer as a result of the emaciated condition of Elizabeth I.
She was suffering from delusions and possibly dementia. The emaciated state of her was what points to cancer. It’s a condition we see in modern day cancer patients, and lead of course we know today
The next monarch from Shakespeare’s lifetime is Mary Queen of Scots, who died when Shakespeare was 22 years old. I did not expect Mary Queen of Scots to be listed in context of our conversation today because her death was straight forward—she was executed. But then I read in Suzie’s book that her execution was botched, and there were some surprising events that occurred in the aftermath of her beheading.
Mary Queen of Scots was sentenced to death by beheading and it wasn’t a clean sword like Anne Boleyn, it was an ax and she went through and amazing defiance of red undergarments, and the ax didn’t make a good cut the first time, instead slicing into her neck, the executioner took three times [to cut off her head.”
There are numerous reports of Mary Queen of Scot’s lips moving after she was (finally) decapitated, and Suzie claims there is medical evidence, as well as historical precindent, to suggest Mary may have been conscious after she was decapitated.
The story goes that [the executioner] reached out to grab her head but grabbed her wig, and her face was still twitching and she was talking away. There are actually several stories of beheading victims having experiments done (Charlotte Corday), on the heads. Corday, made an annoyed look at the executioner. Could happen for a whole 30 seconds afterwards. Severe drop in blood pressure and blood flow to the brain the lights go out very fast, so it could just be reflexes without the spinal cord, and there are many stories of talkings and mutterings and lip movings and eye movements after death.
When it comes to the death of James I of England, Suzie writes that it is hard to tell which killed him faster—the actual disease, or the treatments that were used to try and cure him. There were several methods used to try and heal James I towards the end of his life and Suzie explains why they muddy the waters about determining his cause of death.
…Blistering with a beetle. Fluids off the body and Buckingham was accused of poisoning the King because of his concoction. The stuarts had doctors that caused more harm than good. A Stuart corpse would look harrowing [as a result of all that was done to it postmortem.]…[The beetle, when] crushed gives off a blistering fluid. To protect the beetle, and is used nowadays to encourage livestock to get them excitable because if they take it it comes out in the urine, so when it is leaving the urethra, it excites.
Unlike some of the other monarchs Suzie writes about, after death James I’s body was submitted to a 17th century version of an autopsy with surprising results. The examination of James’ body differs from what we understand an autopsy to be today, and the findings were broad and ultimately vague, to say the least.
[As a comparison, when] Catherine of Aragon was also opened up, it was to prepare for burial and they found something in her heart. Now [meaning today] we can go into the micro and look at tox screens, etc, and look at cells as well to see if there were cancers, etc, but they’d of just been looking at the macro whole organs,. They could see that [James’] kidneys were shriveled and the other was full of stones so he was suffering from that throughout his life. You can see water in the brain and water and frothing in the lungs, and one line in James evaluation, his blood had “a melancholic look” or and his head was full of brains.