The Mysterious Death and Autopsy of Charles II of England

On the morning of the 2nd of February 1685, the King of England, Scotland, and Ireland, Charles II, at just 54 years of age, had a sudden apoplectic fit. Four days later, at approximately 11:45 am, he died. 

It was a sudden and bizarre death that immediately aroused suspicions at court and within government circles. Had the king been poisoned, many wondered? 

After all, he had not shown any outward signs of severe illness in the weeks and days leading up to his short but fatal bout of illness. 

Here we examine the mysterious circumstances of Charles’s death, the theories which abounded about his death in 1685, and what his actual autopsy revealed.[1] 

Charles II’s early life

Charles II was born in the early summer of 1630 to King Charles I of England, Scotland, and Ireland, and his wife, Queen Henrietta Maria.[2] 

As the eldest son of Charles I, he was originally destined to succeed his father as king of the three kingdoms, but the outbreak of the English Civil Wars in the 1640s scuppered all of that. 

Amid raging political and religious tensions between king and parliament, Charles was tried, condemned to death, and executed in 1649.

 His young family had already fled for the continent, variously finding refuge in France and the Dutch Republic. The young Charles waited as parliament ruled for eleven years, and then Oliver Cromwell governed England throughout the 1650s. But then, in 1660, with Cromwell dead and the experiment in English republicanism floundering, the parliament invited Charles to return to England to re-establish the monarchy. 

The Restoration of Charles II

The Restoration, as the act whereby Charles returned to England and became King Charles II has become known, is the name also applied to the entire period of Charles’s reign. 

The Restoration Period was a celebratory epoch.[3] England was flushed with wealth from its burgeoning empire and enjoyed a period of very prolonged political stability, as a generation sought to avoid the wars of the 1640s repeating themselves. 

But there was some social and political tension, which proved critical in assessments of Charles’s sudden death in 1685. These focused on religion. 

The Stuart kingdoms were Protestant, and indeed Charles himself was a publicly proclaimed Protestant. But his brother, James, Duke of York, was a Catholic, and as Charles’s reign dragged on through the 1670s and into the early 1680s without the appearance of a surviving heir to succeed him, it increasingly seemed that James would succeed Charles in the event of his death. 

This had aroused widespread political unrest in the late 1670s as a Protestant-dominated parliament had sought to introduce legislation whereby James would be excluded from the succession on the basis of his Catholicism. This attempt to exclude James failed, and when Charles died suddenly in 1685, suspicions were raised that the king had been killed as part of a Catholic conspiracy, one which might have even involved his own brother.[4] 

Was Charles II Murdered?

So what is the truth of this? We have a fairly clear idea of exactly what happened to Charles in the hours and days between when he first fell ill on the 2nd of February and when he died four days later. 

Charles’s physician bled him upon first becoming sick, removing a pint of blood from his system. It is important to remember that medical knowledge in early modern Europe at this time was still very primitive (although it would begin to make great strides in the eighteenth century). Blood-letting was considered one of the most fundamental forms of treatment for all manner of ailments.[5] 

In the hours and days that followed, he was bled again, and various potions and powders were administered, some involving very benign substances such as barley water and chamomile and others involving more esoteric substances such as ‘spirit of human skull.’ None of these had any positive effect. The king died on the morning of the 6th of February. 

The question is, though, was Charles poisoned, or is there any real evidence to at least suspect so? 

His autopsy or post-mortem at the time, which was carried out by his physician Sir Charles Scarburgh, was again quite primitive, but some of its findings are useful. 

Charles had engorged veins, and his kidneys were impacted in some way. He had previously suffered from gout, a not uncommon affliction for the nobility in early modern Europe given their overly rich diet and excessive meat consumption. 

This might have produced kidney problems, which led to uremia, a raised level of urea, and other toxic waste compounds in the blood. This could have led to the onset of his convulsions on the 2nd of February 1685. 

The treatments that Charles’s physicians administered, including blood-letting and emetic applications, probably unintentionally accelerated his death, particularly in this case as they would have dehydrated his body, which was in dire need of fluid to dilute the toxins passing through it. All of this most likely caused Charles’s largely accidental death. 

Whatever the actual cause of Charles’s death (and it must be said that it is very unlikely that he was poisoned or died as a result of foul play), its implications from a political standpoint were profound. 

Having failed to produce an heir, James’s succession, which the Protestant political establishment had been so fearful of, came to pass. The Catholic James II was now king of England, Scotland, and Ireland. 

Within months James was placing Catholic followers into positions of extreme influence in the government and the localities. This quickly produced a backlash, and in 1688 the English parliament entered negotiations to offer the throne to James’s daughter Mary, and her husband, William of Orange, the most powerful political figure in the Dutch Republic.

A new civil war erupted, but by the time it ended in 1691, the so-called Glorious Revolution saw Mary II and William III usurp James II and secured the Protestant regime in the Stuart kingdoms in the future. Thus, if there is a slight possibility that Charles was actually killed as part of a Catholic plot in 1685, it ultimately failed as the Catholic King James quickly fell from power in the years that followed.[6] 

Sources

[1] Antonia Fraser, King Charles II (London, 1979), pp. 586-587 provides an account of Charles’s death. Also, see ‘”Nova et Vetera“‘, in British Medical Journal, Vol. 2, No. 4064 (1938), p. 1089 for an earlier medical analysis of the causes of Charles’s death. 

[2] For the best biographical treatments of Charles II, see Ronald Hutton, Charles II: King of England, Scotland and Ireland (Oxford, 1989); John Miller, Charles II (London, 1991). 

[3] N. H. Keeble, The Restoration: England in the 1660s (Oxford, 2002). 

[4] Carolyn Edie, ‘Succession and Monarchy: The Controversy of 1679–1681’, in American Historical Review, Vol. 70, No. 2 (1965), pp. 350–370; J. R. Jones, The First Whigs: The Politics of the Exclusion Crisis, 1678–1683 (London, 1961). 

[5] Mary Lindemann, Medicine and Society in Early Modern Europe (Miami, 2010). 

[6] On the reigns of James II, Mary II and William III and the Glorious Revolution, see David Ogg, England in the Reigns of James II and William III (Oxford, 1955); Edward Vallance, The Glorious Revolution: 1688, Britain’s Fight for Liberty (London, 2008). g back to 1590 CE held by the University of Forsberg, Germany.

Alan Behrens

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