Review: The Sickly Stuarts by Frederick Holmes

It’s been ages since I’ve posted a book review on here so I thought I would delight you all and post one. I will warn you now that this review may end up with me yelling about how much I love the Stuart family and how much I want to hug them all. But I’ll try not to do that.

So, this book came through my letterbox yesterday morning, and I read the entire thing in a day. Whenever this has happened previously it’s because the books have been really pants. This one was however, rather good. I’d spotted Holmes’ book in the shop at Hampton Court before and kept wondering whether to pick it up or not, but if I’m honest it was the price that put me off. Then I found it on amazon, nice and cheap. And so when my ex library copy arrived, I settled down to read about the medical problems of my favourite historical family. And let me tell you, I learnt a lot, especially about the Stuart monarchs who I don’t know all that much about.

Holmes splits the book up into each monarch that ruled throughout the Stuart era, with one chapter that concentrated on the children of Charles I. But before Holmes gets into the nitty gritty medical history of each monarch we are given a rather good introduction to disease and doctoring in the seventeenth century. This chapter describes how rife disease was in Stuart England, London in particular, and how the ever increasing population affected said disease. We are also given a brief introduction to the various illnesses and epidemics that plagued the populace (including plague…see what I did there? lolol) as well as the various treatments that are given them. Now then, some of these treatments were a little daft, including the “hot and cold method” of treating small pox. There was one part in this introduction that really made me prick my ears up, and that was a brief mention of early methods of diagnosing diabetes (as a type 1 diabetic myself, the history of this disease is hugely fascinating to me):

“In 1694 Thomas Willis was the first to note that the urine of diabetics ‘is wonderfully sweet, like Sugar or hony’”

As I quoted on our tumblr page, this 17th century doctor really has earned my respect and I really like him (even though I don’t know all that much about him) because he had the balls the taste a diabetic person’s urine. Now that is pretty gross, but it really opened the door for further treatment and even (in some distant way) paved the way for the advent of insulin by Banting and Best in the 1900’s. Anyway, I’ll shut up about the medical history of diabetes now and get on with reviewing the book. So yeah, after this we are given an introduction to the main doctors of the Seventeenth Century, and these are the men who feature prominently as physicians to the monarchy – Theodore de Mayerne, William Harvey, Thomas Sydenham, Richard Lower, John Radcliffe, Richard Mead and John Arbuthnot.

Following this introduction, Holmes’ gets right into the thick of things and begins looking at each Stuart monarch. Of course we start out with James I (VI of Scotland) and Holmes then looks at each monarch in chronological order. The layout of each chapter is exactly the same – we start out with a brief look at their medical history, stuff that made them sick throughout their reign and their death and then goes on to look at their post mortem results to come to a conclusion as to what actually killed them. And as I made my way through each of the chapters, I learnt a lot of stuff that I didn’t know about these monarchs.

Of course, Holmes is unable to come to a definitive answer as to the right diagnosis for each monarch but he does a damn good job with the information he had available. Drawing on primary sources and post mortem reports he was able to say “ok then it is super likely that Charles II had this, but not likely at all he had this other thing because the post mortem report says this”. And although I’m not trained in medicine, a lot of Holmes’ conclusions made a lot of sense. OK so he used some big words for various illnesses, but he also explained what they meant and what the illness was made up of. So yes, good.

Interesting stuff I learnt from this book:

James I had dementia, weak legs and his tongue was too big for his mouth so whenever he drank anything he slobbered it everywhere. He also didn’t wash his hands, only dabbed the ends of his fingers.

Charles I had weak legs (inherited from his father), a speech impediment and according to Holmes was a tad delusional (mainly because he was all “lol parliament, I’m the King and I own all so shut up and let me rule on my own).

Charles II was actually pretty healthy until he made a massive derp of himself and conducted mercury experiments without safety gear (but then, was safety gear even invented then?) and gave himself mercury poisoning which killed him.

James II was also a derp, had an epic nosebleed that meant he couldn’t fight off William of Orange (later William III, or actually he probably used the nosebleed as an excuse because he couldn’t be bothered…maybe). And he died in exile of a stroke and pneumonia.

William III was an epic warrior who invaded England yet was pretty sickly and had asthma and died young because of bacterial pneumonia. His wife, Mary II confused everyone and no one knew whether she died of small pox or measles – at any rate she burned loads of her letters and papers before she died. And it was actually a really bad form of smallpox that killed her.

And last but not least, Anne was never really all that healthy. She survived 17 pregnancies, only 1 child surviving until he died of pneumonia at the age of 11, and eventually it was Lupus that killed her. And she was the last of the Stuart Monarchs…

All in all, an utterly fantastic book and a brilliant read. Some of it is a little complicated and I found myself having to read a few bits a couple of times before the medical terminology sunk in. This is certainly a book I would recommend for anyone interested in the Stuart family. It makes for quite morbid reading, and I won’t lie, I did shed a tear at Charles II’s death but it is hugely interesting and eye-opening. A good read and highly recommended. 

This entry was posted in book review, charles i, charles ii, james i, james ii, mary ii, medical history, queen anne, stuart, stuart england, william iii. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Review: The Sickly Stuarts by Frederick Holmes

  1. Sarah BF says:

    I'm doing a module on the transmission of medical information at uni, I think reading this will compliment my studies well. It sounds fascinating. I'm mainly focusing on humoural medicine of the medieval period.

  2. Sam says:

    In which case I recommend this book highly! As part of GCSE history we did the history of medicine, but didn't do anything as awesome as what's in this book!

  3. bluffkinghal says:

    Looks like an interesting book. I just read about James' big tongue yesterday in a book on Shakespeare, and here it is again! 😀

    Also, actually, tasting urine has been a practice in ancient India for testing diabetes. They even tested it for sweetness by checking whether ants get attracted to it. It is by no means a 17th century innovation.

    Thanks for the review. Am going to add this one to the wishlist. I am increasingly getting interested in the Civil War and Restoration stuff, and I fully blame you.

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