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. 

Did Charles II love Catherine of Braganza?

Charles II and Catherine of Braganza, a line engraving by an Unknown Artist

Before I get stuck into this post I just want to say a massive thank you to @gemgemgembird who runs the awesome fuckyeahcharlesii on tumblr and @IsSoFab for helping me out with this post, you guys are ace!!!

I’ve come across a few comments across various social media websites saying that Charles II did not love his wife Catherine of Braganza. But it’s not just online where I have come across this, oh no, it’s even crept into a few real life conversations as well. And the normal response when I ask these people why they think this is “oh well, he had loads of mistresses so he can’t have loved her”. Cue me almost frothing at the mouth for around three minutes, before trying not to launch myself into a massive lecture about how he did actually love her. And so today I decided that enough is enough, and thought I would sit down and write a blog about it, with lots and lots of examples that show that yes, Charles did love his wife and no, he wasn’t a giant idiot to her…

So here goes!

The biggest thing that always, always gets to me and really points out how much he loved her is when she was unwell, and Charles got up to get her a bowl but she was sick in the sheets before he got back. Charles ended up cleaning her up himself and changing the sheets. Now, I am going to say something here – Charles could have just called for Catherine’s servants but no, he did it himself. And you don’t clean up someones sick unless you really love them surely? There is a fantastic quote about this incident in “The Mistresses of Charles II” by Brian Masters:

“On one occasion, she (Catherine) felt ill during the night when he was in bed with her. He got up to fetch her a basin, but she was sick in the sheets before he returned. Not until he had himself cleaned and dried her, and changed the sheets, did he call her women to help, and repaired to his own room, even then returning three times to see how she was before he finally went to sleep.”(Masters 1979, 75-76)

Another incident took part in 1663, when Catherine became seriously ill. So ill in fact that everyone thought she was dying. Charles sat by her bed for hours, in floods of tears, begging her not to die. Even when she sank into delirium he stayed by her side, and she imagined they had three children together. She also told him, when she had come around a bit, that he should take a more agreeable wife once she was dead. Yet Catherine recovered (HUZZAH!), and Charles’ minister started to demand he divorce her because she was barren. Yet he refused and had a go at his ministers for even suggesting the idea, saying that he had treated her so poorly (i.e. with rubbing mistresses in her face) that he could now never abandon her. So the rumours that were flying about the court that Charles should marry Frances Stuart, who he was rather enamoured with at the time and spent his time chasing after her, were chucked out.

Charles also mentions Catherine A LOT in his letters, especially to his sister Minette and he also rather enjoys pointing out how much time he spent with his wife. And it was a lot of time…

“I have been all this afternoon playing the good husband, having been abroad with my wife, and ‘tis now past twelve o’clock, and I am very sleepy.” (Norrington 1994, 78)

 Charles II by Sir Peter Lely

There is also a rather moving letter written from Charles to his sister after his wife’s illness. And although he does mention other women, and the fact that he’s off to see another play, the majority of the letter is spent talking about Catherine:

My wife is now so well, as in a few days, she will thank you herself for the concern you had for her in her sickness. Yesterday we had a little ball in the privy chamber, where she looked on, and, though we had many of our good faces absent, yet I assure you, the assembly would not have been disliked for beauty, even at Paris itself, for we have a great many young women come up, since you were here, who are very handsome. Pray send me some images, to put in prayer books. They are for my wife, who can get none here. I assure you it will be a great present to her, and she will look upon them often, for she is not only content to say the great office every day, but likewise that of our Lady too, and this is besides going to chapel, where she makes use of none of these. I am just now going to see a new play, so I shall say no more, but that I am entirely yours, C.R.(Norrington 1994, 72)

 Catherine of Braganza by Sir Peter Lely
“Later that spring, Charles told Minette that he had been playing the good husband, going out with Catherine all afternoon: soon he would banish Edward Montagu from court for spending too long with the queen and even daring to squeeze her hand” (Uglow 2009, 267). This quote never fails to bring a smile to my face. I can imagine a rather red faced Charles facing off against Montagu, demanding that he leave court for daring to touch his wife. 
Another big incident in which Charles showed his loyalty, dedication and love for Catherine was during the Popish Plot of 1678. The Plot, completely fictitious, had been engineered by Titus Oates. It was said that it was a plot in which the Catholics would kill King Charles, and on 24th November 1678 Charles listened to Oates as he revealed that the Queen would poison her own husband! Charles of course knew that his wife would never ever try to poison him and throughout his entire meeting with Oates maintained a cool head. When Oates said he overheard the conspirators in the queens bedchambers (which he could even describe when asked to by the king!), Charles has him thrown into prison. Unfortunately Parliament had him released soon after. Antonia Fraser, in her biography of Charles II states that Oates made a big mistake in trying to implicate Catherine; “Yet Oates, in concentrating on the Queen, had touched on one of the King’s few sensitive spots: he might have let Clarendon go without too much regret, and sacrifice Danby perforce, but as he had already shown over the prospect of divorce, Catherine was another matter” (Fraser, 1979, 363)
Titus Oates by an unknown artist
Catherine wrote a letter to her brother, the King of Portugal, which is really rather moving and said of the recent incident: “the care in which he (Charles) takes to defend my innocence and truth. Every day he shows more clearly his purpose and goodwill towards me, and thus baffles the hate of my enemies…I cannot cease telling you what I owe to his benevolence, of which each day he gives better proofs, either from generosity or compassion” (Fraser 1979, 363).
During the Popish Plot we see Charles come to the aid of his wife as her knight in shining armour. His actions drew them together and not only that, showed that he really did care despite his liaisons with his mistresses. And it seems that Catherine had fallen head over heels in love with Charles, as he had with her it seems, so much so that Lady Sutherland stated that the queen was “now a mistress, the passion her spouse has for her is now so great”.
There are, I am sure, many other examples that show just how much Charles loved his wife and it’s going to require a lot more research and reading to get to the bottom of this one. But before I conclude about how much I adore this pair and how I’m sure they were perfect for each other (just go with me here OK…?) there is just one last thing I want to quote regarding Charles’ last meeting with Catherine before his death:
“There were a series of farewells. Catherine came. Charles greeted her lovingly. But her distress, both at the King’s tenderness and at his suffering was too great. Tears overcame her. She was carried back to her own apartments, half fainting. She sent back a message to her husband to beg his pardon if she had ever offended him.
“Alas! poor woman”, said the King. “She beg my pardon! I beg hers with all my heart” (Fraser 1979, 456)
As can be seen, I hope, from these few examples; Charles II really did love his wife. He may not have shown it in their early years of marriage and he may have rubbed his relationships with his mistresses in her face (I should mention the Bedchamber Incident here but that is a whole other post for a whole different day) yet they still grew incredibly close. Charles grew to love her, respect her and trust her intimately. He stayed by her side during her terrible illness, he begged her not to die, he wrote of her often to his sister Minette, he protected her and stood up for her during the Popish Plot, he spent vast amounts of time with her which was commented on a lot by other courtiers and he even conducted business in her chambers. Not to mention of course his final meeting with her which makes me cry every single time. So you see, is it any wonder when people turn around and say that Charles didn’t love his wife because he had mistresses that I and so many others end up giving epic lectures on the subject? You only have to read of how he stood by her when Oates accused her of plotting the King’s death to understand how he felt about her, you only have to read of how he refused to divorce her despite parliament trying to badger him into doing so to understand how he felt about her. 
Plus he cleaned up her vomit, and you don’t do that for someone unless you really love them.
Sources and Further Reading