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. 

James II Vs William III

James II by Sir Peter Lely

I’ll admit now that I haven’t done as much reading on James II as I would like and don’t know anywhere near enough about him. Other than the fact that he was Catholic and had his nephew Monmouth executed. And I’ll admit also that I have done even less reading on the deposition of James in favour of William III and his wife Mary (who was actually James II’s daughter!) Now then, I don’t know whether it’s the fact that I have this rather unnatural love of the Stuart family that has put me off reading much on William (and before you say it, I know he was a relation, and married a Stuart but shhhhhhhh!) or the fact that I have gotten it into my head that William was well…rather dull…but I have been avoiding anything after James II for a while.

Until now!

William III by Kneller

So yesterday, in 1690, William III who had come over to England and invaded in 1688 which lead to him becoming King in 1689, utterly trounced James II at the Battle of the Boyne over in Ireland. The Battle itself was actually fought on 1st of July but in the Julian Calendar – which works out as the 11th July in today’s Gregorian calendar. Today however is the date in which the battle is ‘celebrated’

So anyway, what lead up to the battle? And why did William win? Here, have some bullet points…

  • James was catholic, and parliament were a tad fed up with him.
  • So Parliament invited William over for an invasion, and invade he duly did, landing in November 1688 at Brixham.
  • As William landed with thousands and thousands of troops, James began to loose support and refused to fight his nephew’s armies deciding it would be much more sensible to run away.
  • He tried to run away to France but was captured in Kent. William really didn’t want to make his uncle a martyr though and let him escape in December.
  • In 1689 a Convention Parliament met to discuss what to do and William really wanted to rule in his own right, even though his wife was higher in the succession. A lot of Parliament wanted Mary to be queen in her own right but she refused, being loyal to her husband.
  • On 13th February Parliament decided that because James fled to France he had abdicated his throne and offered the joint crown to William and Mary because they were protestant – it was deemed safer for the English monarchy to remain Protestant. After this, so English monarch has ever been catholic.
  • In 1690, the Irish people thought they would help James get his throne back, mainly because they were Catholic too and hoped he would allow them to keep practising their religion. James obviously thought this was a marvellous idea and joined up with the Irish to try and take back his throne.
  • William however thought this was a bad idea, and wanted Ireland to remain protestant so he got an army together and marched off to Ireland.
  • To cut a long story short (again because I haven’t done very much reading on the subject), the battle went very badly for James and he lost and ended up taking himself back to France. He knew he was defeated.
  • So William stayed King until 1702.
  • And James died in France in 1701 – though up until his death some people kept trying to reinstate him, and there was this one episode where his supporters tried to assassinate William in 1696. It didn’t work very well.

I have to say I feel really sorry for poor James II. He’d never been popular, and less so after his conversion to Roman Catholicism…and having a Catholic King of England didn’t go down too well. Yet, at least William didn’t have his uncle executed – which let’s be fair, he probably could have – and allowed him to pretty much retire in peace.

I am hoping to do a lot more reading in and around this part of Stuart history because well…now I think about it, William probably wasn’t all that dull, and I love battlefield history. So whilst this post may not be hugely detailed, expect more on James II, William & Mary and the Glorious Revolution in due course.

Further Reading

Coward, B, 2012, The Stuart Age: England 1603-1714 (Fourth Edition), Pearson: Harlow