The health of the royal family has been a subject of fascination for some time, and it’s no wonder their illnesses (and deaths!) can have such far-reaching implications.
In the past, the death of a monarch could trigger bloody family feuds, civil wars and revolutions – a far cry from what we experienced after the death of Queen Elizabeth II.
It’s unclear whether tight-lipped Buckingham Palace will ever reveal the Queen’s official cause of death.
But it’s fair to assume that the Queen enjoyed relatively good health, given that she lived to the ripe old age of 96.
These other royals weren’t so lucky…
King Henry I: An overabundance of lampreys
Lived 1068/1069-1135, died aged 66/67
The myth of Henry I’s death has persisted longer than many facts about his life.
The king is said to have died from eating too many lampreys – a jawless eel-like fish that apparently tastes more like beef than barramundi.
Lamprey has a long history as a delicacy among the royal family. It was even baked into a pie for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953.
It is unlikely that this theory of the king’s death is meant to be taken as fact.
The chroniclers of the time were perhaps more interested in the moral of the story than in its veracity.
Still, it’s a memorable conclusion about the importance of moderation.
Prior to his death from suspected food poisoning, King Henry I was credited with securing peace in England and Normandy.
The family feud over who should succeed him culminated in an 18-year civil war known as the Anarchy…and supposedly all because of one man’s uncontrolled appetite for an ancient fish.
King Edward II: A Brutal End
Lived 1284–1327, died aged 43
The death of King Edward II is also debated. His poor leadership, however, is not. The official royal website states that Edward II “had few of the qualities” that make a king successful.
He angered the powerful barons of England by offering high office to opponents of his father (Edward I), as well as his own favourites, including his supposed lover Piers Gaveston.
Edward II has also been accused of offering Scotland independence from England by losing the Battle of Bannockburn (1314) to Robert the Bruce.
King Edward II’s wife, Isabella of France, finally gave up trying to fight any kind of influence.
In 1326 she and her exiled lover Roger Mortimer led an invasion against her husband.
Edward II was locked up in Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire.
Legend has it that he was killed by sticking a hot poker into her anus.
That year, Edward III ascended the throne.
Soon after, he ordered Mortimer’s execution in a show of force.
Isabella ended up joining an order of nuns until her death.
Queen Mary I: phantom pregnancies
Lived 1516–1558, died aged 42
England’s first ruling queen was known as Bloody Mary for her persecution of Protestants as she sought to restore Roman Catholicism to the country.
Mary was determined to produce a Catholic heir and approached one in 1555.
Doctors were rounded up and a delivery room was set up, but to the surprise of many the birth never happened (we’ll get to that, don’t worry).
The second and final false alarm came when she was 42. She wrote to her husband, King Philip II, to share the news. He replied that the pregnancy was “of the utmost importance to the cause of religion and the welfare of our kingdom”.
Again, Queen Mary did not give birth.
Instead, she developed a fever – potentially a sign of circulating flu – and died a few months later.
Before she died, Mary conceded that the rightful heir to the throne was her Protestant half-sister Elizabeth.
It is believed that Mary suffered from pseudocyesis, a condition that mimics the symptoms of pregnancy.
If she hadn’t died childless, the history books would have had a very different story to tell about England.
King George III: A Reign of Contested Diseases
Lived 1738–1820, died aged 81
King George III ruled Britain for 60 years, and it was six turbulent decades for monarch and monarchy.
Nothing seemed to go wrong when he ascended the throne at just 22 years old.
But five years later, King George III suffered his first bout of illness – a chronic lung infection which led to the first signs of mental illness.
Between this episode and his death in 1820, King George III lost both the American colonies and his mental faculties (depicted in the 1994 British film, The Madness of King George).
He went through periods of acute mania and remission, before the death of his daughter sent him into a final relapse.
The cause of King George III’s illness has long been debated.
In the 1960s, it was suggested he suffered from an inherited condition called porphyria, which can cause skin problems, abdominal pain, muscle weakness and mental health issues.
Whatever his condition, it’s possible that the king’s diligent doctors may have inadvertently made it worse.
An analysis of King George III’s hair revealed high levels of arsenic.
It is believed that the drugs he received were contaminated.
Queen Victoria: a historic mutation
Lived 1819-1901, died aged 81
Queen Victoria is known as the grandmother of Europe.
She had nine children, 42 grandchildren and 87 great-grandchildren, many of whom married into royalty.
Queen Victoria was also the unwitting carrier of hemophilia B, a blood clotting disorder.
Thanks to her, the mutation was transmitted to various royal houses.
This included the last imperial dynasty of Russia – the Romanov family. In 1917, it was decided that the ailing heir, Alexei Nikolaevich, was unable to take over.
His hemophilia set off a chain of events that ended their centuries-old reign.
In Spain, King Alphonso married Princess Victoria Eugenie, despite being warned against the union.
Two of their sons were suspected of having haemophilia. The British were accused of defiling the royal blood of Spain, and the marriage was discredited.
At the time, there was no effective treatment for hemophilia.
The disease rarely affects female carriers, while affected males (even heirs to the throne!) have rarely survived beyond adulthood.
They often bled to death from falls or accidents that a healthy person would have survived.
Queen Victoria herself had the longest reign of her time.
She died of a stroke at the age of 81, having shaped the politics of the 19th and 20th centuries with a single spontaneous mutation.
King George VI: A line of chain smokers
Lived 1895–1952, died aged 56
A propensity to smoke was also passed down through the royal line.
King George VI (father of Queen Elizabeth II) was a heavy smoker, and the habit led to his untimely death at the age of 56.
King George VI was diagnosed with carcinoma before it was widely believed that smoking even caused cancer.
His doctors hid the diagnosis from him and the public.
It has been suggested he was burning up to 30 cigarettes a day in the weeks leading up to major lung surgery – his daughter Princess Margaret would eventually exceed that total, smoking up to 60 cigarettes a day.
In the film The King’s Speech, Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue (who was helping George with a speech impediment he had since childhood) warned him against chain smoking:
Lionel Loge: I believe breathing smoke into your lungs will kill you.
King George VI: My doctors said it relaxes the throat.
Lionel Loge: They are idiots.
King George VI: They were all ennobled.
Lionel Loge: Officially, then.