Did Henry FitzRoy and Edward VI Die of the Same Illness? Guest article by Sylvia Barbara Soberton

Today, I am very happy to host Sylvia Barbara Soberton on her blog tour for her new book, Medical Downfall of the Tudors: Sex, Reproduction & Succession, which I had the pleasure to read beforehand. Sylvia also wrote several books featuring women of the Renaissance, among them Jane Dudley, Duchess of Northumberland, Robert Dudley’s mother. Over to Sylvia:

Edward VI died on 6 July 1553, just three months shy of his sixteenth birthday. The verdict of his physicians was that the young King died of consumption, as tuberculosis was then known. However, Edward’s symptoms puzzled his doctors, and rumours soon spread that the King was murdered.

We know of Edward’s symptoms through the reports of the Imperial ambassador Jehan Sheyfe, who recorded them on a daily basis from April to July 1553. According to the ambassador, Edward experienced a wide range of symptoms, some of which (swelling of the limbs, failing pulse and discoloration of the skin) weren’t typical signs of tuberculosis, and so rumours spread that Edward was “gradually carried off by some slow poison administered long before [his death]”.1 John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, employed a wise woman to help cure the King, and when she failed to do so, he was accused of attempting to poison the dying Edward.

At the end of his short life, Edward was a sorry sight. Bedridden and weak, he was bald, covered with ulcers, his feet were swollen, his skin discoloured with bluish-purple tint, his weak body shaking from violent fits of coughing.

Interestingly, over the course of Edward’s illness it was said that the same disease had carried Henry FitzRoy to his early grave in 1536. FitzRoy, Edward’s half brother, was said to have had “rapid consumption” in July 1536.2 No other symptoms were reported, but after FitzRoy’s death rumours spread that he had been poisoned by Anne Boleyn and her brother because “he pined inwardly in his body long before he died”.3 Henry VIII ordered FitzRoy’s secret and subdued funeral, which strengthens the notion that he died of a quick and possibly infectious disease that disfigured his body. Edward’s burial on 8 August 1553 was also not grand, with the Imperial ambassadors attesting that they saw “the body of the late King carried to his grave with small ceremony”.4

Is it possible that the same disease killed Henry FitzRoy and Edward VI? They both died rapidly, their symptoms developing with astonishing speed. They were both believed to have died of tuberculosis, but the quick wasting of their young bodies led many to assume foul play was involved in both cases. While it is impossible to say what exactly killed FitzRoy, medical experts believe that the key to understanding the cause of Edward VI’s death is to read carefully through his journal entries. In April 1552, Edward contracted measles and then smallpox but “perfectly recovered” from both.5 Although Edward recovered well, it’s been suggested that measles suppressed his immunity to tuberculosis. Modern research proves that symptoms such as failing pulse and swelling are indicative of tuberculous pericarditis, another possible cause of Edward’s death. In 2001, Doctors Grace Holmes, Frederick Holmes and Julia McMorrough suggested that Edward died of “rapidly progressive tuberculosis that developed after he had measles”.6 It is a plausible theory, and it is likely that FitzRoy died of the same disease in 1536.

You can purchase Medical Downfall of the Tudors here:
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1 Pietro Martire Vermigli, Historical Narration of Certain Events, p. 71.
2 Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 2, n. 71.
3 Wriothesley’s Chronicle, Volume 1, pp. 53-4.
4 Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 11, 8 August 1553.
5 Sir John Hayward, The Life and Raigne of King Edward the Sixth, p. 168.
6 Grace Holmes, Frederick Holmes, and Julia McMorrough, “The Death of Young King Edward VI”, New England Journal of Medicine, 345: 1 (2001): 60-62.

About Christine Hartweg

Hi, I'm the author of "Amy Robsart: A Life and Its End" and "John Dudley: The Life of Lady Jane Grey's Father-in-Law". I blog at www.allthingsrobertdudley.wordpress.com
This entry was posted in Edward VI, guest posts, Henry VIII and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Did Henry FitzRoy and Edward VI Die of the Same Illness? Guest article by Sylvia Barbara Soberton

  1. super blue says:

    They might be part of a pattern of second decade royal male premature deaths in that era with Arthur (1502), Henry Prince of Wales (1612) and Henry Duke of Gloucester (1660) among others.

  2. M says:

    Was this to do with Kell blood ? Henry
    V111 was thought to have this which causes miscarriage in male foetuses and premature death in males

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