The king was also quite concerned that his enemies might try to poison the clothing belonging to his son, Edward. New garments straight from the tailor were never to be put on the prince; they must first be washed and aired before the fireplace to remove any harmful substances. Before the prince donned any items of clothing – hose, shirt, or doublet – his servants tested them. Either they rubbed them, inside and outside, against their skin, or they dressed a boy Edward’s size in them and waited to see if he cried out that his skin was on fire.
The term “mad king” has found itself back in the common lexicon thanks to George R. R. Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire” books. We have more than enough examples from Europe alone to choose from. George III, born 1738, was the English king who lost the American colonies. Though anti-monarchists would record stories of bizarre behavior, like him mistaking an oak tree for Frederick the Great, he really did have mental problems that manifested themselves during several periods of his life. During these times he suffered from insomnia and talked incessant nonsense for hours. A sentence containing 400 words and eight verbs was not unusual.
It has long been suspected that King George suffered from porphyria, a genetic metabolic disorder that causes depression, hallucinations, constipation, purple urine, and severe abdominal pain. However, as will come up frequently in this episode, new evidence and theories undermine that thinking. One of the medicines the king was treated with gentian. This plant, with its deep blue flowers, is still used today as a mild tonic, but may turn the urine blue. His “incessant loquacity” and his habit of talking until the foam ran out of his mouth are features that can be seen today in patients experiencing the manic phase of psychiatric illnesses such as bipolar disorder.
Besides benign-sounding herbal treatments, King George would be restrained in a chair with iron straps for hours, he was also bled, forced to vomit, and starved. A recent study based on the examination of King George’s hair shows high levels of arsenic, which was administered to him as part of the cure, but served only to worsen his condition. In the last ten years of his life, his son and heir, George IV, served as regent. Fans of the show BlackAdder will remember George IV as brilliantly portrayed by Hugh Laurie, opposite the titular Rowan Atkison character.
A somewhat irritating side note: When the play “The Madness of George III” was made into a film in 1994, director Nicholas Hytner changed the title to “The Madness of King George.” Why? For fear American audiences would think it was a sequel and that they wouldn’t get it if they hadn’t seen the first two.
When your business is running countries and even whole empires, you want to keep it in the family. The best way to do that is to ensure everyone marries someone they’re already related to. When you say it like that, it doesn’t sound like such a good plan, does it? But that was how royal houses conducted themselves for centuries to ensure their fortunes in the days before basic understanding of genetics.
When close relatives reproduce, it increases their offspring’s chances of being affected by deleterious recessive traits for all kinds of physical and cognitive disabilities, including like hemophilia and cystic fibrosis, as well as deformities like the Habsburg jaw. These incestual pairings also run a greater risk of reduced fertility with higher infant mortality, congenital birth defects, certain kinds of cancer, suppressed immune systems, and smaller adult size, a condition referred to as pedigree collapse.
Some royal families kept things closer-knit than others. Maria I of Portugal married her father’s younger brother, Pedro, when she was 26 and he was 43. Their son and heir, Joseph, married his aunt, Maria’s sister, Benedita. Therefore, Pedro’s daughter-in-law, sister-in-law, and niece were the same person. Joseph was 15 while Benedita was 30. Charles II of Spain is said to be more inbred than if his parents were full siblings. His ancestor, Joanna of Castile, regarded by history as Juana the Mad, appears in his family tree no less than fourteen times because of first and second cousins intermarrying, and his father was his mother’s uncle. Emperor Franz II of Austria married Marie-Therese, his double first cousin – meaning they had the same four grandparents.
One of the most famous monarchs to sport the Habsburg jaw was the aforementioned Charles II of Spain, who may have copied double copies of as many as quarter of his genes. Charles II’s mandibular prognathism was so pronounced that it was said that he could not chew his food and that the size of his tongue caused him to drool significantly. He was feeble-minded and didn’t learn to talk until he was four or walk until the age of eight. His family largely forewent educating him. There didn’t seem to be much point. As an adult, his speech was so poor that he was, for the most part, unable to be understood. In an arguable silver lining, Charles was also sterile.
Charles IV of France’s most lasting contribution to history was as namesake of a psychiatric condition called “glass delusion.” Sufferers believe they are made of glass and in danger of shattering. Charles IV refused to allow people to touch him; he would have iron rods sewn into his clothes to reinforce himself and be wrapped in thick blankets so his buttock wouldn’t splinter when he sat down. Charles had other problems, too. He would fall into periods where he would forget that he was king, that he had a wife and children, and even his own name. He was even known to run through the palace, howling like a wolf. It’s now believed that Charles probably suffered from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or encephalitis (inflammation of the brain). His doctors tried to cure him by drilling small holes into his head. Inevitably, the treatment didn’t work and Charles’ son-in-law was declared regent.
A glass piano was at the center of the delusion of Princess Alexandra of Bavaria, three hundred years later. She believed that she had swallowed it as a child and that it was still inside her. That bears repeating, she believed she had swallowed a grand piano, made of glass. It’s entirely possible that whatever condition caused that delusion, along with a fixation on cleanliness, was hereditary, as her nephew, King Ludgwig II, had more than his share of eccentricities, eventually proving to his people that even an amusing mad king is still a harmful one. Young Ludwig became obsessed with Richard Wagner’s opera Lohengrin, in which a swan leads a knight to a damsel in distress, and ordered the castle be decorated entirely in swans.
Ludwig became increasingly eccentric as he aged, separating himself from dinner guests with a wall of flowers, hired theater companies to put on productions he would watch alone from behind a curtain, moved about only at night to avoid other people, had his coachmen pretend to take him on trips by traveling in circles around the grounds, and ordered people executed for coughing or sneezing in his presence, though he never enforced the orders. He financed an enormous opera house at Wagner’s behest, as well as a tiny version of the palace of Versaille, and the enormous, gorgeous Neuschwanstein, meaning “new swan crag,” an entire castle dedicated to swans, which has at least become a successful tourist destination. This was all well and good when Ludwig was spending his private fortune, but that eventually ran out and he turned to the public treasury, as well as begging and borrowing from other nations. Soon after, Ludwig was declared insane. He was sent to a smaller palace at Berg with the official psychiatrist, where both would be found dead in a lake a few hours after arriving. Many speculate that Ludwig killed the doctor, then himself, but we’ll never know for certain what happened.
Bleeding a country dry is one problem. Actual bleeding is quite another. Hemophilia, a medical condition in which the ability of the blood to clot is severely reduced, causing the sufferer to bleed severely from even a slight injury, was also common in European royalty. One monarch in particular is blamed for injecting it into the bloodlines, the “grandmother of modern Europe,” the dour and proper Queen Victoria, who herself married a cousin. That she inherited the gene for hemophilia from her father Princes Edward is widely speculated, but what is definitively known is what happened to her children and their descendants. Her son Leopold and grandson Friedrich both died from cerebral hemorrhages from falls that should not have killed them. Grandson Waldemar died while awaiting a blood transfusion and his younger brother Heinrich died at age 4 after a fall. Two great-grandsons died in what would have been survivable car accidents, if not for the inability of their blood to clot.
Hemophilia was one of the reasons the “mad monk” Rasputin was able to curry favor with Tsarina Alexandra of Russia, granddaughter of Victoria, wife of Nicholas II and mother to Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia, and little Alexi. The court doctors failed to help Alexi, particularly when they gave him the miracle cure of the day, aspirin, the blood-thinning effects of which are the last thing he needed. When medicine failed, Alexandra turned to faith, wherein she met the Grigory Rasputin. In separating Alexi from the doctors who were inadvertently making him worse, it looked to the tsarina as if the monk was healing her son. Thus, he was able to stay close to the royal family, despite a debauched reputation that included tales of exposing himself in public and bragging that the tsar let him have his way with the tsarina whenever he fancied.
While we’ll save the story of Rasputin’s murder for another show, I would like to take a moment to talk about Grand Duchess Anastasia. Even before Fox Animation Studios made a musical cartoon about her, people had been fascinated by the prospect of the two youngest Romanov children escaping the brutal murder of their family by the Red Guard early on the morning of July 17, 1918. Over the years, many people claimed to be Anastasia and Alexi, so many in fact that Wikipedia has an entire page devoted to the imposters. One woman, Anna Anderson, would maintain the charade for over sixty years.
The hopes that some members of the family survived were bolstered with the 1991 revelation that nine bodies of Romanov family members and servants had been found in a Yekaterinberg grave, but that a son and daughter were still missing. However, DNA evidence from a second, nearby grave discovered in 2007 proved that the bones found there were those of the two missing Romanov children.
Many inbred royals died at relatively young ages. The name “boy king” should bring a certain person to mind, but recreations from MRI’s and genetic testing have shown that the face and body of Tutankhamun bore little resemblance to his glorious golden coffin lid. Tut’s parents were full brother brother and sister, which does not lay out the genetic plans for a long, healthy life. In fact, Tut ruled for only ten years, dying at age nineteen from an infected femur fracture. Described as “a weak, frail boy,” by Carsten Pusch, a geneticist at Germany’s University of Tübingen, Tut had a clubfoot from a painful condition called Kohler disease and required a cane to walk. He had caught multiple strains of malaria during his life, which would have further weakened him. Recent scans have shown him to have womanly hips and a pronounced overbite. There is even evidence pointing to epilepsy.
Tut’s skull also had an elongated shape, but that was not congenital. It was a common practice in Egyptian royalty to bind the soft skulls of babies in order to shape them for reasons that are still unclear to archaeologists and anthropologists. No written records describing the practice survive, leading some to deduce that it was knowledge not meant for sharing. As with the lotus feet of upper-caste Chinese women, it was likely reserved for only the highest ranking people.
Skull-shaping was a more common practice than one might think. There is evidence of it from, among others, the Mayas, Incas, Paracas of Peru, the Chinook and Choctaw of North America, the Lucayan people of the Bahamas, Australian aborigines, as well as the Huns and other eastern Germanic tribes, and as far back as the Neanderthals. You may see these skulls in “documentaries”, wherein the fanciful and gullible to refer to them as proof of extraterrestrial life on earth. They are not.
One way to avoid making a puddle out of your gene pool would be for a king to have multiple queens, or an assortment of consorts and concubines. This practice, common in the middle and far east, still requires you to be selective. In Zimbabwe, the Monomotapa kings were firm believers in polygamy, with one king counting over 3,000 women as wives. However, his preferred main wives were his sisters and even daughters. If anyone who wasn’t king tried to marry his wife or daughter, they could be put to death.
A 14 drive south, in Swaziland, a landlocked nation surrounded on three sides by south Afria, King Mswati III holds or has held a number of regal distinctions. He became king at age 18, making him the youngest ruling monarch from the time of his coronation in 1986 until the ascension of King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck of Bhutan, also 18, in 2006. Mswati should have no real challengers for the distinction of being the monarch with the most siblings. His father, King Sobhuza had had 70 wives when he died, leaving a whopping 97 children. Mswati, now 49, has recently married his 15th wife. If he continues to marry at the rate he has, and lives to the age of 83 as he father did, he will have slightly less than half as many wives, at 33. Per tradition, his first two wives were chosen for him by national councilors. An interesting twist to the Euro-centric view of marriage, the king only marries his fiancee after she has become pregnant, thus proving she can bear children. Mswati presently has 23 children.
In addition to being the world’s 12th largest landowner, King Mswati III is Africa’s last absolute monarch in the sense that he has the power to choose the prime minister and other top government posts. Even though he makes the appointments, he still has to get special advice from the queen mother and council. In matters of cabinet appointments, he gets advice from the prime minister. He ruled by decree, but did restore the nation’s Parliament, which had been dissolved by his father in order to ensure concentration of power remained with the king. Mswati and his mother, Ntfombi LaTfwala, whose title Indlovukati literally means “great she-elephant” but is taken to mean “queen mother,” rule jointly. LaTfwala was further immortalized in 1985 by American artist Andy Warhol, who included her in a gallery entitled “Reigning Queens,” along Elizabeth II, Beatrix of the Netherlands, and Margrethe II of Denmark.
Royals off their rocker aren’t confined to Europe. The crown-prince of Korea in the mid-18th century, Prince Sado had some serious mental issues, which began showing up when he was around 12. He was afraid of the sky and saw visions of the Thunder God, developed a phobia of clothing, beat his eunuchs, raped women of the court, and eventually graduated to killing random people. This all did not sit well with King Yongjo, who did not appreciate the fact that his heir was insane. Perhaps to avoid spilling royal blood, at least literally, the king ordered the prince to be locked in a rice chest. This was done in the palace courtyard, where people could easily hear Sado’s cries. It would take him eight days to die.
Ignoble death can happen to anyone. Yet another Charles, this one Charles II, who ruled the kingdom of Navarre between 1343 and 1387, could be said to have been killed by a treatment. Charles was very ill, and his physician ordered him to be completely wrapped from neck to toe in linen cloth soaked in brandy. One of the doctor’s attendants was sewing up the cloth so that it would be nice and tight. When she finished, she found she had no scissors to cut the thread. Instead, she decided to burn off the thread with a candle. The linen, being soaked in brandy, caught fire almost instantly and the king went up in flames.
Charles VIII of France died after hitting his head on a low door frame at an indoor tennis match in 1498. Béla I of Hungary died in September 1063, when his wooden throne collapsed, injuring the king so badly that he died of his wounds. King Henry I of England with an iron fist had a weakness for eating lampreys, despite his doctor’s protests. Henry overindulged in them in November 1135 and his health deteriorated in a matter of days. Viking earl Sigurd Eysteinsson died in 892 from an infected scratch on his leg, left there by the teeth of a decapitated enemy head swinging from his saddle. 25-year-old Alexander of Greece was walking on his estate in 1920 when his dog got into a fight with a monkey that belonged to a member of his staff. While attempting to break up the fight, a second monkey bit Alexander on the leg; the wound became infected and poisoned his blood. Adolf Frederick of Sweden managed to gorge himself to death in 1771, keeling over after a spread of champagne, lobster, caviar and kippers, topped off by 14 helpings of pudding. Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI died in 1740 from eating poisonous mushrooms, presumably by mistake. Henry II of France loved a good joust, both watching and participating. In June 1559, Henry’s opponent’s lance went through his eye and punctured his brain. Nanda Bayin of Burma laughed himself to death in 1599, as did Martin I of Aragon in 1410. Louis III of France died in August 882 when he hit his head while mounting his horse as he prepared to chase a girl with amorous intent. Atilla the Hun, whose men conquered huge swaths of Europe, got a nosebleed so severe at his wedding feast, that he passed out and choked to death on his own blood.
Royal-watchers know that close marriage has continued in the modern era, though not to the degree that was once common. Longest-reigning Queen Elizabeth II is Prince Philip’s third cousins through Queen Victoria, and second cousins once removed through King Christian IX of Denmark. There were many connections, such as ladies-in-waiting, mistresses, and godparents, between the royal family and the Spencer family from which England’s Rose, Diana, married Princes Charles. Diana had some noble blood, but not enough to be considered royal, so their marriage was considered “morganatic,” a marriage between people of unequal social rank. William and Kate are distant cousins, very distant, fourteenth cousins once removed through his mother and fifteenth cousins through his father. To consider Harry and Meghan Markle related, you have to trace their families back to the fifteenth century to find a common ancestor, so we’re willing to say that doesn’t count.
Life is going to be very different for Meghan Markle, every moment full of rules of protocol. Some rules are obvious: when the Queen stands, everyone stands; they must be gracious when accepting gifts, no matter how odd; royals are groomed to speak and even wave properly from early childhood. Some rules are ridiculously specific or so subtle as to barely be noticable. Wedding bouquets must contain myrtle flowers. Royals must have a funeral-appropriate outfit with them when traveling, just in case. Heirs to the throne are not allowed to travel together. Right now, William, Kate and the kids can travel together, but as soon as little George turns 12, he and his father will have to take separate flights. Royals aren’t allowed to sign autographs or take selfies with you, so please don’t ask. They are not allowed to eat shellfish, due to higher-than-average risk of food poisoning. The dress code is obviously quite specific. Little George is only to be seen in tailored short pants. Royals should never been seen in casual clothes. Women wear hats at all formal events, until 6pm, when married royals switch to tiaras, which are to be worn in a precise spot and at a precise angle. Even the way they hold their tea cups is set down strictly: royals are to pinch the handle between the index finger and thumb, with their middle finger supporting the bottom. The royal family is also forbidden from playing the board game Monopoly. This may not be an official crown edict, but more of a family rule. According to Prince Andrew, second son of Elizabeth and Philip, who is presently sixth in line for the throne, “We’re not allowed to play Monopoly at home. It gets too vicious.”
For those who are curious about the line of succession, the crown would not fall to Prince Philip on Elizabeth’s death or abdication. It goes to Prince Charles, currently 69, then Prince William, Prince George, Princess Charlotte, Prince Harry, Prince Andrew, and then his daughters, Princess Beatrice, then Eugenie. The official list is of course much longer, but the odds of us living to see even two of those people ascend the throne feels fairly slim, as Queen Elizabeth is still full of ginger at 91.
Queen Elizabeth’s purse actually carries a great deal of weight in day-to-day interactions. If she moves her purse from her left arm to her right, it’s a signal to her handlers that they are to get her out of the conversation that she’s in. Putting her bag on the floor is a sign that she needs to be saved from an uncomfortable encounter now. If she puts her purse on the table at a dinner function, the dinner it to end within five minutes. Despite being the figurehead of what was once the greatest empire in the world, the contents of Elizabeth’s purse are pretty typical for ladies of a certain age: a mirror, lipstick, mints, and reading glasses.
Queen Elizabeth is also the only person in Britain who doesn’t need a driver’s license or passport, since both are issued in her name anyway. During World War II, she was a truck driver for the army in the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service, expected and able to do basic maintenance and repair on the vehicle she was driving. The queen remains the only female member of the royal family to have entered the armed forces and is the only living head of state who served in World War II. She still prefers to drive herself whenever possible. When receiving King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, where women have only been granted the right to drive within the past year, Elizabeth offered him a tour of the estate of Balmoral, Scotland. King Abdullah sat in front, with his interpreter behind him, and was surprised when Queen Elizabeth hopped into the driver’s seat of the Land Rover and took off down the narrow roads, carrying on conversation the entire time. The king had never been driven by a woman before and, through his interpreter, begged her to slow down and concentrate.
We’ve talked a lot about royal death and about Queen Elizabeth, but what will happen when she dies? Obviously, we can’t speak to when or how that will happen, but what transpires next has been carefully planned out. This isn’t the sort of thing one leaves for the last minute. “London Bridge is down.” That is the coded phrase that the Prime Minister will use to tell the Foreign Office’s Global Response Center to convey the news to the 15 other governments across the globe of which the queen is the head of state and the 36 nations of the Commonwealth. A footman, dressed in black, will put a black-bordered notice up on the gates of Buckingham Palace. A special blue light, called “the obit light,” will turn on at radio stations, signaling that official news of a royal death is on the way and they will switch to a prepared playlist of somber music. BBC News will be notified using a system originally created to notify them in the case of nuclear attack. A series of official portraits from throughout the queen’s life will be shown before the announcement begins, “This is BBC Television News. Buckingham Palace has just announced the death of the Queen.” A black tie is kept on hand at the studio solely for this purpose. All flags will fly at half-mast, expect the royal standard, which must stay high to symbolize that there is still a living monarch. The BBC will immediately suspend all comedy shows for the official twelve day mourning period and all radio programming will be changed to appropriate music, with breaks for news every fifteen minutes. Days worth of television retrospectives have been prepared. iTV and Sky rehearse their death coverage, swapping out the Queen’s name for Mrs. Robinson. Prince Charles will have already been sworn in as king and an emergency meeting of Parliament called. Charles will also be confirmed as head of the Church of England, which could be a sticking point, given his divorce. And yes, his wife Camilla could be called queen, but she has no right of ascension.
The Queen will lie in state at Westminster Hall. Crowd-control plans are already in place, having been copied from the London Olympics. 2,000 guests will be invited to the funeral service at Westminster Abbey. Her coffin will then be taken to Windsor Castle, for a private family ceremony, before being interred in her family vault.
The Queen’s death will be not only one of the biggest news stories of the century, but one of the most expensive deaths. Princess Diana’s funeral cost the equivalent of $10 million in the direct funeral expenses alone. There are 36 billion pieces of paper money with the Queen’s likeness on them that will need to be replaced, not only in the UK, but worldwide. That’s a cost of $200 million to re-mint the currency in the UK and $1 billion worldwide. Some currency will undoubtedly be hoarded by collectors, particularly those minted in the years of her coronation, Jubilees, and death. The date of her funeral, which will fall ten days after her death, and the day of the coronation of the new monarch would be declared national holidays, which would each be estimated to have a negative economic impact of $3 billion through lost productivity. Banks and stock exchanges will close for at least that day. Professional sporting events throughout the Commonwealth will be cancelled. The national anthem will need to be changed to “God Save the King” and it is unlikely that England will see another queen for generations.
And that’s where we run out of ideas, at least for today. The life of a royal is hardly pitiable, but it may not be enviable. People watch your every move and your life isn’t really your own. But you’re fabulously wealthy and famous through the world, so I guess you have to take the bad with the good. Thanks for spending part of your day with me.