Professor Alice Roberts couldn’t help but ‘feel sorry’ for the agonising final days of King Charles II when researching his death for her new series Royal Autopsy.
In the days leading up to the death of the monarch in 1685, his physicians were so desperate to keep him alive that they subjected him to treatments that included draining his blood to even burning his head.
It all began after he suffered a sudden apoplectic fit on the morning on February 2.
His condition quickly deteriorated and within four days he was dead.
While theories were thrown out that Charles had been poisoned, other causes were suspected to be syphilis, malaria, a stroke or even mercury poisoning.
Modern medicine has allowed for these theories to all be re-examined.
Nearly 350 years later, his death and that of Queen Elizabeth I are the focus of the fascinating documentary series.
Presented by Professor Roberts, she will be assisted by Home Office pathologist Dr. Brett Lockyer as they use contemporaneous accounts and documents to reach their conclusions.
Centuries after they were buried, the autopsies of the long dead monarchs are carried out in unique ways, using prosthetic bodies to piece together how they died.
Being able to read the ‘astonishingly detailed’ journals and notes of court physician Sir Charles Scarborough assisted greatly for scrutinising what we know about Charles II.
‘They were very active in the days throughout his death and they recorded absolutely everything, so we know details of how many ounces of blood they were letting, exactly what kind of tinctures of plants and minerals they were giving him and the amount,’ Professor Roberts explained.
‘We have all of that carefully recorded, so it was like looking at very detailed patient notes. It was extraordinary.’
As those treating Charles raced against the clock, they became desperate.
‘I think they were awful. I don’t think there were anything his physicians did to him that helped him in any way,’ Professor Roberts said.
‘They weren’t treating the cause of his problems and were making him miserable.’
Professor Roberts explained how the bloodletting did little to help, as did the tinctures he was being given.
‘They kept giving him compounds that made him sick,’ she said.
‘It was horrendous. You’ve got someone who is terminally ill and you don’t want to be subjecting them to that.
‘I read further and felt incredibly sorry for him.’
Traditionally considered one of the most popular English kings, Charles acquired the informal title of the Merry Monarch, a reference to the liveliness, and hedonism of his court.
While he never had an heir, he had at least 12 illegitimate children by various mistresses.
After dissolving the English Parliament four years before he died, Charles ruled the country alone, which may also explain part of why his physicians were so desperate to not let him die.
‘He was the King and therefore his physicians were throwing absolutely everything at him in a vain attempt to keep him alive,’ Professor Roberts added.
‘He wasn’t going to survive – he was dying – and if he hadn’t of been the King he probably would have had a much better and calmer end to his life.’
Using forensic analysis and toxicology testing to determine whether there was any evidence of foul play, the findings were taken to medicolegal experts and constitutional historians in the series to determine how each ailment and affliction might have impacted Charles throughout his reign and later, his death.
Eventually settling on a cause of death for Charles, Professor Roberts said that with all of the ‘speculation and assumptions’ that had been made about what killed him, going ‘back to the sources’ allowed them to clear up a lot.
With plenty more monarchs in mind for another potential season, she added that she hoped the stories of Charles II and Elizabeth I would ‘grab people’s imagination’.