Skip to main content
An actor portraying Queen Mary has her forehead dabbed while she's ill in bed

Find out how these British kings and queens died

They may be divinely ordained, but monarchs are as mortal as any commoner. In Royal Autopsy, Professor Alice Roberts leads a unique investigation into the deaths of four iconic British monarchs.

Image: Mary I (R) died in 1558 at the age of 42 | Royal Autopsy

1. Henry IV

What is he known for?

Being an almighty nepo baby, even by royal standards. Henry’s father, John of Gaunt, was never the monarch, but he was one of the richest and most influential men in the country. That, plus the fact that Henry was the grandson of Edward III, allowed him to lay claim to the throne and depose his own cousin (and boyhood playmate) Richard II.

The Hundred Years’ War against France was on hiatus when Henry IV was king, and his reign is chiefly remembered for the many violent rebellions which threatened the kingdom. Notably the attempt by Owain Glyndŵr, the Welsh Braveheart, to end English rule in Wales.

How did he die?

Henry’s health nosedived during the final years of his life, kicking off with a serious skin disease. One 15th-century chronicler alleges that Henry was stricken with the disfiguring rash at the very moment that a political enemy, Archbishop Richard le Scrope, was executed. According to this account, Henry awoke screaming, ‘Traitors! Traitors! You have thrown fire over me!’

Whether this was a supernatural judgment or something more down-to-earth like leprosy, syphilis or psoriasis, Henry continued to be stricken with bouts of debilitating illness in the years that followed. Epilepsy, congestive heart failure or any number of other possible maladies may have led to his death in 1413 at the age of 45.

2. Mary I

What is she known for?

Being the first English queen to rule in her own right, rather than as an adjunct to the king, and also for being a staunch Catholic who tried to reverse the Protestant Reformation carried out by her own father, Henry VIII.

Hundreds of Protestants were burnt at the stake in what became known as the Marian persecutions, leading the queen to become forever known as Bloody Mary.

How did she die?

In September 1554, soon after her marriage to Philip II of Spain, Mary stopped menstruating and began experiencing morning sickness. Members of the court, and leaders across Europe, readied themselves for the birth of the heir to the English throne, but the child never came: Mary was devastated to acknowledge that she’d had a false or ‘phantom’ pregnancy.

In 1557, Mary again exhibited signs of being with child, but history repeated itself. Weakened and depressed, Mary died the following year at the age of 42. Were the false pregnancies indicative of diseases connected to her reproductive system, and could she have died from ovarian or uterine cancer? Perhaps, although she perished during an influenza epidemic, so it may well have simply been the ‘burning ague’ which caused her death.

3. Queen Anne

What is she known for?

Being the last Stuart monarch and getting pregnant at least 17 times. Despite her remarkable fecundity, Queen Anne was not able to produce an heir as most of her pregnancies resulted in miscarriages or stillbirths and none of the live births survived beyond childhood.

Anne is also known for her close friendship with Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, whose rivalry with another of the queen’s confidantes, Abigail Masham, inspired the acclaimed film The Favourite.

How did she die?

Having undergone so many pregnancies and miscarriages, Anne had certainly put her body through its paces. She’d also suffered from gout for much of her life – so much so, that she even had to be carried to her coronation at Westminster Abbey.

The gout had rendered her largely immobile in her latter years, with Sarah Churchill describing how ‘she grew exceeding gross and corpulent’. In 1714, after a long stretch of ill health, Anne suffered a stroke and died at the age of 49. Referring to the melancholic and sickly existence she had endured for so long, one of her physicians wrote, ‘I believe sleep, was never more welcome to a weary traveller than death was to her’.

4. George IV

What is he known for?

Becoming Prince Regent while his father George III was stricken by mental illness and being one of the most flamboyant and decadent monarchs in British history. A womaniser, a spendthrift and a glutton, George IV was so fond of gorging on food and booze that he ballooned in size, becoming a popular target for ridicule.

Lambasted for his vanity and self-indulgence in his day, he’s still widely regarded as one of the worst monarchs ever to occupy the throne.

How did he die?

George’s devil-may-care lifestyle (he once had ‘two pigeons and three beefsteaks’, plus wine, port and brandy for breakfast) had a devastating impact on his health. The morbidly obese monarch suffered from gout, heart disease and swollen limbs, and his suffocating bulk meant that he had to be propped upright in order to sleep.

Wracked with pains and delirious from taking the opium-based analgesic laudanum, George nevertheless continued to ingest industrial amounts of food and alcohol. ‘His Majesty's constitution is a gigantic one,’ his doctor wrote, ‘and his elasticity under the most severe pressure exceeds what I have ever witnessed in thirty-eight years' experience.’

One morning in 1830, the apocalyptically ill George passed away at the age of 67, with an autopsy revealing a myriad of maladies, including a ruptured blood vessel, enlarged heart and a tumour ‘the size of an orange’.