Read more about Medieval History
British monarchs have tended to die from violence or ill health. King Richard I was shot down with a crossbow while leading his men in attacking a castle, and Queen Anne died from a series of strokes. Some, however, have died in rather more unusual, mysterious, and downright gruesome ways.
Here we look at eight of the weirdest deaths of British monarchs from the past thousand years.
1. Coup in the Loo – Edmund: Reign 1016
Edmund Ironside reigned as King of England for just over seven months before he was murdered...apparently on the toilet.
More sober analyses of Edmund’s death concluded that he was probably killed in battle or died from disease, but 12th-century chronicler, Henry of Huntingdon, related a much different version of events.
According to Henry, King Edmund was sitting on the toilet, in the middle of doing his business, when an assassin burst in and stabbed the young royal to death. Another historian gave a similar explanation but cited the murder weapon as a crossbow.
2. Friendly Fire – William II: Reign 1087-1100
According to 13th-century chronicler Matthew Paris, William II was killed in a bout of friendly fire. Paris says that one day the king was out hunting with Walter Tyrel, a knight. Creeping through the woods, the pair suddenly saw a stag amble up to them. The king bellowed to Tyrel, ‘Shoot, damn you!’ The knight hurriedly loosed an arrow, which apparently bounced off a tree and hit the king right in the heart, killing him instantly.
More recent historical analysis however has suggested that the king might have been murdered, although nobody really knows.
3. Plenty of Fish - Henry I: Reign 1100-1135
Lampreys are weird-looking creatures – jawless, eel-like fish with toothy suckers for mouths. For some reason, 12th-century English king Henry I loved eating them.
Henry’s doctors had warned him of the effect his insatiable appetite for lampreys was having on his health, but the king ignored the physicians. One night, according to Matthew Paris, the king ‘ate voraciously of a lamprey’ and died.
Another chronicler wrote that this excessive feast led to an acute fever that the king could not withstand. It may have been a toxin from the lampreys, as the man who extracted the king’s brain after his death was reported to have become ill immediately and died a painful death a few days later.
4. Horsing Around - Alexander III : Reign 1249-1286
Alexander was King of Scotland and the last crowned monarch of the House of Canmore. His death ignited a sequence of events that led to the First War of Scottish Independence. And the cause of death could have been a bottle of red wine.
On 19th March 1286, on a dark and stormy night, King Alexander III was riding along a high, treacherous coastal path, returning to the royal fortress of Kinghorn Castle. The next morning the king’s body was found at the bottom of a cliff, on the beach of Pettycur Bay. Alexander’s neck was broken.
Some sources conclude that the king’s horse lost its footing on the cliff and plunged over the edge. Other accounts claim that the king was drunk on his favourite drink, Bordeaux wine, and his erratic riding of the horse sent them both over the precipice.
5. Hot Rod - Edward II Reign: 1307-1327
If the medieval chroniclers are to be believed, how King Edward was murdered must surely be the most gruesome death of any monarch that’s ever reigned on this island.
Chronicler John Capgrave relates how Edward was ‘slain with a hot spit put into his body’. He describes how the murderers, to avoid burns on the outside of his body and hide evidence of the crime, first inserted a horn into his back passage, and then the spit was passed through this horn into the unfortunate king.
Another medieval historian says that with this red-hot iron inserted into his body they ‘burnt his breathing organs as well as his intestines’.
6. Too Much of a Good Thing - Edward III: Reign 1327-1377
A doctor, writing in 1913, said that King Edward III of England was ‘worn out by sexual excess’ and suggests he may have died from syphilis.
His favourite mistress was an Essex woman called Alice Perrers, and an account says that one night the king had ‘lain’ with both Alice and her daughter Isabella ‘all night long’.
It was Alice, the chroniclers say, who ‘weakened’ the king and caused the disorder which led to his death.
7. Loose Cannon - James II: Reign 1437-1460
James II was King of Scotland and his death was, like many others of the House of Stewart, dramatic and bloody.
In August 1460, the 29-year-old James led an army to besiege the English-held Roxburgh Castle on the River Tweed. James, a fan of artillery, was stood admiring an expensive cannon that had been imported from Flanders. He then ordered it to be fired, and unfortunately for James, he was standing too close to it.
Robert Lindsay, writing in the 16th century, said that when the cannon fired, James’s leg broke in two at the thigh and he was ‘stricken to the ground and died hastily’.
8. Hold Still - Elizabeth I: Reign 1558-1603
Elizabeth I, the fearsome Queen of England and one of the most famous royals in history, had a rather quiet ending.
Elizabeth’s health started to decline from January 1603, and in early March she ‘was seized with a kind of stupor’, as contemporary historian William Camden put it. According to Camden, the queen would frequently sit silently on a cushion for hours, refusing food and rest. Another chronicler said that at this time ‘a kind of benummedness seized upon her with a deep melancholy’.
Before she lost her voice, just before her death, Elizabeth spoke of the terrible ‘visions’ she was having while she slept, including that of a ‘man in flame’.
Elizabeth’s heart was placed in an urn and put into a royal vault in Westminster Abbey. In 1670, 17-year-old William Taswell was there when the vault was opened. Curious, he dipped his hand into the urn. He described the substance inside as being a red, sticky substance similar to wet cement.