June 19, 2024

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Readers reply: which monarchs would have lived longer if modern medicine had been available? | Life and style

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Which British monarchs would have survived their illness or wounding if today’s medical knowledge had existed then? (Bonus question: which monarchs would we have had but for illnesses that are now easily preventable?) Jane Shaw

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Readers reply

Richard I died of sepsis and gangrene 11 days after being shot in the shoulder with a crossbow bolt; modern antibiotics would almost certainly have saved his life. If he had lived, John would not have come to the throne and lost most of England’s holdings in France, nor would the barons have rebelled and forced John to seal Magna Carta (and subsequent kings to reissue it). The modern world, not just England, would be a very different place as a consequence. RichWoods

Richard was 41 when he died, with no legitimate heirs. If he hadn’t died then, there’s a high chance he’d have got himself killed in some other military misadventure and John would have ended up in charge anyway. Plus, a large part of why John lost so much French territory was that he couldn’t afford to defend it, in large part because of debts Richard had accrued by getting captured on the way home from the Crusades. It’s not really clear whether Richard living a few years longer would have made any difference to that. Also, John got a papal bull nullifying Magna Carta almost immediately. Subsequent kings only reissued it as a means of placating rebellious barons – they would presumably have had to have signed a similar treaty with the barons if it had never existed.

As to which people might have become monarchs if they’d had access to modern medicine, Edward the Black Prince died from the effects of dysentery he contracted on campaign. He was an extremely popular figure in England and presumably would have made an effective (if brutal) ruler, and his disease could be easily cured today. Prince Arthur Tudor – Henry VIII’s older brother – died aged 15 at Ludlow castle after contracting some kind of respiratory infection, possibly tuberculosis or influenza. He’d have a high chance of survival today. Prince Henry Stuart – Charles I’s older brother – died of typhoid fever aged 18, so never got to reign as King Henry IX. He would probably have been put right by a strong course of antibiotics. It’s fascinating to think that two of the most pivotal rulers in English history only became king through their elder brothers’ misfortune. There are some obvious forks British history could have taken given modern medical intervention. ProjectXRay

John, signing a treaty and immediately trying to nullify it? He wasn’t an ancestor of our current leader, was he? tpnrty

If Arthur had not died we’d all still be speaking Latin and divorce would be illegal. Plus, Hilary Mantel might not have won two Bookers. lisamarie3

Had Edward I’s eldest surviving son not died at the age of 10, England would have had a King Alfonso and we would all be significantly better at football. ButtockMcscruttock

Albert, Queen Victoria’s consort, would have almost certainly have survived his tragic early death with modern medicine and treatment. If he had lived, maybe Victoria wouldn’t have been such a misery and maybe Albert’s diplomatic skills would have eased some of the tensions in the wider European family of monarchy, which contributed to the first world war. Cassandraknows2

I’m less interested in monarchs and more in composers. Mozart and Mahler almost certainly died of eminently treatable infective illnesses that would have been easily survivable today. Imagine all that music that we have never heard. Peter Neville, Powys

William the Conqueror ruptured his internal organs on the pommel of his saddle when his horse jumped a wall in Normandy and he subsequently died. Surgical intervention would almost certainly have saved him. But that’s only the beginning of the story. By the time he was transported to Caen Cathedral for his funeral he was as ripe as a camembert. While lying in state there, the gases trapped in his abdomen escaped with a loud hissing sound and the stench sent the crowd of assembled mourners fleeing from the cathedral. rumblestrips

Henry V died of dysentery at 35 during the siege of a French castle. Despite all the lionising of him by Shakespeare and the rest, he remains a might-have-been of history. Had he lived, he would have become king of both England and France within a year. The Wars of the Roses would have been much less likely and the Tudors certainly wouldn’t have risen to the throne. It’s unlikely an English-French dual monarchy would have endured beyond his death, but it’s certainly an interesting what-if. Ionic_bond

Alexander, prince of Scotland – son of King Alexander III of Scotland – died of an unspecified fever in 1284 at the age of 20. Although I don’t know what kind of fever it was, I assume that modern medicine could have saved him. He would have succeeded his father as king, the Scottish lords wouldn’t have asked Edward I of England to choose a new king for them, William Wallace would have lived his life out as a minor member of the Scottish nobility and Braveheart would never have been made. BellaTheCook

Folic acid added to her diet might have prevented Elizabeth of York, wife of Henry VII, from succumbing to anaemia and dying in childbirth. Which might in turn have prolonged Henry’s life, stopped him from relying on Empson and Dudley, and perhaps given him a clearer, less grief-addled head when it came to preventing Catherine of Aragon from marrying his second son. She could have been sent back to Spain, Henry VIII could have made a better marriage, had a son, and … perhaps no Reformation. Not that I’m against the Reformation. Asurea

Supposing Richard III’s wife and son could have been cured of whatever natural cause they died of? Nobody able to spread nasty rumours about how he had murdered his wife in order to marry his niece; a legitimate male heir still around; Henry Tudor might have thought twice, and we’d have had the King in the North for a bit longer than two years. SpoilheapSurfer

Edward VI, the male heir that Henry VIII so desired, died at 15 most probably of TB, which could be easily treated today. A longer reign would have avoided the subsequent bloody turmoil of his successor, Mary, and perhaps led to a more Protestant religious settlement (compared with the compromise enacted under Elizabeth I) being established in England with the survival of its most vocal proponents (Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley, all executed by Mary). Even more critically, if he had wed and sired an heir, the Tudor dynasty might have continued for a lot longer, and the Stuarts would probably have never come to the throne (and hence no subsequent personal or political union with Scotland, or civil war/Cromwell). deepsubs

The accounts of Queen Caroline’s death are harrowing (wife to George II). She had suffered an umbilical hernia at the birth of her final child in 1724 and, in November 1737, it was discovered that part of her small intestine was poking through the opening. Her doctors cut off the part that was protruding, thus making it impossible for anything to pass through her body. She died days later, in agony. It was definitely a case of “died of the doctors”. One of her daughters suffered from the same condition. PMWoolley

Princess Charlotte, the daughter of George IV, died in childbirth along with her son. If she had survived, there would have been no Queen Victoria whose numerous children married into all the European royal families. Imagine: no Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany and no Tsarina Alexandra bringing haemophilia into the Russian royal family. Whatduck

Mary II died at age 32 from smallpox; her husband, William III, five years later from pneumonia. If they had lived much longer it is possible that the house of Hanover might not have ascended the English throne. Floppyears

Modern medicine might actually have saved Anne Boleyn. Henry is thought to have suffered a brain injury in a fall, which affected his temperament. Before it, he was intelligent, reasonable and generous. After his fall he suddenly became suspicious and aggressive. An MRI scan and brain surgery might have succeeded. Anne would not have been executed and might have had a healthy son. No Bloody Mary with Catholic persecutions but sadly no Elizabeth I either. But we might still be ruled by Tudors now instead of a German family. Shân Morgain, Newport

Surely King Arthur would have been fine with modern antidepressants and psychotherapy: “No Arthur, there is no (living) lady in the lake, no magic sword and Merlin is a wise man, not a ‘wizard’.” Walter Mennekens


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