Gout, Gangrene, and other Gross (and Royal!) Ways to Die

Throughout history, it might have been good to be King, but that didn’t necessarily spare you from suffering the maladies of the day. As part of my research in historical fiction, I’ve encountered illnesses in my principal historical figures which were messy, malodorous, and often impossible to work around. But if these illnesses made my life difficult as a historical fiction KHVIIIauthor, imagine how challenging they made life for the monarch in question—or, much more so, for their servants and retainers.

Below I share just a few of these crown culprits:


Known for centuries (somewhat incorrectly) as the “disease of kings”, gout is a particularly painful type of arthritis caused by a buildup of uric acid crystals in the joints. This buildup results in inflammation, usually in the feet (though it can also appear in elbows, fingers, etc.), and can be mind-bogglingly painful. Flare-ups can last for several days, during which time the slightest touch of a bedsheet against your big toe can make you want to chop off someone’s head. Considering that King Henry VIII, one of history’s most famous figures, suffered this disease, which can be caused/made worse by the consumption of alcohol, shellfish and organ meats, no wonder beheading was his execution style of choice.

Other famous figures who suffered from gout: Charles V, Queen Anne of England, Louis XIV of France, Leonardo Da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, and Sir Isaac Newton.


victoriaHemophilia is a blood disorder characterized by the inability to properly form blood clots. As a result, any small cut or internal hemorrhaging after even a minor bruise can be fatal. The disorder became known as the royal disease after several of Queen Victoria’s descendants were diagnosed with hemophilia. One of Queen Victoria’s sons, Leopold, died from a cerebral hemorrhage after a fall; and, while the Queen’s daughters, Anne and Beatrice, did not show evidence of the blood disorder themselves, they carried the disease into many of the royal families of Europe.

Through Queen Victoria’s descendents, other royal victims of this disease included: Alexei Nikolaevich-Tsarevich of Russia, Prince Friedrich of Hesse and by Rhine, Prince Waldemar of Prussia, Lord Leopold Mountbatten, Prince Heinrich of Prussia, and Prince Alfonso of Spain.


When blood can’t flow freely throughout the body, your cells don’t receive the oxygen and nutrients they need to survive. As a result, those cells and the body tissue they make up can die. This process of healthy live tissue sickening and dying is known as gangrene, and it’s a condition that was a real problem for even the royal classes.bourbon-2 Usually the result of an injury that becomes infected, gangrene can also accompany other damaging conditions just to make them even more uncomfortable. King Louis XVIII of France, for example, suffered not only from gout (there it is again!) and obesity, but also both wet and dry gangrene. That’s right. Gangrene is so nasty that it has sub-categories of misery.

Other famous monarchs who suffered from gangrene include: King Herod, King Tut, and Louis XIV. Considering that the infection turns healthy tissue into a “liquid viscous mass”, it’s not a good way to go.

These are just a few lowlights of the illnesses that beset the royal houses. Other all-too-common ailments included: hemorrhoids, stomach infections, severe tooth decay, syphilis, kidney disease, liver disease, malaria, leprosy (though this is somewhat disputed) or other skin maladies like severe eczema, depression, and mental illness. And that’s not even including the physical trials faced by children born into royal families whose passion for pure bloodlines resulted in inbreeding. (Note: it’s not just the Europeans who dealt with inbreeding. According to recent scientific testing, King Tut’s parents were likely brother and sister, resulting in the young king suffering clubfoot and other genetic disorders.)

So it would seem that all the riches and power in the world couldn’t guarantee a monarch a healthy body and spirit. For that, they needed to pray they didn’t inherit something unsavory from their parents, exercise regularly, try not to get injured in battle… and lay off the lampreys (yes, Henry I of England apparently died of eating too many of these jawless, sucker-mouthed fish. Gross.)






Research–The Delight is in the Details

I love research.  I can spend days—even months—surrounded by books and articles and dusty magazines, avidly soaking up information.  Most of this doesn’t get into my books, but I feel that by immersing myself in my story world and by knowing every aspect of it, I will be able to immerse my characters in it, too.  That I will be able to create characters and a setting that feel very real, even if I don’t use all the details I glean.


One of the reasons I love Downton Abbey is because it makes the fictional world seem so real that visiting Highclere Castle, where it was filmed, was like stepping back in time.

Because I especially love the details.  I’ve never been much a one for remembering specific dates (after ten years and three books with Henry VIII, I still can’t remember the exact dates of his birth and death—thank goodness there are some things we can depend on Wikipedia for).  But I love to know what life was like—how food was handled and what fabrics were made into clothes.  What time people woke up and how often they bathed.  Where the silver was kept and what the roads were like.

But of course, I can’t put all of these things in a book.  The purpose of historical fiction is to tell a story, so those details must be used to move the story forward and to set the scene.  If they’re extraneous, it’s entirely possible they have to be cut.

But that doesn’t stop me from loving them.  And being surprised by them.

I read dozens of books while researching MANOR OF SECRETS.  Books about life in a country manor, about what it was like to be a servant, about the history and politics of post-Edwardian, pre-War England.  And I struggled with the darlings I had to cut or not include at all.

Things like a popular cocktail of the day rather loathsomely called a Bosom Caresser—made from brandy, milk, raspberry (or pomegranate) syrup and a raw egg.

Or the belief that birds killed during shooting weekends should be allowed to “ripen” for several days before being cooked and consumed.   I leave those details to your imagination, though Jean Rennie offers a rather horrifying account of trying to cook a gamey game bird in her book Every Other Sunday.

An hour could be required to get a lady ready for the evening.  She could use white powder on her face and blue crayon to emphasize the veins at her neck, temple and cleavage (this indicated sensitivity).  Straight hair was a sign of obstinacy, so curling tongs were essential and false hair was often added to provide volume.

There was a strict code of conduct for any lady paying calls on female friends and neighbors.  Only after being introduced in a neutral zone (a ball or another person’s house) could a girl be invited to call.  But on the first visit, she could only leave a card with the footman.  The second visit, she could be announced and perhaps invited to take tea, staying only fifteen minutes.  She could remove her coat, but not her hat.  And so on.

The kitchen of a large country manor would have separate larders for raw meat, cooked meat, and vegetables.  There would be a still room for making drinks, jams and baked goods, and a separate scullery where vegetables were prepared, birds plucked, fish filleted and all the dishes were washed.  There would be a butler’s pantry, a silver safe, an ice room, a dairy (for churning butter and ice cream) and a laundry.

Downstairs in a strictly-run household, meals were preceded by what some servants called a “Pug’s Parade”, where the upper servants lined up according to precedence (butler, under butler, housekeeper, cook, etc.) and processed to the servants’ hall for the meal.  After the main course, the senior servants would go to the “Pug’s Parlour” for dessert—lesser servants might get fruit, but no cakes or tarts or other sweets except on special occasions.  And meals (unlike those at Downton Abbey) were often conducted in silence.  But of course, a silent meal is deadly boring in a book, so I broke that rule, as well.

In 1911 (the year MANOR OF SECRETS is set), the Ballets Russes came to London and after Nijinsky’s first performance, it only took a week for all the whites and creams and pastels to disappear from Harvey Nichols (a luxury department store) and be replaced by the purples and reds that became the height of fashion.

The garden of Hardwick Hall--close to Chatsworth and originally owned by the same person.

The garden of Hardwick Hall–close to Chatsworth and originally owned by the same person.

An estate like Chatsworth in Derbyshire employed as many as two hundred sixty people, including two rabbit-catchers forty-four woodmen, fifty-five gardeners, forty indoor staff members, five electricians, two full-time florists and a resident fireman.

However, forty percent of the population of Great Britain lived on the poverty line and most working class families got one meal a day.  In 1911, Parliament debated a National Insurance scheme that would help those most in need by taxing income and employers to pay for some medical care and sick leave, as well as an unemployment benefit.

So is it any wonder that Janie, the kitchen maid in MANOR OF SECRETS would do anything to keep her job—a guaranteed roof over her head and three meals a day?

And with her entire day being taken up by calling cards and multiple changes of clothes, how could Charlotte do anything but imagine a life beyond The Manor’s walls because she had no way to experience it?

Historical research is full of surprises, which is part of what makes historical fiction so much fun to read.  Read between the lines, and sometimes you can get a glimpse of those devilish details.

What are some of your favorites?

Geeking Out

How do you know when you’re a history geek?  Well, check out Elizabeth May’s brilliant post from Monday for starters.  You’re probably also on the geek side of normal if you can answer yes to any of the following questions:

1.  Can you speak/read/understand/make jokes in an extinct language?

2.  Have you ever insisted that your family accompany you on a 300-mile roundtrip journey just to visit a field that may or may not have been the site of a long-forgotten battle?

3.  When they have a history question, do your friends call you rather than check Wikipedia?

4.  Do you know more about the family tree of a historical figure than you do about your own?

5.  Have you ever got a sense of deja vu only to realize it’s because history repeats itself?

6.  Do your local reference librarians know you by name?

7.  Have you ever had to tear up a check because you wrote the wrong century in the date line?

8.  Have you ever gone a week without bathing or washing your hair, cooked on a coal-fired stove, slept on a straw-filled mattress, worn a hair shirt, walked a mile in leather-soled shoes or even tried to read by the light of a single tallow candle just to see “what it would have been like”?

9.  By the same token, are you thankful every day for modern conveniences like indoor plumbing and toothpaste?

10.  Have you ever dug up a carpark just to see what lies beneath the asphalt? (bonus points if you know what I’m referencing.)


Most of my friends have got used to me blurting out historical factoids and talking about 16th Century characters as if they’ve been cavorting on a reality TV program called The Real Housewives of the Tudor Court.  Many of my new acquaintances accept my geekiness for what it is–because most of them are writers in some way shape or form and we all have our own brand of crazy.  Even my editor–after a phone call in which I went off on tangents about everything from the Levellers to Thomas More to the end of Apartheid in South Africa–said, “Geekery in general is something I have a soft spot for.  If I didn’t, I wouldn’t spend my life working with writers!”

I’ve found my people.  Are you with me?


Which Came First? The History or the Story?

When I first conceived the idea of GILT, I wasn’t sure if I could write an entire book on Catherine Howard.  Then, through interlibrary loan, I got a fabulous, 40-year-old biography of Henry’s fifth queen that had been sitting quietly in a sister library in the sleepy little town of Colusa, California.  It still contained an old-fashioned check-out stamp card with stamps from the 70s on it.  How the book got to Colusa, I don’t know.  But I’m glad it did.  And I’m very thankful for interlibrary loan.  (The book, by Lacey Baldwin Smith, has just been revised and reprinted, and I now own a copy, but I read the one from Colusa twice.)

So does that mean I thought of the story first?  Before the research?

No.  And yes.  I’d been reading historical biography for years.  There are some incredible historians out there writing about Henry VIII, his Court and his wives.  Not just Lacey Baldwin Smith, but also David Starkey, Alison Weir, Antonia Fraser, Robert Hutchinson, Julia Fox.  I have read dozens of books –cover to cover, as well as footnotes and endnotes – and every time I discover something new and enticing.  Plus, some of them are a rollicking good read.  I “knew” a lot about my subject already.

So the research came first.

Yes.  And no.  I knew I wanted to write for teens.  I knew that Catherine Howard was the only one of Henry’s wives who was (probably) a teenager when he married her.  It seemed natural for me to put them together.  I’d done the research—or some of it—but I hadn’t really researched until I decided to write the story.

It was the same thing with TARNISH.  I knew a lot about Anne Boleyn.  I’d been to her house (Hever Castle).  I’d seen her handwriting.  But when I decided to write about her, I realized I didn’t nearly know enough.

I searched the journal archives of my alma mater’s library for articles about her birth.  I trawled through pages and hours of primary sources that have been paraphrased and published online.  I bought books and read dozens—maybe hundreds—or articles on the Anne Boleyn Files website.  I revisited Hever and Windsor and the Tower of London.  I made sure I knew which stories about her are fact (or as close as we can establish them to be) and which are fiction (probably—I don’t believe she had six fingers on either of her hands).  I research all of this—and more—because it is the detail and the historical record that gives me the ideas for my characters, and how I can have them grow throughout the novel.

But when I sit down to write the story, I have to forget all that research.  I have to trust that I know enough to write a first draft.  And I have to create a believable story against that backdrop.

Because the history is not the story.  And all the research in the world won’t make it so.

With GILT, I wanted to write a story about a girl in an abusive friendship—and her eventual escape.  I just happened to have the friend be Catherine Howard.  With TARNISH, I wanted to write the story of a girl who has to choose between love and her dreams.  She just happens to be Anne Boleyn.

I don’t need the research to write the story.  But I need it to write my books because of where I set them and who I write them about.  So it doesn’t matter which comes first, because I can’t have one without the other.

Fun Footnotes to Elizabethan England

While researching Elizabethan England for my tale MAID OF SECRETS, I learned about a wide range of strange-but-true experiences and every day events for the intrepid Elizabethans–who also seemed more hardy than I would have been in the same situation. As Claire pointed out in her research blog earlier this week, personal hygiene was quite a different experience for the men and women of that day: the men and women of the lower classes would bathe infrequently, while those of the upperclasses might bathe every few weeks. Because clothing was so expensive, however, people from all classes would dress with a shift of plain material close to their bodies–usually of linen. This shift would be laundered as frequently as possible, keeping bodily oils away from the more costly heavier garments that would only be hand-cleaned.

I’m very cold! And so is my parrot!

Dang. That was Cold.

And the garments were heavier. During Elizabethan England and for hundreds of years after, Earth endured what was known as “The Little Ice Age.” NASA defines the term as a cold period between AD 1550  and AD 1850, with three particularly cold periods:  one beginning about 1650, another about 1770, and the last in 1850, each separated by intervals of slight warming. The winters got so cold that the River Thames would freeze over — in fact, in 1683-84, considered the worst frost in English history, the Thames froze for two solid months, with the ice reaching a thickness of 11 inches in London. Solid ice was reported extending for miles off the coasts of the southern North Sea (England, France and the Low Countries). Near Manchester, the ground was frozen to 27 inches, and in Somerset to more than four feet. This is COLD.

What did this mean for Elizabethans? Lots of clothing, particularly in wintertime. This is why you often see the nobility dressed in what would seem to be suffocating layers of material in many of their portraits. This particular fact made things a little difficult for me, as my spies had to slip in and out of costumes to make sure they moved through the castle undetected. This was no mean feat, as many Elizabethan garments were actually separate pieces that were tied together at the seams… so assembling a garment was not unlike putting together a puzzle.

To help make their jobs a little bit easier, I set my first tale of spies during the Elizabethan high summer. Still not a warm summer by our standards, but at least the girls weren’t buried in yards of extra cloth!

Fake it ’til you Make it.

John Dee, Elizabethan soooooper-genius

But Elizabethans kept busy to combat all of that cold, and one of the more interesting things I discovered was their penchant for new inventions. My favorite inventor plays a minor role in Maid of Secrets, but will be seen much more actively in later books: John Dee, astrologer to the Queen.

John Dee is credited with building a wooden beetle that could fly. He was an avid scholar, and filled his life with science, experiments, astrology and mathematics, which he aligned with magic, the supernatural, and alchemy. He had arguably the largest library in Europe, and was considered a master of both science and the arcane. Also in Maid of Secrets, you’ll read about a character named Sophia Dee, ward to this famous man and potentially a master of the arcane in her own right.

But Dee wasn’t the only experimenter or inventor. During the Queen’s long and illustrious reign, here are just a inventions that also came into use–I take this list from http://www.elizabethan-era.org.uk, a site I used as a jumping-off point for many cool research journeys into Elizabethan England:

1565: Conrad Gesner of Switzerland invents the pencil
1568: Bottled beer is invented in London (Cheers!!)
1583: Leonard and Thomas Digges invent the telescope
1589: William Lee invents the knitting machine
1591: Sir John Harington invents the flush toilet in England (Woohoo!!!)
1593: Francis Bacon invented the frozen chicken (See “The Little Ice Age,” above?)
1593: Galileo invents a water thermometer
1600: William Gilbert publishes treatise “On the Magnet”. William Gilbert is referred to as the father of the science of electricity and magnetism

Whew! And that’s just the beginning of cool things that you can find in Elizabethan England. They definitely kept busy!

SNEAK RESEARCH PEAK: What fascinating book do I have on tap for future reading? Deborah Harkness’ The Jewel House, a study of science and scientific theory in Elizabethan England. Can. Not. Wait.

Because the first thing you learn the moment you start researching… is there’s always more you can learn.

Jennifer McGowan has been writing fiction since well before she knew any better. A past Romance Writers of America Golden Heart winner and 2011 Golden Heart finalist, Jenn is represented by agent extraordinaire Alexandra Machinist, of Janklow & Nesbit.

Jenn’s debut novel, MAID OF SECRETS, will be published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers on May 7, 2013. You can find Jenn online and on twitter.