LAST MOMENTS OF AN ENGLISH KING
AN opportunity has been afforded us of examining at our leisure, a curious collection of papers of the age of Charles the Second, recently discovered at Draycot House, near Chippenham, in Wiltshire: the seat of the ancient family of the Longs, of Draycot, in that country. The collection is very miscellaneous, consisting of printed broadsides, manuscript, satires, not very decent, and, in some cases, to well known; newsletters, chiefly relating to matters of little general or even local interest, and other very miscellaneous sheets of handwriting, now and then containing facts of importance to the student of English manners and customs. The Jew’s-eye of the whole (as an enthusiastic collector would call it), is a letter adding new points of consequence to the accounts we possess of the death-bed of Charles the Second. It is, unfortunately, without signature or address; but the air of truth throughout is so great, the known facts and details are so supported by other testimony, and the new facts it reveals are so consistent with what was passing around, and with the known character of the individuals to whom they relate, that the discovery of the letter must be considered an accession of consequence to the stock of materials illustrative of English history.
It is certainly remarkable that the deathbeds of King Charles the Second and his two great favourites, the Duke of Buckingham and the Earl of Rochester, are among the best known recorded by poets, historians, or biographers. Burnet has given us an account of the last hours of Lord Rochester, which a great moralist (Dr. Johnson) has recommended to all classes and conditions of readers. Pope has made an enduring picture of the worst inn’s worst room in which Villiers breathed his last; and Mr. Macaulay has devoted fourteen pages of his History (among the finest even in his volumes), to the last moments of King Charles the Second. The picture which Mr. Macaulay has drawn with so much fidelity and skill, has been compiled from printed and from manuscript sources. Every incident has been worked up, and given its proper place and proportion. One would have thought that no more was to be done to it. Our letter, however, throws much supplementary light upon the scene. Here it is, with the spelling modernized. The writer is a lady, the wife of a person about the Court at Whitehall, with ample opportunities of obtaining information from the best-informed persons: -
“Methinks I owe my dearest a particular relation of his late Majesty’s sickness and death, with the intervening accidents which escape one’s memory if they are not written in the instant. On Sunday, the first of February, 1684-5, he found himself not well, which he did not confess, but thought it might pass away, as doubtless many other of his distempers had done. On Sunday night, he sent to my Lord Chamberlain to send for his doctors to attend him the next morning to consult about his leg, in which he would not own a touch of the gout, but had favoured it about three weeks, and wore a plaster on it of his own prescription, but was returned to some degree of walking again. The doctors came according to his order, and Dr. Scarborough finding his speech falter, he ran and told the Duke. Dr. King, who was, I think called, though no sworn physician, perceived it too; and he went and told my Lord Peterborough, who advised him to return, and be hear at hand if any accident should happen. Whilst this passed, he rose out of his bed, and as he was deploring the death of my Lord Allington, could not pronounce his name, but stuttered ‘All – All.’ Tom Ho: who was on his knees, buckling his garters, turns quick, and looking him in the face, saw it strangely altered, and asked him – ‘Sir, how-d’ye-do?’ He puffed, as when he is vexed, and would not answer, but rose hastily out of his chair, and went through two rooms into his closet, shutting the door against Tom Ho: who, in care would have pressed in after him. There he stayed, some say one, some two hours; but when Mr. H. heard him walk, he ran to W. C. [Will Chiffinch] and bid him go round and persuade him out, which he did with some difficulty. As he opened the door, H: looked again, and seeing him much changed, he ran to the next room and drew in Dr. K. by the arm, not having time to speak. When he returned, his Majesty was sunk down in his chair, with his head to one side, and gave the dreadfullest shriek was ever heard. In the moment Dr. K. stripped up the sleeve of his waistcoat (for he was not dressed), held the vein with his thumb, and opened a vein; but he not bleeding, he took a bottle out of his pocked, and dropped into his nose, then took it by the end, and shook it so as shook his whole head, which brought him out of his convulsion fit, so that he bled freely eighteen ounces. By this time Dr. Wetherly and others were assembled, and they approved of what was done, and applied a warming pan of coals to his head, and applied blisters to his back, arms, and thighs; in the meantime, seeing him foam much at the mouth, they wished a vomit, and the noise having drawn down James Chace, who was going to Temple Bar, to a patient, chanced to have one of Wetherly’s prescriptions in his pocket, which otherwise could not have been prepared under four hours. He took it, and brought much phlegm off his stomach. When they opened the blisters, they wrought admirably. He was very sensible, and told Dr. Short that; but now he could not speak, and asked what ailed him. In the night, he was taken with something like a return, between eleven and one, but it passed easily. The next day he talked and rallied; and the doctors forbidding him, he said that order would have killed Harry Killigrew, but he would obey it.”
Here we must break off to call the reader’s attention to the new points about Lord Allington and Thomas Howard (Tom Howard was one of the Grooms of the Chamber – a John Chase was apothecary to the King’s person), and to the King’s good-humoured allusion to Harry Killigrew. The writer continues thus: -
“I should have told you, in his fit his feet were cold as ice, and were kept rubbing with hot cloths, which were difficult to get. Some say the Queen rubbed one, and washed it in tears. Pillows were brought from the Duchess of Portsmouth’s by Mrs. Roche. His Highness [the Duke of York] was first there, then I think the Queen (he sent for her); the Duchess of Portsmouth swooned in the chamber, and was carried out for air; Nelly roared to a disturbance, and was led out and lay roaring behind the door; the Duchess wept and returned; the Princess [afterwards Queen Anne] was not admitted, he was so ghastly a sight (his eye-balls turned that non of the blacks were seen, and his mouth drawn up to one eye), so they feared it might affect the child she goes with. None came in at the common door, but by an odd side-door to prevent a crowd, but enough at convenient times to satisfy all. The grief of the Duchess of Portsmouth did not hinder packing and sending many strong boxes to the French Ambassador’s; and the second day of the King’s sickness, the chamber being kept dark (you know) – one who comes out of the light does not see very soon, and much less one who is between them and the light there is – so she came and went of the inside of the bed, and sat down o’t, and taking the King’s hand in hers, felt his two great diamond rings; and thinking herself alone, asked him what he did with them on, and said she would take them off, and did it at the same time, and looking up saw the Duke of the other side, stedfastly looking at her, at which she blushed much, and held them toward him, and said, ‘Here, Sir, will you take them?’ ‘No, Madam,’ said he, ‘they are as safe in your hands as mine. I will not touch them till I see how things will go.’ But since the King’s death she has forgot to restore them, though he has not that she took them, for he told the story.”
Let the reader particularly observe the picture which the writer gives us for the first time, of Nelly’s lying “roaring behind the door” (an incident unknown to Mr. Cunningham) and the fearful scene (new to Mr. Macaulay) of the Duchess of Portsmouth taking the rings from the fingers of the dying monarch. Hogarth has a ring incident nearly as terrible. The letter continues: -
“Since this, every night, about the hours of twelve or one, he found an alteration, something of cold sweat, and some shivering; on Thursday the doctor thought it would conclude in an intermitting fever, and gave him the Jesuit’s powder four times; afterwards he found his nose stopped, that he could not breathe at it, nor scarce at his throat, yet fell asleep and slept two hours at least, and waked and asked what o’clock, and said he was much refreshed with that sleep. It was either that day or Wednesday that he was let blood in one jugular vein; and Pierce missed (for the King’s are not the best chirurgeons) then he struck the other, which bled well, - they had done it there the first day, but the convulsions were so strong and sudden that they could not; yet then they gave him, after his vomit had wrought, a purge or two, which worked mighty well, and the second day he prescribed himself a purge or erapiora, which did the best in the world, as did everything he took, so that it was a wonder he died; but it was abundance of blood, and a transport of it to his head, and it discharged itself as it could, partly on his lungs, which were full of it, and partly, as I guess, at the ends of the arteries (if any are in the head,) for it fell down between the thick skin and the flesh, on his right shoulder and arm, in which he complained of pain two days before his death, and after the settling of the blood was there even in the fore-part of his shoulder, which is only usual in the hips, and that behind. Doubtless many things were prejudicial that were done, had his disease been known, but he had ever laughed at physicians, and would never come under their hands; so none knew his constitution since Fraiser died, who told him, the last time he saw him, that if he would let blood spring and fall, and take a purge or two in those seasons, he might live to a great age; but he never would do it.”
Pearse, or Pierce, was Chirurgeon-General to the King’s person, and is the Pearse so often mentioned by Pepys. Fraiser had been Physician to the King: of his Court skill, Pepys has given an amusing account. The letter-writer now says something about herself, or rather her husband: -
“My husband being there, with many others, he said, ‘Gentlemen, I have suffered very much and more than any of you can imagine’ but not with impatience. At eleven o’clock a Thursday night he asked the hour, and when they told him, he answered, ‘Then, at half-an-hour after twelve, I shall depart;’ but lived toll Friday, about that time in the morning. My husband was there with a sad heart, and heard him say, ‘I have waited for this change, and desire to be dissolved.’ He was then let blood by order of the Council, though the physician despaired his life; he then died as peaceable as a lamb, and had his sense, though not his speech, to the very last. He had with him, waiting without (when he was not well enough to pray), the Bishops of London and Durham, Deans of the Closet and Chapel, and was visited by his Grace of Canterbury, but none took so much pains as Bath and Wells [Ken,] nor were so well versed in that sort of Divinity; but oh! I tremble to tell you, would never be persuaded to receive the Communion, though he seemed to join in prayer, and audibly said ‘Amen.’ I have heard he was once private, with only three in the room (except some one waited privately in another hard by till that vacancy). What passed then, none can tell that will. He recommended all his relations that he considered to his brother. When he saw he should die, he first asked his pardon for all he had done to him which looked unkind, and said he was forced to do it; then desired him to be kind to the Queen; and to his four children by the Duchess of Cleveland, and made them kneel down, and desired him to embrace them; the like he did to the rest; and the King named them, but could not bring out Bur.’s name, but put him into his hand, and desired him to take care of his education, for he will be spoiled else; he desired him to be well to Portsmouth, and not let poor Nelly starve. The King that now is repeated over all the children, except Monmouth, whom his father had not named. He recommended neither Church, nor State, nor servants, nor debts. This King [James the Second] behaved himself from the beginning to the end the best in the world; he wept bitterly, and without affectation; he watched and kneeled by him till he could scarce rise or stand, and paid duty and respect to the very last moment. They left the corpse in bed, covered with a sheet till next day, that he was opened – I think it was till Sunday – and in that time any one might see him. They say he looked then as in health; his blisters having made him raw, and the covering made him stink without, but his inwards were all good and sound, and might have lasted many years, though one little part of one side of his lungs was tainted or perished. The twelfth he will be removed to the painted chamber, and then the Lords ordered to attend his funeral, which will be performed without cost; the whole family to be dismissed; and the King will live as privately as when he was Duke till he sees what Parliament will do to establish his house; so that there will not be such as thing as a Green Cloth, though established by Act of Parliament. Some talk of resuming Crown lands, &c.”
The name contracted by the writer, and which the King could not “bring out,” is supposed to be Berford, the King’s son, by Eleanor Gwyn.
“Sir Scroop How made his peace for desperate words of scandal against the Duke of York, sworn by two witnesses two days before the King fell ill; but Sir Walter Young was not so fortunate, who would have kissed the present King’s hand, and was refused, though his cousin my Lord Churchill was his mediator, but he was told a time was near in which his reality would appear, and after that he should. My wise Lord Max. is, I believe, at the same pass; for he confesses he had employed a friend, but had not heard from him since. * * * *
no mortal knows, nor is it very material; my Lord Devon refused to appear at Council when the first proclamation was signed, not as a whig, for he is much otherways, but thinks the death of a King dissolves the Privy Council, and it would be a lessening to his quality to obey a summons from men out of commission. Dartmouth is Master of the Horse, at which Portsmouth storms in her own lodgings; but when she desired to speak with his Majesty she could not come within three rooms of him, without sending for the Groom of the Stole (my Lord Peterborough) to get her admitted (as other people now do). He brought her through the rooms, and she went into the closet, but nobody heard what passed there, though it is said the King said he would take care of her son (the Duke of Richmond) if she would leave him to him, but that he would have a Master of the Horse who was able to execute the office. He received Colonel Strang. and Wad. very kindly, acknowledging their constant fidelity, and promising to do them good, and continued him Colonel; in fine you will see rewards and punishments come mightily in fashion, and a more active prince than has been since Queen Elizabeth. The King has given the regiment he was colonel of when Duke, to the Prince. Col. Werden is Cofferer, the Lord Lieutenant and Deputies of Surrey dined together two days to consult about knights of the shire. Some proposed S. R. M.; but he declined, and three were named, Sr. A. Bm., Sr. J. V., and Sr. E. E., so they are to agree which of the two shall stand, but should Onsolw, E. E., or Sr. N. Ca. stand, I doubt them much.
“It is said there is a written or printed order for mourning, but I have not seen it. Earls’ coaches are wholly in mourning; officers must have a coloured cloak; in fine, I do not know very well, but Earls must wear long cloaks; all must wear cloth waistcoats and little cuffs. The Queen Dowager’s court wears cambric, all others muslin. The Queen Dowager puts off her maids, - Mrs. Swan and Villiers go to the young Queen, the rest to their friends, and pages of honour must go home too; every part lessens to an atom, so there will be great frugality in fashion. The King says he will keep no more servants than he can pay quarterly. Have you heard how concerned the common people were for the King’s sickness? they cried as they walked the streets, and great sadness in all faces, and great crowds at all the gates, which were kept shut to keep out the rabble; yet to all the extravagant reports they have made they fancy this King and his speech at Council declared he would be of the Protestant religion, and that he had promised his brother so much, and had taken the sacrament on’t, so they came thick and threefold to see him at chapel, but they said they could not see him because he was gone to the Abbey, and that next Sunday he would be at St. Martin’s.”
We have deciphered several of the initials, and further research might explain it all. The historical interest of the letter is not to be doubted.
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