The Death of Henry IV—it’s not easy being King

Shakespeare doesn’t really get into the death of Henry IV. It was said at the time to be from leprosy, a visitation from God because he had beheaded Archbishop Scrope, one of the rebels against his usurpation of the throne from Richard II.

The following is quoted from Allison Weir’s The Wars of the Roses because I can’t say it better.

“The first attack of this disease was terrible indeed, and caused Henry to scream with pain and cry out that he was on fire. Worse still, with pain came disfigurement. John Capgrave says that from 1405 ‘the King lost the beauty of his face. He was a leper, and ever fouler and fouler.’ His face and hands were covered with large pustules ‘like teats’ and his nose became misshapen. The swellings and rashes on his skin grew so vile that few people could bring themselves to look at him. Later on, a tumour grew beneath his nose, and his flesh began to rot. The doctors could do nothing for him. Rumours about his condition were manifold: the French believed his toes and fingers had fallen off; the Scots that he had shrunk to the size of a child.

“What was this terrible disease? It was certainly not leprosy. Modern medical opinion is that it could have been syphilis, or tubercula gangrene, combined with erysipelas, which produces a burning sensation.”

Weir’s book is a must for Wars of the Roses buffs. She goes on to point out that Henry’s body was exhumed in 1831. It was well preserved, and his skin condition seems to have been exaggerated. But for those in the middle ages looking for a punishment from God for erring ways, leprosy was a weapon of choice.

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