Henry VIII had people kiss his bed linen every morning to make sure it was not covered in poison

For thousands of years, kings have hired tasters to test their food before they consumed it. But monarchs weren’t only worried about what they consumed – they were also terrified of touching something that was coated with toxins which allowed the poison to enter their skin. As Ambroise Paré, the 16th-century French royal physician once wrote: “Now poisons do not onely kill being taken into the bodie, but som being put or applied outwardly.”

It was for this reason, perhaps, that the gentleman who made Henry VIII’s bed every morning were required to kiss every part of the sheets, pillows and blankets they had touched – to prove they had not smeared poison on them.

The king was also quite concerned that his enemies might try to poison the clothing belonging to his son, Edward. New garments straight from the tailor were never to be put on the prince; they must first be washed and aired before the fireplace to remove any harmful substances. Before the prince donned any items of clothing – hose, shirt, or doublet – his servants tested them. Either they rubbed them, inside and outside, against their skin, or they dressed a boy Edward’s size in them and waited to see if he cried out that his skin was on fire. Even the cushion on Edward’s chamber pot was tested before he used it, though we are not sure how.

Before Prince Edward donned any items of clothing his servants tested them in case they were coated with poison. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
Before Prince Edward donned any items of clothing his servants tested them in case they were coated with poison. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

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Elizabeth I used makeup consisting of nasty chemicals that you most definitely would not want to put on your face today

As the ‘Virgin Queen’, Elizabeth I didn’t run the risk of dying in childbirth or suffering pregnancy complications. In fact, her only significant illness was a severe, almost fatal infection of smallpox in 1562 at the age of 29, which left her skin pitted. Little did she know, her efforts to hide the damage may well have shaved a few years off her life.

Back then, a flawless complexion was not simply a question of beauty. Blemishes of any kind were seen as proof of God’s displeasure at sin or inner derangement: lewd sexual fantasies, for example, were thought to ‘bubble up’ from the private parts to the face. Some women filled in smallpox pits with a mixture of turpentine, beeswax, and even human fat. You could purchase the latter at a local apothecary (or, cutting out the middleman, directly from the town executioner, who sliced it from the still-warm corpses of condemned criminals).

We do not know if Elizabeth ever used human fat on her smallpox scars. But after her recovery from smallpox, the queen did start using a ceruse foundation on her face, neck and chest. This pasty makeup consisted of tincture of white lead ore, vinegar and sometimes arsenic, hydroxide, and carbonate. Applied over egg whites, ceruse filled in the smallpox pits and gave the skin a startling, almost silvery whiteness that refracted light.

To add a bit of colour over her white mask of lead and arsenic, Queen Elizabeth applied vermilion – powdered cinnabar, which contains mercury – to her cheeks and lips. In other words, every day the queen thickly coated her face with a variety of toxic materials.

Many monarchs rarely bathed, with some believing that washing was dangerous

In the latter part of the third century AD, Rome’s 11 aqueducts fed 1,212 public fountains and 926 public bathhouses. But in AD 537, invading Goths cut the aqueducts, making bathing much more problematic. The early Catholic Church, which managed much of the day-to-day functioning of Rome in this tumultuous period, had no idea how to repair the aqueducts and consequently declared that bathing should be curtailed anyway as it was a form of sinful hedonism practiced by pagans.

Over time, physicians came to believe that washing was dangerous – so dangerous, indeed, that many people consulted their astrologers to find the most auspicious time to take a bath. A popular 16th-century book, This is the Myrour or Glasse of Helth, advised: “Use not baths or stews, nor sweat too much, for all openeth the pores of a man’s body and maketh the venomous air to enter and for to infect the blood.”

James I, king of England and Scotland, bore a great aversion to water and reportedly never bathed. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)
James VI and I, king of England and Scotland, bore a great aversion to water and reportedly never bathed. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

In the late 15th century, Queen Isabella of Spain bragged that she had only bathed twice in her whole life. Queen Elizabeth I, too, reportedly bathed once a month, “whether she needed it or no”. Her successor, James VI and I, bore a great aversion to water and reportedly never bathed. A court lady once complained that she and her friends got “lousy [infested with lice] by sitting in a councillor’s chamber that James frequented”. The king didn’t even wash his hands before eating. At the dinner table, he “only rubbed his fingers’ ends slightly with the wet end of a napkin.” His lover, the Duke of Buckingham, wrote in one letter to the king: “So, craving your blessing, I kiss your dirty hands.”

Some monarchs were cannibals (when it came to their medicine)

In the past, human body parts, called mumia, were often sold to apothecaries and physicians by town executioners. Doctors believed that some essence of the life force remained in the body after death, especially in the case of executions or accidents where life was taken suddenly from an otherwise healthy young person. The remainder of the deceased’s natural life span could thus be ingested by the person consuming his body parts.

We know from court records that several monarchs – Charles II and William II of England, François I of France, and Christian IV of Denmark – were, in fact, cannibals when it came to their medicine. It is not known if Elizabeth I consumed body parts, but two of her favourite royal physicians heartily recommended it to their other patients. And when James I of England suffered from gout starting in 1616, his physician, Théodore de Mayerne, recommended “an arthritic powder composed of scrapings of an unburied human skull, herbs, white wine, and whey, to be taken at full moon”. But as “the king hates eating human bodies, an ox’s head can be substituted in his case”.

The Spanish royal family shared their beds with the body parts of saints

Many historic medical treatments came with a hefty dose of religious ritual: prayer, fasting, confessing sins, and helping the poor. Seeing this, it was thought, God would surely look kindly on the sick person and generously offer a healing.

The Spanish royal family, which held the mortal remains of saints in high regard, once took such superstitions to drastic lengths. For centuries, whenever a member of the royal family was gravely ill, doctors would remove saintly body parts – and even entire corpses – from churches and monasteries and place them in bed with the invalid. We can only imagine a dainty young princess, waking from a fever and turning her head to see a grinning skull lying next to her.


Eleanor Herman is the author of several works of popular history including Sex with Kings and Sex with the Queen. Her latest book The Royal Art of Poison (2018) is out now.