Were 17th Century doctors charlatans - or just negligent?
When doctors used such diabolical, but fashionable, medical treatments in the 17th Century, even medical indemnity specialist piihub.co.uk wouldn't have found any insurer to cover them!

On the morning of February 2nd, 1685, the King of England rose early and began to tend to his morning routine. He was 55, without any health problems and expected to rule for many years to come. As he began to shave, Charles II cried out and fell to the ground in a fit. It was a Monday and, by the end of the week, he would be dead having suffered the worst kind of horrific and pointless medical treatment.
The Party King
Charles II gained the throne after a period of great turmoil in England. Oliver Cromwell had defeated the first King Charles in a civil war and ushered in a puritan state known as the English Commonwealth. Cromwell was a hard-line, joyless man who tried to force his version of Christianity on the country by restricting Christmas celebrations, dancing, alcohol and becoming immensely unpopular in the process.

So when Charles II returned from exile in Europe in 1660 and became King, the country entered a period of raucous celebration. Charles was himself a notorious drinker and womanizer and took the role as head of the newly free state to heart.

It is thought that this love of excess may have had a part in his collapse. Medical historians believe that his mystery illness may be due to an attempted cure for syphilis, a brain haemorrhage or kidney malfunctions, all linked to his extravagant lifestyle though it is impossible to say exactly what brought on his condition. Doctors at the time, however, knew exactly what to do: everything and anything.
Butchers and Healers
Medical knowledge of the time appears to us barbaric and ridiculous. Accounts of the learned doctor taking pint after pint of blood from an already weakened patient appear for a surprisingly long time. George Washington would die surrounded by a number of respected medical blood-letters some hundred years later and the practice would continue well into the 20th century.

Bloodletting was based on the four humours idea of the Roman medical writer Galen. Galen believed that all disease was caused by an imbalance of these four liquids within the body and that correcting this would result in a cure. The lack of knowledge regarding infection and bacteria similarly meant that a doctor was more likely to cause harm than heal, with even simple procedures commonly leading to a horrible death.

Charles was unlucky enough to fall ill during this phase of medical understanding but his bad fortune was doubled by his own wealth and importance. While it is doubtful that anyone at the time could have reasonably saved the man, he was surrounded by a team of people terrified of later accusations of improper care. Coupled with their cheerful faith in the most bizarre treatments, the King was about to have an interesting week.
A Week in Hell
After his collapse on the Monday, it is reported that six physicians hurried to the royal bedside. His "treatment" began with a light bloodletting of 16 ounces, followed by scalding cups to the skin designed to raise blisters and improve circulation. Mystified that their bleeding and (presumably) screaming patient seemed no better, the doctors moved on.

They continued with a further 8 ounces more of blood, made him vomit with foul leaves, applied a hard enema, shaved his head to burn his scalp, forced blackthorn and salt down his throat and threw in another enema just to be safe. One suggested pigeon droppings attached to the feet and so a servant was sent for a fresh delivery.

Tuesday began with Charles appearing to have improved, or at least recovered somewhat from the previous day. The doctors shook hands all round and let ten more ounces of blood for good measure.

Wednesday began with the king having a fit. More blood was taken and strange concoctions were force-fed to his majesty. Powered human skull, a gallstone from a goat and senna pods were used. These were meant to cleanse the system primarily, while the human remains were meant to shock his spirit into health. Even for the time, this was considered dangerous nonsense but highlights the increasing desperation of the medical team.

By Thursday it was clear the king was close to death and so he made his final remarks to his family and favourite mistresses. More blood was taken, burning blisters were applied again and a drink containing wine and opium was offered. Friday was much of the same with even more blood taken and a slapdash mess of everything not yet tried (mainly hurriedly sourced from the palace gardens) being made into a medicine.

King Charles II finally died on the Saturday. He remained lucid enough to request his curtains to be opened and then slipped into a coma he would never wake from. After a week of pain and suffering, Charles finally found release.
A Lethal Combination
The doctors that treated Charles were certainly, to modern sensibilities, negligent to the extreme. They knew close to nothing about any helpful treatments and instead brought more suffering to a weak man who was convulsing and dying. His "treatment" would most likely be called torture today.

It is unfair to label these "doctors" as torturers, however. There was no intent to cause suffering. They were some of the most highly respected medical experts in England, terrified about having the most important patient possible visibly dying in front of them, shown by their increasingly strange choices. Despite their extreme efforts to be seen as having taken every possible course, they would still later be labelled as poisoners and enemies.

Charles certainly suffered, but it was only a magnified version of what nearly every patient could expect at the time. People were terrified of medical care and with good reason. The sad story of King Charles II's death simply shows no man, royal or otherwise, was safe from the horror of well-intentioned but sadly misinformed healers.

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