They have long been famed for their love of lavish banquets and rich recipes. But what is less well known is that the British royals also had a taste for human flesh.
A new book on medicinal cannibalism has revealed that possibly as recently as the end of the 18th century British royalty swallowed parts of the human body.
The author adds that this was not a practice reserved for monarchs but was widespread among the well-to-do in Europe.
Even as they denounced the barbaric cannibals of the New World, they applied, drank, or wore powdered Egyptian mummy, human fat, flesh, bone, blood, brains and skin.
Moss taken from the skulls of dead soldiers was even used as a cure for nosebleeds, according to Dr Richard Sugg at Durham University.
Dr Sugg said: ‘The human body has been widely used as a therapeutic agent with the most popular treatments involving flesh, bone or blood.
‘Cannibalism was found not only in the New World, as often believed, but also in Europe.
thing we are rarely taught at school yet is evidenced in literary and
historic texts of the time is this: James I refused corpse medicine;
Charles II made his own corpse medicine; and Charles I was made into
‘Along with Charles II, eminent users or prescribers included Francis I, Elizabeth I’s surgeon John Banister, Elizabeth Grey, Countess of Kent, Robert Boyle, Thomas Willis, William III, and Queen Mary.’
The history of medicinal cannibalism, Dr Sugg argues, raised a number of important social questions. He said: ‘Medicinal cannibalism used the formidable weight of European science, publishing, trade networks and educated theory.
corpse medicine has sometimes been presented as a medieval therapy, it
was at its height during the social and scientific revolutions of
‘It survived well into the 18th century, and amongst the poor it lingered stubbornly on into the time of Queen Victoria. ‘Quite apart from the question of cannibalism, the sourcing of body parts now looks highly unethical to us.
the heyday of medicinal cannibalism bodies or bones were routinely
taken from Egyptian tombs and European graveyards. Not only that, but
some way into the eighteenth century one of the biggest imports from
Ireland into Britain was human skulls.
‘Whether or not all this was worse than the modern black market in human organs is difficult to say.’
The book gives numerous vivid, often disturbing examples of the practice, ranging from the execution scaffolds of Germany and Scandinavia, through the courts and laboratories of Italy, France and Britain, to the battlefields of Holland and Ireland and on to the tribal man-eating of the Americas.
A painting showing the 1649 execution of Charles I showed people mopping up the king’s blood with handkerchiefs.
Dr Sugg said: ‘This was used to treat the “king’s evil” – a complaint more usually cured by the touch of living monarchs. ‘Over in continental Europe, where the axe fell routinely on the necks of criminals, blood was the medicine of choice for many epileptics.
Denmark the young Hans Christian Andersen saw parents getting their
sick child to drink blood at the scaffold. So popular was this treatment
that hangmen routinely had their assistants catch the blood in cups as
it spurted from the necks of dying felons.
a patient might shortcut this system. At one early sixteenth-century
execution in Germany, ‘a vagrant grabbed the beheaded body “before it
had fallen, and drank the blood from him..”.’
The last recorded instance of this practice in Germany fell in 1865.