Anne Somerset

How to Poison a King

The Murder of King James I

By Alastair Bellany & Thomas Cogswell

Yale University Press 618pp £30 order from our bookshop

In early March 1625, King James I fell ill with what was initially diagnosed as a mild fever. His physicians were not unduly concerned but, contrary to expectations, the fever did not abate or follow the predicted course. Although James was usually reluctant to take medicine, it emerged that on becoming unwell he had imbibed a ‘drink or syrope’ supplied by his favourite, the Duke of Buckingham, ‘without the consent or knowledge of onye of the doctours’. Buckingham had also arranged for supposedly therapeutic plasters to be applied to James’s breast, but these too were very far from bringing about any improvement. As James’s condition worsened, Buckingham’s intervention came in for criticism from those in attendance in the sickroom, much to the indignation of the duke himself. After suffering from dreadful diarrhoea and excreting ‘very many black ejections’, James died on 27 March. The doctors’ postmortem concluded that ‘alienating and rotting humours’ within him had led to fatal results. As for Buckingham, he appeared ‘sorrowe it selfe’ at his master’s death. 

Royal Shakespeare Company


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