The King’s Drops: Charles II, Powdered Skulls and a Deathbed Obsession
For all of Europe’s pretentions of progress with civil democracies and human rights, the archives are filled with anything but. From the blood of Roman gladiators being sold as a remedy for epilepsy and other ailments, to eating the flesh and internal organs of fellow human beings, human history is filled with medicinal cannibalism, particularly in Europe. The elite were an integral part of these cannibalistic acts, none more famous than King Charles II and his deathbed obsession with a miracle cure known as the King’s Drops.
Did you know that when he was on his deathbed, King Charles II paid Oliver Cromwell’s doctor, Jonathan Goddard, a handsome sum for the coveted formula of his drops which later came to be known as ‘King’s Drops’. The secret ingredient in this tincture? A powder consisting of five pounds of crushed human skulls. Goddard, also a chemist by profession, peddled this concoction as Goddard’s Drops, a supposed miracle cure for any and all ailments.
Portrait of King Charles II by John Michael Wright. ( Public domain )
King Charles II and his Tryst with the King’s Cranium Drops
Charles, who reigned from 1660 to 1685, was himself an enthusiast chemist and even had his own laboratory where he practiced distillations. In the story of the King’s Drops, the king reportedly paid six thousand pounds to Goddard, then a member of the Royal Society, who had received recognition for his distilled powdered skull recipe. He had also waited on Cromwell on his deathbed and acquired renown for his prowess as a druid of sorts.
Before his death, Charles purchased the famed distillation and began to create variants in his laboratory. Mixing it with alcohol, he would sip it frequently while at work. The drops were often mixed into wine or chocolate, and became popular for a variety of ailments. Skulls acquired for use in The King's Drops came from Ireland after paying gravediggers on the sly to supply them.
In his final days, doctors were pouring 40 drops of this miracle elixir down the king’s throat on a daily basis, but to no avail. Modern scientists and historians go so far as to speculate that the drops potentially sped up Charles’ demise, which finally came on February 6th, 1985. Though medical proof did not attest to the healing powers of this concoction, and neither did the tests performed on those who consumed it, the drops found a way into people’s medicine cabinets.
The first known depiction of cannibalism in the New World in an engraving by Johann Froschauer for an edition of Vespucci's Mundus Novus, published in 1505. ( Public domain )
Cannibalism and Quackery All Around
One account from 1686 tells the story of an Englishwoman named Anne Dormer. A cursory modern-day inspection suggests that she was suffering from depression of some kind. Waxing eloquently about the supposed benefits brought by skull juice on her mental health, Dormer stated:
“I apply myself to tend my crazy health, and keep up my weak shattered carcass, broken with restless nights and unquiet days. I take the king’s drops and drink chocolate, and when my soul is sad to death I run and play with the children.”
It is important to note that the Age of Reason and Enlightenment had not yet arrived in Europe. Although medical science was a rapidly developing field, it lacked the tools and resources that modern science enjoys today. The church too played a dominant role in socio-cultural beliefs and affairs, the narrative of Earth being at the center of the universe instead of the Sun, known as geocentrism, was a key tenet of Catholicism despite the invention of the telescope.
At the same time, with discovery of trading routes to Asia and the Americas, particularly the latter, Europeans came in contact with indigenous tribes in Central and South America that practiced forms of cannibalism. For Native Americans, cannibalism only occurred within a well-defined set of rituals and was a social act, rather than a private one. Incorporated into mourning rituals in order to reintegrate the deceased into the tribe, cannibalism was present amongst the Wari of Brazil for example. There was a desire to incorporate the dead into the future life of the tribe, as burial in cold and wet grounds seemed horrific.
European skull consumption, by contrast, was a private act of consuming the other, generally those seen as barbaric – captured slaves, prisoners of war, criminals, and the destitute. Their end and brutalization was seen as legitimate. Aristocrats across the continental expanse of Europe ingested human skulls regularly as recently as the 18th century. The King’s Drops were not the only form of skull consumption, there were a number of other skull related cures and accompanying quackeries. Medical books from the this time period even published skull treatments for epilepsy.
Presumed portrait of Paracelsus from the Louvre. ( Public domain )
Paracelsus and the Bogus Science of Skull Remedies
The original source for this bogus brutality was the 16th-century Swiss alchemist, physician, philosopher and polymath was Theophrastus von Hohenheim, better known as Paracelsus. A lot of Paracelsus’ ideas were influenced by ancient Roman and Greek beliefs known as Galenism. With Galenism came great brutality, but it was nothing as bad as Paracelsus’ medical advice, which was captured in Der grossen Wundartzney (the Great Surgery Book), published in 1536. It was one of the most influential medical texts of its time.
Paracelsus believed that a problem experienced in the cranial region by an ill individual could be rectified and fixed by consuming part of the head of a healthy individual. Paracelsus recommended consuming the blood and powdered skulls of men in their prime who had died a sudden and violent death. He also prescribed other parts of their corpses. The argument was that through consumption, their “vital spirit remained strong” and thus aided cranial recovery. This argument wasn’t far from the idea behind the King’s Drops with which King Charles II of England was so enthused.
Many such remedies gained traction over the next couple of centuries, particularly as powdered skulls were generally served with wine, chocolate, or other intoxicants. The accompanying placebo effect and a sense of magical wonder complemented these unscientific cures. It was only as late as the 19th century that skull sales start waning, with a post-Industrial Revolution scientific temperament take root. A modern understanding of physiology and anatomy in conjunction with the reason and logic of science begin countering quackery and magic, paving way for the modern tryst with medicine that we recognise today.
Top image: Charles II had a deathbed obsession with King’s Drops, which were made using powdered human skulls. Source: papi8888 / Adobe Stock
By Sahir Pandey
Amos, J. 2011. “Ancient Britons ‘drank from skulls’” in BBC. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-12478115
Dolan, M. 2012. “The Gruesome History of Eating Corpses as Medicine” in Smithsonian Magazine . Available at: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-gruesome-history-of-eating-corpses-as-medicine-82360284/
Giuffra, V., Fornaciari, G. 2015. “Pulverized human skull in pharmacological preparations: Possible evidence from the “martyrs of Otranto” (southern Italy, 1480)” in Journal of Ethnopharmacology , 160. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jep.2014.11.042
Hubbell, D. 2021. “Europeans Once Drank Distilled Human Skulls as Medicine” in Atlas Obscura . Available at: https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/drinking-skulls
Keach, S. 2020. “Our ancestors turned skulls into ‘drinking cups’ after eating head flesh just 4000 years ago, experts believe” in The Sun . Available at: https://www.thesun.co.uk/tech/10778973/skulls-cups-cannibal-ancestors-bronze-age/
Lovejoy, B. 2016. “A Brief History of Medical Cannibalism” in Lapham’s Quarterly . Available at: https://www.laphamsquarterly.org/roundtable/brief-history-medical-cannibalism
Ridley, S. 2015. “Our cannibal ancestors used human skulls as drinking cups after eating their owners” in The Mirror . Available at: https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/technology-science/science/cannibal-ancestors-used-human-skulls-5559456
Veronese, K. 2013. “The Uncomfortably Common Practice of Medicinal Cannibalism” in Gizmodo. Available at: https://gizmodo.com/the-uncomfortably-common-practice-of-medicinal-cannibal-5971342
Skull juice is so 17th century. adenochrome is where it's at.
If you don't know that, what do you really know of modern history?
King Charles II did not die Feb 6, 1985. Please fix it