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Monday 18 October 2004

Bugger Bognor, How's the Empire?

Britain’s King George V, who triumphantly celebrated his Silver Jubilee only months earlier, lies in his bed at Sandringham House on the verge of death, surrounded by his family. Concerned with keeping his royal patient’s spirits up, the King’s physician reportedly suggests, “Your Majesty will soon be well enough to visit Bognor.”  

The King replies, “Bugger Bognor,” and promptly dies.  

Not exactly the ideal last words of a benevolent monarch, especially to the ears of the residents of Bognor Regis. So, naturally, The London Times duly reports that the late King’s final words were, “How is the Empire?”, thus ensuring that British subjects the world over believed that – even on his deathbed – the King’s final concern was for the well-being of the British Empire. 

Clearly, the business of royal last words is a difficult one. Being royalty, their final words are not only eagerly anticipated – often more so than those of other public figures, they’re also held to a higher standard. While it’s acceptable for the rest of us to say ridiculous things like, “I’m coming to play catch with you, Fido,” or “Remember to water the plants,” royalty are expected to make profound or significant statements, preferably regarding their successor or their earthly realms.  

James V of Scotland did both when, as he lay dying in 1542, he uttered, “It came in with a lass and it will go with a lass.” This thoughtful statement referred to the Stuart dynasty, which “came in” thanks to the marriage of Marjorie, daughter of Robert I of Scotland (Robert the Bruce), to Walter Stewart, 6th High Steward of Scotland. When the Bruce’s only son, David II of Scotland, died childless in 1371, the throne passed to Marjorie and Walter Stewart’s son, Robert II – the first Scottish king of the House of Stewart (Stuart). Thus, the second part of James’ dying words was the realization that the House of Stuart would end with his another “lass,” his 6-day-old daughter, Mary. Little did he know that Mary’s son and heir, James VI, would not only perpetuate the House of Stuart in Scotland, but install it in England as well. 

But such a resonant dying phrase is generally the exception, not the rule. Among my favorite royal last words are those that are either so mundane they are insightful or so ridiculous they are funny. Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, takes the cake (no pun intended) for her polite apology, “Monsieur, I ask your pardon. I did not do it on purpose,” when, on ascending the scaffold, she accidentally stepped on her executioner’s foot. For a woman who was considered vain and frivolous, this was certainly a very humble dying statement. On the side of the ridiculous is the Roman Emperor Gaius Caligula, who, after being stabbed repeatedly by his own Praetorian Guards, shouted in vain, “I am still alive!”  

With so many dying words, it’s no surprise to run across royals who’ve said the same thing at different times. Perhaps the best example of this is when an injured or dying person, in an attempt to appear brave, claims, “It is nothing.” Both Henry IV of France in 1610 and Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 said those exact words just before dying following assassination attempts. 

Of course, royal history has passed down to us a plethora of pious dying words, especially from the days when only God and the Roman Catholic Church had authority over kings. When Charles V of France died in 1380, his final words were simply, “Ay Jesus.” And, despite being known as “the Silent,” William I, Prince of Orange, pleaded, “Oh my God, have mercy on my soul. Oh my God, have mercy upon this poor people,” when he was assassinated in 1584. Sometimes, however, these pious exclamations smack a bit of last minute deal making with the great man upstairs, such as when the dying Charles VII of France asserted in 1461, “I hope never again to commit a mortal sin, not even a venial one, if I can help it.” Too late. 

Other royals are more concerned with the comfort of those around them. Britain’s Merry Monarch, King Charles II, had been dying for such a long time in 1685 that his final thoughts were for the many courtiers and nobles who had attended him at his deathbed for so long. To his credit, he is reported to have said to them, “I have been a most unconscionable time dying, but I beg you to excuse it.” Of course, it’s also reported that his last words actually referred to Nell Gwynne, just one of his many mistresses, when he entreated the Duke of York, “Let not poor Nelly starve.” 

Which brings up the issues of multiple accounts and versions of a particular royal’s last words. Anne Boleyn’s last words, for example, are often said to have been, “The executioner is, I believe, very expert, and my neck is very slender.” Those words, however, were actually spoken the day before the execution. Her very last words were, “Oh God, have pity on my soul.” Others spoke very few last words, but those few take an amazingly high proportion of variations. Versions of Napoleon Bonaparte’s last words include: “France, the army, Josephine”; “Chief of the Army”; and, simply, “Josephine...”. Similarly, Henry VIII said either, “Everything is gone - kingdom, body and soul!” or, “All is lost. Monks, monks, monks!” The bottom line here is that the numerous versions of a dying royals last words are often derived from the interpretations of the equally numerous individuals that so often surrounded them in their dying moments.  

But even when the last words are confirmed, there are those that are all too often taken entirely out of context – especially historical context – and, as a result, exceedingly misunderstood. Consider Queen Victoria’s dying words, “Oh, that peace may come.” Contrary to what some might think, she was not referring to achieving the peace acquired only by death, but to the second Boer War, or South African War, which was in its final stages at the time of her death in January 1901. 

It’s nice to think that we will all manage to at least say something coherent when it’s our time to say goodbye to this mortal world, but, as if dying weren’t difficult enough already, a royal on the verge of death is expected to say something profound. Quite a responsibility, especially when you consider that an entire royal legacy can be overshadowed with the “wrong” last words. Which brings us back to George V. Another account of his dying words makes “Bugger Bognor” sound positively philosophical. It seems that, after receiving a shot of morphine, the King’s very last words were, “God damn you.” I wonder what The London Times would have made of that?

Until next week, 

- Tori Van Orden Martínez 

Previous Royal Scribe columns can be found in the archive

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This page and its contents are ©2006 Copyright by Geraldine Voost and may not be reproduced without the authors permission. The 'Royal Scribe' column is ©2005 Copyright by Tori Van Orden Martínez who has kindly given permission for it to be displayed on this website.
This page was last updated on: Monday, 18-Oct-2004 09:08:59 CEST