Fit to Rule

The Historic Royal Palaces boast some of Britain’s most sublime venues: Kensington Palace, Kew Palace, and Hampton Court. The palaces required innovative producers to create a series of live events to accompany the TV BBC series Fit To Rule, and hired Guerilla Science to bring medical history to life. We brought scientists, actors and historical interpreters together to celebrate the history of medicine through the lives and deaths of British monarchs.

At Kew Palace, one-time home of King George III, we looked at how medicinal plants – from gentian and dandelions to comfrey and ‘Peruvian bark’ (aka quinine) – were used by apothecaries to heal and soothe. We recreated an apothecary’s medicine chest and devised a series of activities for visitors to taste, sniff, mix their own tinctures and lotions, and help prepare treatments fit for a king.

A replica leech jar and other tools for blood-letting.
A replica leech jar and other tools for blood-letting.
Dr Szydlo performs at Hampton Court.
Dr Szydlo performs at Hampton Court.

At Kensington Palace – one-time home of Princess Diana – we worked with actors from Coney to treat visitors to a theatrical performance of Georgian surgery techniques, complete with a range of hands-on amputation challenges, with pigs’ trotters standing in for limbs. Cosmetically-minded guests could have a “smallpox makeover”, where a medical make-up artist recreated the gruesome charms of these lethal pustules.

We brought live leeches into all three Royal Palaces to illustrate blood-letting with these remarkably beautiful animals. And at Hampton Court we worked closely with historical interpreters Past Pleasures to script a new scene for their repertoire: King Charles II’s meddling with mercury, an experiment thought responsible for his untimely death. For the finale: an explosive extravaganza. Andrew Szydlo, a chemist who specialises in the history of alchemy, set the crowd on fire with a spectacular chemistry demonstration, the likes of which the palace has never seen before.

A smallpox makeover in action...
A smallpox makeover in action...
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