Tuesday, 29 November 2011

'An end to good manners': The Royal College of Physicians and the English Civil War



The exhibition held at the Royal College of Physicians is small and limited but to its credit does offer a great insight into the attitude of the country’s leading medical profession to the English Civil War.

At the outbreak of war members of the RCP were like many in the country heavily split in their allegiance.  It is true that “In the 17th century the College of Physicians was led by a small group of powerful men who held widely differing religious and political opinions”. Certainly one of the most famous members of the college was the Royalist physician William Harvey who was described as "a man of lowest stature, round faced; his eyes small, round, very black and full of spirit; his hair as black as a raven and curling"

Harvey was not only responsible for looking after the Kings medical requirements but made a significant contribution to the development of medicine by showing how blood circulated around the body. He said of his discovery “I found the task so truly arduous... that I was almost tempted to think... that the movement of the heart was only to be comprehended by God. For I could neither rightly perceive at first when the systole and when the diastole took place by reason of the rapidity of the movement..." 

While Harvey took no time in declaring his allegiance to the crown it could be said that other RCP members took a longer term attitude in order to navigate “their way through the conflict, pragmatically switching sides”  some it would seem at the drop of a scalpel.
The exhibition has a well put together selection of audio readings concentrating on different parts of the civil war. One such reading comes from “a true copy of the high court of justice for the tryal of Charles published London `1684

According to the exhibition notes this was “Published after the restoration to the throne of Charles II, this pro-Royalist work includes a transcription of Charles I’s trial and execution. There is also an appendix which provides 'An alphabetical catalogue of the members of the execrable pretended high court of justice…' 

The exhibition notes describe the picture left as an “allegorical frontispiece is unambiguous in overall tone. Devil-like figures have commandeered a carriage, taking the crown and 'three nations' hostage, leaving liberty in the balance. Sheep and doves are attacked behind it, and the beheaded King Charles is crushed beneath its wheels. An accompanying explanatory verse was still deemed necessary, making reference to 'wounded justice' and a 'murder'd monarch'.
In one  memorable exchange the Clerk of the Court read “Charles Stuart, King of England, you have been accused on behalf of the people of England, of high treason, and other crimes, the court have determined that you ought to answer the same.To this the King replied “I will answer the same as soon as I know by what authority you do this”. Stubborn to the end the Kings last words  on the scaffold were “I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible crown, where no disturbances can be.”

Perhaps one of the major weaknesses of the exhibition is its failure to go into any detail as regards the significant dissension towards the monarchy after all it puts this quote as a sub heading of the exhibition ‘...when dissolution and idleness had put an end to good manners), some seditious ‘tribunes’ of the people and ill-conditioned scoundrels ... had defiled all things ... the Phoenix ... rose at last ...’ but fails to explain its meaning.

According to William Birken there was quite a tradition of dissension amongst men of medicine. According to Birken “In England, medicine has always been something of a refuge for individuals whose lives have been dislocated by religious and political strife. This was particularly true in the seventeenth century when changes in Church and State were occurring at a blinding speed. In his book The experience of defeat, Christopher Hill has described the erratic careers of a number of radical clergy and intellectuals who studied and practised medicine in times of dislocation. A list pulled together from Hill's book would include: John Pordage, Samuel Pordage, Henry Stubbe, John Webster, John Rogers, Abiezer Coppe, William Walwyn and Marchamont Nedham.1 Medicine as a practical option for a lost career, or to supplement and subsidize uncertain careers, can also be found among Royalists and Anglicans when their lives were similarly disrupted during the Interregnum.

He goes on “among these were the brilliant Vaughan twins, Thomas, the Hermetic philosopher, and Henry, the metaphysical poet and clergyman; the poet, Abraham Cowley; and the mercurial Nedham, who was dislocated both as a republican and as a royalist. The Anglicans Ralph Bathurst and Mathew Robinson were forced to abandon temporarily their clerical careers for medicine, only to return to the Church when times were more propitious”.

The exhibition is a rare glimpse into the treasure trove of material held by the RCP which in many cases have rarely been seen in public. So anyone finding themselves in London for a bit of Christmas shopping could do worse than going along along to see it.

The Exhibition is held at the RCP Mon-Fri 9am-5pm until 15th March 2012

 Notes & References

1.         William Harvey (1 April 1578 – 3 June 1657 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Harvey

2.         A True copy of the journal of the High Court of Justice for the tryal of K. Charles I as it was read in the House of Commons and attested under the hand of Phelps, clerk to that infamous court / taken by J. Nalson Jan. 4, 1683 : Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan, Digital Library Production Service

3.         The Dissenting Tradition in English Medicine of the 17th and 18th Century William Birken Medical History 1995

4.         The RCP of London and its Support of the Parliamentary Cause in the English civil War William Birken Journal of British Studies Vol 23 No 1 1983






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