Tuesday, 29 November 2011

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

William Harvey
 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 professionals to the English Civil War.

At the outbreak of war, members of the RCP were like many in the country split in their allegiance. The College of Physicians was led by an elite group of men who wielded significant power. The RCP was not a homogenous body; its members had differing religious and political opinions.

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."[1]

Harvey was not only responsible for looking after the King's medical requirements but made a significant contribution to the development of medicine by showing how blood circulated 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 because of the rapidity of the movement." [2]

During the civil war, Harvey took no time in declaring his allegiance to the crown. Many members switched sides during the war which enabled them to navigate "their way through the conflict, pragmatically switching sides".

The exhibition has a selection of audio readings concentrating on different parts of the civil war. One such reading is "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'.

One picture used in the exhibition is described 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."[3]

One of the significant weaknesses of the exhibition is its failure to go into any detail as regards the significant dissension of many members towards the monarchy.  We get a small glimpse of this dissension in a quote used in 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[4] there was significant dissension amongst men of medicine. According to him "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".

Christopher Hill has described the "erratic careers of some 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. Medicine, as a practical option for a lost career, or to supplement and subsidize uncertain jobs, can also be found among Royalists and Anglicans when their lives were similarly disrupted during the Interregnum".

He continues "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 their clerical careers temporarily for medicine, only to return to the Church when times were more propitious".[5]

The exhibition is a rare glimpse into the treasure trove of material held by the RCP. A lot of this material has rarely been seen in public.

[2] William Harvey, On The Motion Of The Heart And Blood In Animals
[3] ] 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
[4] The Dissenting Tradition in English Medicine of the 17th and 18th Century William Birken Medical History 1995
[5] The Experience of Defeat-Christopher Hill

Saturday, 19 November 2011

A Letter to Richard Cavendish

I cannot say I follow your articles for History Today on a regular basis, but when an article catches my eye, I tend to read it. One such article was called Trotsky Offered Asylum. As the title of your column suggests, you write about events from the near or distant past.

If this particular article was nothing more than a straight factual account of Leon Trotsky’s exile from the former Soviet Union, I would have had nothing to complain about, but it was not. I am sorry to say your article was a little dark and had a strong hint of conservative bias to it to say the least. 

My first complaint is that while you mention the struggle between Trotsky and Stalin for students and people coming to this subject for the first time you would not garner from your article that this was little more than just a personality clash that Trotsky lost.

The life and death struggle was deeply political and to no small extent decided the course of the 20th century and not for the better. In fact, mankind paid a very heavy price for Trotsky’s “fall” from power and subsequent murder. 

Your article does not mention a single political difference between Trotsky and Stalin. I admit you have a lack of space, but your article would have been strengthened by at least a cursory examination over the controversy over Stalin’s theory of building socialism in a single country versus Trotsky’s insistence on global revolution. 

This aside, there are other things in the article that I would like to address. One of your turn of phrase left me a little cold and to say the least was a little sinister. To describe Trotsky’s murderer as a “charming Spanish Communist painter “is a little ridiculous. 

He was a murderer who pursued Trotsky and under Stalin’s personal order caved his skull with an ice pick, perhaps you could explain what was charming about this.

While we are on the subject of Trotsky’s murder to describe the act of murder as a “stab” of an ice pick is just plain bizarre. Trotsky’s skull was caved in why you downplay this horrendous assassination.
My last point is that while it is difficult for a historian to come out of their comfort zone and write on a subject, they know little about I must take exception to your description of Robert Service as “Trotsky’s biographer”, given Service’s very right-wing biography which is strewn with major errors it is simply not true. If readers new to the subject of Trotsky's life would like to view a more balance view, then they should look no further than Isaac Deutscher's three-volume trilogy. The compliment you pay Service is not deserved.


  1. Trotsky offered asylum in Mexico by Richard Cavendish | Published in History Today Volume: 61 Issue: 12 2011 http://www.historytoday.com/richard-cavendish/trotsky-offered-asylum-mexico

2.Trotsky: A Biography  by Robert Service; In Defence of Leon Trotsky  by David North Review  By Bertrand M. Patenaude The American Historical Review   Vol. 116, No. 3, June 2011 URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/ahr.116.3.900