Mountebank, Quack or Medico – In Stuart & Hanoverian England

Anne of England, aged 18 at the time of her marriage to Prince George of Denmark

When Anne the youngest daughter of James II of England was given the news of her accession to the throne on 8th March 1702, she was at a complete loss for words falling back on the usual English opening gambit of the weather.

Looking out of the window she remarked  “It is a fine day”. Bishop Burnett responded “the finest day that ever dawned for England ma’am”.

During the reign of this, the last monarch of the House of Stuart in England Queen Anne (1665 – 1714) the threat of treason and civil war in England was finally put to rest. Anne was kindly and warm-hearted and although addicted to brandy, seemingly carried out her role of queen with great dignity. She was fortunately endowed with a melodious voice, which had been refined following years of elocution lessons paid for by Charles 11, and it inspired all who heard her.

At her coronation in 1702 on St.George’s day, she was suffering so badly from gout, she had to be carried in a chair, unable to stand on her own two feet. It was only one of many conditions she suffered from and, like so many others of her day celebrity status or not, she was forced to turn to men who claimed they were medico’s but were really very little better than bumbling butchers.

Prince William, Duke of Gloucester

With a charming manner, and undoubtedly some skill, these self taught new age medical advisors were basically not much more than useless successful con-men.

Her majesty sure was in a surprise
Or else was very shortsighted,
When a tinker was sworn to look after her eyes
And the Mountebank Read was knighted…

Queen Anne had weak eyes and her favoured oculist was one William Read, a tailor by trade, who having failed as a mender of garments seemingly set himself up as a mender of eyes. At this time in England, and Europe Mountebanks and Quacks abounded. They sold their remedies for many ills from a platform in public places, attracting and influencing an audience by tricks and storytelling.

In country districts the Mountebank espoused his abilities and performed cures in a type of carnival style act. One remedy it seems was as fatal as another. Then there was the Quack, who usually rode around on horseback dispensing pills and plasters, entertaining everyone and offering alms and free drinks so that he could gain a foothold among the unwary.

Like so many women of her day Queen Anne suffered appallingly during childbirth. A fact that she would have more than likely shared with her best friend for many years (before they had a famous falling out), Sarah Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough’s wife.

During Anne’s reign she gradually became more and more overweight due to overeating in a belief it would help her to have healthy babies. First a princess, and then a Queen, Anne had eighteen pregnancies over a sixteen year period. She gave birth to seventeen babies, producing only five living children, four dying in infancy.

One cannot begin to imagine the depth of suffering that she endured. Especially when her eldest son and heir to the throne, Prince William, the young Duke of Gloucester became suddenly ill at his 11th birthday party on July 29, 1700.

Dr John Radcliffe

The young prince had not enjoyed good health since he had been born and during his short life had been treated for all sorts of medical problems. His precarious health had continued since having convulsions aged only three weeks. This meant that he was a source of anguish continually for his parents, who often disagreed with how he should be treated.

When he became ill at his birthday party he suffered dreadfully before dying in the most appalling circumstances some twelve hours later. His early death changed the course of history in England because the House of Stuart lost its one and only chance at continuing the succession of Protestants in their line to the throne.

It was irrevocably broken because the English Whigs did not want the throne to revert to someone who was a Roman Catholic. So they passed the Act of Settlement, which meant when Queen Anne died the throne would be offered to Sophia, the Electress of Hanover, who was a granddaughter of the former King James 1.

An account of the young Duke’s death was recorded by the most popular physician up until this time, John Radcliffe.  His sad tale of the young Prince’s death, written the following morning, only serves to illustrate that even the best physicians of their day were at a complete loss to know just how to have treated the young prince. Or anyone else for that matter.

John Radcliffe (1650 – 1714) invested heavily in the future of medical practice in England by leaving all he owned to University College at Oxford on his death in 1714, the same year Queen Anne died. When he was 13 years of age he had been sent to University College, Oxford, where he graduated with a B.A. in 1669.

He embarked upon studies in anatomy, chemistry and botany and, awarded an M.A in 1672 began medical studies, obtaining his licence to practice medicine in 1675. He encouraged his patients to get plenty of fresh air and placed cooling emulsions on their skin rather than bleeding or confining them to bed in a dark and stuffy room as was the usual practice.

Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827), Doctor Botherum, the Mountebank, 1800

Word spread quickly about the effectiveness of his treatments and prospective patients were soon lining up at his door, including a certain Lady Spencer who had been ill for years while the ministrations of successive doctors had made no impression.

After three weeks in Radcliffe’s care she was up and about and because of his connection with her and her other celebrity friends, he was soon able to charge high fees. He had also treated good King William, Anne’s father. With that went the usual elevation of his importance, which would be his downfall.

A congenial fellow when he was young he was for a long time able to maintain good friendships. However the wealthier and more successful he became the greater grew his arrogance. He upset many by constantly criticizing his colleagues., which did not go down too well with the established medical profession of his day either. And, when Anne sent him a summons one evening while he was drinking in a tavern he ignored her messengers twice, declaring she had nothing but the vapours.

John Churchill by Godfrey Kneller c1700

During the seventeenth century in Europe autocratic patterns in an ever expanding world had been established by Louis XIV at Versailles. In England a very different climate began to establish itself early in the eighteenth century one that sought knowledge and a better deal for all men.

English men in powerful positions began to seek a more rational way of confronting the problems of the new century by at first trying to comprehend them.

Subsequently England’s Union with Scotland in 1707 and the formation of Great Britain opened up new avenues of wealth, which the energy of its people turned to wonderful account. Queen Anne’s greatest General was John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough. He had won the Battle of Malplaquet on the 11th September 1709 bringing both peace and stability to Europe. And, he gave England great national confidence by establishing her as a power to be reckoned with abroad.

John Churchill’s portrait by Godfrey Kneller reveals him as a sensitive, self-made man, who bore the weight of the responsibilities entrusted to him well. Perhaps more than any other English soldier in history, including the more popular Duke of Wellington.

Good Queen Anne (1702 – 1714) was so grateful to the Duke for his great service to the nation she gave him Blenheim Palace at Woodstock as a gift from the nation. While it may be considered a tad ostentatious by today’s standards, by those of its day it was considered functional, although on an enormous scale. It was a palace for a national hero.

Following the Battle of Malplaquet an advertisement in the daily newspaper announced that Queen Anne’s Dr William Read would treat wounded soldiers gratis if they brought appropriate certificates from their officers. Read, through his royal connection, mixed in the best of society and gained an enviable place within the community.

The Georgian Era in England began on horseback and ended in a railway carriage. Georgian is a term adopted by many to describe the prevailing style of architecture, interiors and decorative arts that developed in Britain after Anne’s death between c1714 and c1830. This period is marked by the reigns of the first four Kings who were named George.

Blenheim, a palace for a national hero

That the first King George actually disliked England and its people was really neither here nor there. George 1 came to the throne at that moment in history when the age-old balance between the countryside and the town was still intact.

There he stood luxuriously clad amid a traditional ceremony marked by glorious music and the ages old, but refurbished ritual,  of the royal coronation. He became the first Hanoverian sovereign of the United Kingdom.

It was reported there was very little rioting in the streets that day and recorded that only one Duke was missing from the Abbey. It was a fine twentieth day of October 1714 when George, described by one historian ‘as a frog eyed, corpulent unpleasant little man of 54’, came to the throne. George’s wife, Sophia Dorothea was not present on this, or any other occasion during his reign in England.

He had divorced and locked her up for life in the fortress castle of Dahlen in 1694, where she no doubt embroidered her life away.

George I by Godfrey Kneller 1714

Their son George Augustus loved nothing better than showing off by promenading in Hyde park at London with his friends and while he reputedly loved his mother, he also was reported to have hated his father.

The King had known for years the throne of England would be his.  He hadn’t however taken even the slightest interest in learning the language of what was to him and his people a foreign country, that amazingly now the ruler of.

He was however a triumph for the political party known as the Whigs (Lords) who by placing him on the throne, banished their opponents the Tories to wander in the wilderness of politics for the best part of a century.

The new government wanted to see the sovereign’s powers further circumscribed, as its members believed England should be ruled by a Parliament. However the role of that parliament, as they saw it, was very different to today. It was to represent the property owners, large and small, not the entire country; and as the Whigs owned most of the property they thought it was only right they should have the most power and the most say in the countries future.

They did however believe power brought with it huge responsibilities and many spent much of their life in public service taking care of an extended family, which also included their tenants and dependents. Many a nanny lived out her days after the children had grown up and left home under the protection of the Lord by whiling away her time in an attic room waited on by other staff.

We could say the new rulers thought of themselves as ‘payers of the piper’. So consequently they also believed they should be the ones ‘playing the tune’. They wanted to set in place a canon, or set of regulations, by which fashions in tastes were governed.

A so-called Rule of Taste, if you like, which was the subject of an extensive essay by John Steegman (1838-1966).

Taste is not a very satisfactory word, although it does express an immutable quality of discernment, criticism and perception as well as an active sensitiveness to temporary fashion. The existence of individuals. who believe they are endowed with such power of discernment, is not peculiar to the eighteenth century. The general agreement was its rules about what constituted ‘correct taste’.

This is, and was much more important, an alarming perception. Establishing rules to be reinforced by rulers is no mean task. There is also a tradition of obedience to those rules to be put in place, as well as for those who seek to be the rulers.

Georgian Town Houses

Assuming they would all be successful, the result was that great country and town houses were built. Pictures and fine furniture was commissioned from master craftsmen earning a good reputation for sound business and beautiful products, such as Mr Thomas Chippendale of Otway in Yorkshire, who recently moved into the town establishing a workshop and retail outlet.

Great gardens and private parks were laid out in such a manner and style they secured general approval. This in turn meant the owners of such fine estates would seldom be criticized adversely, but instead they were seen as leaders in society, which at this point in cultural developement was a very lofty position eagerly sought after by many.

The advent of better and safer building techniques, the development of sash windows with glass panes that let in more light, led to very smart town houses being built in rows throughout London and other towns whose economy was thriving.

At this point in England landownership formed a pyramid spreading out from the aristocracy down to the smallest yeoman farmer. There were roughly three categories; the peers, the gentry and the freeholders, although it was possible with extreme difficulty, plus the aid of burning ambition, to break in on these established circles through charm and wit or by using your intelligence to advantage. The people practicing medicine fell into roughly three categories as well; physicians, apothecaries and laymen.

For physicians there was a formal course in medical education now well established. Apothecaries however still mainly learned by apprenticeship and by gaining practical experience. Then there was the laity of helpers.

They consisted of those often well motivated individuals with fine humanitarian impulses, who just kept on enjoying imposing their will and ideas on others, including the poor and sick hapless patients in their parishes.

Those practicing medicine in England at this time were certainly not very successful at curing syphilis, which was absolutely raging,  morality being so loose among the general populace and aristocracy.

This is a disease that had really no respect for rank and a great many people were afflicted. The sores that were an integral aspect of the disease were covered with black silk patches, often kept in glamorous boxes around one’s neck on a chain.

Lady Mary Wortley Montague and her son

Doctors would begin however to participate in endeavouring to guide human understanding by the demystification of the marvelous and miraculous, those things that once belonged to a previous Empire of chance – the so-called ‘Acts of God’.

They believed these acts could be mastered by science and this would be achieved through fact-collection, digestion of data into tables, equations and ratios, and finally in the nineteenth century by the application of the ‘law of large numbers’. They wanted to not just look ‘heavenwards’ anymore , as they had done for centuries, from where they sought explanations when mortal afflictions struck. They wanted,  through enlightenment and scientific progress to now evolve new strategies for the future of mankind and of medicine.

Reading ancient texts would help, as civilizations such as the Egyptians and Romans, had achieved high standards of medical care. They had also known how important that cleanliness and a healthy diet was to a patient recovering from surgery.. The Roman Doctor’s achievements would not be really fully appreciated however, until our contemporary age by re-reading their discourses.

Fever by far and away was the greatest killers of the early early years of the eighteenth century in England and Europe causing about eight out of every ten deaths, especially among children. Struggling against the unknown, Doctors classified and analyzed any illness as best they could, while making keen observations about the causes, which might be numerous and complex. A cure for many of these would not be found until the next century.

The eighteenth century was a century of firsts. English writer and well-known society hostess the fashionable and well known Lady Mary Wortley Montague (1689 – 1762) boasted that she and her husband were the first Christians from Europe to journey across the Hungarian plains. He was to become ambassador to the Sultan’s court. Lady Mary was undoubtedly the first English woman to travel there clad as she was in rose coloured pantaloons and wearing rose tinted spectacles.

Lady Mary had her son inoculated against smallpox in Turkey in 1717 and her daughter on her return to England in 1721. She pioneered the idea of preventative medicine on her return to England in 1720, and against considerable opposition introduced smallpox inoculation in 1722 by convincing the Princess of Wales to secure a pardon for felons in prison, who had nothing to lose, and would submit to the operation.

After trial and error inoculation was strongly approved by the College of Physicians in 1754 and thereafter any opposition declined.

When her very controversial letters were published in London in 1763 Turkish dress became the rage. Lady Mary would later share her honours with Dr. Edward Jenner, who performed the first successful vaccination in London using cowpox, rather than smallpox as a vehicle in 1798.

Early Innoculation against smallpox, not sophisticated but very necessary

George II (1727 – 1760) like his father could not speak English.

He is little known for his affect on the development of, well anything at all really. Indeed, the only memorable moment he seems to have enjoyed was when he rose spontaneously to his feet as Handlel’s Hallelujah Chorus was sung for the first time.

This meant that he established a tradition that was honoured for over two centuries.

It was George II who invited Sir Robert Walpole, who importantly spoke German, to be his eyes and ears in parliament where his role was to listen, interpret and advise him. Sir Robert became known as his ‘prime’ minister and eventually was appointed in the role of 1st Prime Minister of England.

Poor George II had a pain in his thumb and a temper that was ungovernable. He made everyone’s life at court a complete misery. The royal physicians were clearly baffled and tried everything they could think of and more, but they could do nothing with making the King’s thumb or his temper, any better.

George II needed a 'prime' minister', one who spoke German, as he had no English. Robert Walpole had to attend parliament on his behalf, interpret events and report to him directly

The very personable and ambitious Dr. Ward had begun his career as a dry salter, a worker involved in salt making. Along the way he had become involved in a fair bit of hocus-pocus. He became a hanger on at court where his ‘drops and pill’s became the fashion among the nobility, as well as those busy laying the foundations of the future nobility, by amassing great fortunes.

He was summoned to the King’s presence to see just what he could do with the royal thumb. He was granted permission to examine it and proffer his opinion. Going against protocol he held the King’s hand firmly in his own and gave it a great wrench, so hard that the King was heard to swear as he kicked the good doctor in the shins.

Lo and behold what do you think had happened? The pain had disappeared and the King was overjoyed. The thumb had become dislocated and Ward’s clever jerk had put it right. The King was so completely thrilled with Dr. Ward that he gained the privilege of driving through St. James’s Park with him, in full view of those who may have been his detractors. In addition he was given a room in the King’s armory to treat the poor.

He was guaranteed royal protection against interference by the Royal College of Physicians and Parliament was so grateful a vote of thanks was passed in the House of Commons. A cranky King did not help anyone, let alone reform.

Some called it divine providence.

Eighteenth century English medical practice would witness many changes with charms, spells, and astrology and folk remedies remaining a major part of medicine. There were false starts, mistakes, blunders and blind alleys and true medical knowledge, like so many other disciplines of the day, continued to evolve albeit very slowly.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2011 – 2013

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