Engaging lives: Historic Royal Palaces and the medical humanities
By Lucy Worsley
At first glance, Hampton Court Palace seems like a fairytale, never-never land, remote from the daily grind of modern life. It’s easy to forget that for centuries it was also the everyday home and workplace of the thousands of people of all ages, many suffering from any of a wide variety of medical conditions, who worked for the various royal households. At Historic Royal Palaces (HRP, the charity that looks after Hampton Court and others), we take a hands-on approach to the medical humanities, making connections between living history and modern biomedicine, to engage our 3.3 million visitors a year with social history and science. The HRP curators’ team often works in partnership with medical specialists to find new ways of sharing research into where our attitudes and advances in modern healthcare came from. Some of our projects have been supported with Wellcome Trust funding.
In Tudor times, it was a constant challenge for physicians, barber- surgeons and apothecaries to maintain a reasonable quality of life for everyone connected with Hampton Court. Inside the palace, kitchen staff, household servants, cleaners, horsemen, gardeners and courtiers battled death, dearth and disease every day. Like today, ordinary people’s views of medicine were complicated and kept changing. New breakthroughs raised expectations, but cures could also be confusing to take, and occasionally downright dangerous. There was a relentless pursuit of the latest fashionable medical remedy. Cosmetics and miracle cures to reverse the ageing process were very popular.
Monarchs and courtiers have always been trendsetters in medicine, trying to improve pain relief by commissioning new scientific research on the human body. Henry VIII worked tirelessly with his doctors to develop a new type of bandage for his ulcerous legs. The mistresses of Charles II frantically sought to maintain their beauty in the teeth of age, pregnancy and syphilis. As the vindictive Earl of Clarendon said to his enemy Barbara Villiers, the hugely powerful royal mistress: “You too, Madam, will grow old.” Some of Barbara’s beauty secrets, Queen Mary’s tweezers and patch-box, and a host of weird Stuart beauty treatments form part of the new exhibition about the Merry Monarch’s mistresses: The Wild, the Beautiful and the Damned. Although Hampton Court seems timeless, the medical aspirations of its inhabitants have never stood still.
It’s in the behind-the-scenes areas of the palace that our visitors start to engage with how important it has always been to prevent disease, especially before the era of antibiotics. Cardinal Wolsey commanded the palace’s kitchen boys no longer to go naked in the heat of the fires, nor to wear the garments of “such vileness” that caused a health hazard. Schoolchildren are always entranced by the ‘gong-scourers’ whose job it was to clean out the chamber beneath the 14-seater communal toilet called the Great House of Easement, which was rather ineffectively swilled out by the moat. The Tudors did struggle hard to keep the palace clean. From the vertiginous roof of the East Front you can trace the line followed across the park by the conduit that fed Henry VIII’s bathtub, while his servants swept the courtyards every day. But in very dry or abnormally wet seasons, the monarch left the palace for fear of being infected by the inevitable waste pollution – everyday problems multiplied now by landfill, plastic bags and the environmental hazards of refuse disposal caused by population explosion.
Hampton Court’s tall twisted Tudor chimneys, with their spiral red-brick design, are unforgettable. On a cold winter’s morning, it is not difficult to imagine the sky filled with wood smoke. Smog and river fog were greeted by a cacophony of coughing from palace servants, suffering from common irritable asthmatic and bronchial conditions. Arthritis was widespread too, in the bone-chilling, damp weather. Ask the HRP curators today what it is really like to work in parts of the palace with no central heating and they will tell you: “It is freezing in winter, boiling hot in summer; the wind whistles round the corner and down the chimney.” Yet it was those fireplaces that saved the lives of countless children born at court, and only in the royal household were there the resources to feed so many hungry fires with so much expensive wood. Cleanliness in childbirth was a vital aspect of basic healthcare provision, and women of the Tudor birthing chamber heated the essential hot water as labour commenced. It is striking to think that in the modern world, in the minute it takes you to read this paragraph, a woman will have died somewhere in the world because she lacks access to the same facilities.
The recent re-creation of the Tudor Garden in Chapel Court produces a wide variety of medicinal plants, still used in curative recipes by the food archaeologists working in the palace kitchens. Bee-keeping was therapeutic too. Sixteenth-century honey was consumed as a diet supplement for supple joints. It alleviated common skin complaints as well as sweetening savoury food. Lavender prevented moths from nibbling at precious ornate garments, and it was also a sleep remedy, relaxing courtiers anxious about the vicious gossip and political backbiting at Court. A few drops of lavender oil on a pillow was a sure way to ease a headache, as was taking willow bark, which we know today in the form of aspirin, one of the best-selling products available over the counter in pharmacies around the world.
At Tudor Hampton Court, the medical regime was holistic. This was because good diet, regular exercise and a positive mental attitude were the first line of defence against ill- health. Doctors had to be skilled in storytelling when symptoms were baffling and often beyond the scope of medical science: they literally talked their patients back into health. What fascinates palace visitors is that this holistic style of medical care seems to have many psychological benefits relevant to modern audiences. Apart from the courtiers, who came and went with the seasons, Hampton Court was home to a tight community of ordinary people, the servants who served there all year round. The Tudor household as a social unit cared for its members during life’s ups and downs. The physical labour may have been hard, but the palace was also a social space that created a sense of belonging. Few were lonely for long, whether they were able-bodied or disabled; everyone had a part to play – themes we have been exploring through public engagement projects over the last four years.
In this issue of Wellcome History, the All the King’s Fools project reports on how people with learning disabilities were seen as ‘natural fools’ who brought the medicine of mirth and healing powers of music to courtly life. The new research has highlighted how such people lived with disability in the past. They were not always locked away or made to feel socially isolated. Mental ill-health was likewise not seen as a personal failure or taboo subject: many modern patients report feeling alone and embarrassed by a sense of failure, in ways that would have surprised people in the past. Thanks to research on debility and disability, modern audiences can find out about ways in which people in the past learned to cope with life’s vagaries – not necessarily better, but different, manageable ways that seem relevant to current debates about happiness and wellbeing in busy, stressed times.
Hampton Court turns out to be somewhere that the past and present can converse in unexpected ways. Later in this issue you will read about A Little Neck, a re-enactment of the life of Anne Boleyn and her medical predicaments, sponsored by the Wellcome Trust. Her failure to produce a boy placed those who managed her medical care in genuine ethical difficulties. They had to compromise patient confidentiality when she miscarried. In a political world in which a Queen was expected to perform her traditional role of reproducing a healthy male heir to the throne, Anne’s chief physician owed his primary allegiance to the King. But rather than invite our visitors to simply listen to that ethical dilemma and dismiss it as irrelevant to their lives, we worked with an immersive theatre company called Goat and Monkey to try to create a more engaging exchange of ideas.
Today, people want to play their part in historical drama – whether by dressing up in the velvet gowns offered to every visitor or by parading with the actors from Chapel Royal to the actual birthing rooms to see the spot where a Queen might meet her medical nemesis. Our visitors tell us how much they enjoy being immersed in the real-life dilemmas of people’s lives, developing empathy for those in unenviable ethical predicaments.
At Historic Royal Palaces, we cannot re-create the past in the present. Nor would many people want to, when it sometimes involved being beheaded! But it is possible to dig deeper into the places where medical history happened, to see it with fresh eyes, and above all, to learn its lessons. And that is worth celebrating, for history without people’s stories is flat – they are the bubbles in the champagne.