The Magazine

The Royal Touch

Physician to the Courts of Renaissance Europe.

Apr 30, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 31 • By FRANKLIN FREEMAN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Europe's Physician

The Various Life of Sir Theodore de Mayerne

by Hugh Trevor-Roper

Edited by Blair Worden

Yale, 464 pp., $35

"Truth is the criterion of historical study," wrote G.M. Trevelyan, "but its impelling motive is poetic. Its poetry consists in its being true. There we find the synthesis of the literary and scientific views of history."

Hugh Trevor-Roper's posthumous biography of Sir Theodore de Mayerne illustrates this synthesis with a style not spinning on its own metaphysical deconstructionist wheels, but a truth-seeking, straightforward, stately style, passionate but decorous. And it seeks the truth about the life and times of one of the most remarkable historical figures of whom you have probably never heard.

Sir Theodore de Mayerne (1573-1655) was court physician for France's Henry IV, England's James I and Charles I, as well as the physician, it appears, of at least half (if not more) of the nobility of Europe, hence Trevor-Roper's title. He was born of French Huguenot exiles in Geneva, where his godfather was Calvin's successor, Beza. Though his father, Louis de Mayerne (author of The General History of Spain) had literary aspirations for his son, Theodore from an early age wanted only to be a physician: "I sucked the milk of medicine in my cradle . . . nor could any advice from parents or friends ever divert my mind to any other studies."

Mayerne studied philosophy at Heidelberg, then medicine at the University of Montpellier. Through his friendships and connections made at Montpellier--"the road of patronage," Trevor-Roper calls it--he set up practice in Paris by 1597 and was soon the third royal doctor for Henry IV.

Mayerne became a very popular physician among the nobility, both Protestant and Catholic. Many of his cases involved the treatment of venereal disease. Trevor-Roper comments: "If a man was afflicted with venereal disease, he did not stand nicely upon sectarian positions." His most famous patient, in hindsight, was Armand-Jean du Plessis, bishop of Luçon, later to be known as Cardinal Richelieu.

In 1610 Henry IV was assassinated and life at court was transformed. Officially Mayerne and the other Huguenots at court were tolerated, but extreme pressure was put on them to convert to Catholicism. Mayerne had considered going to England; then, in 1611, his brother Henri was killed in Geneva by La Roche-Giffart, and the authorities in Geneva wavered. If they prosecuted the Catholic Frenchman, they feared, the Huguenots would again be persecuted. Yet a man had been slain. The new queen, Marie de Médici, and her court worked from France to secure the murderer's pardon.

Mayerne learned of this and wrote to Geneva. Trevor-Roper writes eloquently of Mayerne's righteous anger.

There is something splendid in this last glimpse of the Huguenot court-doctor, writing from the court itself, to demand that a foreign republic show no respect to persons and should disregard the letters of his queen. It shows Mayerne not in his usual guise, as a courtier, whose perfect bedside manner carried him effortlessly into the confidence of even Catholic princes, but as an Old Testament prophet, standing firmly, even arrogantly, on his own principles or interest, and defying human power. This too was a permanent part of his character.

Mayerne had been secretly negotiating with the English and, in April 1611, just after he had learned of his brother's murder, received a letter from James I asking him to be court physician. Marie de Médici let him go on the understanding that it was a temporary appointment, but both sides knew he would probably not be coming back.

Mayerne traveled to England, weathered attacks from envious doctors, built up a thriving practice, went on diplomatic trips for James, and was spied on and banned from France for carrying secret messages from the English king. He eventually tired of court life and settled in Berne. He "might declare, in his letters, that he did not meddle with affairs of state, but who could believe that? In fact, he loved to be in the centre of things; and now, once again, he was. Expelled from France [because of spying], and chary of returning to that scene of his humiliation, he discovered, in the agonizing autumn and winter of 1621-2, a new centre of activity in Switzerland," then in the throes of the Thirty Years' War.

The governments of Berne and Geneva enlisted his assistance in negotiating with King James for help to protect them from the Duke of Savoy, so Mayerne returned to England: