Disability at Court in Early Modern England

As the UK marks Disability History Month over the next few weeks, in today’s blog Dr Andrew Thrush, editor of our Lords 1558-1603 project, looks into the prominent early modern figures who had physical disabilities and their treatment at court…

Writing in the late 1590s to his sister-in-law, the dowager Lady Stourton, Secretary of State Sir Robert Cecil observed that it was ‘the fashion of the court and London … to laugh at all deformities’. Cecil’s young daughter, Frances, had inherited from her father a twisted spine, a condition known as scoliosis. Cecil’s back was slightly hunched and consequently his stature was shortened. (It was probably his right side that was affected, as most portraits depict him tilted slightly to his left.) Having no wish for Frances to be subjected to ridicule, Cecil paid £100 to a physician to remedy her condition.

Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury;
Unknown artist, after John De Critz the Elder; 1602; NPG 107
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Cecil was one of the leading political figures of his day. Following the death of his father Lord Burghley in 1598, he became Elizabeth I’s chief minister, a position he continued to hold under Elizabeth’s successor, James I. Nevertheless, his scoliosis made him an easy target for his political enemies, chief among them the supporters of his main rival, Robert Devereux, 2nd earl of Essex. In the late 1590s Antonio Pérez, a Spanish exile who formed part of Essex’s circle, derided Cecil as ‘microgibbus’, meaning small, rounded hump. At around the same time another of the earl’s supporters was reported to have said that it was ‘an unwholesome thing to meet a man in the morning that hath … a crooked back’. Cecil’s deformity continued to excite distaste even after his death in 1612, when he was likened by some critics to the murderous king, Richard III, whose famous hunchback was inextricably linked to his crimes in the public mind (‘… two Crookbacks of late ruled England’s helm / The one spilt the Royal blood, the other Spoiled the Realm’). One of the few men to question the spite directed at Cecil for his bodily affliction was Cecil’s cousin, Sir Francis Bacon. In an essay published shortly after Cecil’s death, Bacon argued that those who mocked the physically disabled did so at their peril. In part this was because those subjected to such ridicule had a strong motive to uncover and expose their tormentors’ weaknesses. However, it was also because those afflicted with a physical disability might easily steal a march on their able-bodied rivals, who all too often failed to take them seriously. Indeed, Bacon concluded that ‘deformity is an advantage to rising’.

The derision directed at Cecil was not confined to the secretary’s political enemies. Even Elizabeth I joined in the fun, terming Cecil her ‘pygmy’ and ‘dwarf’. Outwardly at least, Cecil claimed not to mind being thus described by the queen, but significantly he never used either term when referring to himself. By comparison, Cecil warmly embraced the epithet ‘little beagle’ conferred upon him by Elizabeth’s successor, James I. (In one letter Cecil described his fireplace as ‘a proper place for beagles’. In another, he referred to ‘honest servants and poor beagles’.) The reason for this is understandable. Beagles were associated with James’s favourite pastime, hunting, and ‘beagle’ carried none of the pejorative associations of ‘pygmy’ and ‘dwarf’. On the contrary, the word implied both energy and tenacity.

If James’s nickname for Cecil was devoid of cruelty, it is probably because James himself knew from personal experience just how hurtful ridicule based on physical disability could be. James had long suffered from extremely weak legs. He did not learn to walk until he was five, and at the age of eighteen he was still unsteady on his feet (‘his gait is bad, composed of erratic steps’). By the time he ascended the English throne he often leaned on the man next to him. James’s legs may have been weakened in infancy by rickets. Alternatively, Frederick Holmes, emeritus professor of medicine at the University of Kansas, has proposed that James suffered from an hereditary neuro-muscular disorder. Either way, the king was often happiest when he was in the saddle rather than on foot.

The future Charles I, then Duke of York, aged about five; Robert Peake; Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives via Art UK

Their shared experience of physical disability made Cecil and James kindred spirits, and this shared experience extended to their children. While Cecil tried to shield his daughter Frances from the malice of others, James similarly sought to protect his youngest son, Prince Charles (later Charles I), who was reportedly unable to walk unaided until his seventh year, having inherited his father’s weak legs and ankles. In about 1605, when Charles was still an infant, James accused one of his leading ministers, Henry Howard, earl of Northampton, of having often made ‘cruel and malicious speeches against Baby Charles and his honest father’.

Pair of reinforced boots thought to have been worn by Charles I as a child,
Museum of London A18293

Like Cecil, who turned to the physician Hugh Baylie to help his daughter, James enlisted the services of a specialist. Despite the protests of his governess Lady Carey, a pair of reinforced boots was made for Charles by the London bone-setter, Edward Stuteville. This apparently worked wonders as, according to Sir Anthony Weldon, Charles owed his ability to walk to Stuteville, ‘an excellent artist for strengthening limbs and straightening crooked bodies’. Further improvement followed the death of Charles’s older brother, Prince Henry, in 1612. Acutely aware that he was now the heir-apparent, Charles strained every muscle during his early teenage years to improve his physical strength. As a result of strenuous daily exercise, which included running around the grounds of St James’s Palace with a dozen or so of his servants and regular horse-riding (at which, like his late brother Prince Henry, he excelled), he transformed his physical health.

Charles also adapted to overcome, at least in part, another physical impediment that he had inherited from his father, whose tongue was too large for his mouth, a condition known as macroglossia. According to Weldon, James’s over-large tongue ‘ever made him speak full in the mouth, and made him drink very uncomely’. (Weldon, of course, was a hostile witness, but other contemporaries also remarked upon James’s habit of slobbering.) Evidence that Charles shared the same condition is suggested by the fact that he did not begin to speak until he was two-and-a-half. Moreover, in 1622 the Venetian ambassador remarked that the prince had ‘some impediment through the size and length of his tongue which prevents him from expressing himself freely’. This affliction explains both Charles’s well-known inclination towards brevity and his notorious speech impediment, which many historians have described, incorrectly, as a stammer. Nevertheless, as king, Charles became a lucid speaker even if he never fully overcame his dysfluency. Whether Frances Cecil, Robert Cecil’s daughter, also achieved in adulthood a similar degree of success in overcoming her physical difficulties is unclear. However, her scoliosis proved no impediment to marriage. In 1610 she wed Henry, Lord Clifford, later 5th earl of Cumberland. She subsequently gave birth to no fewer than five children.


Further reading:

F. Holmes, The Sickly Stuarts: The Medical Downfall of a Dynasty (Sutton Publishing, 2003)

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