BJHS, 1998, 31, 1▒19

Patronage and power: the College of Physicians

and the Jacobean court.





Poe's (sometimes spelled Po) «rst appearance in the Annals is dated 5 December 1589.

Between that date and 1609, he made dozens more appearances in the records, each of

which con«rms that he was not going to be easy to control and that the College held him

in the deepest contempt. Following his initial appearance, the College's judgement, given

on 18 December 1589, was that Poe was `ignorant and completely unlearned in every

respect╝and [he was] forbidden to practice '.%' Had Poe suffered the fate of many others

who appeared before the Comitia without the support of patrons the case might have

ended there and his name have been heard no more. However, Poe's patrons stepped

forward and the Annals record that at `the intervention of Mr. North and that most noble

man the Earl of Essex on his behalf [Poe was] excused the payment of all «nes for his

42 Trevor-Roper, op. cit. (5), 91.

43 Annals, op. cit. (1), ii, 26.

44 Annals, op. cit. (1), ii, 91.

45 J. Shackleford, op. cit. (25), 102.

46 Annals, op. cit. (1), ii, 62.

Patronage and power 11

previous practice '.%( The ban, it should be remembered, applied only to London and seven

miles around.

On 18 May 1590 Poe appeared before the Comitia again, this time described as a `deacon

of Lincoln' (in which case he may already have possessed what in the eyes of the College

would have been a limited licence to practise, issued to him by the diocese of Lincoln)

seeking `a licence to practise in the French disease, in fevers and in rheumatism'.%) In

applying for such a licence Poe was dutifully abiding by the College statutes, but the

College was unimpressed, perhaps because the treatment of venereal diseases was usually

the preserve of surgeons. `He was examined', the Annals tell us, `and found to be a

completely ignorant man'. However, `at the instance [sic] and petition of certain people

his previous illegal practice was overlooked and the «ne due was remitted on condition that

he did not practise any part of medicine in the future '.%*

It was during the next meeting of the Comitia, on 30 June 1590, that problems arose for

Thomas Moffet. It was `held in Dr. Muffett's house after a splendid feast ' and `a letter

from the Earl of Essex on behalf of Leonard Poe was read'.

The letters exchanged between the College and Essex are worth quoting at length as not

only do they indicate the interests, frustrations and tensions of both parties, they also

illustrate the risky nature of patronage brokerage. The Earl's letter opens with the

customary formal greetings and continues:

At the earnest request of some good freends, I entertained not long ago, this Bearer Mr. Po to be

one of my phisitions, since which Time, I heare that he hath been molested and often called in

question by you for his privat practising vpon his freends, and some matters (which have been

vntruely suggested) laid to his charge.&!

Clearly, if the Earl was aware of the College statutes (which is uncertain) he did not

think they applied to physicians who practised privately on their friends. He continues:

Whereof I vnderstand he hath and can discharge himself by very good proof as also that his

sufficiency, for the cures of diuers diseases hath manie ways appeared, by soondrie good


As of March 1590 the only testimonies recorded in the Annals on Poe's behalf are those

of Mr North, Mr Oliver `the Earle of Essex's man', Captain Bradbone, Mrs Gournie, Mr

Ward and Mr Pemberton. In addition, he had cured conditions such as loss of hearing,

`gonorrhe', melancholy, the falling sickness and various fevers. The Earl continues:

These are therfore to very earnestly to praie you that you will not only to ceasse to trooble him

hereafter, for emploieng his skill and trauell to the bene«t and good of freends, who have a

particular desire to deale with him: But also to graunt him such Toleration: as yow haue in like

cases geven to some of lesse experience and desert, and I shall accompt my self much beholding

to yow for the same.&"

Just what constituted a `Toleration' is not clear from the Annals, but it may have been

some kind of de facto ` private ' licence which the College was able to issue at its discretion.

47 Annals, op. cit. (1), ii, 62.

48 Annals, op. cit. (1), ii, 66.

49 Annals, op. cit. (1), ii, 66.

50 Annals, op. cit. (1), ii, 66.

51 Annals, op. cit. (1), ii, 72.

12 Frances Dawbarn

The Earl clearly believed that this was so, or perhaps was informed by Poe that it was;

however, the Annals are remarkably silent about other cases in which similar `Tolerations'

were granted, and indeed describe the existence of any such licence as a `manifest


I am perswaded [the Earl's letter continues] that my phisition Mr. Dr. Muffet, is so well

acquainted with him [Poe], as his Information of his sufficiency (wherewith he hath already with

his letters acquainted Mr. President) you will graunt him this curtesie for my sake. Thus I commit

you to god. From the Court the 20th Maie 1590. You verie loving freend. R. Essex.&$

It seems that Poe, knowing Moffet to be a favoured client of the Earl, was prompted to

ask him to act as an intermediary between himself and the College. By his actions as a

patronage broker, Moffet had not only declared his interest in the career of Leonard Poe,

and his opinion of him as a physician (` his sufficiency'), but had also passed his opinion

on to the President, something which the Earl, not unreasonably, thought might in»uence

the decision of the College. Moffet's action as a broker and client of the Earl, compromised

his allegiance to the College, and caused embarrassment not only to him but to the College

President and Comitia. He may have been relieved that they had dined so splendidly before

reading the letter. A reply, dated the same day, was duly sent from the College to the Earl

of Essex:

Right honourable and verie good Lord. It hath pleased your honour to write vnto us in the behalf

of Leonard Po for his quiet practise and Tolleration in physick. And for that we perceaue by your

Lords letter there hath been a moste vntrue Information deliuered unto you as well touching the

man: as also of our proceeding towardes him and the like : We are humblie to intreat your honor

that it would please you to reseaue a truth by this our Testimoniall sent from the whole body of

the College. Touching the man, for that we were willing in regard of your Lord to have shewed

him what favour we coold, so far foorth the other wholsome laws of this Realme, made for the

preseruation of her Maiesties subiects in that behalfe: or the due regard of our oth and conscience

woold have permitted: we caused him to be called to our ordinary examinations wherein in very

truth we found him so vtterly ignorant and vnfurnished not only in all the partes of Physick: but

also in all other knowledge there vnto appertaining, as vpon our credit we never remember so

weak a man to have appeared before us.

Thus far the College asked nothing of the Earl other than he heed their opinion of Poe

based upon their examination of him. They invoke not only the `wholesome laws of this

Realme' but also their `oth and conscience' as physicians and point out that Poe has not

been subjected to any questioning other than `ordinary examinations'. That they ignore

the request for Poe to be allowed `quiet [that is, private] practise ' is an indication of the

seriousness of the College's attempt to monitor and regulate the practice of medicine in

London, wherever and however it was carried out. It also suggests that no such thing as

a `Toleration' existed. The letter continues:

And albeit Mr. Muffet in respect of his dutie to your Lord had before indeed something delt with

vs in his behalf by letter : Yet being present at his examination and hearing his unexpected

weakness in so meane matters as were propounded vnto him: was very much abasshed and sorie,

that he had been woon to deale in so bad a matter.

Having run the risks of patronage brokerage, which must have been included among his

` dutie[s] ' to the Earl, and emerged rather the worse for wear, Moffet, `abasshed and sorie '

52 Annals, op. cit. (1), ii, 67.

53 Annals, op. cit. (1), ii, 67.

Patronage and power 13

was nevertheless rescued by his senior colleagues, who perhaps found his conduct not

unsurprising given his opinion on the matter of the empiric, mentioned above. The letter

continues, indignantly con«rming the College's opinion of Poe by revealing that he had lied

in order to further his cause:

Touching our selues and our dealings, Whereas the said Po, hath insinuated to your Lord that we

have graunted the like Tolleration in the like cases, to some of lesse experience, and desert then

him self : We coold wish that the man had rather vsed any other meanes to have furthered his

Ignourance and weaknes, then so muche to have abused so honourable personage with so

manifest vntruthes.&%

What impresses about the remainder of this reply is that whilst still insisting upon Poe's

`Ignourance and weaknes' and expressing horror and outrage at the abuse of ` so

honourable personage' as the Earl, the College's overiding concern is to remind Essex of

its professional and legal standing, and its statutory right to examine and fail Poe. They

refer again to their oath (`the straightness of our oth') as physicians, and appeal to the

`good and discreet ' Lawes of the Realme which `haue provided╝that╝none suche [as

Poe] shoold be permitted'. And whilst invoking the power of the Statutes of the College,

they come very close to telling the Earl to mind his own business: `we most humblie

beseech your honour to pardon us: and leaue the matter to the good order and discreet

coorse of our Lawes╝in all matters meerly remaying in our power'. And concealed as

indignation at Poe's effrontery is their astonishment that Essex should have chosen ` so

vtterly ignorant' an individual for his physician.

After two years of attrition, during which a further letter was sent from the Earl, which

`tooke╝little effect'&& judging by the steadfast refusal of the College to license Poe, the

outcome was, however, a triumph for patronage. Aided by the Earl, Poe marshalled his

forces and a copy of the following letter was sent to the College:

Whereas we haue receauid sufficient testimony from diuers gent and others of qualitie, of the

excellent knowledge which Leonard Po: a Practisioner in Phisick hath by long endevour and

experience attained vnto: and of the fortunat successe wherewith god hath blessed him in curing

manie greefs and daungerous Diseases, which some of the like qualitie maligning indevour to

inhibit and impeach his honest trauels vndertaken by him for the perservation of her Maiesties

subiectes in health and strength of their bodies. Whereof also there appeareth verie honourable

aprobation. Thies are to require you, and everie of you to whome it maie in any sort appertaine

to permit and suffer the said Leonard Poe quietlie to exercise the said practise of Phisick, that

those good parts wherewith he is endued, maie not be obscured, but that he maie vse the same

to his owne commendacion and the bene«t of such as shall haue need of his assistance. Whereof

you maie not faile, as you, and everie of yow will answer to the contrary at your utmost perill.

From the Court at Whitehall, the last of Februarie 1592.

To the whole College and Societie of Phisitions, within the citie of London, or els where: and to

all Maiors, Sherifes, Justices of the peace, Bailie«es, Constables Hedboroughs and to all others

her Maiesties officers, Ministers and louing subiects to whome it shall appertaine:

and to everie of them.

L. Archbishop Cantuar. L. Chamberlaine

L. Threw L. Cobham

L. Admiral L. Buckhurst&'

54 Annals, op. cit. (1), ii, 67.

55 Annals, op. cit. (1), ii, 79.

56 Annals, op. cit. (1), ii, 78▒9.

14 Frances Dawbarn

Neither the remarkable threat in the closing remarks of this letter, nor its elevated

recipents, were yet sufficient to de»ect the College in its dogged course of action. Having

examined Poe yet again and found him `completely ignorant' an unnamed Fellow of the

College was sent to the Earl's house with its reply so that he `could more fully explain the

case of the College to his lordship'.&( To no avail. Essex persisted in his patronage of Poe,

which indeed, over the years was shared by other eminent court «gures: Francis Bacon,&)

the Earl of Suffolk, the Earl of Salisbury (whose deathbed Poe attended) and the Earls of

Southampton and Northampton.&* He also attended the last illness of the great musician

Orlando Gibbons and performed the post-mortem.'!

During Poe's protracted and acrimonious relationship with the College many accusations

of malpractice were brought which would have «nished a man with lesser, or no patrons.

In 1598 he was accused of causing the death of `one Scull ' through the administration of

so violent a purgative that the man died of `vomiting and scouring'.'" And in 1601 he was

`blamed for the untimely death of a certain young noble man named Allen, to whom he

had given some medicine'.'# Despite these and other offences, and its considerable formal

statutory authority, the College was unable to resist the power of the court and Poe's rise

was assured.

In 1606 he was issued with a general licence to practise, whereupon, taking his new

duties extremely seriously he accused one `Owen, a surgeon, of illicit and bad practice '.'$

By 1609 Poe had become not only a Fellow of the College but a royal physician; the

signatories to the letter of recommendation for his Fellowship, sent on his behalf to the

President of the College, Sir William Paddy, include `R. Salisburye, J. Northampton,

T. Suffolk and W. Worcester'.'% In 1612, still apparently proud of his new-found authority

` [he] alleged ill practice against Dr. Dee' (Arthur, son of John Dee).'& And when in 1615

he obtained a mandate from James for an MD from Cambridge, his triumph was


Poe's case is by no means unique, although it is one of the most spectacular and lengthy,

and his list of patrons among the most impressive. Indeed the College, Poe's patrons and

Poe himself must be congratulated for their tenacity over so a long period of time! The

second case, that of Francis Anthony, was of a shorter duration, but characterized equally

impressively by patrons who were more than willing to protect their favoured client and

the physic he offered.

57 Annals, op. cit. (1), ii, 86.

58 J. E. Leary, Francis Bacon and the Politics of Science, Iowa, 1994, 50.

59 Annals of the Royal College of Physicians of London, Marlborough, 1608▒29, typescript (tr. J. Emberry,

C. Heathcote and M. Hellings), 4 vols., iii, 9.

60 DNB, xvi, 15.

61 Annals, op. cit. (1), ii, 114.

62 Annals, op. cit. (1), ii, 134▒5.

63 Annals, op. cit. (1), ii, 189.

64 Annals, op. cit. (59), iii, 9.

65 Annals, op. cit. (59), iii, 37.

66 DNB, xvi, 14.