George Bate—Cromwell's Devious Physician


L.J. Bruce-Chwatt, MD, FRCP.

Emeritus Professor of Tropical Hygiene, University of London.

Oliver Cromwell's medical history and its influence on some of his decisions and actions has been a subject of several studies. Most of them mention the ambiguous role played during the Protector's life and after his death by his personal physician, Dr George Bate (occasionally spelled Bates), undoubtedly a controversial person. This prominent medical practitioner of the time, son of John Bate of Burton in Buckinghamshire, was born in 1608 at Maids Morton in that county. At the age of 15 he became one of the clerks of New College, Oxford, was transferred thence to Queen's College and eventually entered St Edmund's Hall where he proceeded in arts. In 1629 the university awarded him the degree of Bachelor of Medicine and a licence to practise. In and around Oxford, Bate was said to be 'among precise and puritanical people, he being then taken to be one of their number.' He proceeded to Doctor of Medicine in 1637 and his reputation grew so fast that, while the Court was in Oxford, Charles I appointed him as his chief physician. On 30th September 1639 he was admitted as a candidate of the College of Physicians and on 25th June 1640 he became a Fellow of the College. He served in the office of Censor in 1645, 1648 and 1649. When, during the Civil War, the royal cause was adversely affected, Dr Bate retired to London, became physician to the Charterhouse and declared his loyalty to Cromwell.

In 1651 Cromwell was dangerously ill during the Scottish campaign; this news caused so much concern in Parliament that on May 27th Dr Bate and Dr Lawrence Wright (who was already Physician-in-Ordinary to Cromwell) received orders to proceed at once to Edinburgh to take care of the Lord General. They arrived on 30th May 1651 but in the meantime their patient had greatly improved. In a letter dated 3rd June 1651 Cromwell profusely thanked John Bradshaw, the President of the Council, for sending the two doctors. In 1653 Oliver was installed as Protector of the Commonwealth and Bate became his chief physician. Although in some circles Bate 'pretended to be a concealed royalist he flattered Cromwell in a high degree'.

Dr Bate attended Cromwell and his family for the next five years. He was called to the bed of Oliver's beloved daughter Elisabeth Claypole, who had been painfully wasting away for many months from an illness described by her physician as 'inward imposthume of the loins', probably a cancer of the uterus. She died on 6th August 1658 at the age of 29 and this was a shattering blow to her father, already worried by the increasing political difficulties of his office and by plots on his life. Some three weeks later Cromwell fell ill with intermittent fever and pains in his back. His five doctors (George Bate, Laurence Wright, Thomas Trapham, all three state physicians, together with John Bathurst and Jonathan Goddard) appear to have agreed with Bate's diagnosis of slow fever that at length degenerated into 'bastard tertian ague'. Whatever treatment was administered to their patient, Oliver's illness got worse and on the afternoon of Friday, 3rd September 1658, the Lord Protector died.

The autopsy on Cromwell's body was performed at night, barely 12 hours after death; the reasons for this haste are not known, but perhaps poison was suspected. The account of the autopsy is recorded by Bate in Latin. Lovell's translation reads as follows:

His Body being opened; in the Animal parts the Vessels of the Brain seemed to be overcharged; in the Vitals the Lungs a little inflamed; but in the Naturals the source of the distemper appeared; the Spleen, though sound to the Eye, being within filled with matter resembling the Lees of Oyl. Though his Bowels were taken out and his Body filled with Spices, wrapped in a six-fold Cerecloath, and put first into a Coffin of Lead, and then into a Wooden one, yet it purged and wrought through all so that there was a necessity of interring it before the Solemnity of the Funerals.

The results of the autopsy, as well as the symptoms of Cromwell's last illness, cast some doubts on its being of malarious origin. Recent studies incline towards septicaemia, probably caused by an impacted kidney stone, since Oliver suffered from urinary calculi throughout most of his adult life.

There is no record of the date when the hastily embalmed body, placed in a double coffin, was interred in a vault in Westminster Abbey, but it must have been a few days later. A wooden effigy dressed in a velvet suit laced with gold and trimmed with ermine was prepared for the later ceremonies of lying in state. A crown was put on its head and a sceptre and globe in its hands. The effigy lay in state at Somerset House until 23rd November 1658 when, after a solemn and magnificent funeral procession, it was placed in a mausoleum in the Abbey's Henry VII chapel. The ultimate dramatic fate of Cromwell's remains after the Restoration has been described by many historians.

But what of Cromwell's chief physician? Soon after the return of the monarchy Bate had no difficulty in persuading the King's entourage that he had always been a concealed Royalist and, to prove it, not only told in detail the story of Cromwell's last illness and his post-mortem examination, but also implied that, by a dose of medicine given to Oliver, he had hastened him to his death. He soon secured the appointment of physician to Charles II and became a Fellow of the Royal Society. In 1666 he delivered the anatomy lectures at the College of Physicians. He died at his house in Hatton Garden on 19th April 1668 and was buried at Kingston-on-Thames by the side of his wife Elizabeth who had pre-deceased him by one year. This date of death is inscribed on the small plaque attached to the monumental and ornate tablet on the south wall of the church of All Saints at Kingston-on-Thames. Other authorities give the year of his death as 1669.

Dr Bate's most important written work, as far as Cromwell's life is concerned, was his Elenchus Motuum Nuperorum in Anglia. The bibliography of this book is singularly obscure. Much of the Latin text is based on Bate's previous work The Royal Apologie or the Declaration of the Commons in Parliament published in Paris and London in 1648. This book defends the King in his quarrel with Parliament.

The first Latin text of Elenchus was published in Paris in 1649 under the pseudonym Theodorus Veridicus; an English text was printed in 1649 in London. A French translation Abbregé de derniers mouvements d'Angleterre Aves un raisonnement succinct des droits tant du Roy, que du Parlement was published in 1651 in Antwerp, and in 1652 the second English translation appeared in London: A Compendious Narrative of the late Troubles in England; or Elenchus Englished. First written in Latin by an Anonymous, for the information of Forreners and, now, done into English for the behoof and Pleasure of our Country-men.

The two parts in the original Latin were published in London in 1661 and 1663: Elenchi motuum nuperorum in Anglia pars Prima simul ac juris Regii ac Parlamentarii brevis enarratio . . . recognita et aucta . . . anno 1660; Elenchi pars secundo: simul ac Regis effugii mirabilis e praelio Wigorniae Elarratio.

A new and expanded text appeared 25 years later: Elenchus motuum nuperorurn in Anglia; or a Short and Historical Account of the rise and progress of the late Troubles in England. In two parts, written in Latin by Dr George Bates . . . Motus compositi; or, the History of the composing the Affairs of England by the Restoration of K. Charles the Second . . . and other principal occurrents to the year 1669. Written in Latin by Tho. Skinner, MD. Made English by Archibald Lovell. To which is added a Preface by a Person of Quality, etc. (3 pt. London, Abel Swalle, 1685).

The first part of the book is of particular interest, since it shows the author's Royalist sympathies at the time when he was serving Cromwell. Following the description of the execution of Charles I, Bate writes:

nor are they satisfied to have exerciced their rage and cruelty against him while he was alive; they dishonour his martyred body, wash their hands and dip their sticks in his blood; set to sale the block, cut into pieces and the sand underneath it moistened with his royal, blood and make money also of his hair. Cromwell, that he might to the full, glut his traitrous eyes with that spectacle, having opened the coffin wherein the body was carried from the scaffold into the palace curiously viewed it and with his fingers severed the head from the shoulders as we have been informed by eye-witnesses. Afterwards they gave the body to be embowelled by a rascially physician and some surgeons of the army most inveterate enemies to the very name of king (his Majesty's own servants being removed) who had orders carefully to inquire (which was the same to them as if they had commanded positively to affirm) whether he had not the venereal distemper or any signs of frigidity, with a design to take an occasion from thence of branding either himself or posterity with infamy. But that villainy was crushed in the egg by the presence of an honest physician who getting to be admitted to the dissection over-awed them by his reverence and authority; the same person having also reputed that by the healthfulness and vigour of his constitution he might have outlived most men so that all who consider the humorous temper both of his body and mind are fully now satisfied of it.

As pointed out by Peachey the 'rascally quack physician' (medicaster nebulo) was Thomas Trapham, surgeon-general to the Parliamentary army; naturally the honest physician' was Bate himself.

Moore remarks crisply that there is nothing in the Elenchus to make its author respected among contemporary politicians or of value to subsequent historians: There are some doubts as to the authorship of this work. According to Wood the second part of it was based on papers lent to Bate by Sir Edward Hyde, Lord Chancellor. Several passages in the book gave offence to the Royalists and Robert Pugh, who was a captain in the King's army, wrote strong criticism under the title Elenchús Elenchi: sive Animadversiones in Georgii Batei, Cromwelli paricidae aliquando protomedici, Elenchum Motuum nuperorum in Anglia. Parisiis, 1664. Bate made a reply to it but it was not published.

To add to this bibliographical confusion, another book was published in London in 1661 under the title: Bate (George) Royalist. The Lives, Actions, and Execution of the prime Actors, and principall Contrivers of that horrid Murder of our late pious and sacred Soveraigne King Charles the first With severall remarkable passages in the lives of others, their assistants, who died before they could be brought to justice (London, Tho. Vere, 1661)

Wood explains that, 'the author of it is not the same with the doctor but another, far inferior to him in all respects, one that had ran with the mutable times and had after his Majesty's restoration endeavoured by scribling, to gain favour of the royalists'.

George Bate's medical writings are few; he had some share in the preparation of the treatise by Francis Glisson (1650) De Rachitidae sive Morbo Puerili qui vulgo the Rickets dicitur; the author acknowledges in the title page Bate's co-operation and that by A. Regemorte. A posthumous work, Pharmacopea Bateana, published in London in 1688 and reprinted 1691, contains a large number of prescriptions collected and edited by Jack Shipton, a chemist who for twenty years prepared drugs for Bate's patients.

The brief preface to the book refers to George Bate as Caroli Secundi Magnae Britanniae Clementissimi Principis fuit Archiatrus ob Elenchi Motuum Nuperorum, in Anglia Tractrctum elegantissirawn, apud exteros etiam Clarus. From the second edition (1691) of this book an English translation was published in 1694, edited by William Salmon, professor of Physick. The preface starts with the following fulsome paragraph: 'The Original Author of this Book was the Eminent and Learned Dr Bate a man who in his Station had been Physician to Two Kings of England, and a Protector: and of such Approved Skill in his Profession that to make any Descants thereon, would be to draw a Vail over his Lustre, and blemish that Excellency, which in this following work, gives a convincing Proof, that he was one of the greatest Masters of his Art in the Universe'. This book must have been
popular, as it had several editions and translations, the last in 1776.


Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of London. Vol. 17 No. 2 April 1983.