Europe’s Physician: The Various Life of Sir Theodore de Mayerne

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In his review of the late Hugh Trevor-Roper’s final biography, Franklin Freeman calls the subject “one of the most remarkable historical figures of whom you have probably never heard.” Indeed. We are delighted to share with you this brief introduction to the good Doctor Mayerne.

Truth is the criterion of historical study,” G.M. Trevelyan wrote, “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.”

Trevor-Roper’s posthumous biography, Europe’s Physician: The Various Life 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 Sir Theodore de Mayerne, one of the most remarkable historical figures of whom you have probably never heard. De Mayerne was court physician for France’s Henry IV, England’s James I and Charles I, as well as the physician of, it appears, at least half, if not more, of the nobility of Europe. 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, 1586) had literary aspirations for his son, Theodore de Mayerne 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 the University of 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 du Plessis, the bishop of Luçon, later to be known as Cardinal Richelieu.

In 1610 Henry IV was assassinated and life at court changed. 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 and then in 1611 his brother, Henri de Mayerne, 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 Médicis and her court worked from France to secure the murderer’s pardon.

Mayerne learned of this and wrote 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 of 1611, right after he had learned of his brother’s murder, he received a letter from James I asking him to be court physician. Marie de Médici let him go on the understanding 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 King James, was spied upon and banned from France for carrying secret messages from James. He eventually tired of court life in England and went to settle in Berne, Switzerland. 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,” which was in the throes of the Thirty-Years War.

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

Reading Mayerne’s letters to Geneva and Berne, we have the impression of a man who thoroughly enjoyed the exercise of influence and power. He is no longer merely the suave successful medical pioneer, the friend of apothecaries and surgeons: he is the masterful politician, instructing rulers and ambassadors, wielding authority, dictating policy. A servant in name only, he recommends, patronises, even commands his distant masters: for he speaks to them in the name of a greater prince, their protector, King James. So his tone of voice is peremptory.

Battle on Charles Bridge in Prague in 1648, ending the Thirty Years’ War. Painting by Petri Krohn, 2005

In 1628 the Huguenots rebelled and Richelieu determined to defeat them and did in 1629. “By 1629,” Trevor-Roper writes, “the whole concept of international Protestantism had become a chimera . . . .” Mayerne withdrew “into proud, personal reserve,” an example of “‘interior emigration.'” His first wife died in 1628, and Mayerne sent his eldest son, Henri, on a Grand Tour, preparing the ground, he thought, for a retirement to his estate in Switzerland, where he wanted to “give to the world, the works which I have long owed to it.”

But he never returned to his estate (Charles I would not let him) and he never completed the works he so aspired to.

It seems that he [Mayerne] had a psychological incapacity to complete a work. Perhaps he had been made to publish his first book—[a] little guidebook to Europe which he had written as an undergraduate—too soon. Often he would speak of his plans to publish his whole medical philosophy. Often he would begin an apparently systematic treatise. But never, after his Apologia of 1603 [his self-defense against the University of Paris], would he give anything of his own to the press . . . . Like many men of encyclopedic ambitions, he lacked the architectonic faculty. He was conscious of having a philosophy, but he could not organize it into a coherent form.

In 1620, when he was forty-seven, no one is sure exactly why, Mayerne took up the study of art, eventually producing, based on written sources and consultations with artists, including Rubens, who painted his portrait in 1629, what art historians call “the Mayerne manuscript.” Trevor-Roper describes it as “an indispensable document in the history of Baroque painting, and indeed in the technique of oil-painting from the time of the Flemish primitives to the time of Rubens.”

“But to what end?” Trevor-Roper asks in one his most searching passages about Mayerne, this study of art?

He was not himself an artist or a craftsman: he did not intend to exercise the arts which he studied. It is difficult to detect an economic motive in this case. Rather, it seems that he was animated by a real thirst for knowledge and a desire to leave a record of the chemical discoveries to which he had been inspired by the teaching of Paracelsus, and which he had not realized in both medicine and the arts. He would write a book. It was the doomed ambition of his life.

Doomed also was Mayerne’s desire to leave behind a dynasty living on his estate in Berne. Both of his sons, one of whom he wanted to become a gentleman farmer, the other whom he wanted to become a physician, rebelled, lived dissolute lives, and died in their mid-20s. Mayerne blamed his wife’s lenient Dutch family, but Trevor-Roper writes, “We may see it . . . as Nature’s revenge against a powerful and exacting father, and we may note that he was not the only great Huguenot individualist to suffer this revenge . . . . It is the syndrome of the puritan hero’s rebel son.”

The book’s last paragraph, summing up Mayerne’s final days and the “melancholy tale” of how his possessions and legacy were fought over, rises to a unique blend of eloquence and intelligence:

Thus were Mayerne’s hopes thwarted, his fortune dispersed, his writings overlooked and then inadequately published. By the end of the century, more than his belongings had suffered decline or neglect. The shaping influences of his thought and outlook had disappeared. The Calvinist militancy and the ideological confrontations of the era of the wars of religion were over; and the Paracelsian and Hermetic ideas which in Mayerne’s time had prompted innovative thought and practical experiment had become, in the scientific revolution, separated from it and discredited by it. Mayerne’s mental world had passed.


Franklin Freeman is a freelance writer. A longer version of this article appeared in the Weekly Standard. You may reach the author at frankfreeman@maine.rr.com.