Oliver Cromwell’s Migraine


Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658) by unknown artist. Reproduced courtesy of BBC Your Paintings. http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/paintings/oliver-cromwell-15991658-62668

On 23 March 1657, representatives of Oliver Cromwell and Cardinal Mazarin of France signed the Treaty of Paris, a surprising and uneasy alliance that would unite the two countries against Spain. In the weeks before the agreement, however, Cromwell had not been well: ‘Cromwell has a vertigo or migraine in his head, and fell twice on Sunday week’, correspondence from France revealed. The letter gave further hints about Cromwell’s mood at the time. He had ‘reproached several army officers for ingratitude and deserting their principles, saying they should eitther stick to him or lay down their commissions, which 9 did’.

Oliver Cromwell is one of the most important and most divisive characters in British history, remembered in different times and places for naked ambition, tyrannical villainy, as a radical puritan, national hero, brutal conqueror of Ireland, architect of regicide. I found this tantalising glimpse of migraine’s involvement in the highest of diplomatic stakes while browsing State Papers (institutional subscription unfortunately required) at the National Archives last week.

Medical historians are often tempted to speculate on the way a famous historical figure’s illnesses may have affected their role in history. Details of Cromwell’s medical life have led to suggestions that Cromwell suffered with what would now be termed manic depression. In his twenties he visited Wellingborough to take the waters for stomach cramp, and historians have often quoted the papers of the London physician Sir Theodore Turquet de Mayerne, which indicate that Cromwell sought treatment in 1628, and was described as valde melancolicus (literally: ‘greatly sorrowful). During Scottish military campaigns in 1651 he suffered from fever and dysentery. In 1655 the Venetian ambassador described Cromwell as ‘pulled in appearance, with signs that his health is not stable and perfect’. The rumour that his death resulted not from a decline in health, but from from poisoning has been the subject of a book.

This very briefest of mentions from the State Papers is enough to add a new element to our knowledge of Cromwell’s health, and inaugurate him into the annals of well-known and historical migraineurs, a list that includes Vincent van Gogh, Lewis Carroll, Thomas Jefferson, Julius Caesar, Charles Darwin, Virginia Woolfe, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Elvis Presley.

But what really interests me about Cromwell’s migraine is not whether it adds anything to our understanding of the personal demons that may have driven Cromwell (I personally don’t think it does) but the telling phrase ‘vertigo or migraine’ in the letter. In a previous post I was struck by how very modern William Dunbar’s fifteenth-century poetic description of migraine appears. But here, in the seventeenth-century, Cromwell’s migraine is associated with vertigo, in a way that suggests the distinction was not at all clear. In 1668, Jean Feyens’ New and Needful Treatise of Spirits and Wind Offending Man’s Body explained ‘the vertigo or megrim is when the head seems to turn round. The Scotoma is, when there is not only a turning round, but a mist before the eyes. Both are from divers causes’. An anonymous early seventeenth-century pamphlet The Admirable Vertue, Property and Operation of the Quintessence of Rosemary flowers recommended people ‘that are subject to Melancholy, Lethargie, Megrim, Lunacie, Vertigo, Apoplexie, and any other infirmities that come to the head by reason of humiditie and coldnes’ to take one or two drops in broth or good wine.

In these writings we have lost the humoural specificity of earlier writings that explained head pain, but instead we have much more of a sense of migraine being allied to other more general disorders of the senses including what Feyens called scotoma, which implicated the sight as well. Francis Bacon’s Natural History (1627) explained that ‘in every Megrim, or Vertige, there is an Obtenebration joyned with a Semblance of Turning round; Which we see also in the lighter Sort of Swonnings’.

So, if Cromwell’s migraine tells us very little about the man, it does reinforce an important point about the way that medical knowledge about disorders changes over time: it diverges, incorporates new elements, goes off on tangents. Knowledge does not necessarily advance in a logical way.


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