William Clowes, Barber-Surgeon

The Queen's Barber-Surgeon

William Clowes (1544-1604)
Copyright of the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum, London, England
Personal -

Name: William Clowes

Birth Place: Kingsbury, Warwickshire

Birth Date: (early) 1544

Father: Thomas Clowes, English




(from Selected Writings of William Clowes, by F.N.L. Poynter, B.A., F.L.A, Harvey & Blythe Ltd., London, 1948)

William Clowes was born at Kingsbury in Warwickshire, the son of Thomas and the grandson of Nicholas Clowes. Earlier members of the family, which was of sufficient importance to have its own coat of arms and crest, lived at Tutbury in Staffordshire.

The Dictionary of National Biography gives the date of his birth at 1540 (?). In the 1585 edition of his book, De morbo gallico, now extremely rare, Clowes tells us at the end of his "Prayer" the he was 41 in that year. The original manuscript of this prayer is now in the British Museum and confirms that the dated inscription was written by Clowes himself and was not altered by the printer to conform with the date of publication.

The portrait in the Wellcome Museum is surmounted by a scroll with his name and the date 1543, but it must be remembered that year then began on March 25, so the last quarter of 1543 we should now call 1544. It therefore seems quite definite that Clowes was born early in 1544.

We know nothing of his schooling, but if his apprenticeship was of the usual period of seven years, he must have come to London in 1556, at the age of twelve, in order to be admitted by the Barber-Surgeon's Company as apprentice to Master George Keble. Keble was a London surgeon who also practised "physick" and throughout his life, Clowes continued to use the "...many excellent remedies...", mostly ointments and plasters, the prescriptions of which he learned from his master at this time.

Clowes must have been happy in his apprenticeship for he always wrote of Keble with gratitude and respect.

"Sure Alexander the Great," he says, "was never more bound to Aristotle his master for his lessons in philosophy than I was bound to him for giving me the first light and entrance into the knowledge of this noble are of surgery."

The most memorable event of these early years was the accession and coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1558-9 and it was probably on this occasion, when he joined the other apprentices in the streets of the City to see the young Queen, that he first experienced the fervent patriotism and personal admiration for the Sovereign to which he so often gives expression in his writing. His own career was to run parallel with her reign, and her influence and interest was to be of great service to him in his profession.

When his apprenticeship ended, in 1563, he became a surgeon in the Earl of Warwick's ill-fated army in Normandy. In the previous year, Elizabeth had signed a treaty with Conde, the leader of the French Huguenots, and had despatched this expedition to aid them in their struggle against the French King.

Meanwhile, the rival parties in France, following the capture of Rouen by the Royalist troops, had come to terms and united to thrown out the English "invaders" beseiged in Le Havre. Plague and scurvy decmitated the troops, and storms in the Channel scattered the ships which attempted to bring food and reinforcements. It must have proved a good, if hard, training ground for the young surgeon, but Clowes tells us little of this campaign, except that he learned from it that fingers are the best of instruments, and that scabbards make good splints.

Here, too, began his life-long friendship with John Banester, a fellow surgeon in the field wo was four years his senior, and for many years he kept by him the "surger chest", well fitted out and emblazoned with the Bear and Ragged Staff of Warwick's arms, with which he began his surgical career. Twenty-five years later, he had a drawing made of it for his book A Prooved Practice, but in the 1596 edition, this is replaced by the illustration of a new chest, decorated with the Royal coat of arms, which he probably acquired when he was appointed Surgeon to the Queen.

In 1564, the ragged survivors of Warwick's army returned to England, but Clowes remainded at Portsmouth and served in the Queen's ships for a number of years. In 1569, he was made free of the Barber-Surgeon's Company, but he did not immediately begin to build up a civil practice, for in the following year, we find him still in the Navy and treating a wounded boatswain in the ship Aide while she was at anchor off the French coast.

With years of experience in the Navy behind him, he was expert in treating the injuries and wounds which befall men on active service. He was also a specialist in the treatment of syphilis and, in 1576, he published a little book on this subject which carried his name to a wider circle.

On March 16th of that year, he was elected a regular assistant to St. Bartholomew's Hospital and in the following year, 1577, he was one of four surgeons responsible for the re-publication of Thomas Vicary's book on anatomy. Although the other three, William Beton, Richard Stone, and Edward Bayley, were all his seniors, Clowes' name heads the list of signatures following the dedication, probably because he composed this epistle to the President and Governors of the hospital.

Meanwhile, in January, 1576, he received an additional appointment as one of the surgeons to Christ's Hospital. The foundation for the children of the poor also took in sick children for treatment and occasionally adults were admitted. There were two visiting surgeons, of whom Clowes was now made one, and a resident "Surgeon-Apothecary". It is of some interest to those who believe the entry of women into medicine to be of recent date that at that time, the resident Surgeon-Apothecary was a certain Mrs. Cook.

Henceforward, the Queen's favour was to have a decisive influence on his career. In 1581, he was promoted from assistant to full surgeon at St. Bartholomew's Hospital, but in March 1586 he resigned, "...having been sent for by Her Majesty's commandment to go into the Low Countries to attend upon the Right Honourable Earl of Leicester, Lord Lieutenant and Captain General of Her Majesty's forces in those countries."

There was more than sufficient work for the surgeon, and as Clowes records, many perished from the attentions of the "false" surgeons who infested the camp before he had them thrown out.

The campaign dragged on miserably. In December 1587, Leicester was recalled to face an inquiry, but Clowes had returned earlier in the year.

There could have been little enough time for literary work during this prolonged campaign, but in the following May, the title of Clowes' book. A Prooved Practice, was entered in the Stationer's Register. Before its actual publication two or three months later, its author found himself with a new honour and a fresh responsiblilty on his appointment as Surgeon to the Fleet which was being made ready to ward off the threatened Spanish invasion.

The exact date when he took up the duties of this post is not known, but in the early stages it probably demanded organization and administration rather than actual service with the Fleet.

On July 18th, he was admitted a member of the Court of Assistants (Council) of the Barber-Surgeons' Company, but this occasion may not have demanded a personal visit to their Hall in the City. Twelve days later, the Armada was sighted and, in accordance with his position, Clowes must have been aboard Howard's flagship, the Ark Royal.

It is unfortunate that he has left us no personal record of the great battle which followed. By its very nature, he had few cases to deal with, but, as always in the 16th Century, epidemics broke out among the crews and the sad state of the sick and dying who were landed at Margate has been vividly described in letters which have been preserved among the State Papers.

Clowes was released from duty in September and shortly afterwards was appointed "one of the Queen's Chirurgeons." He was now 44 years of age, in the front rank of his profession, a man of great experience in the wars, "both by land and sea," and in carrying out the duties of his new office in the Company, was giving regular lectures on surgery to his junior colleagues at the Barber-Surgeons' Hall. His A Prooved Practice... was so successful, that a new edition was issued in 1591. In one of the Bishop's licenses, dated December 1594, and granded to one Thomas Hobbes, Surgeon, he (Clowes) is described as one of the "Masters of the Mystery" and examiners of the Surgeons of London. In the following year, his coat of arms, to which he had an hereditary right and which he had already reproduced on the back of the title page of the 1585 edition of his book on syphilis, was confirmed by Sir William Dethick, the Garter king-of-arms. His only son, also named William, who was to become Serjeant Surgeon to Charles I, began his apprenticeship with his father at about this time.

Clowes' Family Crest and Coat of Arms

Meanwhile, Clowes was at work enlarging and revising the text of his surgical casebook, and in 1596, this was re-published with the title A Profitable and Necessary Book of Observations. As a token of the Royal patronage which he enjoyed, the Royal coat of arms appears on the back of the title page.

The work is dedicated "To all the true professors of Chirurgerie in generall wheresoever, WILLIAM CLOWES wisheth all happiness, with much increase of knowledge in the are of Chirurgerie."

His last recorded appearance at the Barber-Surgeons' Hall was in December, 1596, and it is probably that very shortly afterwards, he took up his residence at Plaistow in Essex. This industrial suburb of London was, at that time, a pleasant country retreat, but it appears that Clowes carried on his practice there for, in his last book, the work on struma, published in 1602, he reports the case of a woman whom he treated in that same year.

"She was dwelling," he says, "in the County of Essex, three miles from my now dwelling house at Plasto, in the parish of Westham, within the said County."

This house, later to be known as Rokeby House, was in every way a suitable dwelling for the successful and prosperous surgeon who had retired to country practice. His coat of arms was elaborately carved on the handsome Tudor mantelpiece and when, within recent years, Rokeby House was demolished to make room for a cinema, this personal relic of the greatest of Elizabethan surgeons and fine example of Tudor craftsmanship was rescued intact and found its way to a Dublin museum.

As a man, Clowes was typical of his age. Energetic, ambitious and self-confident, he was quickly angered but easily reconciled. His one constant foe was the quack, "...by whom so many perish"; his one constant aim was the improvement of his profession for the "...good of the country and common wealth wherein he was bred." A devoted servant of the Queen, his patriotism was as genuine as his religious feeling.

By his untiring efforts and example, he showed himself worthy of remembrance, not only by the surgeon, but by the many who, at some time, find their lives depending on his skill.

"William Clowes" (Michael Foster)
Serjeant-Surgeon of Her Majesty's Militia
Originally created 1 February 1997
by Michael Foster