Sunday, February 7, 2016

Henry of Monmouth and the Battle of Shrewsbury: a miracle of medieval surgery.

by Anne O'Brien

A subject not for the faint-hearted.

Henry of Monmouth, eldest son of King Henry IV, 16 years old and Prince of Wales, showed his future calibre as a military leader in the Battle of Shrewsbury, fought on 21st July 1403, to prevent Harry Percy known as 'Hotspur' from joining forces with Owain Glyn Dwr in an attempt to oust Henry IV from the throne.

The Prince fought bravely against the depredations of the Cheshire archers under Hotspur's banner, despite receiving a severe wound to the face.  Refusing to leave the field, it is said that the Prince declared that he would rather die than stain his newly won reputation by flight. 'Lead me thus wounded to the front line so that I may, as a prince should, kindle our fighting men with deeds not words.'

This is the battlefield at Shrewsbury today, looking fairly peaceful in summer sunshine.  Peas and beans are still grown in some of the fields, just as they were on the day of the battle.

He continued to lead the fierce fighting that lasted until nightfall, by which time Hotspur was dead and his uncle the Earl of Worcester a prisoner and later to be executed.  The rebellion that could have cast England into a full scale civil war, and certainly change the course of English history since the plan was to partition England into three in the hands of the Percy family, Glyn Dwr and Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March, was over.

After the battle, King Henry had a church built, so it is said, on the site of a mass grave into which about 1,500 of the dead were buried.  This is the Battlefield Church today.  It is no longer used, but the key is available for those who wish to visit - well worth it.

But the pain and trauma of battle was not over by a long way for Prince Henry who was taken to Kenilworth Castle.  He was fortunate to survive the battle: now he had to survive the aftermath of medical treatment.

The arrow that had struck Henry in the face at the side of his nose had to be removed.  The shaft caused no problems but the arrowhead remained embedded 6 inches deep into the bone at the back of his skull.  Impossible to reach, impossible to remove.  Various drinks and cures were advised by 'wise leeches' but of course all failed.  It was due to the original thinking of King Henry IV's surgeon John Bradmore that the prince was saved.  We are fortunate that Bradmore later wrote a book entitled Philomena to explain the revolutionary treatment that he devised to save the prince.

The squeamish can bow out here.

Bradmore, an interesting man in his own right and a convicted coiner, devised a pair of hollow tongs the width of the arrowhead with a screw thread at the end of each arm and a separate screw running though the centre, but first the wound had to be enlarged and deepened before the tongs could be inserted to grip the arrowhead.  This was done by  means of increasingly large and long probes made from dried elder twigs stitched into purified linen cloth and infused with rose honey.  Then, when the wound had been gradually widened and deepened so that he could reach the arrow head, the tongs were applied at the same angle as the arrowhead, manoeuvring the screw into the socket of the arrowhead.  'Then, moving it to and fro, little by little with the help of God I extracted the arrowhead.'

This did not end the problem.  Bradmore must deal with the gaping wound in Henry' cheek, and prevent infection.  This he did by first cleansing the wound, by washing it out with white wine, then packing it with wads of flax soaked in bread sops, barley, honey and turpentine oil.  These were replaced every two days with shorter wads until on the twentieth day Bradmore was able to announce that the wound was perfectly well cleansed.  A final application of 'dark ointment' was applied to regenerate the flesh.  This ointment Unguentium Nervale he considered to be 'good for chilled nerves and sinews.'  Meanwhile to prevent seizures, which Bradmore considered a possibility (it is thought that this may have been a fear of tetanus setting in), he applied medicines to the prince's neck to loosen the muscles.

It is difficult to imagine the pain that Prince Henry withstood.  The properties of henbane and hemlock were understood to dull pain, but this wound and its treatment must have been excruciating for the young man.  It was also a miracle in that he was able to avoid septicaemia afterwards.

Bradmore was well rewarded for his work. He was paid 40s for medicines provided to the king’s household in 1403 and granted an annuity of ten marks for his successful treatment of the prince. He was made Searcher of the Port of London in 1408.  He continued to use his skills for King Henry IV and Prince Henry until his death in 1412.

As for Prince Henry, he must have been horribly scared by the wound and the procedure.  Interestingly no mention of it was made by contemporaries, even at a time when battle-scars were honourable things to have.  It may of course account for the unusual profile portrait of Henry V, painted at some time after his coronation in 1413.  No scars here!

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My new novel of Joanna of Navarre, The Queen's Choice, includes the Battle of Shrewsbury, King Henry and the Prince.
#histfic #Lancaster #Plantagenet #EHFA
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  1. Ouch! But this doctor clearly had some ideas about keeping his equipment clean. And just as well, too - I wonder what would have happened if he hadn't been able to save the prince!

  2. He was SO lucky to have survived. Too easy to have secondary complications. I cringe thinking of the pain.

  3. Ouch - I shouldn't have read this during my afternoon tea break. It's astonishing that he wasn't brain-damaged. The honey would have been very effective as an antiseptic.


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