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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Tyler

How illness at four key points affected history

I am sat in my flat with Covid. Not ill, but can't go out. However, with the weather outside being what it is, I don't wish to anyway!

So thinking about illness reminded me of one book and four occasions linking a famous person's ill health with their decision making.

The book is, former British Foreign Secretary, David Owen's 'In Sickness and in Power'. One of my four examples is culled from Owen's book - Anthony Eden and Suez. My other three in chronological order are Judge Jeffreys and The Bloody Assize, Napoleon and Waterloo, and Roosevelt and Yalta.

Judge George Jeffreys - The Hanging Judge.

Jeffreys was a Welshman, born near Wrexham in 1645. He was educated at Shrewsbury and Cambridge, although he left the latter after just a year in order to study for the Bar in London.

His fame/infamy came towards the end of his life when he sat in judgment in The South West over the fate of the Monmouth Rebels. So draconian in his sentencing and in his general attitude that the Assizes became known as 'The Bloody Assizes'. The name still resonates in Somerset and Dorset to this day.

However, one little known or appreciated fact is that whilst sitting at the Assizes in Bristol sometime previously, when he was sat on the Bench with The Lord Mayor of Bristol, Jeffreys ordered the Lord Mayor into the dock and promptly found him guilty of kidnapping his fellow citizens and sending them on slave ships to The West Indies. The Lord Mayor was fined the staggering sum of £1000. If I, as a Bristolian, was to be provocative I might suggest replacing the Colston statue with one of Jeffreys, but as I said above memory runs long and deep in The West Country and there would be massive objection. Yet the question remains as to why one man could act on separate occasions in so different a manner. One contemporary lawyer suggest that Jeffreys judgments were not out of step with either the law or the actions of his fellow judges - the difference being only the deep resentment in The West after The Monmouth Rebellion.

The answer to this conundrum is that Jeffreys, through much of his life, suffered from kidney trouble; made worse by doctors' advice to kill the pain with alcohol, leading some historians to believe that by the time of The Bloody Assizes he had become an alcoholic.

What is certain is that he died of kidney failure in The Tower shortly after being caught trying to make his escape to the continent, following the collapse of James II's regime. The place where he was caught can be visited today for it was on the steps leading to the river, by the side of a Wapping pub, The Town of Ramsgate (earlier called The Red Cow).

Napoleon at Waterloo

At what is to prove Napoleon's final act on the world stage, his defeat at Waterloo. it appears that he was suffering from haemorrhoids or cystitis or a mix of troubles, including constipation. In short he was so ill that his judgment was affected. Many British historians dismiss all this as French attempts to keep the gloss on his memory, and to find excuses for his failure of generalship. Earlier in the Waterloo campaign Napoleon seems to have been in good health, although that does not mean that he wasn't ill on the crucial day of 18th June 1815. For his ongoing but not permanent condition he was prescribed leeches, one historian believes 25 leeches were applied to him on the 17th. The battle was delayed, argue his defenders, because of Napoleon's incapacity to ride. And it was that delay that cost him victory, for the Prussians would not have arrived in time to save Wellington. Andrew Roberts disagrees and says that Napoleon was on horseback by 8am.

As ever with Napoleon the truth is shrouded in mystery and historians have a choice of choosing between conflicting contemporary accounts.

FDR (Roosevelt) at Yalta

As Diana Preston writes in 'Eight Days at Yalta'. 'Some have suggested that the terminal ill health of Roosevelt and the war-weariness of an ailing Churchill may have contributed to their failure to achieve more at Yalta for Eastern Europe and been a factor in their naivety in trusting Stalin to keep those agreements they made'.

Hopefully not a mistake Western leaders will be making over Putin.

Roosevelt had been paralysed by polio since the age of 21 but by 1945 he was visibly failing, almost on a daily basis. He was suffering from high blood pressure, an enlarged heart, chronic sinusitis, headaches, insomnia and, like Napoleon before him, haemorrhoids. In fact his heart condition was becoming a great concern to his personal doctor at Yalta. Everyone was aware of his failing health. They could hardly be unaware, although Churchill appeared less than sympathetic, saying 'The President is behaving very badly. He won't take any interest in what we are trying to do'. Well, it wasn't so much a case of 'won't' but' can't'.

FDR was dead by 12th April 1945, the Conference at Yalta having ended a couple of months before. He was only 63 when he died of a cerebral haemorrhage.

Anthony Eden and Suez

Anthony Eden looked the part when he succeeded Churchill as Prime Minister in April 1955, but he was now a fading matinee idol, and his MC which had been gained in the long ago First World War. Moreover, he had always been best as a number 2 and now he was not in the best of health either. Furthermore he was haunted by his earlier pre-war support for Appeasement and had no experience of anything other than Foreign Affairs.

Thus when President Nasser nationalised The Suez Canal in July 1956 Eden went into overdrive, joining France and Israel in an ill advised attack on Egypt. He dealt behind France's back with Israel, failed to secure necessary loans from The IMF (as France did), failed to keep the Americans informed, and did not carry the Opposition, and probably the majority of the electorate, with him. Even Churchill was later to say that he wouldn't have done it, but if he had he would have gone through with it. Not a bad summing up of Eden's failure.

Eden was ill before Suez, during it, and after it. His first serious illness was in 1953 when he had two botched operations for his gall bladder that left him with a damaged bile duct, for which he had a third operation in The States. All because he refused to accept the advice of his doctors as to the surgeon he should have had for the gall bladder operation. Outwardly he recovered from these operations but was left permanently tired and ill, taking a mixture of drugs to keep going and taking morphine for the pain. When the debacle over the Suez Crisis was over, Eden went on a Caribbean cruise to restore his health (His cabin steward was later Deputy PM, John Prescott).

All in all a sad episode with which to end Eden's career for it marked the beginning of the final end of The Empire. On January 9th 1957 he was forced to resign. He lived on for another twenty years a defeated and largely forgotten man.

David Owen says interestingly, '.....if Eden had been in robust health, the evidence suggests to me that he would have rejected such a course'. Owen concludes his essay on Eden and Suez by writing, 'Eden in October and November 1956 had to make critical judgements hour by hour, while courageously struggling with a serious illness. In some of these decisions he showed the careful consideration on which his great reputation deservedly rested. Yet in relation to three crucial decisions - to collude with Israel, to mislead the American President and to lie to the House of Commons, even after the invasion - his judgement was seriously impaired and his illness and treatment made the major contribution to that impairment'. So writes David Owen, one time Foreign Secretary and a medical doctor.

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19 feb 2022

Hi William, I hope your Covid cough has gone away and you are completely well. Didn't Churchill have health issues that he tried to hide? Did that affect any important decisions he made?

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