National Library of Wales Ty Coch 22 Add. MS 836d (also known as ‘Piser Sioned’) is, like so many other early modern ‘miscellanies’ an absolute treasure trove of information. Attributed to various authors over a period of several decades, it contains everything from family records to poems, and quotes from Tyco Brahe.
In the first few pages are records of ‘unfortunate days of the year’, alongside remedies for sore tendons and records of books that the anonymous author had lent to Arthur Jones. One of my particular remedies in the book is this one:
“An approved imparabl’d medicine to eat anie overgrown film over an eye
R;/ The green part of a goose dung fresh (or at least very juicy) it will not be fitt after 16 or 24 hours, drop the juice thereof into the Eye with the dew that falls on the first, second or third day of june, wch you must provide or procure in that season. The first does the effect, the second clears the Eye, it does nt smart at all, and nothing has been found better as yet”
Needless to say that putting fresh, “green” goose dung into your eyes is probably best consigned to the book of history. Let’s just take it as read that people at the time believed it would do them good, and leave it at that!
Elsewhere in the document, however, is a record that is starkly at odds with the more generic and haphazard notes that make up the majority. It is unsigned, making it difficult to verify the allegations being made, but appears to relate to someone who has first-hand knowledge of the events being described. First taking the form of a vernacular poem, the verse is dated 1716 and headed:
“To the infamous Dr Foulks, Dr of Physick and Rector of Llanbedr in Denbighshire”.
It is worth quoting the first two verses to get a flavour of the allegations.
Thou Holy letcher thou religious cheat
How shall I halfe thy horrid guilt repeat
Now but my colours strong enough to paint
The blackest villain in a seeming saint
Doe lay thee open to a publick vicar
For greater crimes than ever Judas knew
Thou art, what shall I say, thou art alone
Whose sins epitome, all sins in one
Thou art too vile to live too bad to die
Nor canst thou from deserved vengeance fly…
by philtrers force and sympathetick charms
Oh! Black physician to the fernal Tribe
Who canst for soul and body to prescribe
But such designs thy medicine impart
That both are ruined by the cursed art
“Quick, Strait, begone from Wallia, Fruitful Isle
To some far distant unpregnated soile”
Strong stuff. “The blackest villain in a seeming saint”, “Black physician to the [in]fernal tribe”. Clearly he was a notorious figure in Llanbedr. But who was this “Dr Foulks…and what had he done?
The Reverend Robert Foulkes of Llanfrothen, Merionethshire, was indeed an M.D. who had graduated from Oxford in 1725. This Dr Foulkes was a correspondent of some of the most eminent physicians of his day and, in 1718, had set up his own physic garden at Cambridge. He wrote to Welsh luminaries such as Edward Lhuyd (then at the Bodleian) on the subject of botany, and was considered to be an authority in his field. Reportedly of delicate health he died young. All in all, this does not sound like the sort of man to inspire the vitriol of the ‘Piser Sioned’ author.
By incredible coincidence, however, there was another Robert Foulkes, also a vicar and physician, at roughly the same time, and it is this man who is the more likely candidate. The Reverend Robert Foulkes of Llanbedr Dyffryn Clwyd, Gwynedd, indeed seems to be the subject of the poem but he is a shadowy figure. Little can be found about either him or his medical practice so we have only the poem to shed light. What had he done to elicit such contempt? Luckily for us the poet left a few lines of narrative to fill in the blanks. At the very end of the poem, written in the margin, is the following note:
“The subject is now too well known but futurity may drown it in oblivion, unless it be commemorated in writeing as thus,
The s(ai)d doctor was guardian to the young ladies of Llanerch in Flintshire with(?) the Davises. He debauched one at 13 years of age and gave her physick to prevent conception. He lay with her 15 or 20 years, at last she refuted physick and conceived, she was delivered privately, he disowned the childe, but s(ai)d he had to do with her mother and did not know(?) but the child might be his grandchild – a black villain”
So Dr Foulkes’ sins were laid bare. It is unclear whether this poem was ever published but it would fit the sort of libel that could be distributed around a local area or pinned up in prominent places. Since the “subject [was] now too well known” it seems that Foulkes already had a soured reputation. That he was a vicar, entrusted with the moral and spiritual health of his parishioners, would have been difficult for them to accept. That the sins occurred with young women with whom he had been entrusted with their care would surely have been worse. Even when faced with the allegations and the presence of an illegitimate child Foulkes seemingly refused to take responsibility.
I’m still on the hunt for information about this ‘black villain’ and it would be interesting to find out more about him. Vicars who practised medicine were not uncommon, but those who inspired such venom as did Dr Foulkes certainly are. Sadly, it seems that figures of authority or fame who used their positions to exploit or abuse others are not just a modern phenomenon.