Hello, HG readers. I’ve been reading Liza Picard’s juicy social history of Restoration London. It is GRIPPING! Until now, I had only a hazy overview of the period, acquired during an undergraduate course on Restoration and Eighteenth Century literature. I loved the course but apart from a few gossipy snippets about Aphra Behn and the Earl of Rochester, I’d shed most of the details.
So when I ran across the phrase “the King’s Evil” in Picard’s book, I tripped over it. The what? “The King’s Evil” is another name for scrofula, a swelling of the lymph nodes in the neck. It’s often associated with tuberculosis. Apparently, the swelling itself is not painful but it is disfiguring and is further associated with fever, chills, and weight loss.
|image via wikipedia|
That’s interesting enough, but what has it to do with the king? Apparently, in both France and England, monarchs held ceremonies in which they laid healing hands on those suffering from scrofula. This was called “the royal touch”. It was both a demonstration of their paternal care for the people and an affirmation of their divine right to rule. The ceremonies included prayer and sometimes the gift of a gold coin or ribbon to the sufferer, a talisman of the king’s power.
Here’s an image of Charles II, England’s most enthusiastic practitioner of the royal touch. (This makes perfect sense: Charles II had a lot to prove, as a freshly restored king.) According to Picard, he held weekly ceremonies, kept up the practice when he travelled outside London, and touched about 4500 petitioners in each year of his reign!
|Charles II, administering the royal touch|
The last English monarch to practise the royal touch was Queen Anne. Her most famous “patient” was the young Samuel Johnson, who contracted scrofula as an infant. His family took him to St James’s Palace in March 1712, when he was two years old. Queen Anne took her healing duty seriously, usually fasting the day before the ceremony.
Predictably (to us), Queen Anne’s touched failed to cure Johnson. He later endured surgery that left him with permanent scars on his face and body.
To our minds, it might seem strange that so many people clamoured for the royal touch. There is a medical reason: scrofula is rarely fatal and often goes into remission on its own. If one’s remission coincides with the king’s touch, one has anecdotal proof that the royal hands can heal. If it doesn’t, one can always try the king again.
Beyond this, I’m fascinated by the royal touch because it’s a vivid reminder of how slowly popular beliefs change. By 1660, we’re well out of the Medieval era. Literary scholars would say that the “Early Modern” period is past, leaving us (presumably) in the modern world. Yet many traces of the Renaissance belief in magic remain. It’s a time when confusing things can be explained by mystery and miracle. The English people believe in astrology, witchcraft, divination – and the healing touch of a divinely appointed king.