For centuries it was believed that monarchs could heal the sick simply by touching them, and scrofula, a disease caused by tuberculosis bacteria, was a prime candidate for this cure. Charles II dutifully touched nearly 7,000 scrofula patients in one year alone.
The thought of visiting the Queen, who could heal us of various illnesses just by her touch, may seem like an unusual thing to do today. But this practice, known as the royal touch – a ceremony in which the monarch restored health to the sick by touching them – held an important position within early modern healing practices, and especially during the reign of King Charles II.
It was widely associated with a condition called scrofula, more commonly known as “the King’s evil”, as the royal touch was believed to cure it. ‘Adenochoiradelogia’, a medical treatise written by John Browne, surgeon-in-ordinary to Charles II, is the most comprehensive written account of this practice. Browne lauded the touch ceremonies and the “wonders [that had] been performed by his [Charles II’s] Sacred Hand”. According to Browne, even when the best surgeons and physicians failed, the royal touch would cure the scrofulous.
An excess of phlegm
Scrofula, also known as cervical tuberculous lymphadenitis in the modern world, is a chronic condition in which the bacteria that causes tuberculosis causes symptoms to develop outside the lungs, typically in the lymph nodes of the neck. As a result, areas of the neck and face become inflamed. A person with scrofula might also experience painful lesions, a fever and weight loss.
Today we understand that scrofula is transmitted by ingesting unpasteurised milk. While it is, therefore, more common in developing countries, it can be diagnosed and treated appropriately.
Browne’s theory about the cause of scrofula echoes centuries of medical writing concerning ‘humorism’, the belief that good health depended on maintaining a balance between the four humours (fluids in the body): phlegm, blood, yellow bile and black bile. According to Browne, scrofula was caused by an excess of phlegm in the glands, which caused the neck to become inflamed.
A person with “scrofulous swellings” writes Browne, must exercise moderately and abstain from a diet that causes flatulence, as certain foodstuffs would “breed gross and viscid humours”. Browne also recommends preparing medicine to work against the nature of the excess humour. As the swellings arise from a “cold and moist being”, hot and dry medicines are suggested – particularly powdered mixtures taken with various teas.
The powders included several ingredients that are common today, including cinnamon, pepper and salt, among those which are now (hopefully) unlikely to be found in our kitchen cupboards: one physician suggests ingesting a powder made of hog-lice!
Several concoctions claimed to cure scrofula, many of which were aimed at correcting humoral imbalance, and others, such as emollients, which were applied externally to alleviate physical symptoms. None, however, could be compared to the efficacy of the royal touch.
The royal gift of healing
The royal gift of healing, which originated in medieval France, was an inextricable part of early modern religious and medical culture. It stemmed from belief in the divine right of kings: that their right to rule and heal derived directly from the authority of God. Browne describes the receipt of the gift by means of anointment. Upon “...receiving this Holy Oyl with their Sacred Titles,” asserts Browne, they (the King) are distinguished as “...being Holy, Sacred, and Divine.” Essentially, the monarch became God’s agent on earth.
To give an idea as to the prominence of the practice in 17th-century England, a register taken by Thomas Haynes (sergeant of the Chapel Royal) reveals that Charles II touched 6,725 persons afflicted with scrofula in the first year of his reign alone (1660). This included a six-year-old boy, who for two years had been completely blind, while also being afflicted with the lesions associated with scrofula.
According to Browne, it was only after the boy was brought to Charles II to receive the royal touch that he recovered his sight and the lesions began to heal.
The young boy’s family sought treatment from physicians, surgeons and apothecaries. Some of these may have been more painful than the lesions themselves, such as bloodletting – a cure for all ills – which was carried out by a physician (sometimes with leeches) or a barber surgeon. Despite the boy’s family spending a great deal of money on such treatments, it was to no avail. According to Browne, it was only after the boy was brought to Charles II to receive the royal touch that he recovered his sight and the lesions began to heal.
The King and the ceremony
Before attending the healing ceremony, a person with scrofula must first obtain a signed, dated and sealed document from the churchwarden of their parish, certifying that they were indeed suffering from scrofula and had not yet been touched by the King. The person must then travel to the Palace of Whitehall, the main residency of Charles II, where, upon arrival, they would be examined by no less than one physician and two surgeons. If the person was believed to have scrofula, they were provided with a ticket for the healing ceremony – usually held on a Sunday.
The ceremony began after morning prayers, with the chaplain reading the Gospel (Mark 16:14) that ends with words spoken by Christ: “They shall lay their hands on the sick, and they shall recover.” These words were repeated between every healing. As the chaplain then continued with the first chapter of St John, the surgeons presented the persons to be cured one by one, who would kneel in front of the King.
As the King laid his hands upon their head, Christ’s words were spoken. After every person had been touched, they were each presented with the Angel (or royal touch piece) – a gold coin, which was hung around the neck. Like a talisman, it continued to ward off disease. Scrofula was rarely fatal, and often went into remission on its own, perhaps contributing to the impression that the royal touch had cured it.
‘Touching’ as a cure for scrofula not only exemplifies the ways in which religion, ritual and ceremony were integral to early modern healing practices, but also how some of these practices were inextricably bound with the power and politics of the monarchy. The healing ceremonies, for example, were exercised more frequently by those who sought to demonstrate their right to rule. The royal touch, therefore – bestowed onto the monarch by divine right – was a clear indication of their legitimacy.
Some have argued that the disappearance of the practice in early 18th-century England, a period in which the monarch was no longer divinely appointed, was due to a shift in political realities rather than new developments in medical knowledge.
In studying some of the religio-political underpinnings of early modern health practices, we can better understand their importance to the development of modern medicine. For even today, while we no longer seek out the touch of royalty to miraculously cure us of our various ailments, our health and wellbeing is invariably shaped by political, sociological and religious conditions.
About the contributors
Rita Yates is a PhD student in Art History at the Warburg Institute, University of London. Her thesis examines the production, function and reception of 18th-century French art and visual culture in response to natural disaster.
Steven is a photographer at Wellcome. His photography takes inspiration from the museum’s rich and varied collections. He enjoys collaborating on creative projects and taking them to imaginative places.