Object of the Month: Out of Touch

28 October 2010

 Copy of Queen Anne's lodestone. Wellcome Images
[object Object]

Copy of Queen Anne's lodestone. Wellcome Images

If you’ve attended one of our free themed tours, you’ll know that the objects in our collection have a myriad of wonderful stories to tell. From the history of nursing to evolution and cultural responses to life and death, every one of our objects can be seen in a new and different light and has its own unique history and significance. With over 500 objects in Medicine Man alone, we have lots of objects vying for your attention. Every month, therefore, we’ll be bringing you an interesting object from our vast collection, and finally giving it its well-deserved place in the limelight! Chris Sirrs starts us off with a curious ‘touch piece’…

The silver touch piece shown above (the object pictured is actually a replica of the object on display) was reputedly used by Queen Anne of Great Britain (1665-1714). Containing a magnetic stone called a lodestone, it was used in the ritual of the ‘royal touch’, a spectacular display of seemingly miraculous healing performed by a long line of English monarchs, allegedly dating back to the reign of Edward the Confessor.

The touch piece was used to cure scrofula, or the ‘King’s Evil,’ a type of tuberculosis that affected the lymph nodes in the neck. Eminent physicians and surgeons would recommend sufferers seek the royal touch as a last resort for their cure, and local parishes would often finance the long and arduous pilgrimage to London.

Touch pieces were often given to pilgrims as a memento of their experience, and were thought to be invested with magical curative properties of their own. They were often pierced so they could be suspended from a ribbon and worn around the neck. Among the pilgrims to have received the touch from Queen Anne was the infant Samuel Johnson, who later became a celebrated essayist and writer of the famous English Dictionary.

The monarch was allowed to achieve a medical monopoly, of sorts, over healing by touch alone. Although a range of folk healers performed touch-healing in local communities across England, those who achieved a significant following could be imprisoned or even tried for witchcraft. In 1637, a self-proclaimed ‘seventh son’ named James Leverett was investigated by the London College of Physicians for allegedly imitating the royal ritual, and was sentenced to whipping and imprisonment in the notorious Bridewell jail.

After the upheaval of the Civil War and Interregnum, the royal touch ceremony experienced a surge in popularity. Charles II, keen to re-establish the Stuarts’ divine authority to rule, is said to have touched over 90 000 of his subjects in just nineteen years of his reign. This huge number was swelled by subjects, many from abroad, who returned to receive the cure for a second or even third time.

Queen Anne was the last English monarch to perform the rite. Her Protestant brother-in-law, William III, famously saw it as superstitious nonsense, and is reputed to have said to his subjects, ‘May God grant you better health and commonsense’ (in a parody of the liturgy). The newly-emerged Tory party, supporters of the monarchy, encouraged Queen Anne to briefly renew it, but her death in 1714 marked the official end of the practice. The Hanoverians, strict Calvinists, associated the rite with the worst excesses of Catholicism, and made no attempt to continue the tradition.

However, the rite had a lasting appeal in the popular mind. Some physicians continued to recommend the touch to their desperate patients, and folk healers continued to be sought after. Yet as mechanical explanations for the ‘miraculous’ cure became more accepted among the medical community, the touch became increasingly the subject of humour. In 1721, the surgeon James Handley joked, ‘You might have a Cure as well, by rubbing the Part with a Broomstick.’

Chris Sirrs is a Visitor Services Assistant at Wellcome Collection.