The Royal Touch
Sources: Primitive Psycho-therapy And Quackery
Malcolm. Well; more anon.--Comes the king forth, I pray you?
Doctor. Ay, sir; there are a crew of wretched souls
That stay his cure: their malady convinces
The great assay of art; but at his touch--
Such sanctity hath heaven given his hand--
They presently amend.
Malcolm. I thank you, doctor. [Exit Doctor.
What's the disease he means?
Malcolm. 'Tis called the evil:
A most miraculous work in this good king;
Which often, since my here-remain in England,
I have seen him do. How he solicits heaven,
Himself best knows: but strangely visited people,
All swoln and ulcerous, pitiful to the eye,
The mere despair of surgery, he cures,
Hanging a golden stamp about their necks,
Put on with holy prayers: and 'tis spoken,
To the succeeding royalty he leaves
The healing benediction. With this strange virtue,
He hath a heavenly gift of prophecy,
And sundry blessings hang about his throne,
That speak him full of grace.
Macbeth, Act IV, Scene 3.
The healing of physical ailments by laying-on of hands was in vogue in
the earliest historic times. Certain Egyptian sculptures have been
found, illustrative of this practice, wherein one of the healer's hands
is represented as touching the patient's stomach, and the other as
applied to his back.
From numerous references to the subject in Holy Writ, three are here
given: "Neglect not the gift that is in thee, which was given thee by
prophecy, with the laying on of hands of the Presbytery." "They
shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not
hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover."
"And he could there do no mighty work, save that he laid his hands upon
a few sick folk, and healed them."
We are told that Asclepiades of Bithynia, a famous Grecian physician of
the second century B. C., who practised at Rome, systematically employed
the "induced trance" in the treatment of certain affections. Probably he
considered this method to conform with certain principles which he
advocated. For he professed that a physician's duty consisted in healing
his patients safely, speedily, and pleasantly; and as he met with
considerable success, his system was naturally very popular. It seems
certain that the physicians of old had no true conception of the
psychological and physiological principles of healing by laying on of
hands. It is probable, on the other hand, that they used this method in
a haphazard way, relying largely on the confidence of their patients
and the expectation of cure.
Tacitus, in his "History," book IV, chapter 81, relates that at the
instance of the God Serapis, a citizen of Alexandria, who had a maimed
hand, entreated that he might be pressed by the foot and sole of
Vespasian (A. D. 9-79). The Emperor at first ridiculed the request, and
treated it with disdain. However, upon learning the opinion of
physicians that a cure might be effected through the application of a
healing power, and that it was the pleasure of the gods that he should
be the one to make the attempt, Vespasian, with a cheerful countenance,
did what was required of him, while the multitude that stood by awaited
the event in all the confidence of anticipated success. Immediately,
wrote the historian, the functions of the affected hand were restored.
The priests and magi of the ancient Druids possessed a wonderful faculty
of healing. They were able to hypnotize their patients by the waving of
a wand, and while under the spell of this procedure, the latter could
tell what was happening afar off, being vested with the power of
But the Druidic priests also effected cures by stroking with the hand,
and this method was thought to be of special efficacy in rheumatic
affections. They also employed other remedies which appealed to the
imagination, such as various mesmeric charms and incantations.
John Timbs remarks in "Doctors and Patients," that any person who
claimed to possess the special gift of healing, was expected to
demonstrate his ability by means of the touch; for this was the
established method of testing the genuineness of any assumed or
pretended curative powers. Among Eastern nations at the present time,
European physicians are popularly credited with the faculty of healing
by manual stroking or passes, and the same ideas prevail in remote
communities of Great Britain. In the opinion of the author above
mentioned, the belief in the transmission of remedial virtues by the
hands is derived from the fact that these members are the usual agents
in the bestowal of material benefits, as, for example, in almsgiving to
According to the popular view, royal personages were exalted above other
people, "because they possessed a distinctive excellence, imparted to
them at the hour of birth by the silent rulers of the night." In view of
this belief, it was natural that sovereigns should be invested with
extraordinary healing powers, and that they should be enabled, by a
touch of the hand, to communicate to others an infinitesimal portion of
the virtues with which they had been supernaturally endowed. These
virtues dwelt also in the king's robes. Hence arose the belief in the
miraculous power of healing by the imposition of royal hands.
There is nothing that can cure the King's Evil,
But a Prince.
JOHN LYLY (1553-1606), Euphues.
The treatment of scrofulous patients by the touch of a reigning
sovereign's hand is believed to have originated in France. According to
one authority, Clovis I (466-511) was the pioneer in employing this
method of cure. Louis I (778-840) is reported to have added thereto the
sign of the cross. The custom was in vogue during the reign of Philip I
(1051-1108), but that monarch is said to have forfeited the power of
healing, by reason of his immorality and profligacy. During later
medieval times the Royal Touch appears to have fallen into disuse in
France, reappearing, however, in the reign of Louis IX (1215-1270), and
we have the authority of Laurentius, physician to Henry IV, that Francis
I, while a prisoner at Madrid after the battle of Pavia, in 1525, "cured
multitudes of people daily of the Evil."
The Royal Touch was a prerogative of the kings of England from before
the Norman Conquest until the beginning of the Hanoverian dynasty, a
period of nearly seven hundred years, and the custom affords a striking
example of the power of the imagination and of popular credulity. The
English annalist, Raphael Holinshed, wrote in 1577 concerning King
Edward the Confessor (1004-1066), that he had the gift of healing divers
ailments, and that "he used to help those that were vexed with the
King's Evil, and left that virtue, as it were, a portion of inheritance,
unto his successors, the kings of this realm."
But the earliest reference to this king as a healer by the touch was
made by the English historian, William of Malmesbury (1095-1143), in his
work, "De Gestis Regum Anglorum." The story, wrote Joseph Frank Payne,
M.D., in "English Medicine in the Anglo-Saxon Times," has the familiar
features of the legends and miracles of healing by the early
ecclesiastics, saints, or kings, as they are found in the histories and
chronicles from the time of Bede, the Venerable (673-735). But there
appears to be no real historical evidence that Edward the Confessor was
the first royal personage who healed by laying on of hands.
John Aubrey, in his "Miscellanies," asserts, on the authority of certain
English chronicles, that in the reign of King Henry III (1206-1272),
there lived a child who was endowed with the gift of healing, and whose
touch cured many diseases. Popular belief, as is well known, ascribed
this prerogative also to a seventh son.
Pettigrew, in his "Superstitions connected with the History and
Practice of Medicine and Surgery," said that Gilbertus Anglicus, the
author of a "Compendium Medicinae," and the first practical writer on
medicine in Britain, who is believed to have flourished in the time of
Edward I (1239-1307), asserted that the custom of healing by the Royal
Touch was an ancient one.
In the opinion of William George Black ("Folk-Medicine," 1883), the
subject belongs rather to the domain of history than to that of popular
Thomas Bradwardin, an eminent English prelate of the fourteenth century,
and Archbishop of Canterbury, described the usage in question as already
long-established in his time; and Sir John Fortescue, Lord Chief Justice
of England, during Henry the Sixth's reign, declared that the English
kings had exercised this privilege from time immemorial.
In a small tract published by His Majesty's command, entitled, "The
Ceremonies for the Healing of them that be diseased with the King's
Evil, used in the Time of King Henry VII" (1456-1509), we find that it
was customary for the patients to kneel before the king during the
religious exercises, which were conducted by the chaplain. After laying
his hands upon them, the monarch crossed the affected portion of the
body of each patient with an "Angel of Gold Noble." This coin bore as
its device the archangel Michael, standing upon and piercing a dragon.
In later reigns it was replaced by a small golden or silver medal,
having the same emblem, and known as a touch-piece.
Andrew Borde, in his "Breviary of Health" (1547, the last year of the
reign of Henry VIII), in reference to the King's Evil, wrote as follows:
"For this matter, let every man make friendes to the Kynges Majestie,
for it doth perteyne to a Kynge to helpe this infirmitie, by the grace
of God, the which is geven to a king anoynted. But forasmuch as some men
doth judge divers times a fystle or a French pocke to be the king's
evill, in such matters it behoveth not a kynge to medle withall."
Queen Elizabeth, who reigned from 1558 to 1603, continued the practice,
as we are informed by her chaplain, Rev. Dr. William Tooker, who
published in 1590 a quarto volume on the subject, in which he claimed
that the power of healing by touch had been exercised by royal
personages from a very early period. He asserted that the Queen never
refused touching any one who applied for relief, if, upon examination by
her medical advisers, the applicant was found to be affected with the
King's Evil. The Queen was especially disposed to touch indigent
persons, who were unable to pay for private treatment. Although averse
to the practice, Queen Elizabeth continued to exercise the prerogative,
doubtless from philanthropic motives, and in deference to the popular
wish. William Clowes, an eminent contemporary practitioner, and chief
surgeon of Bartholomew's Hospital, London, in a monograph issued in
1602, wrote that the struma or evill was known to be "miraculously
healed by the sacred hands of the Queene's most royall majesty, even by
divine inspiration and wonderfull worke and power of God, above man's
skill, arte and expectation."
When, in 1603, on the death of Elizabeth, James VI of Scotland became
King of England with the title of James I, he was sceptical regarding
the efficacy of the Royal Touch. The Scotch ministers, whom he brought
with him, urged its abandonment as a superstitious ceremony; while his
English counsellors recommended its continuance, maintaining that a
failure so to do would amount to a debasing of royalty. Unwillingly
therefore he followed the advice of the latter.
We do not find many references to the prevalence of this custom in the
reign of Charles I, but there is evidence that it was in use at that
time. This is apparent in certain extracts from State Papers, relating
chiefly to medicine and pharmacy, published under the direction of the
Master of the Rolls, as follows:
April 10, 1631. John, Lord Poulett, sent a child, a little
girl, to the King, to be touched for the King's Evil, and she
has come home safely, and mends every day in health.
January 15, 1632. Godre, Bois, a Frenchman, prisoner in the
King's Bench, takes upon him to cure the King's Evil, and
daily a great concourse of people flocked to him, although it
is conceived that if such cures have been, it is rather by
sorcery and incantation than by any skill he has in physic.
Endorsed: The Lord Chief Justice of the King's Bench is to
call him for examination, to be indicted for cosenage.
June 7, 1632. Sir Thomas Richardson, Lord Chief Justice of the
King's Bench, to the Council, thinks there is not sufficient
evidence to convict Bois Gaudre of cosenage or sorcery, but
thinks he has committed a contempt worth punishment, in taking
upon him to cure the King's Evil. He has imprisoned him, of
which he complains bitterly.
June 7, 1632. Examination of James Philip Gaudre, Knight of
St. Lazare, in France. Is a Frenchman, and has been in England
for seven years, chiefly at Sir Thomas Wolseley's house, whose
daughter he married, until two years past, he was arrested for
debt. By his experience in surgery, has recovered many poor
persons of the King's Evil, some before His Majesty touched
them, and some after. Never made any benefit by his skill,
other than sometimes those whom he had done good to would give
him a Capon, or small sums paid by him for herbs and other
things. Used his skill often in France, and cured many. Did
not cure any in England until Midsummer last, when a poor man,
who had but one son, who was sick of that disease, made moan
to him, and he cured him. Thinks that by reason he is the
youngest of seven sons, he performs that cure with better
success than others, except the King. Has no skill in sorcery,
witchcraft, or enchantment, nor ever used any such
The ceremony of the Royal Touch reached its height of popularity during
the reign of Charles II (1630-1685). From the "Diary of John Evelyn," we
learn that His Majesty began to touch for the King's Evil, July 6, 1660.
The King sat in state, attended by the surgeons and the Lord
Chamberlain. The opening prayers and the Gospel having been read, the
patients knelt on the steps of the throne, and were stroked on either
cheek by the King's hand, the chaplain saying: "He put his hands upon
them and healed them." Then the King hung a gold "angel" around the neck
of each one. On March 28, 1684, so great was the concourse of people,
with their children, anxious to be cured, that six or seven were crushed
to death "by pressing at the Chirurgeon's door for tickets."
Dr. Richard Wiseman, favorite surgeon of Charles II, wrote that a belief
in the Royal Touch was evidently a party tenet. It was therefore
encouraged by the sovereign, and upheld by all who were disposed to
please the Court. In commenting on the alleged efficacy of this
treatment, Dr. Wiseman expressed his conviction that the imagination of
the patient was doubtless powerfully affected by the magnificence and
splendor of the ceremony. Failure to receive benefit was ascribed to
lack of faith. It was said that Charles once handled a scrofulous Quaker
with such vigor, that he made him a healthy man and a sound Churchman in
Women quacks were very numerous at this period, and throve exceedingly.
Their resoluteness in thrusting their ignorant pretensions upon the
public, gave evidence of the same dogged pertinacity which characterizes
the modern suffragettes in their fanatical efforts to obtain redress for
Thus the psychic healing forces are ever potent, so long as the patient
has faith in the treatment employed.
Dr. John Browne, a surgeon in ordinary to Charles II, published a
treatise entitled "Charisma Basilicon, or the royal gift of healing
strumas, or king's-evil swellings, by contact or imposition of the
sacred hands of our kings of England and France, given them at their
The elaborate ceremonies and the presentation of gold pieces were
regarded by the author as evidences of the great piety, charity, and
humility of the sovereign. He comments moreover on the admirable results
of this treatment among people of many nationalities.
None ever hitherto mist thereof, wrote he, unless their little
faith and incredulity starved their merits, or they received
his gracious hand for curing another disease, which was not
really allowed to be cured by him; and as bright evidences
hereof, I have presumed to offer that some have immediately
upon the very touch been cured; others not so easily, till the
favour of a second repetition thereof.
Some also, losing their gold, their diseases have seized them
afresh, and no sooner have these obtained a second touch and
new gold, but their diseases have been seen to vanish, as
being afraid of his majestie's presence.
Of the vast numbers of patients who repaired to the healing receptions
of Charles II, doubtless many were attracted by curiosity, and others by
the desire for gold.
In the Parliamentary Journal for July 2-9, 1660, it was stated that the
kingdom having been for a long time troubled with the evil, by reason of
His Majesty's absence, great numbers have lately flocked for cure.
His sacred majesty, on Monday last, touched 250, in the
banquetting house; among whom, when his majesty was delivering
the gold, one shuffled himself in, out of an hope of profit,
which had not been stroked; but his majesty quickly discovered
him, saying: "this man hath not yet been touched." His majesty
hath, for the future, appointed every Friday for the cure, at
which 200, and no more, are to be presented to him, who are
first to repair to Mr. Knight, the king's surgeon, being at
the Cross Guns, in Russell Street, Covent Garden, over against
the Rose Tavern, for their tickets.
The presentation of the gold was regarded as a token of the king's good
will, and a pledge of his wish for the patient's recovery. Silver coins
were sometimes used, but the sovereign power of gold was distinctly
admitted, as the disease is reported to have returned, in some cases,
upon the medal being lost. The presentation of a second golden
touch-piece was alleged to be effective in subduing the scrofula.
The following announcement appeared in the "Public Intelligencer," under
date of Whitehall, May 14, 1664:
"His Sacred Majesty, having declared it to be his Royal will and purpose
to continue the healing of his People for the Evil during the month of
May, and then to give over till Michaelmas next, I am commanded to give
notice thereof, that the people may not come up to Town in the interim
and lose their labour."
Charles II is said to have found the practice extremely lucrative. It is
not surprising that many practitioners in those days were credited with
having wrought marvellous cures.
We know that the undoubted influence of the mind on the body, and the
power of suggestion and expectant attention, apply only to subjective
states and functional ailments. Thus it is intelligible why so many
people of education and culture, on the principle that seeing is
believing, were able to testify to miraculous cures in their own
William Andrews, in "Historic Romance," says that the records of the
Town of Preston, Lancashire, show that the local Corporation voted
grants of money to enable patients to make the journey to London, to be
touched for the evil. In the year 1682 bailiffs were instructed to "pay
unto James Harrison, bricklayer, ten shillings, towards carrying his son
to London, in order to the procuring of His Majesty's touch." Again, in
1687, being the third year of James II, when the King was at Chester,
the Preston Town Council passed a vote, ordering the payment to two
young women, of five shillings each, "towards their charge in going to
Chester to get His Majesty's touch."
Thomas Cartwright, Bishop of Chester, wrote in his diary, August 27,
1687: "I was at His Majesty's levee, from whence, at nine o'clock, I
attended him into the closet, where he healed three hundred and fifty
Queen Anne (1702-1714) was the last of the English sovereigns who
exercised the royal prerogative of healing by laying-on of hands. She
made an official announcement in the London "Gazette," March 12, 1712,
of her intention to "touch publicly." Samuel Johnson, then a child of
about three years of age, was one of the last who tested the efficacy of
this superstitious rite, and without success. Acting upon the advice of
Sir John Floyer, a noted physician of Lichfield, Mrs. Johnson took her
son to London, where he was touched by the Queen. When asked in later
years if he could remember the latter, he used to say that he had a
"confused, but somehow a sort of solemn recollection of a lady in
diamonds and a long black hood." George I, the successor of Queen
Anne, regarded the Royal Touch as a purely superstitious method of
healing, and during his reign the practice fell into desuetude.
The English jurist, Daines Barrington (1727-1800), in his "Observations
upon the Statutes," relates the case of an old man whom he was examining
as a witness. This man stated that he had been touched for the evil by
Queen Anne, when she was at Oxford. Upon being asked whether the
treatment had been effective, he replied facetiously that he did not
believe that he ever had the evil, but that his parents were poor, and
did not object to the piece of gold.
During the reign of George II, a writer of a speculative turn of mind
queried whether the disuse of this long-established custom might be
attributed to the sullenness of the reigning prince, who, as was
generally known, had received many evidences of his subjects'
displeasure; or whether the alleged divine power of healing by the Royal
Touch had been withdrawn from him. And it was replied that the sovereign
had as good a title as any of his predecessors to perform this holy
operation. Moreover, he was so much in love with all sorts of pageantry
and acts of power that he would willingly do his part. But the
degeneracy and wickedness of the times, which tended to bring all pious
and holy things into contempt, and then into disuse, was the reason for
In the year 1746, or thereabouts, one Christopher Lovel, a native of
Wells, in Somersetshire, but afterwards a resident of Bristol, being
sadly afflicted with the King's Evil, and having during many years made
trial of all the remedies which medical science could suggest, and
without any effect, decided to go abroad in search of a cure. Proceeding
to France, he was touched at Avignon by the eldest lineal descendant of
a race of kings, who had, for a long succession of ages, healed by
exercising the royal prerogative. But this descendant and heir had not
at that time been crowned. Notwithstanding this fact, however, the usual
effects followed, and from the moment that the man was touched, and
invested with the narrow ribbon, to which a small silver coin was
pendant, according to the rites prescribed in the office appointed by
the Church for that solemnity, he began to mend, and recovered strength
daily, arriving at Bristol in good health, after an absence of some four
Such, briefly, is an account of this remarkable case, as given in Thomas
Carte's "History of England," published about 1746. But a contributor to
the "Gentleman's Magazine," January 13, 1747, who signed himself
Amicus Veritatis, wrote in reference to the foregoing account,
expressing surprise that sensible people should give credit to such a
tale, which was calculated to support the old threadbare notion of the
divine hereditary right of royal personages to cure by touch. The then
reigning sovereign, George II, wrote he, despised such childish
The report of this alleged wonderful case made a great noise among the
ignorant classes. But the sceptic writer above mentioned argued that
Lovel's cure was but temporary, and that the benefit was due to change
of air and a strict regimen, rather than to the touch of the Pretender's
hand at Avignon. For, queried he, can any man with a grain of reason
believe that such an idle, superstitious charm as the touch of a man's
hand can convey a virtue sufficiently efficacious to heal so stubborn a
disorder as the King's Evil?
French tradition ascribes the origin of the gift of healing by royal
touch, to Saint Marculf, a monk whose Frankish ancestry is shown by his
name, which signifies forest wolf. This personage was a native of
Bayeux, and is reputed to have flourished in the sixth century A. D. His
relics were preserved in an abbey at Corbigny, and thither the French
monarchs were accustomed to resort, after their coronation at Rheims, to
obtain the pretended power of curing the King's Evil, by touching the
relics of this saint. But according to the historian, Francois Eudes de
Mezeray (1610-1683), the gift was bestowed upon King Clovis (466-511) at
the time of his baptism.
In 1515, the year of his accession, Francis I laid his hands on a number
of persons in the presence of the Pope, during the prevalence of an
epidemic at Bologna, Italy. And in 1542 he issued the following
statement: "On our return from Rheims, we went to Corbigny, where we and
our predecessors have been accustomed to make oblations, and pay
reverence to the precious relics of Saint Marculf for the admirable gift
of healing the King's Evil, which he imparted miraculously to the kings
of France, at the pleasure of the Creator. The grace we exercised in the
usual way, by touching the parts affected, and signing them with the
sign of the cross."
Louis XIII of France (1601-1643) is said to have bestowed upon Cardinal
Richelieu all of his prerogatives, except the Royal Touch.
His successor, Louis the Great, is credited with having touched sixteen
hundred people on Easter Sunday, 1686, using the words, "Le Roy te
touche, Dieu te guerisse." Every French patient received a present of
fifteen sous, while foreigners were given double that amount.
According to the Swiss theologian, Samuel Werenfels (1657-1740), who
published a treatise on "The Power of curing the King's Evil," this
prerogative was shared by the members of the House of Hapsburg. And the
same authority relates that the kings of Hungary were able to heal
various affections by the Royal Touch, and to neutralize by this method
the toxic effects of the bite of venomous creatures.