This post was written by Brandon High, Special Collections Officer at King’s College London. It is cross-posted from the KCL Library Spotlight highlights and is part of a series on the theme of Hope and Fear in library and archive collections to coincide with the Being Human festival.
John Browne. Adenochoiradelogia; or, An anatomick-chirurgical treatise of glandules & strumaes, or kings-evil-swellings. London: printed by Thomas Newcombe for Samuel Lowndes, 1684
[Foyle Special Collections Library, Rare Books Collection RC311.1 B8]
This book examines the phenomenon of the ‘royal touch’ for the disease of scrofula, also known popularly as the ‘King’s Evil’. The author, as surgeon-in-ordinary to Charles II, would have witnessed the ceremony of the royal touch many times and this work provides the most overt ideological justification for its supposed healing powers.
Scrofula: precursor of tuberculosis
Scrofula was defined as such before the modern classification of diseases came into being. It was an infection of the lymph glands surrounding the neck, although adjacent parts of the body could also be affected. In many cases, the symptoms of this disease would today be classified as tubercular, though they could possibly have indicated other diseases, including cancers.
Origins and significance of the royal touch
Although Edward the Confessor is thought to be responsible for the earliest recorded use of the royal touch in England, its continuous use by monarchs in both England and France is thought to have originated during the 13th century.
Scrofula was not the only disease which was deemed curable by the magical powers of the monarch: until the reign of Elizabeth I, when the practice was discontinued, English monarchs regularly touched for epilepsy.
However, for reasons which have never been satisfactorily explained, scrofula has been the disease which has been most closely associated with the royal touch. A possible reason could lie in the nature of the disease itself. Prolonged remission is a recognised medical characteristic of tuberculosis, as of epilepsy, and such alleviation could be presented as apparent cure.
Relapses could always be attributed to the patient’s lack of faith or to some other shortcoming. Failure to abide by the correct procedure, in particular the prohibited sale of the gold ring which was given by the English monarch to the sufferer, could also result in the royal touch being deprived of its supernatural power, as Browne emphasises.
There was a clear political reason why monarchs would desire to lay claim to this power. If monarchs asserted that their political legitimacy derived from divine sanction, and if they desired to trump the competing claims of the Church and the feudal aristocracy to such a supernatural mandate, they would have to offer tangible proof of semi-divine powers.
In so doing, they would aim to appeal over the heads of the Church and the aristocracy and establish a mystical communion with their suffering subjects, most of whom lay well outside the political system. It would also be important that it was generally accepted that this power was hereditary, and inhered in the monarch even when he or she was no longer on the throne, or even alive. Browne emphasises this with tales of miraculous cures effected through touching the blood of the executed Charles I.
The ceremony of the royal touch
Medical orthodoxy, King Charles II and the royal touch
The practice of the royal touch was much favoured by the Stuarts. King Charles II had practised it in exile as a method of asserting his rightful claim to the throne and of symbolising a bond with his subjects and his descendants continued to practise it after they were banished in 1714. Over 90,000 sufferers received the royal touch during his 25-year reign, reaching a peak in the two years before Browne’s book was published.
Browne makes explicit the political motivations for the royal touch and makes a point of referring to anti-Royalists, such as Quakers, who were ‘cured’ by it. Puritans regarded the royal touch with great suspicion, and viewed it as inherently Catholic.
It is no coincidence that when almost nobody believed in monarchical Divine Right, as was the case in Britain after 1714 and in France after 1789, the royal touch became obsolete.
There were also commoners who purported to possess similar thaumaturgical powers, the most famous of whom, the Irish landowner Valentine Greatrakes (1629-88) also performed surgical operations and was endorsed by leading members of the Royal Society, including the chemist Robert Boyle
Browne and other medical men accepted practices which would now be termed ‘faith healing’ partly because orthodox medicine, even by the admission of its own practitioners, was of very dubious efficacy
Those who could not afford physicians relied on a very mixed economy of practitioners and self-medication. Many of these ‘healers’ practised occult remedies.
Although Browne describes the orthodox regimen for scrofula in detail, which included the usual prescriptions for regulated diet, rest, air, emetics and phlebotomy and makes clear that thaumaturgy is the last resort, he does not believe that occult healing contradicts orthodox medicine, but compensates for its inadequacies.
- Frank Barlow, ‘The King’s Evil’, The English Historical Review, 95, (1980), 3-27
- Marc Bloch. The royal touch: sacred monarchy and scrofula in England and France. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974
- Helen Bynum. Spitting blood: the history of tuberculosis. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011
- Harold J Cook. The decline of the old medical regime in Stuart London. Ithaca, NY : Cornell University Press, 1986
- Peter Elmer, ‘Greatrakes, Valentine (1629-1683)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/11367, accessed 26 Jan 2015]
- Peter Elmer, ‘Medicine, religion, and the puritan revolution’, in: Roger French and Andrew Wear (eds.) The medical revolution of the seventeenth century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989 10-45
- Kenneth F Kiple (ed.) The Cambridge world history of human disease. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993
- Ian Lyle, ’Browne, John (1642-1702/3?’)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/3681, accessed 26 Jan 2015]
- FG Parsons. The history of St. Thomas’s Hospital: volume II, from 1600 to 1800. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1934
- Roy Porter, ‘The early Royal Society and the spread of medical knowledge’, in: Roger French and Andrew Wear (eds.) The medical revolution of the seventeenth century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989 272-293
- KF Russell, ‘John Browne, 1642-1702, a seventeenth-century surgeon, anatomist and plagiarist’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 33 (1959), 393-414, 503-518
- Keith Thomas. Religion and the decline of magic: studies in popular beliefs in sixteenth-and seventeenth-century England. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973 
- Andrew Wear. Knowledge and practice in English medicine, 1550-1680. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000