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Scrofula and the royal touch: Hope and Fear at KCL


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

Title page of: John Browne. Adenochoiradelogia, 1684Although 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

Frontispiece showing King Charles II healing subjects through the royal touch. From: John Browne. Adenochoiradelogia, 1684It was no accident that the ceremony of the royal touch mixed religious trappings with a pagan ritual. Pre-Christian practices suffused the lives of many people from all social backgrounds throughout the medieval and early modern periods. In other contexts, ecclesiastics would denounce the use of such magical powers as wicked, even though they admitted their efficacy. However, the ceremony of the royal touch remained in the Book of Common Prayer until the middle of the 18th century.

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

Frontispiece portrait of John Browne. From: John Browne. Adenochoiradelogia, 1684

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.

Further reading

  • 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 [1971]
  • Andrew Wear. Knowledge and practice in English medicine, 1550-1680. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000

The American Trail: About the Participants


The North American Collections Group within the University of London is pleased to announce an American Trail as part of this year’s History Libraries and Research Open Day on 27th November 2015. This strand will be of interest to postgraduate students and early career researchers involved in North American Studies in the widest sense, encompassing subjects as diverse as history, literature, social sciences, gender and disability studies, art and music to broader interdisciplinary research.

British Library: The British Library holds one of the largest European collections of material relating to the Americas, from manuscript to music, books to digitised collections, as well as a packed-programme of academic and popular events organised by the Eccles Centre for American Studies. Meet the Eccles Centre and some of the curatorial team to discover how the Library can support your research.

Business Archives Council & Archives and Records Associations’ (ARA) Section for Business Records: The Business Archives Council promotes the preservation of business records of historical importance; supplies advice and information on business archives and modern records; and encourages interest in and study of business history and archives.

The Archives and Records Associations’ (ARA) Section for Business Records aims to be the professional body of choice for archivists and records managers working with business records.

Among members’ collection there may be information about American businesses.

Dr Williams’s Library: The collection includes some early American pamphlets dating from the 1650s and correspondence concerning the early native Americans. There is also an important anti-slavery collection including the celebrated self description by Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Institute of Advanced Legal Studies Global Law Library: The Institute of Advanced Legal Studies Library is one the UK’s largest legal research libraries. Its collections encompass national, international and comparative law across a wide range of jurisdictions and legal topics from the 18th century to date in a variety of formats from print to online. The North American collections are extensive and include monographs, legislation, law reports and journals for many individual states and provinces. For the USA there is a particular focus on California, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas and Louisiana. Early volumes include an 1820 edition of the laws from the Sietas Partidas that were still in force in early 19th century Louisiana and New York reports of cases in prize in the mid-nineteenth century. The Canadian collections include a complete set of the Dominion law reports from 1912 and a volume of Quebec ordinances 1764 – 1767 which has been digitised and is available via the catalogue.

Institute of Historical Research: Published primary source material covering the Americas in the Colonial and Post-colonial periods. Comprehensive runs of official records, colonial assembly debates, diaries and journals, travel writing and correspondence, particularly strong for the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. There are complementary resources for British, Spanish, Portuguese, Low Countries and French history and in the Military and International Relations collections. For more information see http://www.history.ac.uk/library/collections.

King’s College London Library Services: King’s College London Archives and the Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives hold published collections of official US government papers on twentieth century international defence policy.  Television documentary research collections in the LHCMA include transcript interviews with US politicians, diplomats and defence personnel on topics including the nuclear age, the Middle East, Iran, Russia and Iraq.

 The Foyle Special Collections Library’s collections include the former library of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, with extensive coverage of the American Revolution, the War of 1812, 19th century British emigration to North America  and the history and topography of Canada.  We also hold what is currently the only recorded surviving copy of John Eliot’s translation of the Book of Genesis into the Massachusett language, printed in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1655.

Lambeth Palace Library: Lambeth Palace Library holds sources on north America including 17th-century accounts of the settlement at Jamestown, Virginia; records of the Bishops of London and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel on the Church, especially 18th-century; and visits by the 20th-century Archbishops as heads of the Anglican Communion.

Library of the Society of Friends: Material on North America in the Library of the Society of Friends includes official records of the Quakers’ national body in Britain (London Yearly Meeting minutes and “Epistles Received”), archives and papers documenting transatlantic visits and correspondence from the 17th century onwards, and American Quaker publications. Topics include early Quaker missions to America, colonisation and travel, the American Revolution, slavery, and joint relief programmes of 19th and 20th century British and American Quakers.

London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine:

The archives of the School date from the mid-nineteenth century to the present and consist of the personal and professional papers of scientific, medical and public health professionals involved in the search for preventative measures and cures to tropical diseases and public health issues. (There are also administrative papers of the School, an extensive photographic collection, and scientific and medical artefacts.) Resources relate mainly to the United Kingdom and countries in Asia and Africa but we do hold some material on North America. Among the collections are the archives of Sir Ronald Ross, the Nobel prize winner who proved the link between mosquitoes and malaria, contain material relating to the USA. In 1904, Ross was invited to speak at the International Congress of Arts and Sciences held at the World’s Fair in St Louis, USA, and he was also invited, probably by Walter Gorgas, to visit Panama. He left Liverpool on the Luciana on 10 September 1904, reached New York on 17th and St Louis on 19th. He set off for Panama on 27 September, arriving on 4 October. He left for England on 12th October, reached New York on 21st, and England on 29th. The archive contains some delightful souvenirs of his visit, as well as correspondence and photos. Also, there are the archives of Peter Piot, current Director of the School contain significant North American material covering his role as a former director of UNAIDS.

LSE library services: LSE Library’s collection has a range of resources for the study of various aspects of 19th and 20th century American history.  This includes one of the largest collections of US Federal Government documents outside of the United States and access to a number of electronic resources, such as the Congressional Hearings Historic Archive 1824-2003.

The National Archives: The library at the National Archives holds a fair selection of material relating to North America. There is a strong focus on the colonial period  with books on exploration, migration and military history.  Later periods are covered as well including titles on the cold war and foreign relations. The National Archives holds an extensive collection of archive material on American history as well, again  with a focus on the colonial period and migration.

Senate House Library: The US Studies research-level holdings offer a broad interdisciplinary coverage of the history, institutions and culture of the United States. The book collection has particular strengths in history and literature. SHL Special Collections have considerable strengths in U.S. Material, with the earliest items from these collections date from c. 1625.

Canada remains a major element of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies collection, with accessions continuing to average nearly a tenth of the Library total. The timeframe extends back to the end of French rule (and earlier in the case of Quebec), though the period to 1867 is covered in far less depth than the post-Confederation period.

TUC Library Collections at London Metropolitan University: The TUC Library Collections have a small collection relating to North America, including a considerable collection of periodicals going back to the 1920s from the American Federation of Labor amongst others.

UCL Institute of the Americas, Library Services and Special Collections: UCL Institute of the Americas offers programmes of study for MPhil and PhD degrees in the history, politics and sociology of Latin America, the US, Canada and the Caribbean. UCL Library has good collections of print and e-resources on the history of these regions.

UCL Institute of Education Library: The two most eminent American educators represented in the Newsam Library’s Special Collections are John Dewey (1859-1952) and Jerome Bruner (b. 1915 – ). Also, almost every special collection has some ‘Americana’ but the History of Education Collection has a large number of 18th and 19th century texts representing American education at all educational levels.

Wellcome Library: The Wellcome Library has several hundred monographs and serials published in North America between 1720-1820 that may interest those studying health and illness and aspects of social history. The collection includes publications on yellow fever in Philadelphia, midwifery, materia medica and a Royal Charter.


There will also be non-library resources on the American Trail:

Bibliography of British and Irish History: The Bibliography of British and Irish History (BBIH) also covers the American Colonies (the original 13 and Canada) and relations with the USA (diplomatic, cultural and commercial), and includes everything from John Cabot, Roanoke, the American Revolution, the Trent affair to the Gulf Wars.

British History Online: Although it might not be the most obvious place to look, British History Online has a strong collection of colonial materials. The highlights are the 41 volumes of the Calendar of State Papers Colonial for America and the West Indies, which detail papers covering the period of 1574 to 1739, and the Journals of the Board of Trade and Plantations, which describe the administrative and routine aspects of colonial policy from 1704 to 1782. All of British History Online’s colonial materials, which have been accurately transcribed from the original volumes, are freely available: www.british-history.ac.uk/catalogue/colonial.

Reviews in History: Reviews in History was launched in 1996, and publishes reviews and reappraisals of significant work in all fields of historical interest. We have nearly 200 reviews of books and digital resources covering North America, and you can find a full list Reviews in History.