In times before modern science and medicine the world was a terrifying place. The looming fear of one’s mortality in the face of illness or simple wounds was ever present. The worst part was probably the inability to explain the cause or reason for these sudden illnesses. Many misunderstood illnesses came in waves over the centuries, the Black Death of course being one. The lesser known such as ‘Sweating sickness’ was catastrophic to the English in the 15th century but is still remains a medical mystery to this day. But one that stands out for its frequent returns and the bizarre theories it generated from the people of the time. Scrofula was rampant throughout Europe, infecting hundreds of thousands of people during the frequent outbreaks.
Let’s start with the modern knowledge and work backwards. Scrofula, known as mycobacterial cervical lymphadenitis or tuberculous cervical lymphadenitis is a bacterial infection that causes swelling in the lymph nodes, particularly the neck. The swelling is painless and lacks the heat associated with abscesses, turning purple-ish over time. The illness can also be caused by tuberculosis in this case symptoms included fever, chills and malaise. Typically it will present in 10% of tuberculosis cases. In both cases the skin can rupture to form open wounds that become cavities which can lead to more serious infections. It’s more commonly contracted by those who are immunocompromised and saw an unpredicted rise in cases during the AIDS crisis. The treatment for Scrofula nowadays is simply antibiotics which are prescribed over 6 months and once the bacteria is killed a doctor may surgically remove the mass.
Now we’ve briefly outlined the medical science lets dive right into the history. Scrofula is recorded as far back as ancient Greece, where it was treated by regularly disinfecting and draining the wound or removing parts of the swelling when possible. However the treatments become more bizarre as we enter medieval and early modern history.
Cases in England go back to pre-1066, it was during the reign of Edward the Confessor when a strange ‘cure’ was assigned. Edward met with a suffer and touched the man’s swollen neck, he ordered the man should be cared for at his expense until he was well. The man indeed recovered. Likely thanks to the medical treatment and king’s charity of course. But this also kick started a ritual that would last centuries. The royal touch; a ceremony in which the monarch would present himself to a gathering of those afflicted with the illness and touch them. The reason for this was partially genuine belief of its power to help and politics. The belief of the divine right of kings was very much a firm belief for centuries, people believed that the reigning monarch was given their role by divine right. God put them in their place by birth or via victory in war. It was therefore the mind-set that the monarch may be blessed with other divinely bestowed rights, in this case the ability to trigger a person to recover from Scrofula. This was not wide spread in Europe however, only English and French kings made the claim of possessing the ability to cure the illness by touch. Did it help? Well, in a literal sense, no. However Scrofula was not fatal, most people recovered. The illness would go into remission given other medical treatments after a few months. This gave just the right impression that the royal touch played a role in their recovery.
Politics factor in increasingly from the 12th century onward during key moments in the monarchy’s history. Having this ceremony to prove your divine right was a statement of power and legitimacy to their claim to the throne. It also served as giving the public the impression that the monarch was performing an act of piety by which they demonstrated care for their subjects. Elizabeth I’s attitudes to the ceremony are a good example. She showed reluctance to partake in the touching ceremonies, perhaps doubting the legitimacy of the practice or perhaps because she was fearful of becoming infected. Regardless to the reasons for her initial reluctance she had a change of heart when she was excommunicated in 1570, taking the opportunity to show her divine right as monarch by ‘curing’ the sick. Therefore legitimising herself as monarch despite the European and papal conflict. In France the same legitimisation can be found, when Henry IV inherited the throne he didn’t have a smooth start to his reign. Many of his people where opposed to him due to having only recently converted to Catholicism. He was the first Bourbon king of France, having a thin claim to the throne going back to the 13th century. Which didn’t convince the people in 1589. So he capitalised on the royal touch to curry favour. He claimed as king he was given the gift of healing by God, which would prove his right to ruling France. A mere 2 weeks after his coronation he performed a touching ceremony, allegedly ‘healing’ many people. Validating him further to his kingdom. The French also where bolder then the English in their ceremonies, encouraging thousands to visit. People came from all over France to be healed by touch. Louis XIV claimed to have healed 1,600 people in one ceremony in 1680. Which blows Henry VIII’s 7 per year out of the water. The French where bold enough to claim even in death their kings could cure Scrofula, the arm of Saint Louis IX was taken from his tomb to heal sick pilgrims from as far as Italy and Spain.
Example of an ‘Angel coin’ given as a means of dispensing the Royal Touch
Touching ceremonies could be time consuming, on occasion other methods of dispensing this royal touch where adopted for the more squeamish rulers. For example the use of gold coins where used by Henry VIII, James I and Charles I as a proxy for touch. The monarch would touch specially designed coins to be given to those suffering from scrofula so they could he worn around the neck. These ‘Angel coins’ where designed with the image of Archangel Michael slaying a dragon. Unfortunately this came with one problem. What poor man would say ‘no’ to a golden coin with healing powers? Pretenders would come to ceremonies to receive a coin to keep or sell off to a person who could not attend the mass healing.
Obviously the cure was not always left souly to being healed by Royal touch. Many with Scrofula couldn’t attend the ceremonies due to distance, time or limited numbers of people being tended. Those who practiced medicine believed Scrofula was a manifestation of a person committing thee sin of gluttony and therefore prescribed a treatment that would cleanse the body of the sin. This treatment required a change in diet. The patient would be advised to abstain from rich foods and wines as well as avoiding foods such as onions and garlic which “filled the head with fumes”. It was also instructed that people should avoid becoming strongly emotional with anger or worry. Herbal remedies where also adopted to ease the infection. Pastes where made of lily roots, honey or figs to spread on the swelling. Additional medical practices noted the need to make consistent incisions in the swelling to clean and reseal the characteristic legions or ruptures. Bloodletting was also popular, for centuries it was a favoured treatment to just about anything. But that’s likely ineffective. The less said about archaic doctor’s obsession with bloodletting the better. These cures are more likely to have results, in a practical sense. It is also more likely that these are treatments that most underwent either with or without the added bonus of the Royal Touch. The belief in the power of the monarch’s ability to heal may well have not been a firm belief of everyone, just an added bonus to accompany treatment or potentially meaningless to some who lived in far off cities in which the contact and personal attachment to the ruler was limited.
The Royal Touch went out of fashion in the late 18th century after years of decline. Royal houses had been shaken up beyond recognition and the belief of the divine right of rulers in turn had become a relic of a darker age. People began to desire royals who could practice politics in their own rights, taking on council and public concerns. The idea of divine right had no place if a monarch was making informed choices with a more powerful government. Its stated best in an article published in an English newspaper (The General Evening Post) in 1748. “The illustrious Royal Family now on the Throne despise such childish Delusions, such little pious Frauds, to prove their Divine Right to the Crown. They act upon noble Principles; they want no chicanery to support their Throne.”