The King’s Evil (Oh no, he isn’t!)
Please excuse the title, but it is pantomime season!
I was fascinated when I first heard about ‘The King’s Evil’ (the ‘Evil’ in the phrase is a noun, not an adjective). It was the common name for the disease Scrofula, which was any of a variety of skin diseases; in particular, a form of tuberculosis, affecting the lymph nodes of the neck. and was characterised by abscess-like swellings on the sufferer’s neck (tuberculous cervical lymphadenitis).
In England, from the time of Edward the Confessor right up until 1712 (Queen Anne), this condition was ‘cured’ by the ‘King’s touch’ or later the ‘Monarch’s Touch’. It was believed that the rightful King (or Queen) of England, being chosen and anointed by God, possessed the power to heal by the laying on of hands. Richard III, therefore, may well have taken part in this ritual. Originally, it wasn’t just scrofula that was treated but other conditions such as blindness, fevers, convulsions, goitre and rheumatism. From the reign of Elizabeth I it was only scrofula which was ‘healed’.
The cure was used by many monarchs who were insecure in their reign to ‘prove’ their right to power, by healing. Henry VII was one such who continued its use, as did Elizabeth I, after she was excommunicated, to show she was still legitimately the monarch.
Edward IV introduced the practice of giving the sufferers ‘touch-pieces’ which were Gold Medallions, known as Gold ‘Angels’ because of the depiction of the Archangel Michael slaying a dragon on one side – the other side showed a ship). The ‘Angels’ themselves, having been touched by the king, were also thought to have healing powers and some were sold on for cash later. The procedure was as follows:
Firstly, the king would touch or stroke the head and neck of the person.
Secondly, he would hang a Gold Angel medal around their neck – they were supposed to wear it constantly to effect the cure.
Thirdly, readings from the gospels of Mark and John would be read, which included the following section: “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.” Mark 16:18. This was obviously relevant to the event.
Finally, prayers were offered to God, the Virgin Mary and the Saints.
Many people could be cured in one ceremony, as many as 300 (Queen Anne). Charles II was the most prolific, touching an average of 4,500 people a year.
The only other Christian country to have this ritual was France.
You might be wondering how this practice could possibly work and thus ‘prove’ a king’s right to the throne. Apparently the symptoms of scrofula often go into remission by themselves, so it seemed that this ‘cure’ was brought about by the king’s touch. And one must not ignore the placebo effect, since the mind has a great influence over the body.
Scrofula image credit: See page (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AScrofula.jpeg) for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons