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Richard’s last Easter in 1485….

 

Easter is here again, and in these modern times it is only too often thought of as a time of pretty bunnies, fluffy chicks, chocolate eggs, hot cross buns and the joys of spring. But in the past it was a very different occasion, for it was the most important time of the year for the Christian church, because it marked Holy Week. Many of us still regard it in this more solemn light, of course, but what was it like in the time of Richard III? In particular, what did Richard himself do at this particular time?

I confess here and now that a lot of what follows has been paraphrased from John Ashdown-Hill’s Last Days of Richard III, in which a great many more details can be found.

funeral-of-anne-of-bohemia

Not Anne Neville, but Anne of Bohemia, a century earlier

In 1485, Easter came only a week or so after Queen Anne’s death (Wednesday, 16th March) and Richard must have been feeling bereft and alone. He had lost his son, and now his wife. . .and the king’s Easter duties had to be attended to. I doubt if he felt like doing anything except shut himself away to grieve, but that was not allowed.

On Sunday, 27th March, Richard must have appeared in public for the Palm Sunday procession at Westminster. It was the beginning of Holy Week, and Richard had to attend to certain religious obligations, not least the traditional “touching” for the disease known as the King’s Evil, better known to us now as scrofula. The ritual had been enacted in England since at least the time of Henry II, and was not confined to Easter, but Holy Week was the main occasion. English and French kings were believed to have healing hands that could cure sufferers; only for scrofula, not for any other condition. And first, the monarch had confessed, received absolution and taken Holy Communion, so that he was in a state of grace.

the king touching for scrofula

Then, when he was seated, the sufferers came before him one by one. He washed his hands and then touched the terrible sores of each person. At the same time, a chaplain chanted “Super egros manus imponent et bene habebunt.” (“They will lay their hands upon the sick and they will recover.” Mark 11:18.)

Henry VIII curing the king's evil

Henry VIII curing the King’s Evil

When each person had received the royal touch (perhaps one of the new gold angels, with the Archangel Michael on one side, and “Per crucem tuam salva nos Christe Redemptor” (“Christ, Redeemer, save us by your cross”) on the other.

Richard’s ordeal may not have been as great as those afflicted with this dreadful ailment, but it was bad enough because on Wednesday, 30th March, he had to appear at the Priory of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem (Knights Hospitallers) in Clerkenwell to publicly deny that he intended to marry his niece, Elizabeth of York. And this so swiftly upon Anne’s death.

The next day, Maundy Thursday, he must have appeared at St Paul’s Cathedral for the mass of the Last Supper. After a reading from John 13, it was the ancient custom for the monarch to don an apron and go down on his knees to wash the feet of thirty-two poor men – one for every year of Richard’s life. He then presented them with the apron he had worn and the towel with which he had dried them. “Additional gifts followed, including for each man a gown, a hood, a pair of shoes, bread, fish, wine and a purse containing thirty-two silver pennies.”

Maundy-Thursday

On the first day of the new month of April, Richard performed the penitential rite of ‘creeping to the Cross’. This required him to “prostrate himself, and then—without getting up, “slowly approach the symbol of the crucifixion” in a semi-prostrate condition.

There was more, but this is enough to show how much was demanded of the monarch during Holy Week. And in this particular year, 1485, it must have been particularly harrowing for Richard. It was also the last time he would ever see Easter, for on 22nd August that year he died at Bosworth.

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Did Richard “touch” for the King’s Evil…?

I have just bought an interesting and absorbing  book, the ‘Encyclopaedia of Superstitions’ by E & M Radford, originally published in 1949.

Reaching the section on the King’s Evil (scrofula, which was believed to be cured by the touch of the monarch) I read: ‘The practice was introduced by Henry VII of presenting the person “touched” with a small gold or silver coin.” It seems that Dr Johnson was given one that had St George and the Dragon on one side and a ship on the other. Some of them have a hole pierced through them, so they could be worn around the neck.

Intrigued, I Googled “touch piece” and found other sites, including the following, which has  an excellent photograph of several such coins. http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/broughttolife/objects/display?id=4546

Another much more detailed article about these touch pieces at https://francisyoung.wordpress.com/2016/01/21/the-gold-angel-legendary-coin-enduring-amulet/

My question is, did Richard ever “touch” those with scrofula? I know his reign was very brief, but even so, did he find time to do this?

Henry's touchpieces

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).

Scrofula

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.

M0011314 King's evil; Edward the confessor touching for the evil.

 

Scrofula image credit: See page (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AScrofula.jpeg) for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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