"King's evil" is an old name given to scrofula
, a tubercular infection of the lymph gland
s in the throat
. It was widely believed that the monarch
s of England
had the power to miraculously cure this affliction by touching, hence the name.
The house of France claimed its power from Clovis (5th century) and that of England declared Edward the Confessor (1003-1066) the first English monarch with this virtue. That the Saxon origin of the royal power of healing was the popular theory in England is evident from the striking and accurate description of the ceremony in Macbeth (act iv. scene iii.).
However, there is no documentary evidence of this practice prior to the reign of Edward III in England (1312-1377), and of St. Louis (Louis IX, 1214-1270) in France. The actual ceremony seems first to have consisted of the sovereign's personal act of washing the diseased flesh with water, but under Henry VII in England (1457-1509) the washing was omitted, and a regular office was drawn up for insertion in the Service Book. At those "Ceremonies for the Healing" the king now merely touched his afflicted subject in the presence of the court chaplain, who offered up certain prayers and afterwards presented a "touchpiece" a talisman pierced so that it might be worn on a ribbon round the patient's neck. The touchpiece was a gold angel coin, stamped with designs of St. Michael and of a three-masted ship.
The ceremony initiated by Henry VII was used in England with some changes, and persisted in the Book of Common Prayer until the middle of the 18th century. The practice of the Royal Healing seems to have reached the height of its popularity during the reign of Charles II, who some say touched a total of as many as 90,000 to 100,000 people for this disease. It is said that the enthusiasms generated were so great that at one such ceremony there was a stampede in which 6 people were trampled to death.
The last English monarch to touch for scrofula was Queen Anne (Stuart), 1665 - 1714. One of her patients was Dr Samuel Johnson in his infancy. He was in fact healed, and he carried the touchpiece on his person for the rest of his life.
Thereafter the affliction was treated by lancing the swollen glands, which left conspicuous scars. It is now treated with antibiotics. See scrofula.
Did this odd form of alternative medicine
"work?" That is, did the king's or queen's touch actually cure
scrofula? The asserted hereditary
power died out with the Stuart
s in England (Anne was the last) and at the Revolution
, of course, in France, so we cannot now test this treatment. People at the time of Charles II certainly believed that it worked or could work; doubtless, to generate this belief, some people really were cured in this fashion. From here it is impossible to evaluate these claims.