1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/King's Evil

KING’S EVIL, an old, but not yet obsolete, name given to the scrofula, which in the popular estimation was deemed capable of cure by the royal touch. The practice of “touching” for the scrofula, or “King’s Evil,” was confined amongst the nations of Europe to the two Royal Houses of England and France. As the monarchs of both these countries owned the exclusive right of being anointed with the pure chrism, and not with the ordinary sacred oil, it has been surmised that the common belief in the sanctity of the chrism was in some manner inseparably connected with faith in the healing powers of the royal touch. The kings both of France and England claimed a sole and special right to this supernatural gift: the house of France deducing its origin from Clovis (5th century) and that of England declaring Edward th e Confessor the first owner of 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 vi. scene iii.). Nevertheless the practice of this rite cannot be traced back to an earlier date than the reign of Edward III. in England, and of St Louis (Louis IX.) in France; consequently, it is believed that the performance of healing by the touch emanated in the first instance from the French Crusader-King, whose miraculous powers were subsequently transmitted to his descendant and representative, Isabella of Valois, wife of Edward II. of England. In any case, Queen Isabella’s son and heir, Edward III., claimant to the French throne through his mother, was the first English king to order a public display of an attribute that had hitherto been associated with the Valois kings alone. From his reign dates the use of the “touch-piece,” a gold medal given to the sufferer as a kind of talisman, which was originally the angel coin, stamped with designs of St Michael and of a three-masted ship.

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. the use of an ablution was omitted, and a regular office was drawn up for insertion in the Service Book. At the “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 the touch-piece, pierced so that it might be suspended by a ribbon round the patient’s neck. Henry VII.’s office was henceforth issued with variations from time to time under successive kings, nor did it disappear from certain editions of 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 is stated on good authority to have touched over 100,000 strumous persons. So great a number of applicants becoming a nuisance to the Court, it was afterwards enacted that special certificates should in future be granted to individuals demanding the touch, and such certificates are occasionally to be found amongst old parish registers of the close of the 17th century. After the Revolution, William of Orange refused to touch, and referred all applicants to the exiled James II. at St Germain; but Queen Anne touched frequently, one of her patients being Dr Samuel Johnson in his infancy. The Hanoverian kings declined to touch, and there exists no further record of any ceremony of healing henceforward at the English court. The practice, however, was continued by the exiled Stuarts, and was constantly performed in Italy by James Stuart, “the Old Pretender,” and by his two sons, Charles and Henry (Cardinal York).  (H. M. V.)