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Popular Superstitions - The King's Evil Cured By A Royal Touch

( Originally Published 1884 )

Having just seen Mr. Carte's "History of England," I found the following remarkable story, which he has laboriously introduced by way of note to illustrate his history a thousand years preceding. Speaking of the unction of kings, and the gift of healing the scrophulous humour call'd the king's evil, exercised by some European princes, anointed at their coronations, and succeeding lineally to their crowns by proximity of blood, he says : But whatever is to be said in favour of its being appropriated to the eldest descendant of the first branch of the royal line of the kings of France, England, etc., I have myself seen a very remarkable instance of such a cure, which could not possibly be ascribed to the regal unction.

One Christopher Lovel, born at Wells in Somersetshire, but when he grew up residing in the city of Bristol, where he got his living by labour, was extremely afflicted for many years with that distemper, and such a flow of the scrophulous humour, that tho' it found a vent by five running sores about his breast, neck, and arms, there was such a tumour on one side of his neck, as left no hollow between his cheek and the upper part of his left shoulder, and forced him to keep his head always awry. The young man was reduced, by the virulence of the humour, to the lowest state of weakness ; appeared a miserable object in the eyes of all the inhabitants of that populous city ; and having for many years tried all the remedies which the art of physick could administer, without receiving any benefit, resolved at last to go abroad to be touched. He had an uncle in the place, who was an old seaman, and carried him from Bristol, at the end of August, A.D. 1716, along with him to Cork in Ireland, where he put him on board a ship that was bound to St. Martin's in the isle of Ree. From thence Christopher made his way first to Paris, and thence to the place where he was touched, in the beginning of November following, by the eldest lineal descendant of a race of kings, who had indeed, for a long succession of ages, cured that distemper by the royal touch. But this descendant and next heir of their blood had not, at least at that time, been crowned or anointed. The usual effect, however, followed : from the moment that the man was touched and invested with the narrow ruband, to which a small piece of silver was pendant, according to the rites prescribed in the office appointed by the church for that solemnity, the humour dispersed insensibly, his sores healed up, and he recovered strength daily, till he arrived in perfect health, in the beginning of January following, at Bristol, having spent only four months and some few days in his voyage. There it was, and in the week preceding St. Paul's fair, that I saw the man, in his recovered vigour of body, without any remains of his complaint, but what were to be seen in the red scars then left upon the five places, where the sharp humour had found a vent, but which were otherwise entirely healed, and as sound as any other part of his body. Dr. Lane, an eminent physician in the place, whom I visited on my arrival, told me of this cure, as the most wonderful thing that ever happened; and pressed me as well to see the man upon whom it was performed, as to talk about his case with Mr. Samuel Pye, a very skilful surgeon, and I believe still living in that city ; who had tried in vain, for three years together, to cure the man by physical remedies. I had an opportunity of doing both ; and Mr. Pye, after dining together, carrying me to the man, I examined and informed myself fully of all particulars, relating as well to his illness as his cure; and found upon the whole, that if it is not to be deemed miraculous, it at least deserved the character, given of it by Dr. Lane, of being one of the most wonderful events that has ever happened. There are abundance of in-stances of the cure of the king's evil, by the touch of our English princes in former times, mentioned by Tucker in his book on that subject : and it is observable that the author was himself an infidel on that head, till convinced of his mistake by the late learned Mr. Anstis, garter-king-of-arms, who furnished him with those proofs out of the English records, which attest the facts, and are printed in that treatise. But I am apt to think there never was an instance in which the distemper had prevailed to an higher degree, or the surprizing cure of it was known to such infinite multitudes of people, as in the case of Christopher Lovel. (Vide book iv., p. 291.)

In your paper of the 7th I find a quotation from Mr. Carte's " History of England," of one Christopher Lovel of this city, whom the author affirms he saw after he had been cured of an inveterate king's-evil by the touch of a certain pretended r--I hand, when the skill of the most able physician and surgeon had proved ineffectual; and was surprized to see such an idle Ja te tale, calculated to support the old thread bare notion of the divine hereditary right of a certain house, which notion, I thought, had been long exploded by men of sense, and existed no where but in the brains of popish enthusiasts and credulous bigots.

The illustrious royal family now on the throne despise such childish delusions.

I have made a faithful enquiry into the story of this Lovel, and shall endeavour to prove the fallacy of it.

'Tis acknowledged that the rumour of this remarkable cure made a great noise in this city amongst the ignorant and disaffected. Great numbers visited the patient to be convinced of the truth of this miracle, and greedily swallowed the delusion ; as the doctrine of divine hereditary right had been industriously propagated for some years before. That high scorbutick ulcers will accidentally cicatrize and dry up, and afterwards break out in other parts of the body from unknown causes, every physician and surgeon well knows. But I will account for this cure in a natural way. Physicians and surgeons all agree, that change of air and diet, with a long course of exercise,* are the most probable means of removing or curing all chronick disorders. All these Lovel must necessarily have had from St. Martin's in France to Avignon, and back again to England : every day, nay, every hour he travelled, he must imbibe new columns of air. His food, which before was beef, pork, and such sort of coarse scorbutick diet, was thin light soups and vegetables. His drink at home was generally large draughts of ale and spirituous liquors ; whereas abroad it was water, or perhaps sometimes a little wine. This alteration of diet, with daily exercise, must doubtless have salutary influence upon his disease.

When he had been touch'd by the Pretender at Avignon, he was immediately put under the care of physicians and surgeons, who used their art upon him, imagining the latter more efficacious than the former. After near five months' absence he came back to Bristol, and declared himself healed by the touch. But, alas : his cure lasted but a short time; his sores broke out in many other parts of his body with violence : so he returned into France again in hopes of the same success, but the poor wretch never reach'd Avignon, but died miser-ably on the road.

This, upon my reputation, is the best history I can gain of Mr. Carte's tremendous miracle, which can be well attested, if required.

It is granted that this Lovel was in appearance cured of the king's evil ; but then his cure was only temporary. In the neighbourhood where he lived, and worked as a labourer (to turn the wheel for the pewterers), he had a very ill character in his morals, but of great pre-tended orthodoxy, and the divine hereditary right of an abjured family.

Can any man with a grain of reason believe, that such an idle, superstitious charm, as the touch of a man's hand, can convey a virtue sufficiently efficacious to heal so stubborn a chronick disorder, as an ulcerated inveterate evil?

SOME REMARKS ON A PRETENDED CURE PERFORMED UPON ONE DAVID WEST, OF BIRMINGHAM, BY AN ANGLE, IN A LETTER FROM BRISTOL.

The story is thus related : "One David West, of Birmingham, had been reduced to near the brink of the grave by a violent ulcerated king's-evil, had tried all imaginable means of physic and surgery with-out success, and expecting no human relief, gave himself up as a dying man. But early in the morning, May 29, 1749, accidentally and happily meeting with an handsome, genteel young gentleman, who enquired, what made him so dejected and melancholy ? West told him, it was his ill state of health, from which he expected a speedy death, as all the means he had used had proved ineffectual. The gentleman stranger, pitying his miserable condition, assured him he had a remedy at hand, which he would apply; and he doubted not of being successful, if West believed sincerely in the power, grace, and mercies of his Maker; to which David answered in the affirmative. Then he took hold of poor David's hands, and join'd them in a supplicating posture, and immediately very devoutly utter'd a Latin prayer ; then laying his hand upon his sores, and all the diseased parts, he pronounced these words, ' I touch, but God healeth.' Where upon, in about six hours after touching, the wounds ceased to run ; that by the nest morning they were crusted over ; and in a day or two more those incrustations, and all the scurf, gradually fell off, and in a short time afterwards, he became quite clean and sound, and so continues to be."

Every circumstance of this story discovers that it is a mere J te tale, calculated to raise in the minds of people the belief that the p-d-r and his family are favoured by heaven with supernatural means, to recover unhappy, patients from an otherwise incurable malady. The representation of the person of the young p-d-r is agreeable to what West paints his fine stranger to be, as the malcontents assert. Again, May 29 is the anniversary of the restoration of the S_______ family to the crown. Then the words formerly used by our superstitious kings, upon their touching, viz., "I touch, and God healeth," indubitably prove the base intention of this letter.

I have enquired, says the letter writer, into this tremendous affair, and am inform'd by a sensible gentleman of the town of Birmingham, that this same David West was very ill of the king's-evil, and is now recovered, but by what means he never heard;* that he actually declared that it was as above recited, but every honest sensible man of the town despised his story, as a visionary tale. The solemn words, 'I touch, but God healeth," were those our former kings always pronounced when they touched for the evil ; but this was never done but in the presence of a bishop or priest, who introduced the patient to the royal presence for that salutary intention. Then also a form of prayer for the divine blessing was used, and the king hung a small piece of silver about the person's neck, which he was required to wear during his life ; without which forms no person was ever before cured, as appears from our miracle-mongers. Now, in this case, neither of these important ceremonies were observed; no king, or pretended one, wrought this miracle, but the son only.

No author, not even Mr. Carte, who speaks of such pious frauds, allows the son a commission in the life-time of the father for exercising this miraculous power ; but now forsooth, to render the miracle the more convincing, the r-1 pr-ce is to be possest of this sanative commission to shew his right the stronger to the unbelieving people of this nation.

The author of this J___te miracle (first published in the Ch-r Courant) introduces his story of David West, by declaring the surprising cures reported to be performed by Glastonbury Waters, which he would fain make the credulous vulgar believe, are chiefly owing to the bodies of divers Saints, Martyrs, and other Popish devotees, antiently there deposited.

I have inquired into several of the mighty cures, which the publick has been from time to time imposed on, from these Glastonbury Waters, and cannot find that they have done anything more than common spring water would have done.

Two eminent physicians publickly declared, that upon tracing them to the originals reported to be cured by them, they have not found a single instance to be depended upon to be really so in fact, Chancellor (the dreamer of their virtues) is asserted to continue in as bad, or worse state of health, than he was before he used them. Infinite numbers, flocking superstitiously to the spring, have drank and used them by bathing and washing ulcers, swellings, and for all manner of disorders, for seven successive Sundays (required by Chancellor's dream) without the least benefit.

To return to the story of West. As there was not a third person present (though in the publick streets of that mighty populous town of Birmingham) when David was touch'd and cured of his evil, by this fine beautiful youth, the credit of this miracle solely depends upon his bare assertion for authority. I am informed he is now living and in health, and still persists in his story.

About three or four years ago, I remember how the publick papers rung of the miraculous cures performed by Bridget Bostock [see next section on " Witchcraft "], who, by stroking her patients with her own fasting spittle, and at the same time uttering a short prayer, instantaneously cured thousands labouring under all manner of bodily diseases ! As the ignorant vulgar are ever fond of miracles, this imposture had its votaries too, like Glaston Waters, and the Royal Touch ; but time and experience convinced them of their folly.

Your correspondent D. H., at p. 247 [see ante, p. 39], might have spared his assertion, that the "miraculous gift (of curing the King's Evil) was left to be claimed by the Stuarts," and that " our ancient Plantagenets were humbly content to cure the cramp," had he been acquainted with Dr. John Friend's " History of Physick." This learned physician will inform him, at pp. 267, 274, 5, 6, of vol. ii. 8vo., that Gilbert, called Anglicus, whom Bale places in 1210, though Leland says he was more modern, "in treating of a strumous swelling in the glands, tells us, that this disorder is otherwise called the King's-Evil, because Kings cure it. This account, however concise, from a physician, who seems not to have been led by any biass of interest, is sufficient to convince us, that the custom of touching was very early introduced by our Kings ; and, from this author's manner of expressing himself; it is very plain, that he looked upon it as a very ancient practice. There is reason to think, by what is here and there hinted in our English history, that this usage had, for some centuries at least, prevailed here ; and they who carry it up as far as the time of Edward the Confessor seem to have good grounds for their opinion ; at least, I do not see any proofs which can be brought against it. If the Monkish writers are supposed to be all partial, and inclined to flatter the crown, there are others whose veracity cannot be called in question. Sir John Fortescue, a very learned and wise man, in his defence of the title of Lancaster, just after Henry the Fourth's accession to the crown, represents the gift of healing as a privilege, which had, for time immemorial, belonged to the Kings of England : and he is so particular as to attribute this to the unction of their hands, which is used at the coronation : and therefore says, that Queens can have no such gift, because in this case that part of the ceremony is left out. How-ever, we know Queen Elizabeth thought herself so much a King, that, among other regal functions, she frequently exercised this. Arch-bishop Bradwardine, who died in 1348, and who appeals to the world for the cures performed by the royal touch, uses very strong expressions concerning the antiquity of it ; which surely he would never have done, had it been so modern ,it practice, as some think it." From p. 284, also, of this valuable history, we learn that John of Gaddesden, who flourished in 1320, exhorted persons in scrophulous cases "to apply to the King for the royal touch."

On looking over a friend's library lately in the country, I noticed the following curious and rare Tracts : the account may probably be interesting to some of your Readers.

The King's Evil Cured by a Royal Touch. 171

" The Ceremonies for the Healing of them that be diseased with the King's Evil, used in the time of King Henry VII. Printed by H. Hills, 1686, London."

" A Miracle of Miracles wrought by the Blood of King Charles the First, of happy Memory, upon a Mayd at Belford, foure Miles from London, who, by the Violence of the Disease called the King's Evill, was blinded one whole year ; but, by making use of a piece of Handkircher, dipped in the King's Blood, is recovered of her Sight, to the Comfort of the King's Friends and Astonishment of his Enemies : the Truth hereof many Thousands can testifie. London, 1649."

" A Letter sent to a noble Lord of this Kingdom from an eminent Divine, of a Great Miracle wrought by a piece of a Handkerchief, dipped in his Majesties Blood : the Truth whereof he himself saw, and is ready to depose it, and doth believe will be attested by 500 others, if occasion require. 1659."

" His Grace the Duke of Monmouth honoured in his Progress in the West of England ; in an account of a most Extraordinary Cure of the King's Evil, in a Letter from Crookhern, in the county of Somerset, from the Minister of the Parish and many others; signed, Henry Clerk, Minister John Starky, Clerk, and seven others. London, 1680." Single sheet.

"CHARISMA BASILICON; or, The Royal Gift of Healing Strumaes, or King's Evil ; by John Browne, Chirurgeon in ordinary to his Majesty. London, 1684."

" Authorities relating to the same collected, the parties and their relatives, by the Rev. Mr. Robert Watts, LL.D." MS.

It is to be hoped there are not so many afflicted at this time with that terrible affliction.

The following account of the ceremony of touching for the King's Evil, written evidently by an eye-witness, is translated from a book, entitled, "Relation, en forme de journal, du Voyage et Sejour que le serenissime et tres puissant Prince Charles II. Roy de la Grande Bretagne afait en Hollande, depuis le 25 May, jusq' au 2 juin, 1660. A la Haye, chez Adrian Vlacy, 1660." The portion of our history to which it belongs, the actors concerned in it, the minute particularity of its description, and the royal etiquette so ostentatiously observed by an exiled monarch in a republican state, may render it interesting to your readers. It may be compared with a communication which appeared in the Gentleman's Magazine, dated June, 1774, on the Auncient Ordre for hallowinge of the Crampe Rings [see ante, p. 33], where it is asserted, on the authority of Dr. Percy, that the gift of curing the King's Evil was claimed by none of our sovereigns prior to the Stuarts. The religious part of the ceremony, which took place on Sunday, May 30, 1660, may also be compared with the office At the Healing, in some of the early editions of the Book of Common Prayer. The assertion noticed at the end of this narrative, that to lose the coin appended to the neck of the patient, was to lose the benefit of the rite, seems to me a mere pretence, invented to account for some of the many cases of failure to which this method of cure must have been liable, if ever, from the force of an excited imagination, it could have been at all efficacious in removing such a disease as the scrophula.

After the sermon, several persons labouring under the King's Evil presented themselves, whom His Majesty was to touch, after several others, whom he had touched in private, on Friday and Saturday, the 28th and the 29th of this month. And as this ceremony is performed with circumstances very remarkable, and very different from those which accompany it in France, when the King there touches such patients, it will not be improper to relate here all the particularities ; constituting, as they do, an essential part of our narrative, which professes to omit nothing done by His Majesty at the Hague. But before we enter upon this recital, it will be necessary to disabuse the minds of those who believe that whatever the Kings of England do in this matter, is but a copy of what is done in France; and that it is only because of the pretension which they have to that crown, and in virtue of the title which they assume, and the arms of France which they, bear on their escutcheon, that they attribute to themselves a gift which belongs to the eldest son of the Church alone. For it is most certain that the King of Great Britain possesses this right and this advantage, not at all as King of France, although he takes that quality in his titles, but as King of England ; and because the Kings, his predecessors, have efficaciously exercised it from the reign of Edward the Confessor, that is, from the beginning of the 11th century, long before the Kings of England had declared that pretension, which they did, when Philip de Valois came to the crown. This ceremony is now performed in the manner which we are about to describe.

Those who are afflicted with the glandular disease called "the King's Evil," because the King cures it, are obliged to apply to his Majesty's first Surgeon, who examines them; and if he judges that theirs is the disease which the King cures, he appoints them a day and an hour to be in attendance at the Chapel, where the King is to touch them. As in France, thé ceremony of touching the sick takes place in the morning, after the King has received the Sacrament; so on this day it was performed at the Chapel of the Princess Royal, after the King had been present during a sermon and public prayer. The preaching being concluded, a large chair was placed for the King, at a little distance from the congregation. As soon as his Majesty was seated, one of his private Secretaries took his station on the right side of the chair, holding on his arm, or else in his right hand, as many " Angels," each suspended from a riband of white silk, as there were patients who had presented themselves to be touched. But as Angels, a gold coin so named from its being marked with the figure of an Angel, of the value of about two crowns and a half, are so rare, especially in these provinces, that there is a difficulty in procuring them, the King commonly uses, as he did on this occasion, half Caroluses, which are of the same value. The Chaplain, who has preached before the King, and who usually takes a text appropriate to the ceremony, goes through the succeeding office, and stands on the left of the chair, whilst the surgeon, with the patients, places himself in front, but at some distance from the King. Upon the occasion, however, of which we now speak, the text had nothing in common with the ceremony ; nor was it the clergyman who had preached that assisted at it, but Dr. Brown, Chaplain of the Princess Royal, who officiated throughout it, representing the King's Chaplain, as he had done on all similar occasions, at Breda, during the stay which his Majesty had made there.

After the King had taken his place, having the Secretary by his side, and the Surgeon in front of him, the Chaplain, who held in his hand the New Testament, chose the text of St. Mark's Gospel, chap. xvi. from the 14th verse to the end : and, in the meantime, the Surgeon, taking one of the patients by the hand, after each of them had made three low bows, came with him to kneel down before the King, close to the chair. And, whilst the Chaplain pronounced these words of that Gospel, " They shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall re-cover," the King put his hands on the two cheeks of the sick person. This being done, he who had been touched, retired, and they brought another sick person to the King, who touched him in the same manner; the Chaplain repeating the same words as often as there were patients whom the King touched, and who were brought, one after another, to the feet of his Majesty. The Surgeon, who remained on his knees whilst the King was touching, did not rise until the King had finished touching the last ; and he then again- made three low bows, and retired with the patients to the place where they were at first, and remained there until the Chaplain had finished reading the rest of the Gospel, the reading of which he did not go on with until after the King had touched the last of the sick. This being done, the Chaplain began another Gospel, taken from the 1st chapter of St. John's Gospel, from the 1st to the 15th verse : and whilst he read it, the Surgeon brought back the persons touched by the King, in the same manner as before ; and his Majesty, whilst the Chaplain was pronouncing these words of the Gospel, " That was the true light, which lighteth every man, that cometh into the world," taking from the hand of his private Secretary one of the Angels, suspended from a riband, hung it upon the neck of one of the sick, who approached in succession, as they had done, when the Surgeon presented them to be touched ; the Chaplain, also, repeating these words as often as there had been persons touched. After that, they all retired to their former station, and then the Chaplain finished reading the Gospel, as far as the verse already pointed out. Some other passages of the Holy Scriptures were then read, and the whole service was concluded by the Lord's Prayer, and by a prayer to God, that He would be pleased to bless the ceremony which the King had been performing.

The service being finished, the Gentleman Usher (Mr. Sandys at that time officiated) brought a basin, an ewer, and a napkin, and being accompanied by two noblemen, namely, the Lord Lionel Cranfield, Earl of Middlesex, and the Lord Henry Jermyn, whom the King has since created Earl of St. Alban's, presented the basin and ewer to the younger of the two, who placed himself on the left; the gentleman, who carried the napkin, taking the right of the older of the two lords. The latter being thus between them, they advanced in this order towards the King, and after making three low bows, they all three knelt before his Majesty ; and whilst the Earl of St. Alban's poured water on the King's hands, the Earl of Middlesex took the napkin from the Gentlemen Usher and presented it to his Majesty, who wiped his hands with it. After that, the two lords and the Gentleman Usher rose, made again three low bows to the King, and retired : the King then rose, also, and withdrew to the apartment of the Princess Royal.

It is well known that the King has very often touched sick persons both at Breda, where he touched 260 from Saturday the 17th of April, to Sunday the 23rd of May, and at Bruges and Brussels, during his stay there ; and the English confidently assert, not only that it was not without success, because it is the relief experienced which daily draws a great number of these patients, even from the most remote provinces of Germany, but also that not one of them is thus so perfectly cured as not to be attacked again by the same disease, if he be so unfortunate as to lose, by accident or otherwise, the coin which the King hangs about his neck, when he is touched : and without hope of recovering from it if he does not procure himself to be touched again, and to have another Angel hung about his neck. We should have had some reluctance in mentioning this particular, if several grave persons, whom one could not suspect of superstition or bigotry, had not spoken of it as of a fact of constant occurrence, and of which no doubt ought to be entertained.



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