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The King’s Touch

The history of this remarkable ceremony, which prevailed in England for seven hundred years, and in France much longer, seems much like a romance. But besides its unique romanticism, which might render it of interest as a curious study in folklore, it includes phases of occult law of importance to every student of philosophy and psychology, if not indeed to humanity at large. It is always instructive to review historic customs, beliefs and phenomena in the light of present knowledge. The working of the human mind in its multiform expressions, whether in the present era or in ages unlike it, is a real drama where "all the world's a stage."

The great modern discovery of the universal "reign of law" furnishes a powerful searchlight, by means of which we may look into and often illumine the dark corners of the past. The time was when events were supposed to happen, not especially in accord with law, but capriciously, or as the result of a special interposing "Providence," as the peculiar occasion required. The inviolability of the natural order both in the material and psychical realm, now so generally admitted, involves many logical reconstructions of opinion respecting the true interpretation of numberless undoubted facts. The historic verity of much which before has been unquestioned must now be denied, unless laws can be discovered, or rather recognized, under which actions and events took place. The science of today, therefore, has an important work to accomplish in finding the key to many unusual phenomena. Philosophy and psychology not only have concern with the underlying principles involved in manifestations of the present time, but also with the basic causes of the appearance, persistence, and disappearance of myths, delusions, and all other erratic transactions which have ruffled the surface of human experience. Their "why and wherefore " must be sought by every searcher after truth. The modern doctrine of the dominance of law has become so persistent that no unusual perturbation in human thought past or present can remain exempt from inquiry. Even a philosophical study of wholesale fanaticism may be not without profit. Begin research at whatever point we may, logical relations will .branch out in all directions. Everything— good, bad, or even false—is what it is, and comes when it does in response to the behest of law. Modern psychology shows that lines of sequence in the domain of mental activity are no less exact, even though more difficult to cognize, than those of the physical counterpart. Even if pure superstition give rise to significant result, it is worthy of attention.

The extent of former positive belief in the therapeutic efficacy of "the king's touch" can hardly be imagined, and is only revealed by a careful study of the records. For century after century it received the full assent of the most intelligent races and nations, and was sanctioned by the highest ecclesiastical authority. In the ritual of the Church of England "The Office for Touching" occupied a prominent place, and continued in the "Book of Common Prayer" until the year 1719. Kingly power and control, which included priestly prerogatives, were very near and real to the human mind down to a comparatively recent date. The king was king by virtue of divine right. Whatever the character of the man, kingly potency inhered in the office. As soon as firmly seated, the monarch was conceded to be heaven-appointed and divinely hedged about. Besides, in England at least, being officially the head of the church, he was a representative of religious authority.

Truly to interpret an age, it is necessary to put ourselves in its shoes, and direct our gaze from its stand-point, which is exceedingly difficult. To our rational, scientific and democratic vision the superstition of three hundred years ago seems childish and inane, but to the undeveloped citizen of that period its transactions were logical, vital and religious. Shakespeare, in "Macbeth," in the conversation of Malcolm and Macduff with the doctor of physic, incidentally reflects the thought of his time:

Malcolm: Comes the king forth, I pray you?

Doctor: Ay, sir; there are a crew of wretched souls
That stay his cure: their malady convinces
The great assay of art; but at his touch,
Such sanctity hath heaven given his hand,
They presently amend.

Malcolm: I thank you, doctor.

Macduff: What's the disease he means?

Malcolm: 'Tis call'd the evil:

A most miraculous work in this good king;
Which often, since my here-remain in England,
I have seen him do. How he solicits heaven,
Himself best knows: but strangely-visited people,
All swoln and ulcerous, pitiful to the eye,
The mere despair of surgery, he cures,
Hanging a golden stamp about their necks,
Put on with holy prayers: and 'tis spoken,
To the succeeding royalty he leaves
The healing benediction. With this strange virtue,
He hath a heavenly gift of prophecy;
And sundry blessings hang about his throne,
That speak him full of grace.

In a book published in 1684 by John Browne, "chirurgeon (surgeon) of his majesty's hospital, London," sixty cures are minutely and circumstantially described, as also, "many scrofulous tumors and sores which disappeared immediately." Browne was a practitioner of established reputation, for his book was stamped with the approval of the College of Physicians and the most eminent surgeons of the day.

The reliable historian, Evelyn, in his "Diary," volume second, page 15a, under date of July 6, 1660, says: "His Majesty began first to touch for ye evil according to custom, thus: his Majesty sitting under his state in the Banqueting-House, the surgeon cause the sick to be brought or led up to the throne, where they, kneeling, ye king strokes their faces or cheeks with both his hands at once, at which instant, a chaplain in his formalities, says, "He put his hands upon them and healed them."

Richard Wiseman, sergeant-surgeon to King Charles I., in one of his chirurgical treatises, says: "I myself have been a frequent eye-witness of many hundreds of cures performed by his majesty's touch alone without any assistance from chirurgery."

We may now cull a few representative statements from the multitude of histories and annals which are regarded as authentic and credible.

The first record of the exercise of the king's touch in England is that of Edward the Confessor (1042-1066) given by the historian Brompton. Stow, in his annals, also gives detailed accounts of them, beginning even with the first "cure." "The number was very large and increased every year."

Edward I. (1272) first introduced the practice of giving a gold or silver medal, called a "touch-piece." (Records of the Tower of London.)

Queen Elizabeth (1558-1603) touched extensively, great crowds often pressing about her as she journeyed from place to place.

Charles I. in 1630, by pompous proclamation, invited all who stood in need of a cure to repair to him "for the heavenly gift."

Charles II. between 1667 and 1682 has a record of touching 92,107 persons.

On March 30, 1714, Anne touched two hundred persons, among whom was Samuel Johnson, the future lexicographer, then thirteen months old. Touching was continued by the "Pretenders," and did not entirely cease in England earlier than 1745.1

The French kings claimed the gift of touching back as far as Clovis (481-511), and it continued as a royal prerogative down to Charles X., who "touched for the evil." (See the proces verbal, in the Ami de la Religion, vol. XIV., where every particular of the "cures effected" is set down in detail, and attested by Desgenettes of Notre-dame des Victoires.)

A few intermediate specimens may be added from the large number duly recorded and attested.

Philippe VI. le Valois (1328-1350) "cured fourteen thousand persons of the king's evil."

Henri IV. (1589-1610) "touched and healed about fifteen thousand persons a year." So says Andre Larent, the king's physician and counselor, in his book on the royal prerogative, published in 1609.

Louis XIV. (1643-1715) in one year touched sixteen hundred sufferers.

Similar statements might be multiplied to any extent from reliable records and attestations.

In a brief, impartial attempt to interpret these long continued public events, there seems to be good ground for believing:

First, that the people, from king down to the humblest subject, including the medical profession, were substantially unanimous and sincere in the belief of " the divine gift" as pertaining to the kingly office.

Second, that probably no one will now believe that the king had any special healing power per se, or even that he was a passive divine channel in any greater degree than any of his subjects, other things being equal. The kingly prerogative was therefore an unmitigated superstition.

Third, that there were unnumbered cures. There is a mountain of testimony to that effect, and no general or specific contemporaneous denial. The main disease (scrofula) upon which the supposed gift was exercised was of such a determined and visible character that any universal mistake regarding the facts is manifestly impossible. Unlike any obscure or invisible nervous derangement, the disorder in question was tangible and thoroughly in evidence. While it is unnecessary to believe that every case was immediately and fully healed, the general rule and tendency must have been very marked to gain both popular and professional attestation.

The premises of the problem now presented seem to be as follows: (1) Universal sincerity; (2) No unusual power resided in the office, per se; and (3) Undoubted evidence for centuries of important results.

It therefore seems clear that all the wonderful therapeutic potency demonstrated must have been psychically resident in the living faith and confident expectancy of the disordered sufferers. There was a peculiar and very positive mental activity, even though awakened by, and having for its basis, pure superstition. If such faith and expectancy through any law of mind are so efficient for good, the questions naturally come to the modern investigator: Can they be awakened in any more rational and orderly way than through superstition? Do greater light and knowledge put us at a disadvantage in comparison with an age of comparative ignorance and superstition? While this force of the past cannot be reinvoked, may it not have a possible lesson for us? Faith has been conventionally regarded as little else than a changeable religious emotion, but now the question naturally arises, can it not be cultivated in an orderly, systematic and scientific way? Is it not possible that a more lengthened mental concentration upon a sought ideal, voluntarily undertaken, may have something of the same potency that resided in the temporary use of superstition? An investigation in this line ought to be inviting to every inquiring mind.

Let us imagine a case in concrete form. An ignorant peasant, with mind sluggish and despondent, vital energies at a low ebb, and offensive physical disfigurement, comes for the king's touch. Perhaps brought from a long distance with much difficulty, the long expected day, the most important of his whole life, arrives. Filled with awe and wonder, he knows that his salvation is at hand, and he entertains no doubt or unbelief. He has thought, and for a long time will think, of nothing else. Amid dramatic, kingly and ecclesiastical pomp the great transaction is complete. Dormant and unconscious emotional forces are stirred into intense activity, and ideals of that great boon, health, displace all else. Amid the thrill of a new enthusiasm which penetrates to the depth of his being, the consciousness of disorder is crowded out, and the body lawfully responds to the inherent force of mind over matter.

Can the individual of today, without the impelling force of superstition, and in the absence of imposing pomp, through an intelligent psychological cultivation approximate the same result? Even if such a disorder as scrofula would not always quickly respond, may not the potency of mental forces be systematically employed with profit? What about the subtle types of nervous derangement, which are so rapidly increasing, especially in America? It would appear that orderly truth in the nineteenth century ought to include as much potency for good as the dramatic superstition of three centuries ago.

Institutional science, with its modern wealth of laboratory equipment, gives much attention to speculative and phenomenal experiment in psychology. Why may it not also make a little investigation into a more practical realm, which would include therapeutic possibilities? Whether or not entirely conventional, the world, struggling under a great burden of woes, sorely needs every helpful influence that can be brought to bear for their amelioration. No one will claim that all possible laws and principles have yet been utilized. Whatever is true, even if seemingly somewhat occult in character, must have some fitting place and use in the evolutionary economy, and possess a certain significance in its relation to human welfare.


  1. For some of these and the following details credit is due to Brewer's "Dictionary of Miracles."

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Henry Wood

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