In the post-Reformation world, the French and English kings utilised the Christian ministry of healing to buttress their legitimacy. These large scale recuperative ceremonies were deemed vital for preserving order and asserting divine ordination.
It was said that King Henry IV (1553–1610) of France laid hands on as many as 1,500 people in a single ceremony. Later, Charles II of England (1630–1685) touched more than 90,000 afflicted people.
“Touching for the king’s evil” was formally included as part of the service order in the 1662 edition of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.
It was also observed in Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1605).
A most miraculous work in this good King,
Which often since my here remains in England
I’ve seen him do. How he solicits heaven
Himself knows best; but strangely-visited people,
All swollen 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.
On July 6, 1660, King Charles II’s Royal Touch ceremony was witnessed by John Evelyn, an English nobleman. Evelyn shared the following observations:
“His Majesty sitting under his state [canopy] in the Banqueting-House, the chirurgeons [surgeons] caused the sick to be brought or led, up to the throne, where they kneeling, the 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 he healed them.’”
One contemporary pointed out that
“That divers persons desperately labouring under it [a debilitating skin disease] have been cured by the mere touch of the royal hand, assisted with the prayers of the priests of our Church attending, is unquestionable.”
Lee Huizenga argues,
Some of Europe’s most famous medieval medical men recommended the Royal Touch. John of Gaddesden (1280–1361), mentioned by Chaucer in his Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, spoke of it as a measure not to be overlooked in the treatment of scrofula and other skin diseases . . . There can be no doubt that some of the persons who received the Royal Touch were cured of their ailments.
The rite was practised by all the Tudor and Stuart kings with the single exception of William III. It reached its apex when some 100,000 people were touched by Charles II and James II. The practice ceased in England in 1712 but continued in some form in France until 1825.
In spite of the Reformation’s cessationist impulse, the ministry of healing was still embraced. It became an expression of authority and validation.