The medieval era was a horrible time to be alive, with all manner of unpleasant and disfiguring diseases raging the public with no known cures, leaving the hands of a king as their last hope for salvation.
Although the medieval era was a pretty horrible time to be alive for many reasons, one reason in particular was the medical solution available for healing one of the worst skin diseases that existed at the time: scrofula, or alternatively, the “king’s evil.”
Scrofula is a form of tuberculosis that targets the lymph nodes in the neck, resulting in large growths that expand over time. Although not fatal, scrofula was disfiguring, with the only known cure in existence at the time being the touch of a king.
By the 11th century, kings touching peasants afflicted with this disease was legitimized as the only known medical cure for scrofula in both England and France. Centuries later, Shakespeare included the royal touch in a scene in Macbeth, during which a physician informs Malcolm and Macduff that King Edward the Confessor was busy touching the scrofula-afflicted peasants in his antechamber with his divinely inherited—and thus divinely legitimized—healing hands.
In fact, the healing touch of the king was one of the most established means of legitimizing a king’s rule, as his ability to cure scrofula, as well as a few other unknown, yet similarly unpleasant skin ailments of the day, were used as one of the true signs of a king’s divine right to rule.
The divine right to rule as demonstrated by healing hands became cemented as monarchical practice after Edward the Confessor and Philip I in the 11th century. Following these kings, the royal capacity to heal was seemingly passed down through the blood line from parent to child, establishing the legitimacy of the divine right to rule within a single family’s lineage.
Continuing as monarchical practice for 700 years in England and 800 years in France, the king’s touch was also used to help increase the popularity of some rather unpopular rulers at varying points throughout history.
In England, most kings would somewhat randomly touch only a few afflicted peasants a year, with the marked exception of Henry IV, who touched a staggering 1500 scrofula victims in one ceremony alone.
With Charles II in the 17th century, the touching got serious. During his 25-year reign, Charles II touched some 92,000 scrofula patients, averaging about 4500 a year. And this seriousness in his approach to touching his subjects was largely due to Charles II’s vast unpopularity among them.
During the English civil war, Charles II’s father, Charles I, had been beheaded in 1649. Just 2 years later, Charles II was defeated in battle by Oliver Cromwell in 1651, causing Charles II to flee to mainland Europe for the next 9 years of Cromwell’s reign. Due to the turmoil that followed Cromwell’s death in 1660, Charles II was invited back to England to rule, and began his healing hands extravaganza to ingratiate himself into the good graces of his many disfigured subjects once more.
And Charles II could hardly get scrofula patients in through the palace gates fast enough to obtain his objective of establishing his divine right to the throne. When Queen Anne died in 1714, Charles II’s House of Stuart were forced into exile once again. This time, his followers worked overtime to spread the word that the miracle of the healing hands of the House of Stuart proved that God had ordained their place on the throne.
During the 18th century, the House of Stuart launched several Jacobite rebellions in order to reclaim their supposedly divinely established station in England. Yet this time, healing hands proved not enough to legitimize them, making the lore of the divine right to rule via scrofula-stroking a thing of the past.
Kang L, Pedersen N. Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything. New York, NY: Workman Publishing; 2017.