Persons of royal blood were thought to have the “God given” power of healing by this condition by touch, and sovereigns of England and France practised this power to cure sufferers of scrofula, meaning “Swine Evil” as it was common in pigs form of tuberculosis of the bones and lymph nodes, commonly known as the “King’s or Queen’s Evil” or “Morbus Regius.” In France it was called the “Mal De Roi.” Curiously William the Lion, King of Scotland is recorded in 1206 as curing a case of Scrofula by his touching and blessing a child who had the ailment. Charles I touched around 100 people shortly after his coronation at Holyrood in 1630. It was only rarely fatal and was naturally given to spontaneous cure and lengthy periods of remission. Many miraculous cures were recorded and failures were put down to a lack of faith in the sufferer. The original Book of Common Prayer of the Anglican Church contained this ceremony. This divine power descended from Edward the Confessor, who, according to some legends, received it from Saint Remigius.
The custom lasted from the time of Edward the Confessor to the reign of Queen Anne, although her predecessor, William III refused to believe in the tradition and did not carry out the ceremony. James II and James Francis Edward Stuart, the Old Pretender, performed the ceremony. Charles Edward Stuart, the “Young Pretender,” is known to have carried out the rite in 1745 at Glamis Castle during the time of his rebellion against George II and also in France after his exile. Finally Henry Benedict Stuart, the brother of Charles, performed the ceremony until his death in 1807. All the Jacobite Stuarts produced special touch piece medalets, with a variety of designs and inscriptions. They are found in gold, silver and even lead.
Robert the Pious or Robert II of France was the first to practise the ritual in the 11th century. King Henry IV of France is reported as often touching and healing as many as 1,500 individuals at a time. No record survives of the first four Norman kings attempting to cure by touching, however we have records of Henry II doing so. Mary I performed the ceremony and her half-sister, Elizabeth I, cured all ranks and degrees and William Tooker published a book on the subject, entitled Charisma; sive Donum Sanationis.
Queen Anne, amongst many others, touched the 2-year-old infant Dr. Samuel Johnson in 1712 to no effect, for although he eventually recovered he was left badly scarred and blind in one eye. He wore the medal around his neck all of his life and it is now preserved in the British Museum. It was believed that if the touch piece was not worn then the condition would return. Queen Anne last performed the ceremony on 30 March 1712. George I put an end to the practice as being “too Catholic.” The kings of France continued the custom until 1825. William of Malmesbury describes the ceremony in his Chronicle of the Kings of England (1120) and Shakespeare describes the practice in MacBeth.
The gold Angel coins, which were first struck in Britain in 1465 and later dates, particularly of the reigns of James I and Charles I, are often found officially pierced in the centre as illustrated in Coins of England 2001 to be used as touch pieces. The sovereigns of the House of Stuart used the ceremony to help bolster the belief in the “Divine Right of Kings.” Charles I indeed issued Angels almost exclusively as touch pieces to the point where intact specimens are hard to come by. He was the first monarch to perform the ceremony in Scotland at Holyrood Palace on 18 June, 1633. The size of the hole may indicate the amount of gold taken in payment by the jeweller or the mint for the work of piercing or punching and the provision of a ribbon or silk string.
The cure was usually more of a “laying on of hands” by the monarch and the Angel coin or medalet, etc., although touched by the monarch, was seen as a receipt or talisman of the potential of the monarch’s healing power. Originally the king had paid for the support of the sufferer until he had recovered or died. The move to the gift of a gold coin touch piece may represent the compromise payment when the custom of “room and board” support by the king ceased. Coffee in the 18th and early 19th centuries was thought to be a relief, but not a cure for scrofula.
The Angel coin was favoured at these ceremonies because it has on the obverse an image of St. Michael slaying the Devil represented as a dragon (actually a heraldic Wyvern). St. Michael, especially venerated for his role as captain of the heavenly host that drove Satan out of Heaven, was also associated with the casting out of devils and thus was regarded as a guardian of the sick.
The monarch him/herself hung these touch piece amulets around the necks of sufferers. In later years Charles II only touched the medalet as he unsurprisingly disliked touching diseased people directly. He “touched” 92,107 people in the 21 years from 1661 to 1682, performing the function 8,500 times in 1682 alone.
After these coins ceased to be minted in 1634, Charles II had holed gold medalets specially produced by the mint with a similar design of good defeating evil. An example of a medalet in the British Museum has a hand descending from a cloud towards four heads, with “He touched them” around the margin, and on the other side a rose and thistle, with “And they were healed.”
Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary for 13 April 1661: To Whitehall to the Banquet House and there saw the King heale, the first time that ever I saw him do it — which he did with great gravity; and it seemed to me to be an ugly office and a simple one. John Evelyn, the great diarist and friend of Samuel Pepys also refers to the ceremony in his diary on the dates of 6 July 1660 and 28 March 1684.
Unsurprisingly the system was open to abuse and numerous attempts were made to ensure that only the deserving cases got the gold coin, because others would simply sell it.