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  • Writer's pictureJ.D. King

Long Ago—When French and English Kings Healed the Sick

Updated: Jan 24


Charles II praying for healing

In the post-Reformation era, both French and English monarchs strategically harnessed the Christian ministry of healing to strengthen their tenuous legitimacy. The uncertainty surrounding the Pope's authority cast a shadow on every ruler in the Western world.


Amidst the tumultuous age, the royal healing ceremonies became pivotal. These public displays were thought to be essential for kings to maintain order and bolster their claim of "divine ordination." The underlying message of these events was unmistakable: a leader with heavenly authority deserves unquestioning allegiance.


The roster of French and English monarchs engaging in this healing rite is extensive. Notable examples include Henry IV (1553–1610) of France, who conducted elaborate public ceremonies, laying hands on up to 1,500 individuals in a single session. Decades later, Charles II of England (1630–1685) surpassed Henry's outreach, personally touching over 90,000 of his ailing citizens.


This unique Church/State practice, termed "touching for the king’s evil," was officially integrated into the service order in the 1662 edition of the Church of England's Book of Common Prayer.[1] For a while, healing held an official status in the Anglican liturgy.


Edward the Confessor ministering to the sick

The public healing ceremonies, conducted alongside Anglican (or the Roman Catholic) officials, were a vital part of the political and social fabric of society. The royal touch shows up in places people would never expect to see it. I know many are surprised to see it in Shakespeare. In Macbeth (1605), the bard alludes to the royal touch—portraying King Edward the Confessor (1002-1066) as a miraculous healer. The script of Macbeth reads as follows:

 

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.[2]

 

Contemporary analysts may find this ritual peculiar, yet it held a cherished place in centuries past. Countless tradesmen and nobles bore witness to the ceremony, expressing favorable sentiments about its significance. On July 6, 1660, John Evelyn, an English nobleman, attended Charles II's "royal touch" ceremony and shared a few of his observations. He wrote:

“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.’”[3]

 

Many attested to the effectiveness of the royal touch. They believed that God was, in fact, working through the monarchs. In fact, one of the influential Anglican bishops declared the following:


“That divers persons desperately laboring 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.”[4]

Henry IV touching 575 people in Reims during the Holy Week of 1606

Those who look at the royal touch through the lens of the so-called "enlightened" perspective of our modern era often find themselves perplexed. Yet, the undeniable truth prevails, leaving even the most skeptical academics compelled to recognize it. Take Lee Huizenga, for instance, who highlights that

“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.”[5]

The mystique of the royal touch reverberated across Europe, sparking captivating discussions about the Church and state. What does it mean to be supernaturally ordained and blessed by God? Does a healer hold special authority?


In England, the laying on of hands in the name of Christ was practiced by all Tudor and Stuart kings, except William III. It had reached its pinnacle in the British Isles when Charles II and James II collectively touched 100,000 people. Although the royal touch faded in England in 1712, the practice continued in France until 1825.

 

History reminds us that the wonder of Jesus shows up in many unexpected places.





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[1] The ceremony was later removed from the Book of Common Prayer in the eighteenth century.

[2] William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Macbeth, Act IV, Scene 3, ed. E.K. Chambers (Toronto: Morang Educational Company, 1907), 88.

[3] John Evelyn, “July 6, 1660,” Diary and Correspondence of John Evelyn (London: Henry G. Bohn Publisher, 1862), 357.

[4] Bishop Bull, speaking on Paul’s thorn in the flesh, referenced in Thomas Boys. The Suppressed Evidence, or Proofs of Miraculous Faith and Experience the Church of Christ of All Ages (London: Hamilton, Adams and Company, 1832), 319–320.

[5] Lee Huizenga, “The King’s Evil,” International Journal of Leprosy 5:2 (1937), 177, 178.

 

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