Healing touch

24th January 2003 at 00:00
Edward the Confessor did it. So did Henrys VII and VIII. Louis XIV wore himself out one Easter Sunday with an impressive 1,600 performances. But he does not hold the world record - that went to Charles II, who is thought to have done it 100,000 times during his reign.

All these monarchs believed themselves endowed with a healing touch. Across Europe different rulers had different medical specialities. Hungarian kings were good with jaundice and insanity. French, Hapsburg and English ones were just the job for scrofula and epilepsy. Appointed by God and anointed with super-sacred oil, they had only to brush their suffering subjects with their fingertips for a miraculous cure to be effected.

In England, scrofula became known as the King's Evil. Usually caused by drinking contaminated milk, it was actually a form of tuberculosis which infected the lymph nodes in the neck. These days, it is rare in developed countries and can be treated with drugs. In the not-so-good old days, patients pinned their hopes on the monarch washing their skin with water.

Henry VII pulled the plug on that treatment, preferring merely to touch the sufferer at a special healing ceremony. The court chaplain would offer up prayers for the sick and send them off with a gold "touch-piece" to wear around their necks.

Dispensing the Royal Touch was good PR for the throne, and seeming proof of kingly divinity. Under Charles II, however, it backfired. Charles was keen to advance medical science, and that included his healing hands. In some years, the bill for the gold touch-pieces reached pound;10,000. The practice was also taking up a lot of his time and there were red faces when six people who had come to be cured died in a stampede. After that anyone wanting to be touched had to apply for a special certificate.

The ceremony fell into decline after Charles's death in 1685. William of Orange tried to stop people blundering on in superstitious ignorance. He is said to have touched one patient, saying: "God give you better health and more sense."

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